[Letter] You're the smartest kid in your high school. Now what? #1

July 17, 2021

This is advice for an exceptionally smart high schooler living in the USA. I do not know how well the advice transfers to other countries.


When I talk with working class people, they take it for granted that there are massive differences between individuals' native intelligence. To them, getting born smart is like getting born rich or pretty. It doesn't have anything to do with one's merit as a person. It's just luck. If you're smart then you get to be an officer in the military.

Competent elites have a finely calibrated sense of individuals' intelligence. World class smart people are like world class athletes. In Extremistan, small variations have a big effect on what someone can and can't do. Getting to the top requires native intelligence, years of dedicated training and a bit of luck. Small differences are both measureable and important.

Discussing variation in native intelligence is taboo among the middle class. We live in a world where it's more permissable to talk about sex than about smarts. If you really are leaps and bounds smarter than all your peers (think "smartest kid in your entire school district") then you will frequently be gaslighted by well-meaning people spewing bullshit like "multiple intelligences". Ignore them.

Besides gaslighting, the other challenge that comes with being exceptionally smart is that all the institutions you live in were designed for people who are (relative to you) mentally retarded. I'm not just talking about high school. The core phenomenon extends all the way up to college and even to major employers like Google. Any organization which manages a large population of students/employees/soldiers/whatever can push only so hard against the regression to the mean.

High school is a giant time sink obstructing your education. Try to get out of it. Homework isn't a big deal. In-person class time is the worst. My school had a program called Running Start which let high school students take classes at the local community college. I enrolled in Running Start which cut my class schedule in half. (A full-time college schedule has fewer class hours than the equivalent high school schedule.) Once in Running Start, I selected online classes wherever I could which cut my in-person class time close to zero.

Good employers do not care if you completed high school. High school matters for getting into a good college and for getting scholarships to college. Nothing else.

A good college won't feel like an insane asylum the way high school does, but most of the classes will still be too slow. Whether or not you decide to go to college, you should begin teaching yourself now.

The most urgent vocational skill to learn is software because, of all the ways there are to change the world, the most straightforward way is to found a tech startup. More specifically, you should be proficient at full stack web development and machine learning.

Software Fundamentals

Find an old laptop nobody is using and put Linux on it. Replace the default desktop metaphor UI with i3. Remap CapsLock to Ctrl. Do everything through the command line, a web browser or a text editor (or IDE) with Vim keybindings. It's okay if the old laptop is ten years old. It may perform faster than a brand new computer running Windows.

Learn how to use git.

Web Development

For web development you need to know HTML, CSS and JavaScript. You can find free books on all of them here. Buy your own domain name and build a static website on S3. Learn how to use AWS Lambda and Cognito[1]. At that point you'll have the tools to deploy basically anything you need to. (You'll also have a skill you can use to get a job.) Build a cool portfolio of beautiful software that does cool things. That portfolio will be your credentials.

You can attach an email address to your custom domain name for free with Zoho Mail.

Machine Learning

Understanding how machine learning works requires calculus and linear algebra. Learn calculus and linear algebra. You can find good books for free here. Strangely, machine learning requires very little probability—at least right now in 2021. This field is rapidly changing. A lot could change in ten years, but teaching yourself math at an early age is rarely a bad investment.

Other Subjects

There are lots of things you should teach yourself: foreign languages, history, psychology, biology, economics, and so on. I hope to follow up with posts about these other topics. But web development and machine learning should be your top priorities. I expect they can occupy you for at least a few months.



[1] This advice is written in 2021. Best practices may change over time.