I’m 26

Today is my twenty-sixth birthday. Continuing tradition, I’m going to write an article reviewing what I’ve done in the past year, and share my thoughts and plans for the year ahead. If you’re new here, or simply don’t care for this self-indulgence, feel free to skip this post. I promise I’ll be back to writing about learning and getting more from life next week.

My Year (Almost) Without English

Obviously the most important feature of my twenty-fifth trip around the sun was that I spoke very little English during that time.

I had hoped I could look back and say it was truly a year without speaking any English, but neither Vat nor I were perfect upholding that rule in Asia. I’ll be sharing the ups and downs of that in a lot more detail in a later post, but suffice to say switching languages four times and nearly completely avoiding English was a defining feature of this year.

A couple people have asked whether I’ll continue the language learning, taking on new countries and languages, all through immersion. Although it might disappoint some people, the answer is probably not.

From the beginning, both Vat and I understood this year of travel was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not how either of us planned to live our lives perpetually. I have incredible admiration for people like Benny Lewis or Matt Kepnes, who can do the travel lifestyle continuously, but I’m not one of them.

Maintaining my (now 5) languages is a considerable amount of short-term work and a non-trivial amount of long-term work. Even if I wanted to keep learning languages at this pace, I doubt I could do so without sacrificing some of the ones I had learned earlier in the trip.

Second, although I’d be quite happy with all of my languages I’ve learned if I never improved any of them further, I’d like to continue to get more depth. Particularly with Chinese, as I feel there is still so much to learn about Chinese culture and language that I wasn’t able to scratch in our brief stay.

This year will end with me returning to the English-speaking world, wanderlust temporarily quenched and hopefully a bit wiser from my travels.

Rethinking My Focus

I’m proud of the projects I’ve done, and I feel they accomplished their purpose both personally and publicly. Personally, because I learned things I care about and taught myself more about learning itself, my major goal. Publicly, because I think they work as a good starting point of discussion about learning. No small amount of you have found my blog because of either the MIT Challenge or this language project, and I’m happy the project has encouraged other people to learn more.

However, the one-year-project strategy also has some drawbacks.

For one, by its nature, it tends to focus on quick bursts rather than slow mastery, a philosophical stance I’m uncomfortable suggesting. Learning something quickly isn’t as important as learning it deeply, and by hopping around to different subjects quickly I may be able to say something interesting about how to learn efficiently, but I may also be sending the wrong message about mastery and the patient devotion to a subject.

Privately, I feel mastery is incredibly important. If it isn’t obvious to the casual reader, my true focus is not computer science or languages per se, but learning how learning works. Understanding that has always been my primary goal, and experiencing it firsthand has been the laboratory for exploring those ideas. Often those same ideas feed back into my knowledge of learning itself. In China I was exposed to a different culture of learning than we experience in the West. In the MIT Challenge, I studied information theory and artificial intelligence, each important for learning theory.

However, I’m leaning more towards pursuing the study of learning itself more directly. Either through grad school or another self-education project like the MIT Challenge. My personal experience has been incredibly grounding, but it would be great to build that off a deeper theoretical foundation.

I also worry a little that I’ll brand myself too much as the guy who does one-year learning projects. Branding can help, but it also boxes you into a narrower set of expectations for your work, sometimes in a way that works against the quality of that work.

Future Plans

As my career and trajectory have stabilized somewhat, I’m also more eager to think in terms of 5-10 year goals instead of my more common 1-2 year projects. Certain aspects of my work can only really be pursued with such a long-term mindset, and although it sacrifices flexibility, such a sacrifice is acceptable if I’m reasonably confident I won’t need to pivot midway. Having written pretty much full-time about learning for the last four years, I’m now more confident in goals that may take a decade or more to accomplish.

What’s next? I’ve been giving serious thoughts to grad school, studying something related to learning. Part of me worries that my academic background may be insufficient to make the crossover. My undergrad is in business, and while I had good grades, I didn’t attend an Ivy-league school either. I’ve always preferred goals that don’t require permission from one or two people to be successful, and academic admissions are the antithesis of that. However, I’ve overcome far greater obstacles and odds already, so I think this will end up being more about forming the right strategy.

I’ve also wanted to get into writing real, dead-tree books. I originally intended to write a book related to the MIT Challenge, but as the project was wrapping up, I felt there wasn’t much I wanted to say I hadn’t already said better in a blog article. Similarly, this project Vat and I decided to tell the story through videos, which I think is a better format than trying to author a book about it.

