The T-Shaped Graduate: Strategies for a Great MPC Learning Contract

The ideal graduate of the MPC is a T-shaped person.

What’s that, you say? They’re like the unicorns of the economy.

Here’s how Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO (the world-famous design firm), describes these magnificent people:

T­-shaped people have two kinds of characteristics, hence the use of the letter “T” to describe them. The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer.
The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. It is composed of two things. First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective [and]­ to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, [T-shaped people] tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them. T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills.

So in short, a T-shaped person has the ability to converse and collaborate comfortably with people different from themselves. But the T-shaped person also knows enough about their own field that they bring distinct value to the process.

The MPC is an ideal environment to become T-shaped. Why? Because you have maximum freedom to dive into your field of interest and get really, really good at it. Unlike a traditional class, you don’t have to waste time learning at the pace of others who are less interested. You can specialize yourself as early as you want.

And yet you’re also surrounded by people different from you. If you were in engineering school, you’d be surrounded by engineers. In an economics department, you’d feud for the slot of number one economist. In acting school, you’d only hang out with actors. You get the idea.

The diversity of the MPC allows you to collaborate and grow your empathy while learning from other people’s interests and work.

Everyone wants to hire a T-shaped person. They’re rare. And they’ll only become more valuable as the economy becomes more service-oriented, digital, and ‘knowledge-based.’ You should become one.

Let’s talk about how you can use your Learning Contract to become more T-shaped.

Understand: You will never know everything.

Give up on the idea that you’ll ever know ‘everything’. Only extremely ignorant people think they know everything. Don’t be intimidated by smart professors. And definitely don’t listen to people who act like they know everything. This is intellectual posturing and arrogance at its worst.

Does this mean you should give up on learning as much as you can? No! It means that the more you know the more you realize that you don’t know. The world of knowledge is vast. So don’t get hung up on ‘studying everything’.

Universal knowledge is not going to happen — and that’s perfectly okay. You can still learn a ton, and even (eventually) know a lot about many things. But it takes time and the journey never ends. Relax and focus.

Strategy: Collect Mental Models, Especially If You’re Unsure What You Want to Do

If I were to repeat college, I would have taken far more technical courses early on, in fields like programming or engineering, applied math like statistics, research methods, physics, and design (web, graphic, product, service).


Because a deep understanding in these fields gives you a vocabulary of mental models that you can use to understand a huge variety of phenomena. Knowing about a ‘bell-curve distribution’ is more useful than knowing the date of a Civil War Battle if you haven’t yet specialized in history. Bell curve distributions occur in many things, and having that mental model will equip you to understand many more things than a memorized date will.

This is like saying that knowing how to read English is more valuable than knowing how to read Egyptian hieroglyphics, unless you’re going into archaeology. Does that mean you should never learn how to read hieroglyphics? No. It means that, if you’re unsure where you’re headed, read English first.

The investment in mental models will equip you for the future and help you decide where to go next.

Strategy: Beware Too Many Survey Courses

Survey courses, like ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ or ‘Biology 101’ are extremely easy and should be accomplished as quickly as possible. If you feel like ‘sampling’ a different field, thats fine. But beware endless sampling. You need to get to the meat of a discipline to become T-shaped.

The average college takes far too long to go through a survey and you should not spend a full semester on an average survey course. They’re only that long because that’s how traditional universities organize themselves.

If you want a decent survey of a subject like philosophy, get a good book like The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant or History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. These books aren’t perfect, but you can certainly read them in a shorter time than a 6-month survey course takes. Supplement them with other readings suggested by a philosophy professor and you’re well on your way to an excellent survey.

Strategy: Don’t Let ‘Connecting the Dots’ Stop you From Going Deep

Connect-The-Dots courses are those that say things like “Let’s learn about typography through film!” or “Let’s study history by observing useful household objects!”

Often, these courses seem to be made by professors who are genuinely trying to make their subject more engaging. Or, they were made for the benefit of the professor who is writing a book on the topic or has a pet interest in it. At their worst, these courses are just excuses to have a fun time watching movies and pretending to do real work.

