My 2017 highlights — Max Deutsch
2017 was a crazy year for a lot of reasons. Mainly, I learned a lot of new things (from backflips to blues guitar), blogged about the process (writing 350 blog posts), got international attention for my Month to Master project (~30M views on articles about me in the WSJ, NYT, Wired, etc.), left my job at Intuit to start a company, and met dozens of new people.
The year afforded me the biggest opportunities I’ve had yet, but also forced me to confront some of the downsides of “fame” (especially when I wasn’t ready for it).
Overall, the year will likely be one of my most memorable. In this post, I summarize some of my highlights from 2017.
My year was largely defined by my accelerated learning project, Month to Master (M2M), where I challenged myself to master one expert-level skill every month for a year and blogged about my process on a daily basis.
In January, I began the third challenge of the project, attempting to solve a Rubik’s Cube in under 20 seconds, which is considered the four minute mile of speed-cubing.
On January 1, I set my baseline, solving the cube in about 50 seconds.
January also began a year of unexpected press for my projects…
Back in April of 2016, I had launched Rightspeed, a speed-listening app, that let users train their brains to listen to audiobooks and podcasts more quickly.
In mid-January of 2017, Wired Magazine published its trends of the near future issue of the magazine, which featured an article on speed-listening as one of these trends. I made a small cameo in the article, which was exciting, as it was the first time my name had ever been in print.
The article also led to the most single-day downloads of Rightspeed since launching.
During January, I developed a particularly strong urge to artistically create, and so I followed this urge.
For example, one night after work, inspired by the Rubik’s Cube, I decided to experiment with perspective illusions and made a giant floating cube out of blue tape in my apartment.
Here’s the cube from some illusion-breaking angles:
And here’s a timelapse of the creation process:
On January 24, after 25 hours of practice, I solved the Rubik’s Cube in 17.7 seconds, officially surpassing the 20 second threshold and completing the month’s challenge.
I documented the entire Rubik’s Cube challenge and my process in this 10,000-word article.
February’s challenge was to land a standing backflip — the first physical challenge of the Month to Master project.
I connected with the head parkour coach at AcroSports, a gym near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and he helped me train throughout the month.
After the first 45-minute lesson, I was already flipping in the harness, and naively thought I’d easily land the backflip by the next session. I soon realized however that the physicality of the backflip wasn’t actually the hard part. Instead, I was going to need to overcome the crippling fear of harness-less flipping.
Here’s a video recap of my first lesson:
Meanwhile, my parents visited San Francisco in February. We hiked in the Presidio, went to the Exploratorium, and worked on a Super Mega crossword puzzle (which I eventually finished in March).
February also marked a turning point in my diet.
Up until February, I tried to eat healthy (no desserts, no coffee, no alcohol, no soda, no processed foods), but there was one major exception: I snacked all the time on sugary, dry breakfast cereals between meals.
Using my backflipping training as an excuse, starting in February, I completely cut out cereal from my diet (which has lasted through the entire year).
As the month progressed, I visited AcroSports twice per week to continue my backflip training.
Some days, I landed on my head…
And, some days, I was landing on my feet (with minimal help)…
Each lesson, I made small progress, slowly overcoming the fear.
In February, as I continued blogging about my M2M project, I started receiving a lot of requests from readers, asking if I could coach them through their own month learning challenges. On February 9, I selected the first students who I’d be mentoring — a 48-year-old mom and waitress from Ohio, a student and soccer player at Tufts, a 53-year-old semi-retired business executive from outside of Seattle, and a 22-year-old startup founder.
This mentoring planted the seed for a new business to come in September.
Also in February, my blog started growing more than it ever had previously. Readers were sharing the blog with their friends, and the “Month to Master” concept began reaching a broader audience.
Here’s one text that I received from a friend in mid-February:
On February 24, I turned 24 years old and also landed my first backflip — a nice way to celebrate my birthday. In total, I spent about five hours in the gym.
Although they’re not the cleanest, here are the first two backflips I ever landed:
And here’s a few more that are slightly better:
At the end of the month, I compiled all of my daily blog posts into a full, detailed account of my backflip challenge:
As soon as I got upside down, I completely panicked, flailed my arms, and punched Cliff in the face.medium.com
Also, excitingly, while blogging about backflipping, I wrote my 100th consecutive daily blog post, which was a milestone worth celebrating.
