Abdaal now has YouTube channel with over 200 million viewsTobia Nava / Cambridge Union

Having graduated from Emmanuel College in 2018, Ali Abdaal’s immensely popular YouTube videos ranging from study techniques to investing have been viewed nearly 200 million times. Alongside his own masterclass series, multiple podcasts, and a content creation business he started whilst at Cambridge, he’s somehow finding the time to write a book that will be published next year.

But he begins with a bit of advice: “ask for forgiveness rather than permission.” He confesses that he doesn’t always practise what he preaches. “As massive nerds like we all are, we like to kind of do things by the book,” recalling “what if the General Medical Council or the University doesn’t like it, there’s all sorts of reasons not to do the thing.” But he insists that whether it’s starting a business, YouTube channel, podcast, or any other creative endeavour, he tells students to “go for it — I don’t know anyone who regrets starting, even if it doesn’t become successful.” Getting started, and resolving problems along the way, Ali counsels, is usually the better way — and it’s fun.

As a Union member since 2012, Ali recalls seeing the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and David Blaine while an undergrad. “So it just felt a bit weird when I got the invite, but why not, you’re not gonna say no to that.”

“I don’t really have a strong work ethic. I only really do things for fun”

Abdaal ‘topped’ Tripos when he was in his third-year but is unconvinced that rankings act as a positive incentive. “With exams, I consider it like a game you play with yourself…the whole ranking thing is probably quite bad in the aggregate.

“There’s a bunch of stuff that I’ve been reading about, in terms of rewards and punishments, child psychology, and research for the book I’m writing, around how, when kids are given grades and rankings in school, it completely destroys intrinsic motivation.”

When at school he felt his whole identity was tied to coming top of his year, something he admits “was really unhealthy.” But at university, coming top of the class was just a personal “for the bants’ challenge”, even if it was one that would become problematic if it became anything more than that. “As long as you can view it with that lens of ‘no one actually gives a sh*t about this, but it’s a little fun thing for me to do’ then it’s fine.”

“Honestly, I was a massive nerd”

How much of this work ethic began at Cambridge? After a long chuckle, Abdaal says: “I don’t really have a strong work ethic. I only really do things for fun; if it’s not, I’ll find a way to make it fun.” Ali’s approach to productivity is certainly nuanced. He says that Cambridge fostered his ability to make “memorising bunches of random crap for medicine” something fun. “It’s objectively not fun, but there are lots of things that we can do to make it more fun, and I think I’ve learned those techniques through trying my best to enjoy medical school rather than just trying to get through it.”

This outlook extends beyond the library. Abdaal maintains the importance, against the backdrop of approaching exams and job applications, of not losing sight of the need to simply enjoy one’s time at university. He proudly states that this was one thing he did well.


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With C-Sunday nearly a week ago, does Abdaal look back fondly on his social life as a medic? “Honestly, I was a massive nerd. I wasn’t really much for going out. I would play board games until six in the morning with friends, while having a takeaway from Peri-Peri on Mill Lane or Van of Life. There was one night we stayed up until like half six, and I had a lab thing the next morning at 8:30. I walked in and my lab supervisor assumed I was hungover, but I was just completely wrecked from shouting at my Articulate team. It’s memories like that I look back on.”