I’m 25

Two weeks ago, I celebrated my 25th birthday. Normally I do a birthday post on the day, but the combination of reopening Learning on Steroids, Burning Man and selling my stuff and moving out to begin my next learning project left me with less time for introspection.

For those of you new to the blog, each year I do a birthday self-reflection post. If you’re uninterested in my yearly introspection, feel free to give this article a pass. I’ll be back to my normal writing next week.

The Year Without English

The biggest occupation of my life for most of last year was also the one I didn’t talk about until last week. Behind the scenes, I had been preparing (along with my good friend, Vat) a yearlong trip around the world to live in four languages other than English.

Just like with the MIT Challenge, I kept the actual details of the preparation hidden until just a week before it was set to begin. This was frustrating at times. I use myself as an example in most of my writing, so it can be tiring to write while purposefully excluding my current obsession.

Despite that frustration, I prefer keeping the project quiet until its ready to launch. It took over a year of planning to design this project, and seeing all the rough drafts makes people weary of the project before it even starts.

Most people don’t realize how much advanced preparation goes into planning these learning projects. The MIT Challenge was at least a year of research before it began. This trip had an even more intensive preparation process. Common wisdom says to “just do it” but I’ve learned that big projects like this are rarely finished with a haphazard plan.

The MIT Challenge was a success, but it had no precedent. If I had failed, it hardly would have surprised anyone. Now the bar of expectations is higher. Not only have others done similar learning feats, but my own track record sets a higher expectation. I hope I’ll be able to meet those expectations, but competing with an imagined version of me is ultimately a futile quest.

Rethinking Vegetarianism

I’ve been a vegetarian for over eight years now. Judging by comments, it’s also one of my personal choices that is disliked by the most readers (except maybe atheism).

Vegetarianism was something I originally adopted for health. Now the new paleo craze reminds me very much of the similar fervor I read in those supporting vegetarianism a decade ago. I’m left with the feeling that reading a dozen or so nutritional textbooks (meaning not anything on a bestseller list) is the only way to get a sense of what the actual state of the science is.

Since becoming vegetarian, my views on continuing the diet were mostly on ethical and ecological grounds. I could expound those views here, but it would do nothing to persuade those who have already convinced themselves that I’m wrong, and moral prosthelytizing is a distasteful way to change behavior.

Vegetarianism is something I still enjoy. I have no desire to eat meat, and I’ve been perfectly happy and healthy these past eight years.

My only dislike of the diet is the social distance it creates between people who don’t share my preference. This is particularly true in countries outside of Canada, where vegetarianism is rare and not catered to.

As a result, and especially with my upcoming trip to meat-loving countries, I’ve decided to be more flexible with my diet. I still don’t want to eat meat, but I’ll consume fish or seafood if vegetarian options aren’t available. My hope is that will make things easier in restaurants and social gatherings in places like Spain and Korea which eat a lot of meat.

Finding a Specialization

That brief segue into vegetarianism reminds me of how broad the topic coverage of my blog used to be. I used to write about every subject in my life: fitness, relationships, finances, business, habits, career, etc. Now I mostly hover around a narrower focus on learning and productivity with occasional tangents.

The focusing of my blog over the last few years hasn’t been accidental. I’ve realized that I’d rather write about a smaller subset of topics that I have some focus in, rather than every possible topic—including subjects I haven’t researched heavily.

The balancing act is to keep my blog interesting, which requires diversions from a narrow field of writing, but also depth, which requires focus on a particular area I want expertise in. Striking that balance is a difficult one, as I see blogs who I feel don’t strike that balance and lose me as a reader.

Learning is a subject I’ve been interested in specializing in because, by its nature, it creates opportunities for both specialization and breadth. It allows me to learn about a variety of different things, but still hopefully have something meaningful to say about a more specific topic.

I’ve thought hard about how I want to continue to deepen that specialization. The idea of going to grad school to do more specialized study in some area of learning has had some appeal. This move would help me earn credibility to write seriously about learning, but there is also something stifling about entering into a formal program after being able to personalize my own self-education.

For the moment, I’m interested in expanding my breadth of thinking on learning itself by undertaking this upcoming project. Learning languages is very different from tackling MIT exams or programming projects, so it will test some of my theories of learning in a very different environment.

Growing a Business and Career

Since graduating from university, my business that underlies this blog has grown considerably. I now earn more money in a month than I could earn in an entire year, during the period when I struggled to get the business off the ground.

Running a business is great and something I wanted to do from the inception of this website. Particularly, I’ve enjoyed putting on larger, more interactive programs like Learning on Steroids and my recent pilot project with Cal Newport. These afford me an opportunity to study problems of learning and mastery in a way I couldn’t if I were just writing to an audience.

Monetizing advice isn’t without its pitfalls, however. The most obvious is that if I push too hard, my blog will become spammy. People may start to ignore my advice because it becomes too implicitly linked with a sales pitch.

Spamminess is something I try to avoid. Even when I do launches for programs, I try to make them mostly the free-sample kind and not the hard-sale kind. But, even then, balancing the desire to grow a business with the desire to maintain a reputation that isn’t contaminated by constant pitching is a fine line to walk.