March’s M2M challenge was to play a 5-minute improvisational blues guitar solo, which ended up sounding like this:
During March, after the success of my first group of students, I started mentoring more students, helping them learn a variety of new skills.
Unfortunately, I still had to turn most students away, as I didn’t have the time to support everyone who was interested.
So, in order to scale up my mentoring operation, I decided to build the Month to Master app, which would feature an AI coach (also named Max), who could ideally mentor more students more scalably.
In March, I started on the designs for the app:
Following up on my dietary changes from February, I decided to continue experimenting with my food. First, I replaced my primary protein bar (the Clif Builder’s Bar) with Exo, a fully natural protein bar made from crickets, which surprisingly tastes good.
During March, musician Chuck Berry died at the age of 90, so, in his memory, as part of my guitar challenge, I learned how to play the opening lick from Johnny B. Goode.
Also, during March, I celebrated Pi Day (March 14) by converting the number pi into its musical equivalent and orchestrating a little song. Pi in musical form sounds okay, but not great…
You can read about the rest of my guitar challenge in this compilation article.
In March, I decided to move onto a new team at work (I started 2017 still at Intuit as a Product Manager). To send me off, my team held a Wine & Paint class on campus.
Since I don’t wine, I opted for water…
It wasn’t my best work, but it was still fun.
Towards the end of March, I started compiling my daily blog posts into larger, sharable articles, which I then shared in a few groups on Facebook.
The feedback was very encouraging. It was particular cool to receive a comment from Gayle Laakmann McDowell, whose book “Cracking the Coding Interview” is quite popular in Silicon Valley (it’s currently ranked #465 out of all books on Amazon).
It’s weird to find out that “celebrities” or people you follow online are actually just real, normal people. This was a good reminder of that.
Later in the year, as the M2M project gained notoriety, I started ending up on the other side of this, which was even weirder…
In March, I read my second favorite book of the year To Pixar and Beyond by Lawrence Levy, Pixar’s first CFO.
I had previously read Creativity, Inc. a few times, so I knew the creative journey of Pixar, but this book beautifully highlights the art of running a business, in the truest sense of the word. It creates a compelling narrative around traditionally drier CFO-oriented topics like law, contracts, banking, financing, stock options, etc.
I listened to this book in one sitting, totally captivated.
In April, my challenge was to hold a 30-minute conversation in a foreign language on the future of technology. Specifically, Hebrew.
In the past, I’ve found that I have a pretty strong filter when trying to speak in another language: I don’t want to look dumb and I don’t want to make mistakes, so I end up not able to say anything at all.
To loosen up, I enrolled in a six-week improv class that met every Sunday from 11am-2pm in one of the art buildings at Fort Mason, a former army post located near the Golden Gate bridge.
The class was insanely fun, and I’d highly recommend it. It was simply three hours of grown adults just playing uninhabited. (Proofreading note: Not sure this sentences comes off exactly how I meant it, but hopefully you get what I’m saying).
I’m not sure the class actually helped with my Hebrew speaking (I found it much easier to lose my filter in the improv context), but I’m glad the Hebrew challenge motivated me to sign up.
In early April, I discovered the band Vulfpeck, which quickly became my musical obsession of the year.
Their music is a combination of funk and pop, and really resonated with my musical sensibilities. I have no idea which song to recommend first (I needed to listen to most of their stuff before I understood what was going on), but here’s their song most streamed on Spotify as a starting point…
Most of my time after work during April was spent on hour-long Skype calls with a Hebrew tutor from Israel who’s now living in Los Angeles with her family (and so was available during Pacific Time). The sessions were more conversations, than lessons — I would pose a question at the beginning of the call and then we’d discuss in Hebrew.
Since I was particularly focused on discussing “the future of technology”, our Skype sessions usually were framed around one of the eleven questions posed in “My detailed breakdown of the Future of Everything” document, which I wrote to organize my thoughts for April’s challenge:
This post is part of Month to Master, a 12-month accelerated learning project. For April, my goal is to hold a…medium.com
When I wasn’t on a Skype call, I practiced my Hebrew by riffing on some topic into my computer’s webcam. Here’s one of the videos I recorded, in which I try to answer the question “Are we living in the most important time in human history?” (The video has English subtitles).
In April, I also started meditating every day before work using the Headspace app. I started with 10 minutes per morning, and ultimately worked my way up to 20-minute sessions. This required that I set my alarm even earlier (I was still commuting 1.5 hours down to Mountain View most weekdays), but it was well worth it.
