The Mind of Max

by Heather Wood Rudulph

Entrepreneur Max Deutsch predicts that education sharing will soon replace the gig economy—and maybe even  make traditional career tracks obsolete.

To say that Max Deutsch, an entrepreneur and founder of Openmind Learning, is a multitasker would require a new definition for that word. In the last year, he juggled a full-time job as a product manager for Intuit, grew a software consulting business—which produced award-winning apps such as Rightspeed—and embarked on a personal quest to learn a new advanced skill every month, all the while slowly creating a revolutionary educational platform that may very well change the way we learn and work.

But that was just last year. When he was in sixth grade, growing up in New York, Deutsch wrote essay-writing software and sold it to his friends in the cafeteria. In high school, he started tinkering with visual effects and ended up creating work that screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Before graduating from high school, Deutsch developed software that helps deaf patients listen to and enjoy music. He graduated from Brown University not only with two math degrees, but with two start-up businesses under his belt.

Deutsch, 24, calls himself an “obsessive learner,” but a better description might be audacious. In an hourlong chat with Deutsch, whose expressive eyes and youthful face suggest he should still adhere to a curfew, he talks about everything from fine art to algorithms in excited, grandiose terms, sometimes peppering his big ideas with minor self-deprecation (“this might sound crazy”), only to quickly follow up with absolute confidence (“it really does make sense”). He’s the kind of person who takes up hobbies with the intention to master them. An urge to paint resulted in portraiture that has sold at auction. An interest in crossword puzzles led to writing and publishing them in major publications. Deutsch possesses the self-assuredness of a much older risk-taker. Think: Elon Musk, a guy who had the audacity to dream that he could send a spacecraft into orbit, and then did it.

“The way I see the world comes down to people,” Deutsch says. “Whenever I see somebody who can do something I am enamored by my interpretation is, Oh, that’s somebody I can learn from. Whether it’s music, art or business, if any human has done it before, it gives me permission to also do that thing—or at least to try.”

Understanding what makes Deutsch tick is as complex as a Rubik’s Cube—a puzzle he can solve in under 20 seconds. But his yearlong Month to Master project—a personal dream board of grand ambitions that he chronicled in 365 daily blog posts on Medium—offers a glimpse. This was a side hobby he took on basically just for the fun of it, but Deutsch lists it on his LinkedIn page as a job. He definitely approached it like one.

In November 2016, Deutsch took on his first challenge: memorize the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in under two minutes. The timeframe is significant, since only 149 humans had accomplished such a memory challenge, earning them official Grand Master of Memory status, which is a real thing. By the end of November, there were 150.

For all of his challenges, Deutsch blogged about his methodology. To memorize the playing cards, he used visualization techniques. Numbers became pictures—Anne Hathaway, Steven Spielberg, his mom—and the order of cards became a visual tour through his childhood home, playing on loop like a movie in his mind. It worked. Part of the reason for this is that humans have stronger visual memories than we do factual ones. It’s why you could pick out your regular barista in a lineup of 100 strangers, but can’t for the life of you remember his name.

The challenges got weirder as the months went on, each incorporating an existing hobby, or a desire to do something completely out of his league—such as landing a standing back flip, learning conversational Hebrew, building a self-driving car, or performing a freestyle rap for three minutes. Deutsch was pursuing his own curiosity, but also fulfilling one of his greatest passions: teaching. By blogging about his challenges in real time, without knowing if he’d succeed or not, Deutsch hoped he would encourage others to learn that special skill or take up that dream hobby they’d always put off, or felt they never had time to attempt.

“Going through this project, I realized there’s not that much to be intimidated or scared by and not too much to lose in putting yourself out there,” he says. “In the second to last challenge, I was standing on the streets of San Francisco with a guitar and I started freestyle rapping to people walking by. And I wasn’t nervous. I’m not sure before this challenge I would have done something like that without fear.”

As Deutsch was working his way through the Month to Master project people started reaching out to him, asking for mentoring lessons. It was this public curiosity that led him to develop what would become his latest start-up, Openmind Learning. It began with text messages. Friends or followers of his M2M blog wrote to Deutsch asking for coaching. Deutsch then connected them with the best tutors, mentors and learning software on the internet to help them achieve goals from learning physics to mastering classical piano. “This model works for anyone,” Deutsch remarks. “The Internet is an amazing, infinitely free resource of learning content. … I realized that this is a model I could scale.”

Openmind is currently in beta mode, testing the process with a handful of educator-mentors and students, whom Deutsch fondly calls “guinea pigs.” The idea—and, yes, it’s a grand one—is to create a supply-and-demand model that allows educators to make a healthy, sustainable income while inviting the global population into the classroom.

“One of the things that I’ve observed, and I’m obviously not the only one, is that the pace of progress and technology in society continues to accelerate, while the half-life of a hard skill becomes shorter,” Deutsch says. “The traditional education model of specializing in one skill is no longer the ideal. The most important skill to surviving and thriving is the ability to continuously learn new things.

“The ultimate goal is for Openmind to be the gateway into the entire education space outside the classroom,” he continues. “The hope is to have mentors and curricular materials and support for anyone to learn anything. And then when students become masters, they can, in turn, teach others.”

Deutsch completed and succeeded at all but one of his Month to Master challenges. His final obstacle was to defeat world champion chess player Magnus Carlsen in a game he had only 30 days to master. He lost. The fact that this was the only challenge that involved another human—a variable even the most accomplished mathematical minds can’t fully handicap—isn’t lost on Deutsch.

“When I started the project I wasn’t totally blind. I wasn’t randomly picking challenges and hoping it would work out,” maintains Deutsch, who grew up playing chess and attending Hebrew school. He also took some memorization classes in college to help with exams, and often tinkered with music production.

“The challenges were ambitious but deliberate,” he says. “But nothing about the encounter with Magnus was intentional. Originally I imagined just playing the Play Magnus app. But they reached out to me for a live game.”

This messed with Deutsch’s mathematical formula for learning to master chess. He was writing an algorithm that would predict every possible move the Magnus game would make. Magnus the human was a different story. “When I picked all my challenges, I wanted to set the goals quite ambitiously but also just on the border of what I thought I could possibly do. My guess was that I had about a 75 percent success rate for each of the challenges,” he says. “The Magnus challenge was different. It was 100 percent impossible. But you don’t say no to an opportunity like that. I learned a lot.”

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