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People have given me advice that has changed my life. This is my advice for high school students. But first, please read Paul Graham’s essay about high school. It’s really good.
Motivation is the bottleneck #
When I was in high school, my excuse for a lot of things was “I don’t have time” or “I don’t have the resources”. I told myself that it wasn’t my fault.
I was wrong. I had plenty of time and resources. What I didn’t have was motivation. If I really wanted to learn how to solve differential equations or build a CNC machine, I totally could have. At MIT I’ve met people who built walking quadrupeds, nuclear fusors, and synchronous reluctance motors in high school. These people aren’t any more special than you or me. They love what they do and worked really hard, every day, until they became really good at it.
But how do you find motivation to work hard?
You might think you need to have really strong discipline. I have terrible discipline. I procrastinate and get distracted whenever I have to do boring work, even when it’s really important (homework, getting a driver’s license, etc).
The way to work hard without needing strong discipline is to work on fun projects. Spend time on projects that are both challenging and exciting. Then the motivation will come naturally. You’ll want to work on your project as much as possible.
What if you don’t know what you’re passionate about?
Excitement, competitiveness, and comaraderie made me fall in love with robotics. I’ve always thought robots were really cool, so I joined my middle school’s FIRST Lego League team. We got obliterated at every competition (back in my day you could get negative points). I was so mad. My desire to win made me want to get better at building robots. Finally, I love building robots because of my friends. There’s a certain comaraderie forged from building robots late into the night that you can’t get from playing video games.
If you don’t know what you are passionate about, join a club that does cool things, because the cool factor, desire to win, and friends you make will motivate you to work hard.
Your time is precious #
Sitting in a classroom all day might make you feel like your time isn’t worth much. But your time is way more valuable than that. There’s so many awesome things you can do.
The internet is full of world-class educational resources if you just know where to look. The point of this pile of links is to show that the quality of your high school is not limiting you.
MIT OpenCourseWare #
These free online courses are really good. Actually, I often skip in-person lectures so that I can watch OCW videos. They record lectures of the most popular professors so they are much better than the average in-person lecture at MIT. Here are some introductory classes I’ve taken that have really good OCW counterparts:
- 3.091 (Solid State Chemistry)
- 18.01 (Single-variable Calculus)
- 18.02 (Multi-variable Calculus)
- 18.03 (Differential Equations)
- 8.01 (Classical Mechanics)
- 8.02 (Electricity and Magnetism)
- 2.001 (Mechanics & Materials I)
Stanford Machine Learning class #
Harvard philosophy class #
History Books #
The best way to learn history is not studying a Princeton Review AP US History prep book. You should read good history books. There are so many, but I’ve only read a couple. Guns, Germs, and Steel is an incredible nonfiction book taking a scientific approach to history and The Grapes of Wrath illustrated human suffering and spirit so well that it made me cry.
Programming Courses #
There are more high quality resources for learning programming than there are for any other subject. Personally I can recommend this python course. But once you’ve learned the basics of programming, I highly recommend you try working on a project of your own (courses don’t mean much if you don’t apply your skills).
Programming Challenges #
Math Textbooks #
A lot of people think they are “bad at math”. This is because most math teachers are terrible (this beautiful essay explains why). The internet comes to the rescue once again. The Art of Problem Solving sells extraordinary math textbooks. They also have a free online learning system called Alcumulus. AoPS teaches you how to learn math by solving challenging problems and proving theorems, not just memorizing formulas and step-by-step solutions. Having completed almost all of the AoPS textbooks, I cannot recommend them enough. They are hard, but they will fundamentally change the way you think about math.
If your high school has a robotics team and you like robots, you should join. You can also start your own team. The advantage of starting your own team is that you decide the team culture. In my experience, team culture is the biggest contributor to success in robotics competitions. As I’ve mentioned before, building robots is way more fun when you do it with friends, and the competition is a strong motivator.
For learning how to design robots (or other things) with Computer-Aided Design (CAD), I strongly recommend Onshape. It’s really intuitive and has excellent online tutorials. Onshape is completely free for students. If you school or robotics team gives you access to SolidWorks, that’s good too. Avoid Fusion360, it’s terrible CAD software (good for CAM though).
3D Printing #
You can build almost anything with just a 3D printer. If you have the money, I highly recommend Prusa machines, because the reliability and print quality is unmatched. Cheap 3D printers are tempting, but be warned that they require a ton of maintenance and upgrades (I learned this the hard way). If you want a challenge, try building a high performance 3D printer. I recommend RatRig and Voron. It’s intimidating, but there are entire discord communities and youtube channels on your side.
Making metal parts is really cool. For a couple grand you can buy a CNC router, which is very valuable for high performance robots. I recommend the Omio line of CNC machines. Fusion360 is a great free Computer-Aided Machining (CAM) software with tons of online resources that makes it easy to learn.
Personal Projects #
If you want to be good at anything, you need to work on projects of your own. I have a friend who taught herself how to code and is now making 6 figures at an AI startup straight out of high school. She just really loves programming. Ben Katz, the creator of the MIT Minicheetah, became an incredible engineer by building things for fun (read about his projects on his blog). You’d be surprised by how much you can do by yourself.
College Applications #
I feel obligated to include this because many high school students think a lot about college applications.
How do you get into your dream school?
Do what you love and don’t waste time. MIT Admissions officer Chris Peterson wrote an excellent essay on this topic.
Do what you love because it’s exciting. If you think robots are cool, build robots. If you think video games are cool, program some video games. This is worth doing whether you get into your dream school or not.
Don’t waste time. To quote Paul Graham’s article Life is Short,
Relentlessly prune bullshit, don’t wait to do things that matter, and savor the time you have.
As a high schooler I didn’t realize how much I could do if only I tried hard enough. I hope that this post helps you appreciate how valuable your time really is.
I’ll end this post with a quote from the Paul Graham essay that I recommended in the beginning.
Maybe you can be the first generation whose greatest regret from high school isn’t how much time you wasted.