These courses can be fun. But they’re like dessert — only take a little. Remember that the professor has already gone deep into their field and you, the student, still need to get to the meat of a subject. Only the best of these courses get you to the core.

Sometimes students use the idea of ‘connecting-the-dots’ as an excuse to stay at a level of superficial knowledge. Remember that you can’t connect-the-dots if you’ve never learned enough about anything to see the connections!

Understand: Technical Knowledge Matters (Be Good at Something)

Similar to the last tip: Yes, broad learning is good. No, you don’t want to be a narrow-minded one-trick-pony who crunches numbers but has never read a novel.

But technical knowledge matters. Remember, a T-shaped person has to have the vertical line of the T. So whether it’s accounting, programming, fashion design, cooking, whatever — learn a field rigorously and deeply. This takes time, but you can get a remarkable understanding of a field in a truly dedicated year.

Every field has its own vocabulary of models, terms, important people, etc. Having technical knowledge of a field means that you are fluent with the main models, terms, and important people. A great way to get this is to hang out with people who are already experts. You won’t understand almost anything at first. But somehow, as though by osmosis, even just spending a lot of time around experts will increase your fluency in the ideas and terms of a discipline.

Strategy: Collaborate (But Choose Your Partners Carefully!)

Collaboration is a key part of becoming T-shaped. You’re probably more likely to do good work, stay focused, and use your time well if you collaborate on a course with others. Plus, collaboration can be fun.

But beware: working with certain people is sometimes worse than working alone. Don’t work with people who will distract you, who bring drama or other baggage, or will disappoint the group by not pulling their weight. The best way to avoid these problems is to never agree to work with irresponsible or immature people to begin with. Don’t join up with people out of pity or politeness. You’ll regret it later. Do join up with people who you can learn from and/or who you can trust to work with.

Strategy: Become a More Exaggerated Version of Yourself

By exaggerated I don’t mean fake, loud, or annoying.

I mean: if you’ve always loved to dance, spend a ton of time dancing. If you have an aptitude for art, cultivate your visual intelligence. Take the elements that make you different and invest in them, drawing out your own uniqueness and talents. Don’t be boring. Grow what makes you, you.

This is a version of the “don’t expect to know everything” idea. We all have different talents and none of us can master everything. The beauty of human diversity is that we can all become stronger through collaboration — as long as we have cultivated our individual differences.

Strategy: Seek Professional Opportunities

Wisdom is knowledge tempered by experience.

One of the worst things that traditional universities do to students is to disconnect them from the real world for several years. Don’t graduate without a professional network. Don’t graduate without any work experience or concrete projects to your name. Remember, just a few years after university people only really care about what you’ve accomplished — not what you’ve studied.

Reading, discussing, and listening to lectures are great ways to learn. But get out into the world and put your learning to the test. Get a job, work an internship, do something. Your future self will thank you.

Strategy: Don’t Try and Reinvent the Wheel

It’s daunting to design your own courses. Organizing your own courses of study is itself a life skill. How am I supposed to know what to study if I’m new to a subject?

Happily, there are thousand and thousands of resources available to help you. The MPC is compiling resources to share. You just have to seek them out.

For example, MIT posts all their courses (including many video lectures) online for free. You can also get the best-rated textbook in a subject on Amazon and just start to read it. Professors often publish their syllabi and course readings online.

There’s really no excuse to be without good material to study. Go to the library. Search on Google. Don’t be paralyzed by the uncertainty.

And don’t reinvent the wheel! Many others have done the work for you. You don’t need to follow their path exactly, you can always adapt material to your needs.

Understand: Time is the Ultimate Resource (Stop Wasting It)

When I talk with high-performing entrepreneurs, scholars, and artists I am consistently amazed at how seriously they take their time. I once had a highly successful entrepreneur explain to me: “The most scarce resource is time. People obsess over their money, but you can always get more money. Time never comes back.”

This should frighten you a bit. It certainly scares me sometimes! We’re all on the clock and every day wasted is a piece of your life gone forever.

