Get Better at Anything Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: Get Better at Anything is a 3-part framework for improving at any skill, based on the latest science, iconic accomplishments in the fields of mathematics, music, and more, and the author’s own, two-decade journey into what makes a great learner.

Read in: 4 minutes

Favorite quote from the author:

Get Better at Anything Summary

Can you complete a 4-year computer science degree from MIT in less than 12 months? In late 2011, Scott H. Young decided to answer this question. Young had been obsessed with learning ever since starting his blog in 2006, and with his MIT challenge, he hoped “to push the expectations for how long, how costly and how conventionally an education must be obtained.”

Scott spent $2,000 on textbooks, outlined his schedule, and got to work. Without access to in-person classes and help from professors, he had to get creative, as he explains in his TED talk. Scott watched lectures in batches at 1.5x speed. He did assignments with solutions in hand to get more feedback faster. In the end, he completed all 33 classes in just under 12 months. Astonishing!

12 years later, a lot has changed, but “lifelong learning isn’t just a feel-good slogan,” Scott writes. “It’s a necessity.” With every new invention, be it the printing press, internet, or AI, new opportunities open up — and only true learners can capitalize on them.

In his new book, Get Better at Anything: 12 Maxims for Mastery, Scott shares several principles for becoming a better learner, grouped into three themes: “Seeing,” aka learning from others, “Doing,” aka practicing right, and “Feedback,” which is about making small adjustments in a real-world context.

Here are 3 lessons, one from each of the 3 themes, to help you learn anything faster:

  1. Solve problems like mazes with a 3-step approach.
  2. Learn faster by prioritizing variation over repetition.
  3. Use 3 unlearning strategies to overcome your mind’s conditioning.

Let’s see what it takes to get better at anything!

If you want to save this summary for later, download the free PDF and read it whenever you want.

Download PDF

Lesson 1: Problems are like mazes, and you should try to solve them with a 3-part approach.

You know the Pythagorean theorem, right? a2 + b2 = c2. In 1637, the French mathematician Pierre de Fermat claimed there is no combination of whole numbers that solves this equation for any exponential higher than 2. This is called Fermat’s Last Theorem,  and it stumped the maths community for almost 400 years.

In 1994, British mathematician Andrew Wiles finally found a solution. How did he do it? By navigating the vast “problem space” of the theorem like a labyrinth. “A problem space is like a maze,” Young writes. “You know where you are now and you can tell whether or not you’ve reached the destination.” But the walls limit your moves, forcing you to “search to find the twisted path that reaches the exit.”

To efficiently navigate the problem spaces in your life, do so in 3 steps:

  1. Frame the problem correctly. If you’ve ever stood too close to a painting to recognize what it shows, you know that the right perspective makes all the difference.
  2. Pick promising problems. While it’s impossible to know which problems are impossible to solve, we should do our best to pick ones where we can see a path to a solution.
  3. Explore the problem space one room at a time. This is exactly what Wiles did. He equates mathematics to stumbling around in a dark mansion, bumping into furniture, until, one day, “you find the light switch.” Often, solutions add up slowly over time, then come to us all at once.

The next time you face a big problem, think of it like a maze, and try this 3-step approach!

Lesson 2: In your practice, prioritize variation over repetition for faster learning.

In my decade-long career as a writer, one big mistake I’ve seen others make is to never change the simplest variable in their writing: length. Some people crank out two-minute read after two-minute read only to be met with silence. Well, why don’t you try a four-minute one? How about eight? How about 15? Me, I sometimes published a two-minute poem, sometimes an eight-minute essay. Experimentation helped me find out what the audience liked and kept writing fun.

Young agrees that in learning, variation is more important than repetition. After investigating how the 1940s jazz scene in New York produced so many legendary musicians, he found that “variable practice is one of the best strategies […] to promote transfer of skills to new contexts.”

Here are 4 ways you can incorporate variability into your practice:

  1. Shuffle what you learn. Simply randomizing the order of what you’re working on in any given session already boosts creativity.
  2. Play with more performers. Like the jazz players jamming with random studio visitors, expose yourself to more scenarios.
  3. Learn the theories. Every modern writer can learn something from Shakespeare, and every bit of theoretical knowledge gives you more ways to frame a problem correctly, as we discussed before.
  4. Get it right, then vary your practice. It’s hard to draw the line on when exactly you should switch from repetition to variation, but it rarely hurts to do both, especially once you get your current unit of practice right most of the time.

Yes, consistency matters, but in the long run, without experimentation, you’ll stop evolving. Prioritize variation over repetition.

Lesson 3: Reset your conditioned brain with 3 unlearning tactics.

In Feel-Good Productivity, Ali Abdaal described how most people are stunted by “the candle problem.” Given a box of thumbtacks and a candle with the task of attaching the candle to the wall, most people try to nail the candle directly. Instead, they could just attach the thumbtack box and put the candle inside!

As we grow up, our minds become conditioned to always view certain situations in a specific way. If we really want to get better, however, we’ll often have to unlearn what we think we already know. “Improvement doesn’t happen in a straight line,” Young argues. Wherever we need to start from scratch, Scott suggests 3 strategies for unlearning:

  1. Add new constraints. Write a post in only 100 words — or bulk it up to at least 4,000. Wear weights on your wrists. Finish a task in a limited time. And so on.
  2. Get a coach. Find someone who can give you an outside perspective and relevant feedback. Sometimes others instantly see what we’ve missed for decades.
  3. Renovate instead of rebuilding. Don’t completely abandon everything you know. Replace particular ideas and habits one at a time until you find a new approach that works.

See. Do. Get feedback. Those are the 3 steps to getting better at anything. “When we’re able to learn from the example of other people, practice extensively ourselves, and get reliable feedback, rapid progress results,” Scott writes. We may not become the best, but we can still “be a little better at the things that matter most to us” — and often, “a little better is enough.”

Get Better at Anything Review

Get Better at Anything is a great round-up of the latest research in learning, filled with inspiring examples, unusual lessons, and a solid, methodical approach to improving at any skill. Well done, Scott!

Who would I recommend our Get Better at Anything summary to?

The 17-year-old high school student who, for all her studying, has never learned a methodical approach to learning, the 35-year-old hobby tennis player who wants to make his game more fun again, and anyone who’s curious about the science of learning.

Rate this book!
This book has an average rating of 4.7 based on 3 votes.

Niklas Göke

Niklas Göke is an author and writer whose work has attracted tens of millions of readers to date. He is also the founder and CEO of Four Minute Books, a collection of over 1,000 free book summaries teaching readers 3 valuable lessons in just 4 minutes each. Born and raised in Germany, Nik also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration & Engineering from KIT Karlsruhe and a Master’s Degree in Management & Technology from the Technical University of Munich. He lives in Munich and enjoys a great slice of salami pizza almost as much as reading — or writing — the next book — or book summary, of course!