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Lessons from Top Entrepreneurs: How to “Hack” (Transform) Your Own Education
Hack: the traditional meaning of the word is either to hit repeatedly or to access data in an unauthorized (and often illegal) way. Neither definition has a particularly positive connotation, so why would anyone want to do it intentionally?
At MIT and within entrepreneurial communities, however, hack has a different meaning. A hack could be a silly and playful practical joke that shows off a person’s skill and ingenuity—the most notorious MIT hack was one in which students built a life-size replica of a police car and transported it all the way to the top of MIT’s Great Dome. It’s also put to more serious use: hackathons and hack days represent a gathering of smart people working to solve software or other math and science problems, often in a time-sensitive environment.
In this context, to hack just simply means to innovate in a smart, creative way to achieve a desired result. The implication is that by concentrating and working with other smart people, someone can find shortcuts, cut through bureaucracy, and invent new things and processes. It’s a smart way to look beyond barriers and create a future that no one knew was possible.
So how do you hack your own education? In other words, how do you go beyond the resources around you (or even what you’re told is possible) and find new ways to innovate and create a better future for yourself? Top universities are looking for this: they want to know how you’ve taken charge of your own educational path, as it’s something you’ll have to do at their institutions too. To get a deeper look about how entrepreneurs and inventors have hacked their own fields and what advice they’d give to others like you, read on.
Dropbox: How Founder Drew Houston Embraces Action
Drew Houston (who’s also an MIT alum!) gave recent graduates advice in a 2013 commencement address at his alma mater. Shortly after his own graduation, Houston was inspired to create a platform where he could access all of his files and documents in real time specifically because it did not exist yet. He hacked his way into a new product, which now serves billions of people.
Chances are you may not invent the next Dropbox while still in high school, but according to Houston, the key point is to find your “tennis ball” and then pursue it. What problem do you want to solve? What activity makes you more excited than anything else, the thing that nags at you and may even feel a bit impractical? Once you’ve found it, says Houston, go where people are doing it.
“Whatever you’re doing, there’s usually only one place where the top people go,” he said. “You should go there. Don’t settle for anywhere else. Meeting my heroes and learning from them gave me a huge advantage. Your heroes are part of your circle too—follow them.”
In practice for you, this means pursuing activities you love early on to the fullest extent. If you love theater, is there a local community program you can get involved in? Can you seek mentorship from an actor working in the field? Even if you can’t move yet in your young life, can you find a way to intern in the area with the most opportunities?
It’s tempting to not step outside your own box, just taking courses available to you and sticking to the confines of your school’s offerings. Houston says it’s a temptation that you must resist:
“The fastest way to learn is by doing. If you have a dream, you can spend a lifetime studying and planning and getting ready for it. What you should be doing is getting started … No one has a 5.0 in real life. In fact, when you finish school, the whole notion of a GPA just goes away. When you’re in school, every little mistake is a permanent crack in your windshield. But in the real world, if you’re not swerving around and hitting the guard rails every now and then, you’re not going fast enough. Your biggest risk isn’t failing, it’s getting too comfortable.”
So, even though you’re still in school, and will be for the foreseeable future, have a growth mindset. Look at the future. Plan for it. Work hard at your studies, but balance it with concrete steps forward to help you in real life.
Khan Academy: What Salman Khan Knows About Learning
Salman Khan (another MIT-er) started Khan Academy by helping his cousin with math, and then moving the tutorials online when others asked for help too. He, unlike Houston, wasn’t looking to create something new, but simply trying to hack educational concepts to make them easier. Khan Academy videos have now been viewed over a billion times, and it’s just one of many resources Khan now offers.
According to Khan, the way that schools teach complex STEM subjects is flawed: cover a subject quickly, then build on it and move on before many students feel comfortable with the material. The foundation is shaky, making the knowledge fragile and and much easier for a student to hit a wall and feel helpless. Khan said he saw this firsthand in a related TED talk:
“By the time they got to algebra, they had so many gaps in their knowledge they couldn’t engage with it. They thought they didn’t have the math gene. But when they were a bit older, they took a little agency and decided to engage. They found resources like Khan Academy and they were able to fill in those gaps and master those concepts, and that reinforced their mindset that it wasn’t fixed; that they actually were capable of learning mathematics.”
So, fill the gaps in your knowledge even when no one is telling you to: it’ll make you smarter and stronger. Some schools are starting to reflect this, where students learn concepts on their own and class time is used to work through what each student finds particularly confusing. But it’s not nationwide yet, so it will take some work on your part. If it’s a subject you love, continue to fill the gaps in your knowledge by pursuing advanced courses.
This process of self-teaching and continuing education is an important way to master tough concepts in life too. “You should have grit; you should have perseverance; you should take agency over your learning,” said Khan. Work hard and smart, and you’ll be ahead of others in your same age and experience group.
Tesla: Founder Elon Musk Talks Focus and Failure
Elon Musk is aiming to change the world, from developing sustainable energy like electric cars at Tesla and an electric high-speed rail called the Hyperloop to developing interplanetary space travel and colonization through SpaceX. He started developing ideas early and bringing them to market, and was even a major player in growing and implementing PayPal before he got started on recent ventures.
Despite the complexity of his work, Musk boils his work ethic down to a few basic principles—and key among them is the essential lesson of failure. “You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong,” he says. More importantly, as you innovate, “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
Trying new things, failing, and learning from that failure is terrifying, especially at a young age. It’s not always taught in school; F for failure is indicative of poor performance, not growth and change. The truth is, embracing failure is a key piece of developing maturity and emotional readiness. Push yourself to practice failure and learn from it.
Another critical hack for Musk is to only concentrate on what matters, and ignore everything else. “Boil things down to the most fundamental truths. Then reason up from there,” he says. Ask yourself: “Will this activity result in a better product? If not, stop those efforts.” Musk practices what he preaches. In lieu of doing marketing for many of their products, his companies aim to create spectacular products that market themselves.
For you, that translates to cutting out what isn’t working for you or helping you push forward, and focusing on what truly matters. Instead of doing 20 activities and giving 5% of your time to each one, do a few that you can concentrate on more fully.
Applying These Lessons
Begin to think like an inventor and entrepreneur to hack your education and invent your future. With the right attitude and work ethic, you’ll be set for success.
For more insights about the MIT application process, read How to Write the MIT Application Essays 2017-2018. For more on learning from entrepreneurs, visit 5 Life Lessons You Can Learn from Entrepreneurs.
If you’re interested in developing these skills beyond what you’re able to do yourself, consider working with a CollegeVine mentor. CollegeVine mentors are current students at elite colleges that have found ways to hack their own education. Their ideas and insights will provide a powerful model for you or your student to emulate, maximizing the chances of academic and social success.