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.
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.