These two goals may not be incompatible, and if I do end up pursuing an advanced degree in learning, it might be best to wait until I can comment more authoritatively on the science as well.

I also want to improve my courses and the outcome for the students who take them. A lot of online education is nascent and the technology is still far from being fully utilized. Why don’t products collect data on student outcomes instead of relying on testimonials and case studies? For courses which sell with limited capacity, why don’t we track admissions versus waiting list candidates as a control group to distinguish results?

I think a data-driven, scientific process for delivering outcomes is the future. It’s much, much harder to do, but I’m trying to inch towards it in the products that I offer, hopefully resulting in better, more consistent outcomes for the people who buy my courses.

Work and Life

In the short-term, however, I’m also planning to use the upcoming year to work on some personal goals that I won’t be writing about on the blog. Taking a year to shift my focus away from mega-projects will be nice to work on fitness, relationships, friendships and learning things that don’t line up nicely for a blog article. Building this career has been an obsession for me, so I need to occasionally remind myself that there’s more to life than just work.

I’d love to do some light continued language learning, take another MIT class or two to brush up on some of my computer science concepts, or even just get back into the habit of reading a lot of books. Focus, determination and even obsession are critical for success. Yet, stillness has its own virtue and that balance is critical for life.

As always, I’ll try to share what I find with you along the way.

  • David Zinger

    All the best on 26 and wonder what your life will be like when those numbers are reversed. Carry on caring.

  • Bruce Collard

    Happy Birthday, congrats.

  • Wirelessgirl

    Very nice reflections, and happy earthstrong Scott.
    I’ll be cheeky. For the year ahead, you could get a girlfriend 🙂
    All the best.

  • Jamie

    Happy Birthday! Love your last paragraph. Well said and Best Wishes!

  • Scott

    Blogs evolve. I hope you share your fitness and social insights as you discover them. If nothing else, it would round out the picture of the life of a super-learner.

    Consider upgrading your diet. Eat a whole-foods, vegetable-based diet. I suggest Super Immunity by Joel Fuhrman. He’s straightforward about optimum nutrition, based on science, not ideology. You’ll not find anyone more knowledgeable in the field and willing to go where the science goes.

    You can even write blog posts about it, as the brain is affected by our dietary choices just as the rest of the body is affected. Think of (most cases of) dementia as heart disease of the head.

    If you want to watch some good videos on nutrition by searchable topic, there’s no better place than Michael Greger’s site, nutritionfacts.org.

    Take that red pill, and your (much extended) life will never be the same.

  • Jonas

    Happy Birthday, Scott!
    Your articles and your recent language project is truly inspiring. Great work!
    Cheers, Jonas

  • Sebastian Aiden Daniels

    Congratulations on 26. I think slow patient mastery and learning is important to learn something deeply, but damn it is so difficult, at least it is for me. You are an inspiration to me and I appreciate it.

  • John

    Hi Scott,

    I have very exciting news to share with you 🙂

    Coursera has recently announced that they are looking for someone to be the head of learning science department at Coursera. This position would involve running different learning experiments. Designing the online learning experience so that it takes full advantage of technology.

    At Coursera they already have 9 million learners. Working there you would get to be a part of world’s biggest learning experiment.

    I have followed your blog for many years and I would encourage you to apply for a position there. This would be a unbelievable experience to apply all the insights you gained over the years and also learn more about learning.

    Good luck in your future endeavors,

    Your #1 Fan

  • Gleb Reys

    Hey Scott,

    happy birthday!

    Thanks for sharing so much about learning and all the best with your 5-10 year plans!

  • fusun

    Happy birthday.

  • TJ

    happy 26th bday 🙂
    great work on the past year, hope to read more of your blog in the future

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the birthday wishes everyone!

  • James T

    Birthday greetings , 26 just getting started (I’m the reverse of that ha ha) I enjoy your stuff and respect your focus and discipline , long may prosper …. 🙂

  • Annika

    Hi Scott,

    Happy Birthday. I just realized that we share the same birthday (I am 2 years older tho ;-))

    I stumbled across your website a couple of months ago and I have been a very excited reader since. You have a great way of explaining things and nailing facts.

    The most important thing I read from you recently was “Self help only helps when you can apply it to your life instead of only reading about it”. It is a very basic principle applying to everything, but one has to understand it before it really works.

    Good luck for the future. I think you are a very interesting person and I am glad that I stumbled across your website 🙂

    Best wishes

  • Tom Miller

    Thanks for writing this, Scott. Your willingness to self-analyze is inspiring. Happy birthday!

