Scott H Young

First Lessons in Trying to Finish 4 Years of MIT in 12 Months


It’s been exactly one month since I started working on my goal to learn MIT’s computer science program at 4x the pace, without taking classes. In that time, I’ve written the final exams for 4 of the 33 classes I’ll need to take over the next year.

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the challenge, but the biggest one seems to be, “Why?”

I already have the business I want. I don’t have any current plans to join a start-up or use my computer science knowledge. Even if I did, it’s not clear going through MIT’s more academically-focused curriculum would be better than just getting my hands dirty and learning through my own projects.

One reader asked, “Why are you doing this? It doesn’t seem like you have a lot of external motivation to learn computer science.”

But that’s also kind of the point. External motivators are great for pushing you to do what you need to do. But they’re really lousy at letting you enjoy what you want to do. My motivation is mostly intrinsic, for the challenge itself.

Do Interesting Stuff, See What Happens

I’ve always pushed myself to take on interesting challenges, ones that stretch me and force me to discover and bend my limits. Sometimes there’s a good reason to pursue the goal. Sometimes there isn’t. I’ve just learned that, over time, people who do lots of interesting challenges find themselves with more opportunities in the long run.

Maybe the “do interesting stuff, see what happens” philosophy lacks the purposeful elegance many people want, but it’s been the approach I try to live my life by. No grand scheme, no 10-year plan, no magic moment where I discovered my “passion” (sorry I can’t help you find yours).

Interesting, in this case, means interesting to me, not necessarily anyone else. Although hundreds of you have written in expressing your interest in the challenge, I’ve always found trying to do things in order to impress other people is a lost cause. Do stuff because you think it’s cool, if nobody else does, at least you’ll be happy.

Dealing with Critics

The problem with doing weird, ballsy projects is that you attract a lot of criticism. That’s true of everyone, not just bloggers like me who document triumphs and failures under the scrutiny of thousands.

Amidst the overwhelming positive response, it’s been a treat to read all the messages about why I’ll fail, why that person isn’t impressed or how I should be doing things better. Everyone has an opinion, even though you’re the only person actually doing the work. Such is life.

My solution to dealing with critics on this large scale was the same when I only had the criticism of a few friends or family members: worry about what you think and ignore everyone else.

Ignoring everybody also means ignoring all the positive feedback too. I’ve found if you start letting praise boost your ego, you invite criticism to deflate your enthusiasm equally. I enjoy receiving praise, but I try to remember that ultimately, my opinion is the only one that counts when working on my project.

First Month’s Experiences

I’ve really been enjoying the first month of the challenge. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard work and the pace can be a struggle to keep up. But each class gives new insights into how the world works.

I did my first degree at a normal pace. But I think the slow pace also bored me a little. I didn’t feel like my knowledge was improving greatly because the growth was spread out over a long period of time. The speed, in this case, has made the journey more fun.

I think if I had done my business degree in one year, it would have been a lot more interesting. Of course, then I would have missed France, dorm-room parties, competitions and dozens of lifelong friends. I don’t have an absolute opinion on whether faster is better than slower.

Mistakes and Lessons Learned

Part of my goal was to document my weaknesses and failures, not just my successes along the way. So far there haven’t been major blunders—I passed all the exams I wrote, with around a B average.

One weakness of mine was not putting enough emphasis on projects in the formulation of the challenge. Originally, I had just planned on writing all the exams. Part of that was based out of the difficulty of simply assembling all the materials. Finding free, individual courses is easy, putting together an entire degree took me nearly two months of research.

However, I see now that for some classes a final exam won’t be a sufficient basis of evaluation. I’m still not sure how I’m going to handle huge assignments or group projects, but hopefully I’ll be able to come up with a reasonable metric when those classes come up.

Another mistake was trying to do all the classes serially. At first I had hoped this would be easier, since I could get some quick feedback. But the weakness with this approach is that if I get stuck, there’s no time to respond. I wasted a half day on one class because I ran out of practice problems early.

For future classes, I’m going to try to do more in parallel, so I can have more room to pivot if I get stuck and also to gain the benefits of spaced repetition.

Knowing Yourself, By Exposing Your Limits

I’ve been asked whether I’m worried about exhaustion or burnout, especially since the combined work of this business and challenge makes about 65 hours of work each week.

Burnout isn’t an impossibility, even though I feel good right now. However, what I find interesting is people who make burnout or exhaustion into the worst thing that could possibly happen to someone. I think a far worse fate is living comfortably and never knowing just how far you could go.

The difference, in my mind, is whether the goal is set by you or imposed on you. I chose everything about this challenge and I can also choose at any moment whether to stop it. It’s all inner motivation, so I don’t mind if I brush up against the limits of my brain or psyche.