Does this mean you must be a workaholic? No. To grow you have to maintain a healthy balance of exercise, personal life, free-time for entertainment etc.

But for those who hope to be T-shaped, the vast majority of your time should be invested in your growth.

If you spend many hours each week (or each day!) on Facebook/video games/gossip/’hanging out’/parties, you should seriously consider your priorities. You can’t have it all. So decide today just how important your growth is to you.

How you use your time is perhaps the greatest asset you have. We can’t control our heights, our skin colors, how much money we were born into. But, especially while young and relatively free of responsibilities, you can control your time.

Time is also the best way to see a person’s true character. If you’re trying to see what someone’s made of, don’t look at what they say — just watch what they do. A person who is always wasting their time says many things about themselves (and almost none of those things are good).

A single semester of hard work can change your life. Don’t you owe that to yourself?

A T-Shaped Template for Learning Contracts

So, how can all this be applied to a Learning Contract?

First, you have several slots to fill — somewhere between 3 and 6 courses.

Let’s say you’re designing four courses.

A well-balanced Learning Contract might include a mix of time invested in:

  1. Technical skills associated with what might become my area of concentration
  2. An exploration course to explore the basics of a new field, perhaps in collaboration with a classmate
  3. A course built around a professional opportunity like an internship or part-time job

Sample Learning Contract: Artistic Focus

Let’s say I’m studying to be a product designer. The courses I’ll put in my Learning Contract might look like this:

  1. Product Design Methods [Technical Skills]— In this course I’ll take IDEO’s Human Centered Design Course, as well as the course Product Design and Development that uses MIT’s Open Courseware Materials. Through the semester I’ll prototype a real product until I submit its final form to my mentor for a grade.
  2. Graphic Design [Technical Skills]— In this course I’ll audit a graphic design course at UFM’s Design School, and use the professor as my mentor. I’ll also read the textbook Design for Hackers and apply what I learn to a series of freelance graphic design jobs (at least 4) to build out my portfolio which I’ll host at
  3. History of Western Philosophy [Exploration Course] — I’ve always been interested in philosophy, though I don’t consider it my specialty! In this course I’ll read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy as well as watch a series of debates between prominent philosophers. I’ll do this course with a classmate who shares my interest. We’ll talk about our reading twice-per-week. I’ll write a 20 page philosophical mini-biography of my favorite philosopher at the end of the course.
  4. In The Studio [Professional Opportunity] — I’m really excited because this semester I was offered an internship at GuateGraphics, Inc. a design studio. I’ll be helping them at each step of the design process as they work with clients. At the end of the semester I’ll have my boss evaluate me on several metrics. I’ll also ask for a letter of recommendation and update my portfolio.

Sample Learning Contract: Quantitative Focus

Here’s another sample for those interested in quantitative disciplines like science, math, or programming.

  1. Multivariable Calculus [Technical Skills] — I’ll use my Fellows Fund to hire a private tutor to help me as I go through the textbook Multivariable Calculus. At the end, I’ll take a final exam that I found at MIT Open Courseware for multivariable calculus.
  2. Learning Python [Technical Skills] — I’ll take Harvey Mudd College’s online course An Introduction to Computer Science with Python. This course has a final programming project which I’ll use as my final evaluation to be graded by a programmer from UFM.
  3. Art History [Exploration Course]— I’ve always loved art. I’ll be reading E.H. Gombrich’s Story of Art, attending at least 10 events from Organización Paras Las Artes at UFM and meeting with an art historian once a week, where they’ll assign me additional readings.
  4. Business Basics [Professional Opportunity] — I’m thinking about starting a Math tutoring service when I graduate. This semester I’ll be helping a local entrepreneur manage his business so that I learn how it works. I’ll also continue teaching the three high school students that I currently tutor.


Remember, you’re ultimately responsible for your learning no matter what university you’re in.

The MPC is a framework for your self-improvement. But it won’t happen without your own commitment. You can become a creative leader and build the life you want, so long as you invest your time wisely and grow yourself into the remarkable human being you were born to become.

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