I’m naturally pretty mindful, low anxiety, and aware, but meditating helped me take my brain to a whole new level. I’d highly encourage you to give it a try.
If you’re looking for a good entry point into meditation, I’d recommend Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier. Despite the self-helpy title, it’s a great, narrative-driven book about Dan’s personal story, starting with his cocaine-induced panic attack on live television.
Once you’re sold on meditation (or not), another fascinating book from 2017 was Why Buddhism is True by evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright. The title of this book is even more extreme, but ultimately, it’s just an interesting look at the human brain from an evolutionary perspective.
During my pursuit of learning more about the “Future of Technology” (as necessary for my Hebrew challenge), I found myself reading and rereading Tim Urban’s writing on the popular long-form blog Wait But Why. Tim deconstructs “complicated things” (like artificial intelligence, electric cars, the Fermi Paradox, Cryonics, space travel, etc.) using playful language and stick figure drawings in massive 40,000-word posts.
In April, Tim published a new post on one of Elon Musk’s more recent companies Neuralink, which was good timing for my project…
After reading the article, I tried to summarize it in Hebrew for practice.
Also in April, just like last year, I visited UC Berkeley during “Cal Day”, which is Berkeley’s attempt to woo admitted students, but is also open to the public.
In 2016, I went to terrific lecture by mathematician Alexander Paulin, and so, decided to return to another one of his lecture, which didn’t disappoint. He’s honestly one of the best lecturers I’ve listened to.
Inspired by my trip to Berkeley, when I got home, I recorded another off-the-cuff Hebrew video, contemplating the future of education:
Finally, at the end of the month, I held a 35-minute, fully-Hebrew conversation on the future of technology with my friend Josh. While the Hebrew isn’t 100% perfect, I had the conversational confidence and expressiveness to articulate my ideas, which was ultimately my goal.
In May, my M2M challenge was to build the software part of a self-driving car. Essentially, I wanted to take a video feed of the road and teach my computer how to steer, brake, and accelerate.
The hardest part of the challenge was actually setting up my computer’s software environment and figuring out how to make all the data sources compatible with each other. The actual machine learning was more straightforward (at least for the level of accuracy I was interested in).
Here are two videos of my computer “driving”:
At the end of the month, I put together a long blog post fully documenting the self-driving car project.
In May, I started hosting “Saturday Night Chats” at my apartment, which were basically gatherings of people on Saturday night to talk about some (hopefully thought-provoking) topics. These chats were some of my favorite parts of all 2017.
The purpose for the chats was twofold: 1. I wanted a consistent and dedicated time to gather with smart people and discuss more intimate topics about life, and 2. I wanted a structured mechanism to meet new interesting people in San Francisco.
I hosted the chats every other Saturday at my apartment for the entire year, encouraging friends to bring friends, and so on.
The chats started small, but blossomed over time and I met some of my closest friends in this way.
Here’s a photo from one of the earliest chats:
Towards the end of May, I visited my friend in Seattle for a few days. We did all the typical touristy things like walking through Pike Place Market and visiting the first Starbucks shop, but one of my highlights was going to a Seattle Sounders soccer game.
I hadn’t been to a live soccer game since I was 10 or so, so I was definitely due.
Finally, in May, my Month to Master project started spreading beyond my blog, and I started seeing others taking on and documenting monthly learning challenges, which was really cool to see.
Two examples that stood out were Zake Zhang’s and Max Hertan’s projects.
In June, I took on one of my favorite challenges of the entire project: I had 30 days to develop musical perfect pitch.
In particular, I was challenging myself to correctly identify 20 consecutive, randomly-generated musical notes without a reference tone.
On June 1, using an online tool called Toned Ear, I set my baseline: I was able to identify 7 out of 20 notes (which falls on the upper side of the 10–40% range for people without perfect pitch).
A few days later in June, I went to see Vulpeck (who I discovered in April) at the Fillmore in San Francisco. It was an awesome show.
In June, after a few months of work, I finished building the M2M app and launched it on Product Hunt (with the tagline “Learn anything in 30 days, with the help of an AI coach”), becoming my most successful launch to date: In the first day, 3,500 people signed up to use the app.
Product Hunt even gave me an extra boost by promoting the project to all their subscribers via a Desktop push notification.
I wasn’t exactly sure how the app would be received, but the feedback was overwhelming good:
After the app launched, a radio station reached out to interview me on air. I had never done a live radio interview before, so I thought it would be something fun to try.
