Interview with Scott H Young: Writer, Businessman and Super-Learner

Scott H Young is busy.  He’s dedicated to the question of “how to get more from life” — and as the author of a blog and four books on the subject, he’s certainly living up to his own goal of high productivity and efficiency.  He’s also one of today’s leaders when it comes to exploring unconventional education.  Unlike some other proponents of self-motivated and -designed education, he did the traditional college thing, but is now experimenting with other methods of learning.  For example, he’s almost finishing the “MIT Challenge”—teaching himself MIT’s entire four-year Computer Science curriculum through MIT OpenCourseWare— in 12 months.  Read our interview with Young to find out why he might be blazing a trail for the future.

You had an average university experience but are now working on learning through less traditional methods.  What made you decide to pursue that?

I wanted to learn computer science, but I didn’t want to have to go back to school. There’s tons of free courses online, why not try to do it for free?

Why do you think it’s important to keep building new skills even after leaving school?

Because, all else being equal, being good at things lets you lead a successful life. School gives you a headstart, but hardly a complete set of knowledge for succeeding in the world.

When do you think it is important to focus on mastering one skill, and when do you think it is more important to branch out and try to learn as many skills as possible?

Some specialization is probably important if you want to be world-class at something, the level of skill where you can command better job offers, business opportunities or lifestyle perks. Generalization is useful when you’re not trying to be the best, merely adequate. I think the “T model” where you have a narrow vertical set of skills which are highly developed and a broad base of skills which are only moderately developed is probably best.

What advice do you have for people currently trying to learn new skills?

Practice often. Get feedback early. Experiment in your approach.

What do you see as the future for online education and skills learning?

Online education offers the potential to learn skills that could formerly only be learned through direct instruction. Many topics which were once the exclusive domain of higher education might be accessible to dedicated autodidacts.

What drives you to continue learning new skills?

It’s fun! I think we’ve been punished so much by the bureaucratic structure of education that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be curious about learning new things.

Can you explain what ultra-learning is?

Ultralearning is a term coined by Cal Newport which I take to mean acquiring new and related skills very rapidly. It’s a dedication not just to learning, but to learning as quickly as possible. The allure of ultralearning is that success in competitive fields is based not just on what you know, but how quickly you can adapt, so fast learners outpace slow ones.

You’re almost done with your MIT challenge.  What’s next?

In the short-term, a vacation! But longer-term I’d like to continue expanding my business and courses to get the ideas and methods of learning better to more people.

You can learn more about Scott H Young on his blog, or check out his TEDxEastsidePrep talk, “Can you get an MIT education for $2,000?”