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.
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.
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.