Feeling squeezed by the vice of other people’s agenda isn’t fun. But I think it’s actually freeing to feel pushed from within, knowing that whatever happens you gave it your best.

I’m still not sure how the challenge will end up. It could be successful, or I could fail miserably. But in either case, I’ll learn something valuable about myself. Something that could never be learned watching idly.

If you’re interested in the challenge, I’ve been making weekly videos on YouTube that I haven’t been posting to this blog. This is the latest one, where I discuss the strategy I’ve been using to learn an entire MIT class in around 5 days.

Also check out the challenge homepage, where I post all the videos, results and links to the tactics and resources I’m using.


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24 Responses to “First Lessons in Trying to Finish 4 Years of MIT in 12 Months”

  1. KM says:

    I think it’s great that you are learning something just for the fun of it. I try to do that myself, but it’s difficult to find the time. I don’t understand how others can just go through life doing only what’s required and nothing more – I would feel trapped and bored to tears! I also like your idea of posting progress on your website – great motivational tool!

  2. Kamykazee says:

    The thing that i think would most interest me most with this is: Will you be able to actually apply anything you are learning now? Apply Electromagnetism principles in situations that you might be confronted with, for example. Or will the material you are studying now be forgotten, even if you did understand it at a certain point during the study.

    Now i know that with holistic learning these ideas, for the most part, should remain there but i would be curious as to whether that will actually happen.

    Good luck with this next week and i find it great that you’re enjoying yourself.

  3. Amanda says:

    You have excellent outlook concerning praise and criticism. There are certain aspects of my life where I’ve been successful at having that type of attitude and others where I’m constantly scared of what others think. Thank for sharing that so I can truly contemplate it.
    Kudos on your success so far.

  4. Lisa Duncan says:

    Where are you getting your practice problems? I’m assuming some are from the textbook but do you find more elsewhere? I run into problems with my classes where many of the practice problems are not useful because the solutions are only in the instructor’s copy of the book.

  5. Jon says:

    Scott, would you be able to convert or transfer the modules you’ve taken to graduate as a degree ??

  6. Scott Young says:

    Jon,

    No, I wouldn’t.

    Lisa,

    MIT OCW has lots of practice problems with solutions. If you can’t find them, then you can often buy the solution sets to a textbook.

    Kamykazee,

    I think that will be more relevant when I go deeper into the CS courses.

    KM,

    Just for the fun of it isn’t entirely accurate, I do have other reasons for pursuing the challenge, but my motivation is mostly within and that’s what I focus on when I’m working.

    Thanks for the comments!

    -Scott

  7. Vincent says:

    Hey Scott,

    There’s this setting on youtube that you can adjust to, so that you can control the speed of videos. That way, you don’t have to download them, but just stream and watch them. It’s useful if you only use 1.5X or 2X the original speed of the video.

    You can do this on the link by clicking join the html 5 trial: http://www.youtube.com/html5

  8. Himel Aldercyde says:

    @ Vincent

    I use enounce myspeed. the trial is for 7 days free, but $30 isn’t a bad investment.

    http://www.enounce.com/myspeed

  9. Aaron Fung says:

    Scott,

    Learning an MIT computer science curriculum in 4 years – just crazy enough to be worth doing; your posts detailing this experiment have been of great interest to me.

    In this post, I found your analysis of unforeseen complications that arose in the course of the experiment to be of particular interest; I will be very curious to see how you overcome these challenges.

    I still have my doubts about this experiment (i.e. group projects, projects that will probably take longer than 5 days to do well, etc), and I look forward to your proving my doubts completely unfounded.

    Best of Luck,
    Aaron

  10. rick says:

    So how do you finance your living costs while studying 65 hours a week?

  11. TJ says:

    Hey Scott,

    This is a cool project! I’ll be interested in keeping up with how your doing. Three quick questions:

    1) Do you use the textbook(s) for the class or just go off of lectures?

    2) What’s the highest level math you’ve completed before this challenge?

    3) I was looking at the first physics class you took and noticed there were trig functions. If I haven’t taken a math class in about 10 years (since early college) would you recommend a refresher or would it be possible to get by with jumping into the class?

    Thanks!

  12. Sam says:

    Everyone has an opinion, even though you’re the only person actually doing the work. Such is life – My Maxim

  13. Scott Young says:

    Vincent,

    Good idea. I’ll remember this for when I’m not using downloadable video sources.

    TJ,

    1) Both, although mostly lectures. The textbook is nice to have for the problem sets and a parallel explanation of the same concepts. For the classes I’ve done thus far, the lectures are largely sufficient.