  • Becca Britten

    Happy birthday! Would it help to hear that the next 10 are going to be absolutely amazing? Thanks for keeping us all so entertained, whether we be watchers, or the commenters, your words have touched many.

  • vishesh

    Happy Birthday scott! And all the best for your your plans, been reading your blog for more than 3 years now; thanks for sharing everything! 🙂

  • Faiq

    Happy birthday.God bless you

  • Steve Hudson

    Way to be ambitious and dynamic, Scott. If you are going to get back to reading more, I suggest reading Korzybski’s Science and Sanity and the biography of him by Kodish. You have much knowledge–material–to use to think about language in general. Korzybski said that the main value of a new discipline such as his general semantics is the new language introduced. Goethe said “Wer keine fremde Sprachen kennt, kennt nicht den eigenen”–he who knows no foreign languages knows not his own. So one of the potentials of knowing much about other languages is to improve one’s own. Why have a passive accepting attitude toward language. Let’s be competitive with it, improve it, and move it into the future!

  • Briana

    Happy birthday Scott! Happy to hear about your journey thus far, and also happy to hear that you’re going to broaden your horizon past just “one year projects”, although I commend you for sticking with them. I am also fascinated with learning about learning, which is probably how I found you in the first place (not sure where I was when I found a link to your MIT challenge). I hope that 26 is an even better year for you with more opportunities, and looking forward to reading your “dead trees” book, or even an ebook.

  • Prabhakar

    Happy Birthday, Scott! Saw you were referenced in the outstanding ‘Learning how to Learn’ MOOC on Coursera. Another brilliant resource on learning.

  • Xeno Hemlock

    Belated happy birthday, Scott!

  • Violette

    Happy birthday Scott and welcome back to english speaking. I enjoy all your article and blog .I would like to know if you have write anything about how to read fast or if you have referral or insight about it ( how to read and understand fast )

  • Gia

    Hi Scott, Happy birthday, I really enjoyed your posts from the year without English.
    If you are really interested in Grad school, don’t be too deterred about your Business undergrad – contact some academics whose work you admire, offer to assist in their research, commit to learning the subjects you need through MOOCs or other methods (you should be a pro at that) and there is always a way in. People switch around and repackage their skills in different ways all the time. Good luck!

  • Kaimana

    Hi, and happy belated birthday, Scott
    I’ve read some of your posts as you’ve delved into language learning, and it’s interesting to see that your goals are changing. I think it’s fine every once in a while to make new goals and to work on those. It’s crazy-making to try to keep old goals for projects while continuously adding new ones. Sometimes, a change in focus is just what we need.
    Cheers, Kaimana

  • Camila

    Happy Birthday, Scott~ Congratulations on the success of your projects! and, regardless of what direction you decide next for the blog, I’ll be sure to stick along for the ride.

  • Jay

    Scott – best wishes for your 26th birthday – you’ve accomplished quite a bit for your age.

    Reading through this post, one of the things that popped out to me was – how can you combine your short-term, hyperlearning projects with your interest in longer-term mastery?

    As a surgeon, one of the things that intrigues me is the concept of mastery – why some do become master surgeons, why some don’t. Malcom Gladwell has written on this. Atul Gawande has written on this (from the perspective of a surgeon). Also, your friend and colleague Cal Newport touches on this in some of his posts (especially re: deliberate practice).

    To synthesize your one-year projects and interest in mastery, I wonder – are there certain things that can be done to ACCELERATE and maintain mastery? Yes, there is speed-reading and deliberate practice, but is there a certain unified approach that can be adapted to a number of subjects? Or should we just rely on 10,000 hours of focused effort?

  • Scott Young



    I like the one-year project model as a blogger. They allow me to explore something interesting, with some depth, and then move on before the blog becomes entirely about that topic.

    However I have mixed feelings about them as a learner. Mastery is important. So is spacing of knowledge acquisition.


  • Stephen Lesser

    Congratulations on your birthday, Scott. I haven’t been reading you for to
    long, but have decided you are the real thing after I learned you passed the HSK 4 after 100 days of study. I think it will take me 8 months from now!
    (I have done level 3). Keep up the good work,

    Stephen L.

  • Glinda Zhou

    Dear Scott
    Happy Birthday to you, hoping you have a glittering future and guide us to a more efficient way to be the best, wish you always have a beautiful day in your life, you are my teacher, my friend,my elder brother forever and I wish I could meet you one day when I go abroad to further my study after I begin my postgraduate education in Beijing.Wish you all the best! YOURS