In this book, James Marcus Bach, son of Richard Bach (author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull), tells us a lot about his rather atypical life and what he's learned along the way. Skeptics might question his motives and speculate that he wants to prove or promote himself, but I appreciate his candor and willingness to share, and I'm willing to grant that his main motive is to sincerely help the reader.
In reading the book, it quickly becomes evident that Bach is indeed his father's son. He dropped out of high school and never went back for formal education, but he was intelligent and motivated, so he managed to chart his own passionately self-directed course of intellectual development and built a career as a recognized expert in software testing.
Here's a summary of most of the key "secrets" he offers for a "lifetime of success":
a. View yourself as an evolving work in progress which you're responsible for creating (Nietzsche had the same idea).
b. Education must be lifelong and customized for your needs and desires, so learn to educate yourself by scouting and using the vast array of resources at your disposal (books, the Web, peers, etc.).
c. Work on "authentic problems" which engage you, rather than artificial problems which have no significance for you.
d. To sustain passion for learning, go with the flow of what engages your curiosity, is fun, and fits the natural rhythms of your mind. In other words, engage in "low-pressure learning."
e. When possible and helpful, let yourself procrastinate so that your creative subconscious mind can help you solve problems.
f. Allocate some "disposable time" to meander and try things (or do nothing) rather than always following a rigorous schedule.
g. To increase overall productivity, work on multiple projects in parallel.
h. Try alternating between complementary learning activities, rather than getting stuck with just one approach.
i. Learn by experimenting, contrasting ideas with each other, constructing stories, and engaging in various forms of "play."
j. Tame complex problems by employing systems thinking, using models and heuristics, and building understanding and expertise step by step.
k. Use your area(s) of expertise as a gateway to learn things relevant to many other areas.
l. Don't worry about forgetting things. Forgetting clears up mental clutter, and you can always re-learn what you forget.
m. Recognize that much learning is a side effect of what you do, so try to learn something from every situation and experience in your life, including your failures.
n. Don't let institutions hold you back, and be prepared to challenge authority and the status quo when necessary. Believe in yourself, don't judge yourself too harshly, and don't be intimidated.
o. Aim to succeed based on the quality of your work and the resulting reputation you build, not diplomas, degrees, and other paper credentials.
p. Rather than aiming to do what's popular as a career, be willing to carve out your own unique niche, since you only need enough work to support one person (assuming that you don't necessarily want to build a large business).
q. Recognize that charting your own course requires willingness to face major challenges and risks.
r. Learn to separate aspirations and expectations, keeping expectations well below aspirations.
s. Recognize that you're part of a community and that service to others (love) has a lot to do with giving your life meaning. Learn from others while also helping them by teaching.
I share some traits with Bach, so I resonate with his story and I'm sympathetic to his ideas (I already apply most of them). And of course he obviously feels that his approach has worked for him. But we still need to ask how widely his "success secrets" can and should be applied by other people. In that regard, I do think that nearly all of his ideas will help most people, although I see some key limitations:
1. I think Bach's disdain for formal education is somewhat misguided. I too have issues with academia, and it's true that formal education can be stifling, but it can also foster considerable intellectual and general personal growth, especially at the university level, where students can substantially shape their education in an individualized way while still managing to get good grades. After completing well over 200 credits at undergraduate and graduate levels, that's certainly been my experience, and I think Bach is simply unqualified to properly judge university education because he's never experienced it firsthand.
2. Some of Bach's work habits revolve around doing what you enjoy, which makes general sense. But this can be taken too far, since unwillingness to be disciplined, make sacrifices, endure pain, and delay gratification will often lead to impulsiveness, self-indulgence, superficial learning, and inability to achieve anything really substantial. For example, looking at education again, there are many subjects which can only be mastered through disciplined and rigorous study spanning several years, including grinding through many tedious homework problems (sorry, not everything can be "fun"). A university education is the best (or only) path to achieving that mastery for most people.
3. I think Bach also goes too far in dismissing the importance of "paper credentials." Not unreasonably, such credentials do help open career doors, and most people can afford to spend at least four years of their lives and the associated dollars to get a university degree for that purpose (state universities are fine if money is tight). Moreover, in some professions, especially where public safety is involved (like medicine and civil engineering), college degrees and professional licenses are prerequisites to practice those professions, and that's entirely appropriate. By contrast, Bach's field of information technology largely deals with a manmade and rapidly changing logico-technical world focused on commercial applications, so it's atypical in particular ways that make formal credentials much less important while making self-directed study quite effective. Paper credentials are likewise less important in the arts and in business but, again, these are exceptions to the rule.
4. Being a "buccaneer-scholar" doesn't necessarily have to conflict with a more mainstream life trajectory. One can divide up one's time and do both in a complementary way. That's what I've done for many years, and I've found it to work well. After all, people can and do wear many hats, and you can get a lot done if you don't waste your time.
All of this said, I want to emphasize that I greatly enjoyed this book and I'm grateful for Bach's writing it. I certainly picked up some useful new ideas and I'm genuinely inspired by Bach's personal story. Therefore, I do highly recommend this book to anyone with a significant desire to take a self-directed approach to their life, provided that the limitations I've noted are kept in mind. This is ultimately a book which can help many people, and I predict that it will change some lives fundamentally.
Readers who enjoy this book may also enjoy Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner and HOW WE READ: Passion for Knowledge Disciplined by Subtle Turns of Strategies and Tactics 2nd Edition by Rong Fan. Also be sure to check out Truth Imagined by Eric Hoffer for an autobiographical story with a similar feel.