I don’t feel that it is a strict tradeoff, however. I feel during the last two years, I’ve been able to grow my business while reducing the intensity of pitching. I used to pitch Learning on Steroids twice a year and drive a hard sale. Now, I only open once per year and try to orient most of the encouragement to join in the form of a free bootcamp (which coincidentally sells way more than my more obvious pitches used to).

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to think about how to take my business to the next level, but grow it in a way that people don’t feel I’m putting an asterisk next to all my advice that they can have the answer, if only they buy my new product. It’s easy to judge other blogs for jumping the shark and becoming too spammy, but in practice, it can be very difficult to pull off while still trying to grow.

What’s Next?

Tomorrow, I’ll be leaving for Valencia, Spain, about to start the next adventure in my life. I’ll be continuing to write here, once a week, sharing my thoughts along the trip along with the normal writing you’ve come to expect.

Once that year is done, I’m not sure where I want to go. Write a book? Go to grad school? Grow my business to the next level? Maybe I’ll even find a third massive learning project that will begin prep after this one concludes. In the meantime, I’ll try my best to continue to share the journey with you.

  • Devi

    Thank u for the opportunity to connect by sharing your experiences. Your language challenge sounds a lot like learning 4 new ways of life that INCLUDE the respective languages, being flexible, relating with people, music, foods, culture and life and embracing it. THAT is truly a challenge, and grateful to be along for the ride.

  • Franklin Chen

    I look forward to reading updates of your upcoming world language adventure!

  • Random reader

    Start an e-learning startup!

  • Lu Li

    Happy birthday!

  • Nitin

    Sounds next level of self learning program ! I myself trying to learn Spanish but although I cant move to Spanish, i have found a group of tourists who will help me with Spanish and in return i would help them to learn Hindi.
    Will definitely follow your experience in learning language. Just out of curiosity, How often do you use the technical skills learned during MIT challenge.

  • Papadopol Cosmin

    Happy Birthday and i hope you will achieve the most from this latest project. I’m very interested in your perspective of viewing things and would have enjoyed attempting such a project with you.

    I’m 23 years old and also trying to shape my life, as best i see fit.

    Good luck and do keep us updated!

  • Martin

    Happy 25th! As a long time reader and customer of Learning on Steroids, I am surprised that you are only 25. You have accomplished a lot already and I am looking forward to your 1 year language journey.

    And as a former vegetarian/vegan turned paleo turned intermittent faster, I definitely hear you. There is a lot of confusion out there, so imagine what the average person thinks is “healthy”. It can get overwhelming. I think the problem is determining what health means to you. Are you more of a marathon runner or more of a sprinter? I bet they eat very differently. Office worker or elite athlete? Are you looking to gain muscle or lose fat? Aesthetics or mental sharpness? There really is no catch all, but once you’ve determined what is “healthy” for you then you have something to work with. At least, that’s how I tackled it (so far).

    Travelling is not as fun when you aren’t eating the local dishes, though. Including the delicious meaty ones 🙂

  • Snorre

    Wow Scott! You are a great inspiration to me. You have accomplished a lot in your first 25. I am looking forward to following your next 25! Thanks for your tireless efforts, great advice, and interesting blog and projects.

  • Bobby

    Good for you for rethinking vegetarianism. I was a veggie for 11 years and I know that it became a part of my identity and I no longer questioned diet at all. It took until recently to reopen my mind (like I had to do when I first became vegetarian) to take a look at the information. Turns out a lot of the vegetarian health assumptions are not clear cut facts, and more research and thought is worthwhile if you really want to live a healthy balanced life.

    Ethically, there are a lot of arguments declaring free-range animals that eat what they’re supposed to (not corn) and treated well is actually much better for the environment than monoculture crops that devastate wildlife and erode the topsoil while polluting the ground with chemical fertilizers.

    Oh, and I had no desire to eat meat either. Until I started eating meat again 🙂 I was always “fine” with not being able to eat meat, but really meat just tastes great and it’s not like you can’t eat vegetarian meals often if that’s what you like.

  • Ravi

    Happy birthday Scott!
    I love your blog keep the good work up and good luck for your next challenge.

  • mayeesha

    Happy Birthday!!
    Hope the whole thing goes well.besides you are probably better off ditching vegetarianism for a while if you want to spend some time experimenting with local foods.Stay in convenient areas otherwise you might get sick.

    Hopefully this whole thing would go well.Publish some youtube videos and girls too.That’d be awesome.And you’d have plenty of time to think what you want to do with your life when you move around this year.


  • Scott Young


    Well I’m still mostly vegetarian, I simply switched to pescetarianism for some restaurants.

    Ecologically, eating higher up the food chain is worse, plain and simple. Seafood and livestock raised on land that is unusable for modern agriculture is a possible exception. Ethical questions about free-range livestock are tricky because they require a lot of assumptions in whichever moral philosophy you subscribe to. But ecological ones are simple math.


