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44 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Inspiring and Valuable Book, But Use with Caution
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...
Published on September 15, 2009 by Irfan A. Alvi

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34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Idiosyncratic
James Bach is a high-school dropout who achieved a successful career as a consultant and trainer in the field of software testing. In "Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar," he shares some of his thoughts about his career, his self-education, and his general philosophy of life. Note the repetition of the pronoun: this book is all about *him*. Examples: "Other minds exercise my...
Published on August 26, 2009 by Michael Gunther


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44 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Inspiring and Valuable Book, But Use with Caution, September 15, 2009
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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.
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34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Idiosyncratic, August 26, 2009
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James Bach is a high-school dropout who achieved a successful career as a consultant and trainer in the field of software testing. In "Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar," he shares some of his thoughts about his career, his self-education, and his general philosophy of life. Note the repetition of the pronoun: this book is all about *him*. Examples: "Other minds exercise my thinking and applaud my exploits," "My mind is free," "I can learn on purpose while also creating opportunities to learn by accident," "If I try to understand, but fail, that's progress."

I wanted to give the book a positive rating, because I agree completely with the author's core advocacy of constant lifelong learning. However, in reading it I was put off by the book's random organization, banal mottoes, relentless self-promotion, and ranting against formal education. I think it is likely to appeal almost exclusively to readers who share the author's unorthodox cognitive style and point of view. In short, it was written by a maverick drop-out to be read by other maverick drop-outs. If that fits your situation, you might enjoy reading it.
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37 of 41 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What It Takes To Be a Buccaneer, July 23, 2009
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This review is from: Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success (Kindle Edition)
The original title for this book was School Kills. While James Bach changed the title, there is still some of this very message in his book. Bach is not as anti-school as he is a believer that the best learning is that a person does on their own because they want to.

Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar alternates between chapters outlining Bach's theory of learning (a very Montesorrian free-flowing approach) and autobiographical chapters detailing his fall from high-school as a drop out to his rise in the computer world - all due to the kind of self-motivation and passionate learning he was disallowed from in high school. At times, Bach can come off as a bit cocky and conceited, like when he tells us of memorizing hte first 41 digits of pi just for kicks (reciting them for us again), or when he explains why he doesn't "know how to talk about things that don't matter." (kindle edition, loc. 1798)

I have mixed feelings about this book, especially as a teacher. One the one hand, I was and am very much one of the buccaneers Bach talks about. I coasted in high school, went to a non-academic music college, discovered learning on my own, read constantly, and now have two masters degrees and am in pursuit of a PhD. Bach is certainly correct that the best learning - that which is often discouraged in school - is that which one does passionately on their own.

On the other hand is the question that Bach does not much address as to whether this approach would set as many kids up for failure as success. It is evident from Bach's book that he was strongly motivated and had an uncanny sense of self-discipline. I have met too many students whose motivations (for anything) was low enough that I would not trust that if they guided their own education, they would come up short of what they needed. Also, there is a question which has existed ever since Montessori pioneered the student-directed education theory about whether students should be the judge of what information they will need to learn. Self-education may be a good idea for some, but do others have the motivation and forethought required to guide their own education? These are open questions that I found to be unconvincingly handled in Bach's book.

Whatever your take - or if you don't have a take at all - this book is an interesting read. Bach is very open and introspective, and writes in a very inviting first-person style. And for those interested in hearing Bach's view of education applied (dare I say) systemically, check out Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Who's smarter?, July 23, 2009
I'm James' younger brother Jon.

James is a high school dropout. I have a Bachelor's Degree.

Who's smarter? Who's had more opportunities? Who's more successful?

Those who would ask those questions might find value in this book, because intelligence, opportunities and success are not measured by who's had more schooling, but how we approach and apply the education we build for ourselves.

For example, James and I both have successful careers in software testing, but it is James who is more famous and sought-after as a speaker, writer, and consultant. He also has a much more impressive resume, having lectured to PhDs and nuclear scientists.

