What to make of the Online Cult of ‘Ultra-learners’
Yet another post which almost became a book review but ended up becoming a reflection! I really wanted to do something else, like a tutorial along the lines of “Transkribus for Dummies”, but since that’s already done and Scott H. Young’s Ultralearning popped up on my screen, I just had to review it. It has received praise from Cal Newport (Deep Work, So good they can’t ignore you & Digital Minimalism) and James Clear (Atomic Habits), two authors who are definitely among my inner circle of personal development books. And it also treats a subject which has fascinated me for a long time – Ultra learning. That is the art of ‘aggressive self-directed learning’. To early-modern-ize the title a little bit. (Yes, the fellowship left its marks, but I’d do it again any time!)
Preface to the Readers
But first, let’s not get carried away. I have a word of caution to go with this (a real review will follow some time later). Ultralearning is a book promising techniques for self-learning. That is, especially self-learning to reach ‘amazing’ spectacular results, like – of course -the author has achieved. This, in my opinion, is problematic. By putting all of this down on paper in a very ‘meta’ way, Scott H. Young epitomizes a whole generation of online ‘superlearners’ who market their own learning results. While the empowerment is great, this can also easily frustrate people: Especially imposter syndrome prone PhD students might end up feeling belittled by these marketers’ apparent lack of humility. So let’s get to it. And, if you haven’t already noticed, the theme of this post is ‘early modern’ 😉
Liber I: On Sensationalism
Since I myself have gone through a period of phdlife-induced imposter syndrome just now, I also wanted to point out that listing amazing feats like “Pass a Maths/Analysis one semester class in 10 days” can also end up frustrating people. Especially if you have high standards. After all, to do our position as a Humanities blog justice and put the critical into thinking, essentially, these so-called ultralearners do nothing but capitalize on sensationalism in the end. If we break it down to the roots. Which, I am sure, they don’t really want us to.
Just like extreme athletes have to break one breathtakingly crazy and dangerous world record after the other, ‘learning gurus’ on the internet will tell you about one crazy intellectual feat after the other. About how they ‘hacked’ skill XY. And you, as a dutiful Humanities person with sky-high standards, might end up feeling inferior because your definition of mastery is quite different from the goals they have set for themselves. You will know this and still feel inferior. You catch yourself wondering how it is that these people are able to learn all sorts of great skills with apparent ease in no time while you’re still not done with your thesis. It can’t be that hard, right? Wrong. Don’t let internet personalities pretending to be real-life superheroes make you feel like an idiot. After all, they earn money from making you feel like they are better than most others, regardless of their frequent assurances that “really anybody can (learn to) do what they did.”
Liber II: The Art of Marketing
This is a dangerous trap, one might say. So I can’t give a 100% positive review, because I dislike this tendency behind it all. Tim Ferriss, Benny Lewis, Steve Pavlina and what all of their names are. They all fashion themselves as the greatest ‘meta-learners’ ever (self-fashioning also was a big thing in the early modern times, if you wanted to know. I happen to have read multiple papers about it over the last few days 😉 ). And, I get it. Meta-Learning is important. I totally acknowledge their achievement of making the public more aware of this. I was even deeply influenced by some of them. But at the same time, I can’t help but notice – in my capacity as your very Enlightened (with a big E) Humanist – that essentially, they don’t primarily learn to accomplish those amazing feats because they really want to learn them.
Liber III: Modern alchemy
The main outcome is that they make money from sensationalism, just like extreme athletes or any kinds of people who make money online nowadays. But that means that they don’t learn a skill to learn that skill, but rather: to blog about it. Because they make their living from that blog and the coaching business built around it. The skills they learn are sales proposals. Just like early modern alchemists would give sensationalist demonstrations of experiments and (some) tried to make people believe they knew how to make the philosopher’s stone and were perfectly able to reveal this secret to others.
Just like our ultra-learners do. This technique of promising greatness and riches taps into all those very human longings we can’t seem to shut off, even at a time when most of us don’t believe in the philosopher’s stone anymore. But in reality, we still do believe in it. Because we want to believe in it. We just call it differently and it comes in disguise. But essentially, it’s still the same thing all over again.
Conclusio: Redefining “success”
A big part of what they do is redefine “super-human success” and “mastery”, more or less achieve it and then sell to people the idea that they are not special: Everybody can achieve what they did and here’s how. (And input your credit card number below, of course). So, let’s have no doubt about that this is not only and not innocently about learning. Another component of their magnum opus pointing at this conclusion is the fact that they hardly choose boring projects. The projects they choose mostly also make for a great sales proposal, are apit to cause quite a stir, and yield the possibility of going viral &c. Alchemists sometimes did that, too.
These are my reflections for now 😉