By Nelson David Bassey
For many years society has imposed certain myths about leadership on us, which sadly, we have accepted unquestionably. Many of us have been taught that leadership is about position, roles, job description, politics, greed or manipulation. Some of us have even been lured to believe that leadership is about personality types, or that there is a genetic factor to leadership. But is that really what leadership is about?
In January 2011, as a young college student, I set out to explore and find the true meaning of leadership. I started out by reading lots of books. Many of them emphasized management practices. Some of them introduced complex systems and definitions of terms that left me even more confused. Nonetheless, I kept on learning. What I didn’t know at the time was that leadership doesn’t have to be learnt or sourced through elitist education, expensive seminars and privileged programs. But I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn experientially as well. I joined clubs, started one, managed teams, pioneered programs, failed terribly and succeeded remarkably too.
After three years of my personal journey in leadership, I came to understand what truly leadership is about.
- It’s not about having or holding a position.
- It’s not about having connections or high social standing in society.
- It’s not about being born with a special leadership microchip in your left brain. (Just if you’re wondering, I certainly was not born with one)
- It’s not even about having charisma or possessing certain personality traits (introversion or extroversion).
I learned that “The real secret about being a leader is finding yourself, discovering your purpose, believing in your abilities and living it every day of your life – thereby growing your value and influence, and impacting the lives of other people in different ways.”
My life exploded. Today, through writing, speaking and training, I help students understand the true meaning of leadership, embrace it wholeheartedly and increase their value and influence through it. Because of what I learned and the change I made in my own life, at age 23 I authored my first book, and have since had the privilege of speaking at conferences, conduct training and workshops for institutions across Malaysia and internationally.
People ask me, “What is leadership?”
Leadership is not a strategy. It is not a role or a responsibility. It is a way of life. “[It] is first an attitude and belief, followed by the ability to stand up and take ownership in walking taller and stronger on a new path or an improved current path.” – Rhae Duttagupta [paraphrased].
The next question is, “How can I become a leader today?”
Well, the answer is – you already are! We all have the seed or conviction of leadership within us. It can either be active, emergent or dormant. So, the right question is “How can I become a great leader?”, “How can I become a leader that will leave a positive impact for generations?”
Here are three (3) ways – not all the ways – of becoming that kind of leader:
- Become “Leaderless.”
There are four kinds of people in our society today. There are people who do the right thing without being asked to do so. There are other people who do the right thing after been told once. There are also people who do the right thing after been told twice. And lastly, there are people who will not do anything even if you told them to. These people do not get any reward. The people who get the most rewards in life are the first kind. Which one are you?
True leaders are people who do the right thing without being told to. These are initiative takers. They take initiative to solve problems by asking the right questions (quoted from my book, “The New Generation of Leadership” page 51-52):
“…What can I do for my country today? What can I do for my community today? What can I do for my institution today?”
- Create ladders for other people to climb higher.
Less than two weeks ago, I was blessed with a humbling privilege to share stage with Professor Muhammad Yunus (the ‘father of social entrepreneurship and microfinance’), in Jakarta, Indonesia. There I addressed 2,000+ ASEAN youths and social entrepreneurs on leadership and social entrepreneurship. The impact was remarkable, beyond words. However, that would not have been possible without a lady I truly love and respect. I call her “Ms. Chong.” She is the CEO of a non-profit in Malaysia. Ms. Chong got me on what became my biggest platform without any prior request from me. I received a call one bright morning, and was presented with one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. I accepted the opportunity which turned out to be a game changer for the Indonesian youths and for me personally.
Just like Ms. Chong, great leaders are people who create ladders for other people to climb towards higher performance, to succeed, to win and to actualize their dreams and potential.
- Stand up for people and not for ideas.
From Nelson Mandela to Mother Theresa, Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr. each one of them, like every other great leader you can think of, stood up for people. They didn’t stand up for ideas. They fought for people and not for ideas.
When you are starting a project, creating a product or making decisions in the boardroom, are you doing so for the “idea” sake, to prove that you’re intelligent and smart; or are you doing so thinking about the “people” who will be affected by it? Great leaders stand up for people. You can, too! These are the people who leave an impact for many generations long after they are gone!
In conclusion, my challenge to you is this:
How can you be “leaderless” today?
In what ways can you create a ladder for someone else within your network today?
Who can you stand up for today?
Remember, “There is no off switch on leadership. Every one of us can demonstrate leadership in every role we play, not just at work but everywhere, every day.” – David A. O’Brien
Learning to make effective habits instead of relying on willpower to help you give yourself a world-class, self-directed education is something that will set you ahead of the rest of the pack, and set you far ahead of your traditionally-educated peers. It will help you have a more manageable life and workload, as well as make self-educating much less stressful.
During the Gap Year program, our fellows learn about habit building and sharpen this skill in order to become better self-directed learners throughout the course of their lives. We have workshops dedicated to the skill of habit building, and, in addition, our coaches help each fellow on an individual basis to form habits that will benefit them the most. We see habit-building as a very integral part of being a self-directed learner and a more effective person. But before the fellows can start building habits, they have to understand the difference between operating on pure willpower and relying on strong habits. Then, they have to know the most effective way to build habits that will make them stick.