This book is his story about the learning techniques he has discovered (and invented) in creating an education for himself without any schooling.

Two years ago, he showed me an early draft of this book and asked for suggestions to help him show what he has learned about learning -- for example, how school actually *prevented* him from learning -- and how he has crafted his own education since dropping out in 1982.

I hoped I could help him with his book as much as he helped me develop and thrive in my software testing career. He knew I was a journalism major and an author, but he also knew that my main skill was to ask a lot of questions (the major skill of software testing, by the way).

One of my suggestions was to talk about the advice he gave to a class of borderline dropouts in 1990, encouraging them to quit if school wasn't teaching them anything to their satisfaction. He recounts the questions they immediately asked him ("How did you get Apple Computers to hire you without a degree?"), and the advice he gave them ("Don't worry about diplomas or degrees; just get so good that no one can ignore you.")

He also recounts the horrified reaction of the teacher (who asked him to speak in the first place) when he said "If you're not happy, leave this place."

I suggested he start with that as the first chapter because I was there with him in 1990 when he said those things and I remember how inspired I was. I was fresh out of college with my degree and I was nearly broke and homeless, sleeping on his couch. I did not want to be a reporter even though I trained for four years at the University of Maine to be one. Instead, I wanted to write a book. But there I was with James way back then, talking to these kids and finding myself agreeing with him that having a degree doesn't matter if you're not passionate about what you learn or what you do.

This book is James' account of how he sailed his curiosity and passion for learning like a single-masted sloop, instead of staying aboard the large, slow, garbage scow that school was for him. You may not like what he has to say, but no matter your education, your economy, or your intelligence, there may be treasure for you in this book if you sail with James for a little while.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ideas to be embraced, writing to be overlooked, September 4, 2009
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I am a True Believer in the Buccaneer-Scholar. I have, for nearly all of my life, been involved in a school (first as a student, now as staff) devoted to embracing the Buccaneer-Scholar mentality and lifestyle (visit [...] if you're interested in learning more). James Bach's thesis -- that meaningful learning stems from passion, authentic need, and wandering -- is one with which I agree fully and completely.

But I was bored for all but about 20 pages of this very quick read. The problem wasn't that Bach was simply regurgitating ideas I've already had -- in many cases his perspective felt as fresh as it did familiar -- but because much of the book seems geared toward teenagers who are are so burned out on school that they both desperately need the alternative Bach offers, but are likely to be resistant to the idea that *any* book could possibly help them. So Bach constructs his clever Buccaneer analogy, and tries to write in a casual, friendly way. Somewhat ironically, this backfires, and he winds up talking down to the reader for the first half of the book, as he explains the foundations of his philosophy.

At some point, though, something shifts, and Bach begins to do what he claims he's doing throughout -- talking about and musing on his own life and learning experiences -- and his passion for the ideas, along with his authentic insights, shines through. In these middle 20 pages or so, I found myself frequently wanting to share Bach's revelations with friends and family, laughing out loud, and feeling better about myself as an intelligent person who sometimes lacks "discipline" and often "procrastinates". This was really the biggest value I took from the book -- I know, usually, that I'm a productive member of society, that I can and do accomplish meaningful things, and that I have great respect for my own non-traditional approach to life and learning; but I also know, often, that the ways I tackle projects and ideas are not always those that are most likely to fit in to an academic or otherwise traditional setting, and I have been known to beat myself up for my proclivity for procrastination and wandering. But Bach assures me that this is okay, and even takes the time to explain why. It was good for my ego.

Ultimately, I don't need a lot of ego stroking, though letting go of some guilt probably won't be bad for my overall productivity. But I do know a lot of teenagers, and even young adults, who probably do need to hear that their allergies to school and other arbitrary authority are not unhealthy. I'd like to give copies of this book to them, and pray that they'd eventually lift the cover.