    2) I did intro calculus, linear algebra, 2 classes of statistics and several other applied mathematics classes such as finance. (However my university’s intro calc was considerably lighter than MITs)

    3) KhanAcademy.com or PatrickJMT.com

    Rick,

    I run a business from this website teaching students learning skills, as I have for over three years. The products have already been built, so I can get away with only spending about a day per week on customer service and occasional updates.

    That said, if I were in school instead of doing this self-education project, I would be in the same boat, except I’d have to add tuition expenses to my living costs.

    Aaron,

    Indeed. I’ll definitely need to come up with some strategy to handle the group projects, however project-dominated classes form a minority of the total classes I’ll be doing (most are theory/math-heavy classes), therefore if I spend 2-3 weeks on a particular class I’ll still make the 12-month total.

    That’s the reason I’ve been doing these classes at a faster pace than I need to finish in 12 months, because there will be inevitable complications and difficulties which will take more time.

    -Scott

  14. Jay Bradfield says:

    Scott,

    I don’t know how to convey to you how important I think this project is. I know you’re doing primarily for yourself, but having examples of like this will create sparks in others and encourage more people to look for alternatives to the outdated, elitists, classist, academia that burdens so many talented people with debt.

    What will the future of education look like? It’s impossible to predict. But to get there we need more heroes like yourself taking on big, bold, projects to show others just what can be done.

  15. Sakura says:

    “However, what I find interesting is people who make burnout or exhaustion into the worst thing that could possibly happen to someone. I think a far worse fate is living comfortably and never knowing just how far you could go.”

    This is so true!

  16. jim says:

    You dont need to post this. I’ve wanted to finish a cs distance degree too but my math skills need updating. All I can say to you is wow and that i am watching and inspired to finish me degree. I’ll be watching your progress for inspiration. I think that is the reason why mit did something as brilliant as creating ocw.
    Thanks,

    jim

  17. Mads Singers says:

    Good luck with your project, I love when people do crazy self development and this is really good stuff ;)

    Kind Regards
    Mads

  18. Tyin says:

    Hey scooter. I think your blog is bril. whats an apple for? and why do you eat maths?

  19. Martin says:

    If you need some kind of coding project, I would suggest that you look into some open source project. It could be fixing some bugs or whatever. As I see it, this has two advantages over coding some random stuff;

    1: Your code will most likely be reviewed be some professional that only accepts the code if it is of high quality.
    2: It will be meaningful as it will contribute to some real software that people use.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know if you understand MIT’s curriculum, if you’re saying that it’s more academically-focused and doesn’t “get your hands dirty” enough. Your version of it is certainly more academically-focused because you’re limited as far as projects and lab work are concerned, but in general if you take one of MIT’s computer science classes, rest assured that you’ll be getting your hands dirty.

    That said, I do see the merit in contributing to open-source projects or doing other outside projects.

  21. Scott Young says:

    Anonymous,

    Yes it has projects, but it’s not a software engineering degree, it’s computer science. Counting the total number of courses, I’d say only about half of the required program have any programming in them, and many of those (such as analysis of algorithms) are more focused on the theory end than on the programming end.

    I’m not saying MIT doesn’t have a lot of programming, but I am saying that one could possibly construct a self-education curriculum that *only* had programming projects and didn’t have physics, calculus, biology, differential equations, circuits, signals, discrete math or formal proofs.

    I’m not complaining about that, just stating it for what it is. I feel the theory and math side of MIT complements the projects nicely.

    -Scott

  22. Nahyan says:

    very cool project.

    Reading this article motivated me to finally finish my lesson in the Phenomenal Memory 2.0 course (heard of it?). Gonna try to push through the program and see how remarkable i turn out on the other end :)

    Wish you the best in your program.

  23. Frank says:

    Hi, Scott:

    Your MIT challenge is really impressive. It also encourages me to try such challenge some day. But right now, after seeing you have been studied four courses parallel per month, I would like to know how you allocate your time to maximize the study effect. Could you talk about your schedule? I am curious because study four courses parallel is quite like a semester situation.

    Thanks.

  24. Rohit Vashisht says:

    I am very interested in your Challenge and would like to follow it myself in the following papers: Calculus 1, Multivariable calculus, Differential Equations, Electricity and Magnetism, Waves and Optics, Circuits and Electronics, Electromagnetic Waves, Computational structures, Algorithms 1, Analog Electronics, and Probability.
    I have the following questions:
    1. How many video lectures a day to complete. ( I was thinking about three lectures before 1:00p)
    2. How many hours of reading every day.
    3. How many hours for problem solving.
    4. How much of time per week to note taking. (I like to type out my notes every week and to annotate my lectures)
    I have BSc In Information Technology with a 4.0 GPA.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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