Codepunk Logo


Ultralearning How to Sell Snake Oil

by Michael Szul on tags: books, ultralearning, polymath
Enjoy this article? We do it with no ads, no tracking, and no data collection. Feel free to:

I read a lot of book about a variety of subjects, but as someone who studied clinical psychology and philosophy in college, I also like to read about the metaphysical layer on top of some of these subjects: Not metaphysical in the spiritual sense, but in the meta-layer above the standard subject matter—whether that means thinking about thinking or learning about learning.

As such, reading about better ways in which to learn is something that I pick up now-and-again, depending on the book, author or some other article that sparks my interest. Scott Young's Ultralearning recently collided electrons with my Kindle device as I was researching any good material on polymaths. Young's claim to fame was his MIT challenge where he "completed" a four year computer science degree based on open source MIT coursework in a year. I put completed in quotes because it wasn't something that was evaluated or proctored by MIT: It was a personal challenge that Young documented that ultimately led to more experimentation… and his book.

I'm not often compelled to write a book review—especially on Codepunk—but the subject matter and the genre make it relevant. Ultralearning is essentially the same kind of snake oil that Tim Ferriss is running around selling, and there seems to be quiet a lot of this going on either in the technology industry or enabled by the technology industry.

Ferriss is the king of modern snake oil, but I do believe his original 4 Hour Work Week was written with the best intentions. Ferriss found a personal process that enabled him to work minimally, while maintaining a steady income. He saw value in what was in front of him and decided to share it with the world at large. His book blew up and the rest is proverbial history. The problem is that Ferriss' book—although interesting and entertaining—does not generalize well to all entrepreneurial endeavours. Ferriss' system worked well for him—and likely a select group of people—but largely you needed to fit into the parameters of Ferriss' interests and businesses to get the most out of the book. Basically, Ferriss made a ton of money selling vitamins, wrote a book about working less, and then made an exponential amount of money off the book. His celebrity became larger than himself, and he needed to live up to the hype with subsequent books that were larger formulaic tomes of cutting corners with little hope of working for the average individual. But during that whole process, he became king of modern snake oil salesmen and has built a career off of it.

Ferriss isn't unique. Ferriss fits in well with Scott Young and people like John Sonmez. They were either in the right place at the right time (Sonmez got in early on Pluralsight authorship), or had a particular idea go viral (Ferriss' work week and Young's MIT challenge). Once that success hit, they felt compelled to capitalize on it (as they should), but the end result doesn't live up to the expectations, and what they end up selling is a generalized version of lightning in a bottle that isn't grounded enough in repeatable, generalize-able principles to provide much value to the average individual.

Returning to Ultralearning, I was first excited to start reading Young's book as it came recommended by several people (and had an endorsement by Cal Newport), but some of the Amazon reviews should have tipped me off: Comments about it being light on content without any clear takeaways. I wish I could say that the few negative comments were the outliers, but unfortunately they were more the rule than the exception.

Young's book can best be described as: Work hard and immerse yourself. Most of the techniques and stories can easily be reduced to having an obsessive desire to learn the material, while also focusing on learning by doing rather than just reading. Lastly, work on your memory to retain your knowledge. 80% of the book is about motivation with only maybe 20% about technique, but the primary technique is simply immersion through apprenticeship or practice. He offers some memory retention techniques, but very little detail on them.

In fact, if you were to remove the anecdotal stories from Young's book, it would probably clock in at 100 pages of surface level material. The anecdotes themselves—although quality stories—don't actually exemplify the ultralearning that he's pushing. In fact, in some cases, he's stretching his thesis by trying to show how these people are "utralearners." Even if all of them fit nicely into Young's bucket of ultralearning, roughly 50% of them are special by virtue of mental magic tricks more than broad, polymath-like knowledge: Chess champions, scrabble, math puzzles… There are definitely exceptions; however, these exceptions (like Richard Feynman) are the anecdotes that most stretch Young's thesis.

Young himself mostly pushes three personal accomplishments: The MIT challenge, language acquisition, and 30 days of improving portrait drawing. All of which were accomplished through simple immersion in the material. It didn't require a book to explain.

It's weird that when it comes to the technology industry, there seems to be a bevy of these snake oil-like self-help gurus, and I have to wonder how much of it is a result of the hype cycles on technology combined with the ever-present prospects of investment funding for start-ups. This has created a market for hype bros.: Marketers on a new frontier taking advantage of industry speculation.

I've had my fair share of encounters with people like this on LinkedIn. In fact, the conversational software space is littered with con-men and hype bros. with little to no actual conversational development experience, trying to push companies, talks, and promotional materials in order to get an upper hand in the industry to capitalize on the hype.

It hurts the industry in my opinion.

As much as I'm being negative about Young's book, I do believe that he felt he was doing a service by publishing the book and trying to dig into high-level immersion and learning. It's just that his book is a mere appetizer with a main course out there still waiting to be consumed.