I'm less sure that I'd recommend this book to their parents. There are some little gems of wisdom, and Bach's story of professional success might be compelling to some, but I'd worry that they'd feel so talked down to that they'd reject Bach for many of the same reasons Bach rejects school. I'd sooner share with them some of the anecdotes, and hope they will find the strength to trust their kids enough to let them follow their own paths. Or I'd recommend work by John Taylor Gatto that might feel more like it had been written for adults.

In the end, this book gets four stars from me because there is no doubt in my mind that it will change lives, maybe mostly by validating those who feel the impulse of a Buccaneer-Scholar but feel shame or guilt about their inability to play by the standard rules. This book won't, however, convince anyone who has never felt that impulse, nor win any prizes for excellence in writing.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Falls Short, September 7, 2009
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When I began reading this book, I had very high hopes for it. James Bach achieved a lot in the field of software testing during a time when the field was being invented, and the amount of learning required of anyone who wanted to keep up was tremendous. Since he succeeded in such an intense learning environment and this book is presented as a guide to help other people further their education without the aid of a structured program, I thought that there might actually be something here that could change the way I think and pursue knowledge.

In structure, the book alternates between chapters that attempt to outline the way the author approaches learning, and chapters that provide snapshots of his life at various points, and how his life came to turn out the way that it did. In theory this layout works just fine, since we would be learning about his techniques in parallel with beginning to understand how he developed them. In practice, the descriptions and incidents of his life don't always tie back into the theme of the book in a meaningful way, and at times he seems to veer off into wanting to take space in the book to defend things he did as a teenager that could just as easily have been left out entirely.

There's a certain stream-of-consciousness quality to the book that gives the sense that the author didn't always have a very clear idea of how he was going to go about moving from one point to the next. He frequently wanders off into tangents that seem to be intended to illustrate his thought process, but while mildly interesting really don't end up adding very much to his message.

The theme itself, of being a buccaneer, had some promise. He uses it as an analogy for the way that someone should ideally educate himself in the world today, moving through the vast seas of resources in libraries and the Internet and grabbing onto and taking whatever parts are useful or inspiring without allowing yourself to settle into one place and one set of expertise and get comfortable. It does, unfortunately, get stretched too far and also becomes the excuse for several of the tangents that are never tied back into the theme of education in a very satisfying way.

A lot of what I felt while I read this book made a lot more sense later on, when he talks a little bit about how he came to write the book. It seems that his family members had been suggesting to him for years that he should write it, and he sometimes had to corner himself into getting chapters finished by telling people that they would be sent on specific days. Having finished it, and given myself a few days to mull over the content, my overall impression is that most of the problem here is that it was an author who seems never to have had a burning desire to write either an autobiography or a book that would guide people to educate themselves. That lack of a singular passion behind one topic leaves you with a book that tries to do both things at once, without really giving either one enough control of the narrative to make the overall result coherent.

Having said all of that, it may seem strange that I still gave this book even 3 stars. The autobiographical parts are very interesting, and had he committed himself to just writing that and finding insight into the way his life developed, he could have written a great autobiography. For the parts on self-education he does say some useful things, and certainly dwells more on some critical topics (such as issues with insecurity, failure still being progress, and sometimes needing to back off and give yourself time) than I've seen from similar books in the past, so that was a good thing.

On the whole, I'm glad I read it but it definitely doesn't fall into the 'must read' column. It's more the sort of book that I would advise a friend to think about borrowing from the library one day, or maybe pick up later in a used or paperback edition, than one I would suggest they run out to buy immediately.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Agree or disagree with his views, it is a thought-provoking, great read, July 15, 2009
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This review is from: Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success (Kindle Edition)
The writer Geoge Leonard once described lecturing as the "best way to get information from teacher's notebook to student's notebook without touching the student's mind." This sums up much of James Bach's views on traditional education and helps explain his violent reaction against it. Much better, implies James in his book (and, more importantly, backed by his actions) to learn and explore on your own and about things that interest you, and develop a passion for a wide range topics, as he has done, than suffer the Leonardian fate of thoughtless note-taking and conformist hoop-jumping to "get ahead in the world".