But, there was a catch: It would be at 3:30am San Francisco time.
So, I set my alarm for the middle of the night, went to sleep, woke up at 3:25am, did the interview, and immediately went back to sleep.
The result was a completely incoherent interview that I have no memory of actually doing. I did a handful of interviews in 2017 and this was most definitely the worst:
Later in June, I flew back to New York to visit my family. While in New York, I went to the Chihuly glass exhibit at the NYC Botanical Gardens. It was a beautiful day and, for some reason, the memory of that day sticks out so strongly in my mind.
Also, while I was in New York, I spent some time trying to “dunk a basketball”. I was flirting with the idea of including this as one of my M2M challenges, so wanted to see how I felt about it.
After a few minutes of warming up, I was able to dunk a soccer ball on a 9' 9" hoop. I would probably need to boost my jump by 6–7 inches if I wanted to dunk a basketball on a regulation hoop.
This didn’t end up as one of my M2M challenges, but it’s something I may work on in the future.
On June 27, after a month of intensive practice, I completed the perfect pitch challenge, successfully identifying 20 consecutive musical notes (and then doing it many times in a row without any mistakes).
I’m still not super comfortable saying I have perfect pitch in the typical sense, but I can certainly now pass the test:
After finishing the challenge, I wrote up a blog post describing exactly how I trained day-by-day.
At the end of June, on my flight back from New York to San Francisco, I listened to the book American Kingpin by Nick Bilton. The book tells the story of Ross Ulbricht, the creator of the Silk Road (the Bitcoin-based online black market), how the Silk Road became a $1.2B enterprise, and how Ross was finally caught after years on the run.
It’s a great read.
In July, my challenge was to complete a Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle in one sitting.
The backstory for this challenge has some relevance, so I’m going to briefly share it.
In the book, Ericsson explains that “some activities, such as playing music in pop music groups, solving crossword puzzles, and folk dancing, have no standard training approaches. Whatever methods there are seem slapdash and produce unpredictable results”.
In other words, Ericsson, the preeminent authority on expertise and human performance, doesn’t believe crossword puzzles can be mastered in a predictable, accelerated fashion. So, naturally, I saw this as a challenge.
The Saturday NYT puzzle is considered the hardest puzzle, so it’s the one I planned to tackle.
On July 1, to set my baseline, I did my best to complete that day’s Saturday puzzle. There was a lot of room for improvement:
After the launch of the M2M app in June, July was filled with a lot of press.
One of my favorite interview I did was an interview with Tomas Laurinavicius for his blog, which was also republished to the Huffington Post.
Max Deutsch is a technologist, blogger, coach and extreme learner based in San Francisco, California. Max is one of…www.huffingtonpost.com
Soon after that, the BBC reached out for a day-of radio interview, but I had a meeting at work and couldn’t logistically make it work on such short notice.
I also ended up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in an article about speed-listening. The article was written by journalist Ben Cohen who later took an interest in my Month to Master project (leading to another, bigger story in November).
This round of press led to a big uptick in blog visits and some majorly supportive comments from readers:
In July, I flew down to LA for a weekend trip with friends. While there, I saw the movie Dunkirk (one of the few movies I saw in 2017). It’s probably not for everyone, but I thought it was super good.
I grew up making films as a kid and, after leaving Dunkirk, I was heavily inspired to pick up a camera again.
Towards the end of the month, after 46 hours of practice, I finally completed an entire Saturday NYT crossword puzzle. There are very few things as satisfying.
Finally, in July, I actually ended up connecting with Anders Ericsson (whose real first name turns out to be Karl).
He read my blog, and ultimately kicked off a few studies in his lab to test my learning methods and replicate my techniques. His lab was especially interested in my approach to developing perfect pitch.
August was all about pull-ups. My goal was to complete one continuous set of 40, which required that I hire a trainer and work out every day (I documented my entire fitness journey in this massive blog post):
It also required that I upgrade my diet, which meant lots of green smoothies. After a few weeks of getting used to, smoothies became a staple of my diet for the rest of the year.
Also, in August, since I was in the best shape I’ve ever been, I thought it would be fun to hit the streets of San Francisco with friends for an impromptu photoshoot.
We were pretty goofy most of the time and didn’t hold back. Here are two of my favorites photos from the day:
Later in August, my sister Julia visited me in San Francisco for the weekend.