Let’s take a look at the difference between using willpower to accomplish our goals and relying on well-formed habits:
1. You only have a set amount of willpower
Every day, we have a set amount of willpower. We all know this because we’ve all gotten to that point in the day where we just can’t do it anymore. Something inside us says “no.” And it says it strongly, with such force that even if we try to go against it, we will feel miserable and stop partway through what we’re doing because the voice was right. We can only do so much in a day out of pure willpower. But, that’s where habits come in.
Think about brushing your teeth or showering. Those don’t take any effort, do they? They’re completely automatic. But think back to when you were a kid. Brushing your teeth every night felt like a chore. It made you squirm and you couldn’t wait to be done. You might’ve been mad at your parents for making you do such a miserable task. What changed?
You formed a habit. And you stuck to that habit for a really long time. Now, tonight, if you were to skip brushing your teeth, wouldn’t it feel weird? If you didn’t take a shower tomorrow morning, or whenever it is you take a shower, wouldn’t your day feel kinda thrown off? That’s because you’re breaking a habit. It would probably be way harder for you to not brush your teeth for a month than to brush your teeth for a month because that habit is ingrained in your mind.
2. Using willpower is exhausting
I recently started working out because I know that I need more exercise in my day to stay healthy. Working out isn’t so hard in and of itself, it’s getting to that point that is exhausting. Saying in my mind “I’m gonna do this.” and motivating myself to go do the routine is harder than the actual routine. A million excuses pop up in my mind as to why I shouldn’t work out, or what else I could do instead. It’s hard to silence those voices.
In contrast to that, I have a daily writing habit. I sit down at the same time every day and write for the same amount of hours until it’s time to stop. This is easy, and I even look forward to it, because it’s just a natural, enjoyable part of my day. If I don’t write one day, I feel wrong. My day is off. But if I follow that habit I set, I feel great when I’m done. Starting that habit was hard. I had to figure out when I would start and end, where I would write and what my writing goals were. Then, I had to commit. I had to put myself in the mindset of “I’m gonna do this.” Which is a hard mindset to get into. But now that it’s a habit, it feels natural. I don’t use any willpower on it, and I have willpower leftover for dealing with other occurrences and forming more habits. I’m less exhausted when I use less willpower and rely on habits I’ve built instead. Who doesn’t want to be less exhausted?
3. Using willpower takes longer
Mustering up willpower calls upon your mental and emotional faculties, as well as taking time out of your day. Even if it’s just a few minutes of time – which it’s probably not – that’s still time you could be using more effectively. Whether you’re trying to educate yourself or work on something of your own,calling upon the willpower to read the books, practice the skills and send the emails isn’t practical.
When you use willpower to accomplish tasks, you will procrastinate. It’s a fact. Your mind will find ways to distract you from doing that right away – consciously or unconsciously – and you will lose time. A lot of time. Procrastination wins over willpower almost always, and always at first. This will make tasks take longer to get done than if you just form a habit and rely on that to carry you through your day.
Alright, so you’re convinced that habits are better than relying on your willpower reserves to accomplish your goals. But you’re wondering how to effectively make habits that will help you get shit done and keep your willpower for when you really need it.
So, how do we form habits?
1. Use another habit you already have to link this habit to
For years, I struggled with forgetting – or just avoiding – practicing piano. I loved playing piano, the feel of the keys, the satisfaction of finally getting something right, just getting to hear the sound of the music coming out. I loved it. I still love it. But it was hard as hell to get myself to practice.
Every night before bed I studied music theory and literature for a couple hours. It was my nightly routine. After this, I would brush my teeth. I had two habits that were linked to one another. After a couple hours of reading, my brain said “After this chapter, I should brush my teeth and go to bed.” Without realising it, I had effectively linked two habits together, making the formation of the reading habit much easier than it could have been.
But I still struggled with getting my piano practice in. So I decided that, between studying music theory and studying literature, I would practice piano. Suddenly, not as much willpower was needed to practice piano, because once I finished one habit, my brain fired off the message that I should practice piano. After a while (the standard 28 days to form a habit), it paid off and practicing piano was simple. I didn’t really think about it. And I was getting way better at piano by practicing daily.
If you link the habit you’re trying to form to another habit in your mind – either fitting it in before or after another habit – then, it will become easier to build that habit. They will become linked in your mind and you won’t be able to procrastinate. I think it’s especially helpful to put the habit you’re trying to form before a well-established habit, like showering or brushing your teeth. That way, since you want to get to the other thing – because you’ve hardwired your brain to do that at “x” time or before you do “y” thing – you power through the part that needs willpower to get to the easy stuff that is already a component of your day.
2. Use the clock to help you
If you want to do something, set aside a certain time for it. Be specific. Not “I’ll do this in the afternoon” or “I’ll do this sometime before 9am” but “I’m going to start this at 7:30 and end at 8:30.”
If you attach the thing you want to do to a specific time in your mind, it becomes easier to do. The more specific you can be, the better. Linking an activity and a time in your brain helps create a more solid habit and will be much better than having a vague idea that’s harder to set goals around.