The book is a highly entertaining romp through Jame's fascinating life from a mathematically-gifted young rebel who intentionally failed his tests and wound up dropping out of high school and living in a hotel room as a teenager (sans-parents), through his early career as a self-taught software programmer who became one of Apple's youngest managers, to his current career as an internationally-recognized expert on software testing.

James seems to enjoys being intentionally provocative and he is good at doing it in a thoughtful, insightful way. He shares his views on how he has learned and how he has made his personal learning style work for him throughout his life in an engaging and enjoyable style. I would highly recommend this book to anyone, regardless of their views on traditional education or whether they have an IT background. If you read it, I predict you'll find it entertaining and that reading it will cause you to think about education and "life-long learning" differently.

- Justin Hunter
Founder and CEO
Hexawise
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good advice for HS dropouts and PhD candidates alike, November 5, 2009
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"The beginning is a terrible place to plan. It's the moment of greatest ignorance."

This is just one of many great lines in this fantastic little book. Most of us can read this as an enjoyable autobiography of a high school dropout with a famous father who made it big in an unrelated field. This ideas explored are intrinsically thought provoking and can be used for working on all kinds of projects. The actual HS dropouts who are bored with traditional education should read this -- but also most PhD candidates would gain a lot of insight from the project management tips included. Learning diverse knowledge sets, herding an open-ended project along, finding a niche, etc are all vital areas for the PhD candidate once the required course work is complete. This book has valuable 'secrets' carefully explored and explained that will help you.

Enjoy your voyage of discovery!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars For the non-traditional learner, October 20, 2009
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James Marcus Bach was a smart kid but a bad student, and eventually the hypocrisy of school and grading drove him to drop out. Nevertheless, he continued to learn and work. Thanks in part to the chaotic origins of the computer industry, he was able to get good jobs, and has been able to stay well-employed through his skills and reputation, despite never getting any credential greater than an eighth-grade diploma.

In this book, he tells us how he got where he is, and how we too can acquire an education through (metaphorically) exploring and plundering unknown lands.

I waffled over getting this book, until I read another review which said the book seemed "written by a maverick drop-out to be read by other maverick drop-outs" -- which actually does describe me fairly well, so I figured I ought to give it a chance.

That said, I'm not sure I am, in fact, the target audience, because I already know and implement everything Bach suggests... to my chagrin. One principle of the book is that, like a buccaneer has to rely on the wind, a buccaneer-scholar has to rely on their own motivations, impulses, and obsessions. I do that, but I always considered it a flaw! I should be more disciplined, right? Bach says no. I will have to ponder this.

Overall, this is a good book, interesting, well-written, and humorous. The ideas here aren't, in my view, all that groundbreaking or essential, but they're still worthwhile. Recommend it for anyone who has trouble with traditional schooling and wonders how they can still succeed in a career.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A strange book, but I liked it, November 19, 2009
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Written by the son of Richard "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" Bach, I was expecting something different from this book by James Bach. Something like a Jonathan Livingston Seagull Flies Again. Something mystical and allegorical.

That's not this book. James Bach's Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar tells an autobiographical tale of a boy growing up outside of normal society. From family turmoil, and for other reasons, he does not have a normal childhood. For most children growing up in the United States, ages 6 to 18 are spent plodding through the grades of elementary, junior high and high school. Predictable, and in most cases, boring.

That's not James Bach. He did not get much of an education from school. But he did get an education. The book tells how.

My own education could not be more traditional. I went from kindergarten to high school in the usual fashion. Then on to four years of college, plus three years of law school. Far from the self-education path that James Bach trod.

Still, I got a lot out of James Bach's book. I'm not going to take my two boys out of school and force them to get a self-education. That's not what Bach preaches. But I am going to take a different view of life, of education, and of the pursuit of passion. A different view of what makes for a lifetime of success.

In short, Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar is a strange book. But I liked it.
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