One of my favorite parts was our trip to the Exploratium, San Francisco’s hands-on science museum. Julia was brave enough to drink from the toilet and I took the ultimate selfie.
We also went to see the movie The Big Sick at a theater on the Embarcadero (part of San Francisco near the water) that I had never been to. The movie was great (highly recommended), but also, the outdoor complex the theater was in was really nice and quiet. I went back many times to that complex to sit outside and do work.
In August, I started listening to the band Lawrence (fronted by Clyde Lawrence, who is also Brown ‘15). At work, I found that I was extra productive while listening to them. I must have streamed their album Breakfast at least 100 times.
In September, I left Intuit to start an education company called Openmind. On Openmind, learners would subscribe for access to 1-on-1 mentoring from experts (essentially, I was productizing the mentoring I had begun earlier in the year).
I started thinking about working full-time on the company in June, but it took until September to fully process the fear and go for it.
Which, when looked at upside down, looks like openmind.
No..? Okay, well, I also got openmindlearning.com, which is the one I decided to use.
In September, there was a crazy heat wave in San Francisco, with a few days hitting over 100 degrees.
San Francisco is usually nice, but never beach weather nice, so this was an unusual opportunity. Along with everybody else in the city, I spent the weekend on the beach.
Also, during the beach day photoed above, I went to Blue Barn on Chestnut Street for lunch for the first time. I highly recommend the kale pesto on the turkey sandwich.
I’ve been back since.
In September, my M2M challenge was to continuously freestyle rap for 3 minutes. While I might not have the swagger, my rhyming got pretty good:
Also, as part of my training, I street-performed in the most touristy places in San Francisco (Union Square, Market Street, and the Ferry Building). Street performing is something I always thought would be cool to do, but I was always too scared to do it — so this was a great way to get over my fear.
The entire freestyling challenge is documented in this blog post.
During September, the Wall Street Journal article from July was syndicated by Snapchat and shown on their Discover page. This was the first time that my younger cousins thought I was cool…
But, in September, there was an even bigger WSJ story brewing…
Ben Cohen, the author of the speed-listening article, was typically a sports writer for the Wall Street Journal, which included covering chess events (I guess chess is considered a sport).
A big part of this coverage was writing about Magnus Carlsen, the #1 chess player in the world.
As a result, Ben had a solid relationship with Magnus’s management team. He had also read my M2M blog and had an idea:
Would I be open to him setting up a chess game between me and Magnus, as my 12th and final M2M challenge, contingent on the Wall Street Journal having exclusive rights to the story?
Naturally, I said yes.
If Tiger Woods offered to play a round of golf with me, despite the fact that I’m not a golfer, I would also accept. This was no different.
But, there were some conditions from Ben, and the biggest one was that I wasn’t allowed to write or talk about the event until after the WSJ story was published.
Given the nature of my daily blog, this complicated things, but not enough to reject the offer. I was a bit worried about giving up control over my own story, but they wanted to break the story and I understood.
I told Ben two things: 1. There was virtually no chance that I would win, but I’d try my best to make it interesting, and 2. I wanted the WSJ story to cover my 12 challenges as evenly as possible (since I didn’t want the likely losing of the chess game to overshadow the rest of the project).
We agreed, and, later in September, Ben confirmed the match was set for November 9 in Hamburg, Germany.
October was my first full month working on Openmind, which meant I needed to get into a routine, now that I was working solo.
My apartment has great co-working spaces that, for some reason, are only used by me, so Openmind already had a startup-ready HQ.
Meanwhile, I still needed to prepare for my chess match in November.
Ben connected me with Magnus’s childhood chess coach Torbjørn Hansen (after Magnus offered to make the introduction), and we worked together for two short Skype sessions.
Pretty quickly, it was clear that I couldn’t follow the typical chess learning path if I wanted to maximize my chance of defeating Magnus.
So, I came up with a more extreme approach / thought experiment: We’ve figured out how to make computers play chess like humans. Could I figure out how to make humans (aka me) play chess like a computer?
This seems just as silly as the original challenge, but it was novel and maybe, just maybe, I could pull it off.
The basic idea had four parts:
- First, I needed to build a deep learning-based chess engine. This engine would essentially be an algorithm that would input chess positions and output how favorable the position was. The algorithm would map the inputs to outputs using matrix multiplication, which is just a series of many additions and multiplications.
