What started off as amateur YouTube video lectures from his tiny closet home office to tutor his cousins, blossomed into Khan Academy—a video network consisting of over two million subscribers looking to educate themselves in a variety of subjects.
Salman Khan had such a knack for online lecturing that his cousins preferred engaging with him on YouTube rather than in person.
Khan’s YouTube views exploded attracting millions worldwide. His video lectures sparked the interest of Bill Gates who is now a huge promoter of Khan’s work. Khan discusses with Fortune about the time Gates happened to stumble upon his little video network:
My mind immediately pictured all the half-assed videos I had made for my cousins—where my son is screaming in the background or I’m trying to cram in a concept before my wife comes home from work. Did Bill Gates really watch those?
The Secret Weapon: Science Fiction Books
So what does the Harvard and MIT graduate attribute to the motivation behind Khan Academy? One would think his Ivy League education had something to do with it. Nope. Instead, Khan credits a few science fiction books that served as the inspiration behind Khan Academy.
I know this sounds dorky, but anyone who wants to better understand my long-term thinking and motivation for Khan Academy should read a couple of my favorite books: Foundation, by Isaac Asimov; Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card; and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain. In Foundation, actually a series of books, fast-forward into the future where a “psychohistorian,” who uses mathematical models to accurately predict large-scale movements of history, sees an oncoming dark age that will last 30,000 years. To shorten that Dark Age, he will create a foundation and collect the knowledge of the empire.
In Ender’s Game, besieged by aliens it can’t communicate with, the human race seeks its best minds to lead the way against this existential threat, using an online system to identify and train young people so they can reach their full potential. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a man time-warped from the Industrial Revolution is able to elevate the thinking of a generation of young people in early medieval England.
Another book recommended by Khan is Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age. The book is about a group of underprivileged orphans who get their hands on a never seen before state-of-the-art interactive tablet. The girls are able to learn from the device and become empowered with knowledge to take over the world. Picture Little Orphan Annie with an iPad and the possibilities.
I’m a fan of hard science fiction, which is science fiction that is possible. The science fiction books I like tend to relate to what we’re doing at Khan Academy. How humans can transcend what we think of traditionally as being human—how species hit transition points and can become even more elevated. Very epic ideas are at play here. Not the everyday pay the bills, take out the trash kind of stuff.
The Power of Fiction
I used to think reading science fiction was a waste of time. What could I possibly learn from made-up fantasy galaxies far far away or aliens descending on earth in search of socks to use as spaceship fuel? I’d rather watch the two-hour movie version.
What I failed to realize is the impact these innovative and futuristic worlds can have on the reader. Science fiction can spark creativity and generate new ideas leaving us with the belief that anything is possible.
Hard science fiction is the most intriguing since it depicts accurate scientific and technical detail making the story a possible real life scenario.
An excellent example of hard science fiction at its best is The Martian by Andy Weir. Martian is a story about a solo manned mission to Mars gone wrong. Weir uses factual evidence about Mars which is astonishingly scientifically accurate. Science backed physics of space travel to Mars makes for compelling storytelling because you are imagining that the events can actually happen in real life.
Science fiction reading can inspire great breakthroughs in technology and create ideas. The scientific and technological advances portrayed in science fiction novels can be used to jumpstart the next great idea in your own project. Anyone looking for new creative and innovative ideas should take a page out of Salman Khan’s book and pick up a science fiction novel to read.
Photo by Eric Hacke