  • Eliaz

    Hi Scott,

    Happy belated birthday! 🙂

    I’m glad you wrote in your birthday review about rethinking your ideas on diet. Bestsellers might be right, but then again they may be wrong! With regards to finding things out, reading a physiology textbook would probably be your best starting point in my opinion, along with some chemistry study. But hey, a lot of the experts disagree, and its difficult to filter through what is right and wrong.

    Humans are very adaptable, and due to our ancestral backgrounds, as well as earlier life experiences in the womb and in early childhood…

    (If you’re interested, look up the Barker theory for more information on this – now widely accepted: http://www.thebarkertheory.org… The BBC did a good 3 part series on it about 2 years ago that you can download and listen to, go down to the august 2011 programmes and you’ll find it: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/

    …what we digest well and what foods we can deal with vary from person to person, and may change during someone’s life time. It takes a long time to sort the fact from the fiction, and there are still unknowns, so before you manage that, I suggest just listen to your body! If you find vegetarianism works for you, go for it!

    Also on the topic of food, you wrote about how eating something sugary will boost concentration… well, here are people doing roughly the same experiment you cite, but investigating it in more depth.


    Of course, some other people might investigate it in more depth and come up with a different answer! 😉

    Love your blog by the way – and good luck on your speak no English mission! 🙂


  • Marcelo

    Hi, Scott. I am a Brazilian who lives in China (Guangzhou). If you ever happen to stop by Guangzhou, Macau or Hong Kong, let me know. Maybe I can show you around. When are you going to Brazil? I will be back there for the Holidays. Which cities in Brazil do you plan to visit? Good luck and happy birthday.

  • Ashley Pennewill

    Happy Belated Birthday! It’s always great to look back on the year and to see how you and your life goals have changed.

  • Courtney Wilson

    I like you way of thinking in terms of how you are prepared to forgo strict vegetarianism for the sake of simplicity when travelling to countries that don’t support this lifestyle choice

  • Olu

    Hi Scott,
    Its true that the expectations are high for your new challenge but I think you have some good habits that will always lead you to success and even if you don’t break a record (which I think you would), you will stand out again.

    I really look forward to knowing how the year without English progresses for you. Good job.

  • Ronni

    Hello / Olá!
    I am living now one year submerged in English! I am from Brazil and I will take one academic year in the UK!
    Well, I desire to you a good time learning all of these languages; just, please, do not assume that Spanish is like Portuguese.
    They are really different despite the similarities such as the common root.
    I cannot neither speak Spanish nor understand Spanish speakers easily.
    I hope you have a good journey!
    Any doubt about Portuguese you can always ask me! =)

  • Mark Jacobs

    Feliz Cumpleaños Scott. Yo crecí en Los Angeles y estoy viviendo en Rio de Janeiro, pero puedo hablar Ingles (obviamente) Español, um poco de Japonés (porque yo vivia ahi antes de venir a Rio) y tambien un poco de Portugués. No estoy estudiando como ustedes, pero estoy viviendo la vida y peleando la lucha tambien. Esta mes yo voy a tener 25 y viendo como tu estas vivendo es un inspiración. Si tu lo estas haciendo, yo se yo tambien lo puedo hacer. I’ll catch you guys in Rio!

    -Mark Jacobs

  • Jason dexter

    Hello Scott,

    Your subtle response to your views on atheism got me thinking…
    I challenge you to read, or watch, “The Case For Christ” by Lee Strobel. It wouldn’t take much time and I would be interested in hearing your thoughts afterwards.

    Good luck on your exciting one year journey, and may God be with you; I will pray for you and Vat daily <


    -Jason Dexter

  • adam w

    I liked this part: “Vegetarianism is something I still enjoy. I have no desire to eat meat, and I’ve been perfectly happy and healthy these past eight years.
    My only dislike of the diet is the social distance it creates between people who don’t share my preference. This is particularly true in countries outside of Canada, where vegetarianism is rare and not catered to.
    As a result, and especially with my upcoming trip to meat-loving countries, I’ve decided to be more flexible with my diet. I still don’t want to eat meat, but I’ll consume fish or seafood if vegetarian options aren’t available. My hope is that will make things easier in restaurants and social gatherings in places like Spain and Korea which eat a lot of meat.”

    I love that you both (not only acknowledge but) understand other peoples point of view, and come up with a realisitic and reasonable solution, all in this little blurb as an 8 year veggie-tarian (the hip way of writing it. as of now.).

    Anyway I love your blog, this is my first post… I guess for feedback: I’ve been getting the “subscribe to the newsletter” popup often, which is annoying since I already signed up. Also the archives are a little intimidating to just hop into since you’re having (naturally!) evolving opinions: the older posts on, say, highlighting, aren’t as consistent with recent views (both from you, and studies I’ve seen. which you probably cited anyway haha).

    Really glad I found this blog!

  • Giulia

    Hi Scott,

    I am so glad I’ve found you’re blog! I really love your approach to life and your dedication to personal development. Having spent several years reading blogs about those topics, I can totally relate to the “gut-feeling” you talked about. I am happy to have discovered such a young men that loves learning as much as I do. I wish I could read all your articles in one day!

    Well..I just wanted to stop and say thanks for sharing your “journey”.
    I hope to read you soon, enjoy China!

    Cheers, from Italy!