- Then, I would slowly need to simplify the algorithm until I could complete the necessary additions and multiplications in my head, in a reasonable timeframe, while ensuring the algorithm still played chess at a level better than Magnus.
- If I could successfully complete Step 2, I would need to memorize the algorithm (i.e. the algorithmic weights for the matrix multiplication).
- If I could successfully complete Step 3, I would need to show up to my match with Magnus Carlsen, perfectly execute my algorithm, and win the game in the allotted time period.
So yeah, this was a crazy idea too. But, it was legitimately the only path I had, so it’s the path I took.
Beyond my work on Openmind and chess algorithms, there were a few other memorable moments in October:
I climbed to the top of Angel Island for the first time, which offers a great view of the San Francisco skyline.
Sean, one of the regulars at Saturday Night Chats, shared that he was headed in the right direction to compete for the U.S. at the 2020 Olympics.
This, of course, has nothing to do with me, but it was cool to see that this thing I had set up was positively impacting the people who came.
A school in Ghent, Belgium integrated M2M into their school curriculum.
In early September, I received an email from Ingwio D’Hespeel, a teacher at LUCA School of Arts in Ghent, Belgium. He…medium.com
And lastly, I headed back to the East Coast to celebrate my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah. My family was getting hyped for the chess match.
While I was in New York, I did a chess photoshoot with the WSJ in Bryant Park:
November 2017 was legitimately the craziest month of my life, and it all started when I flew to Hamburg, Germany on November 8.
On the morning of November 9, still extremely jet-lagged, I got up, got dressed, and left the Marriot where I was staying.
I headed to Hamburg’s Hotel Atlantic where I would meet Magnus for the chess match.
Given that Magnus lives in Norway and I’m in the U.S., Hamburg seemed like an odd middle ground. But, there was a reason.
On November 9, at the Hotel Atlantic in Hamburg, Germany, Magnus was hosting a promotional event for his chess app Play Magnus. 13 users of the app won the chance to meet Magnus in person and play him in a live simultaneous match (i.e. Magnus would play all 13 opponents at once).
I was essentially asked if I wanted to tack onto this event.
(Note: Some people have asked why Magnus agreed to the story and the game in the first place. Mainly, it was for promotional purposes for his app and perhaps some general curiosity.)
Given the circumstances, I figured I’d be treated more or less as a 14th random challenger. But, as soon as I got to the hotel, I realized this was not exactly the case.
There was a separate hotel room with lights and cameras and a mini film crew just for my game. Ben Cohen was also there in Hamburg to take notes and cheer me on (the WSJ really really wanted me to win the game…).
At this point, it was starting to sink in that this wasn’t going to be a tiny, mostly unread article. The WSJ was going 100%.
Before the match, there were a few things that I needed to do: I started off with an hour or so of filmed interviews.
Then, I spent another hour or so on a photoshoot in Hamburg.
Here I am trying to make the Rubik’s Cube look cool:
Then, I grabbed some lunch and headed back to the hotel to meet Magnus.
When he first came into the room, he was intense. We didn’t talk much.
The film crew interviewed him and then we sat silently at the board as the crew set up the lighting and cameras.
(Side note: My sisters still make fun of me that I showed up in a North Face polar fleece jacket and sneakers, while Magnus was dressed in a well-tailor suit. If I had anticipated being photographed so much, I actually think it would have been fun to play along and come suited up. Next time, I guess.)
Once the film crew captured some B-roll of us sitting there, moving pieces, etc., the chess game began.
In the shuffle, the chess clock went missing, so we used an app on Magnus’s manager’s phone. We each had a total of 20 minutes to make all of our moves.
In the end, I wasn’t able to successfully turn my brain into a chess computer during my preparations in October. So, I was playing just as Max, a novice and unprepared chess player.
Despite the jet lag, the unexpected pomp and circumstance, the lack of preparation, and everything else going on, once the game started, it was all worth it.
For the next 10 minutes (before I played my first noticeably bad move), there was a seriousness to the game that made it feel “real”.
Magnus took his time with each move. I did the same.
For a moment, I was transported into a world where we were two equal chess players battling it out on the world’s largest stage.
It was as if I had walked onto the tennis court at Wimbledon across from Roger Federer, played the first few points reasonably strongly, and the crowd was preparing for a long, well-fought finals match.
During those few minutes, I tasted what it would actually feel like to compete at the highest levels against the best in the world — at chess or otherwise.
I will always remember this feeling.
