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.