But, of course, Magnus and I were far from equals. Very far. There had never been more lopsided betting odds for any chess match ever:
Wynn Las Vegas oddsmaker Johnny Avello said the probability of an upset was 100,000 to 1. No betting house would ever offer those odds. The line that betting house Pinnacle posted, at the Journal’s request, was the most lopsided one that internal regulators would allow.
A $100 wager on Max paid $50,000. A $100 wager on Magnus paid 10 cents. (Ben Cohen, WSJ)
This wasn’t the Wimbledon finals. It was a lopsided chess match in a hotel ballroom in Hamburg between the best chess player in the world and a non-chess player.
I made a mistake on move 9, then a bigger one on 11. It didn’t get much better after that.
After 22 minutes and 39 moves, Magnus won the game.
The outcome could have been worse (my goal was to last at least 10 moves, outlasting Bill Gates, who lost to Magnus in 9). Of course, the outcome could have also been better.
I did what I could and now I just had to wait until the article came out.
I flew to Copenhagen for a couple days to explore, since I was already nearby, and then flew back to San Francisco.
A week later, on November 17, the Wall Street Journal published the story.
First, it was on the front page of the WSJ website.
The following day, it was on the front page of the paper and continued on to a full page spread.
My first reactions were mixed: On one hand, this was insanely cool. I had worked extremely hard on my Month to Master project for the past year, and was excited to have my story shared on such a big stage in this way.
On the other hand, this wasn’t exactly my story (nor the story of Month to Master). Instead, the WSJ summarized my year as “A Chess Novice Challenge Magnus Carlsen … and he believed he could win”.
Ben Cohen certainly took some liberties with the story (in some cases making me look “better” than the truth and in other cases “worse”), but I understood: The goal of the paper was to write a fun, engaging, sharable story, and they definitely achieved this.
I was just hoping that my other eleven challenges (and the general sentiment of the project) weren’t going to be overshadowed by the emphasis on the chess game.
As soon as the article came out, it exploded. I had flirted with Internet virality before, but this was on a whole new level.
It’s hard to explain exactly what the next few weeks were like, but it was thrilling, stressful, and intense:
I heard from dozens of TV production companies, radio stations, and book publishers/agents. Every hour, I received thousands of emails from old friends, fans of the blog, and complete strangers. My phone rang off the hook.
National Geographic reached out to make a TV show:
Ex-Disney CEO and Dreamworks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg took me out to breakfast:
Tim Ferriss (the most popular “speed learner”) shared my article with his 3 million email subscribers and followed me on Twitter.
CNBC Squawk Box invited me onto their morning TV show.
Popular podcaster James Altucher invited me to a conversation.
Some people tracked me down and mailed me gifts, like an original Whole Earth Catalog.
UCSF asked if they could scan my brain for science.
The Vögele Kultur Zentrum museum in Switzerland converted my project into an exhibit called “Self-Optimization”.
The inbound requests didn’t stop.
As for the reaction to the story, it was highly polarized:
Some people appreciated the light, fun read.
And some people were highly skeptical or offended by the story, especially those in the chess community.
They reacted to the same thing I had reacted to when I first read the story (“Random guy believes he can defeat the best chess player in the world with no training”):
Despite the fact that the negative response made up a tiny fraction of the full reaction, it was loud and personal. I was definitely a bit rattled.
This, of course, is the price for putting your life and work out there into the universe, which I plan to continue to do. But, it did suck. (Especially since all the negativity came from people who never actually read my blog.)
I appreciated some of the criticism though:
It took about a month for the craziness to die down.
I would do it all again.
Compared to November, December was much quieter.
I painted a little bit.
I hiked the Bay Area with friends.
And I finished the year relaxing with my family in Florida.
In December, I went back to working on Openmind full-time, which was certainly aided by the WSJ article:
Some of my blog posts had gotten major SEO boosts and I started ranking extremely highly for common search terms like “draw portraits”, “perfect pitch”, “blues guitar”, and others — which led to a lot of free traffic to my blog and the Openmind site.
Finally, to finish off the wild year, my app Rightspeed was acquired by a startup in San Francisco.
What’s Next in 2018?
In 2018, I plan to spend most of my time working on Openmind. I’ve never spent the majority of my attention on growing a business before, so I’m interested to see what I can do.
Other than that, I have no plans. I’d like to spend more time outside, exploring more of the West Coast. It would also be cool to write a book.
Let’s see how it goes.