3. Only form one habit at a time
Building up a habit takes willpower, which is inherently exhausting to use. Therefore, the beginning of habit making will be just as hard as it is to do things without habits. As time goes on, it will become easier, but in the beginning, it takes just as much willpower as you were using before you decided to build a habit. Because of this, you should not try to build multiple habits at a time.
If you do try to build multiple habits at a time, doing so many new things will leave you exhausted and you’ll end up right where you started: with no new habits and out of willpower. In order to avoid this, you have to strictly only create one habit at a time. After 28 days, you can go on to the next one, but until then, decide in your mind that you will not make any new habits other than this one. And focus your willpower into building this habit, so you can get onto the next one and have a host of good habits to fall back on to make your life easier. Don’t stretch yourself thin, only focus on one habit at a time.
Once you decide to build habits instead of wear yourself out trying to get through your day with willpower, remember to go slow. Take it one habit at a time and attach that habit to other habits and set times to make them easier to remember and to act upon. Keep on keeping on when it gets tough until suddenly, you notice it’s no longer tough. Then, you’ll know you’ve constructed a habit. After you do that, take a moment to be proud of yourself before you continue on to other habits. It’s good to take pride in an accomplishment. And it will give you motivation to start the next one.
The other day, the Gap Year fellows had an awesome chance to network with the amazing people over at LinkedIn. LinkedIn moved into the space next door to the coworking space that UnCollege does coaching meetings and workshops out of. And since we are in the neighborhood they moved into, they had an open house networking event that we were invited to.
This was the fellows’ first chance to network, and a lot of them seemed really involved. They were talking to people perhaps twice their age and keeping up intelligent conversations with confidence and ease. It was a really great thing to see.
Another cool thing about the event was that there was a ping pong table. The fellows definitely got a lot of use out of this during the event. They played against each other as well as with new people they’d just met. Other fellows were going around the room getting as many business cards as they could, or munching on free snack food that was offered. The event was only an hour and a half long, but the fellows used all that time to network and have fun in a really effective way. Of course, many of them wanted it to last longer so they could connect to more people.
Since I wanted to show the event from the perspective of the fellows, I interviewed them afterwards. Here’s what a few of them had to say about it:
First, I talked to one of our fellows named Daniel.
Me: “What did you think? Were you excited to go? What was your general impression?”
Daniel: “I was really impressed by it. Beforehand, I was excited to go because this is our first chance to network, it’s still the first week, and we get to go to LinkedIn. Like, how cool is that? So I told my parents afterward. It was great. The people there were really professional and just getting to see the business side of something like that is really cool.”
Me: “Did you meet any interesting people?”
Daniel: “Yeah, I met this guy who was living in an incubator and trying to get his tech startup off the ground. He was pretty cool.”
Me: “Did the people you talked to know about UnCollege?”
Daniel: “Not many of them had, but there were a few. Once I told them about it though, they all seemed really interested. They had a lot of questions and really supported the idea. They were all about the opportunity it gives us and were really happy to see an opportunity for advancement other than college. Even though they can’t be in the program, they were happy to see that something like that was finally getting traction.”
Then, I asked another fellow, Addie, to share her experience.
Me: “So, what did you think? How did you like it? What impression did it leave?”
Addie: “Well, networking isn’t really my thing, so I was a little anxious. But I was really surprised when I got there because everyone there was pretty chill. The whole place just had a good vibe to it. How things went down, how it was mostly networking, that was exactly how I expected it to be, but I didn’t expect it would be so relaxed. It was really nice.”
Me: “Did you meet anyone interesting?”
Addie: “Yeah, I met this one guy who was in marketing. I can’t remember where he worked, but he was pretty cool. I played ping pong with some cool people too, but we were pretty focused on the game. It was nice though, because networking isn’t my thing, but I got to do a little and not feel like I had to network the whole time. It was a good way to get out of my comfort zone and connect to new people, but it wasn’t totally overwhelming. And now I know what networking is like and can push myself more next time.”
Me: “Did you get a lot of questions about the program?”
Addie: “Not really. When I told people about it, they were happy to listen and to learn about it, though.”
Finally, I asked Rayan for his experience.
Me: “Did you meet an interesting people at the LinkedIn open house?”
Rayan: “Yeah, I met a lot of people. I met a software engineer and a programmer and they both worked for LinkedIn. I met another guy who works at the Wall Street Journal. I also met a woman who was an architect. She was from China, so that was cool. I met another girl who worked at LinkedIn. I got some business cards and I’m planning on following up with a few people I met there.”
Me: “Did people have questions about the UnCollege Gap Year program?”
Rayan: “Yeah. A lot of people were really skeptical. Wondering how anyone can “make it” in life without college. Like they think it’s impossible. They had a lot of questions though, and I think some people warmed up to it after a while. But there was definitely some skepticism.”
Coming away from the event, it’s clear that each fellow had a different experience and perception of the night and the people they met. There were so many people there, it would’ve been impossible for the fellows to meet everyone, but they did seem to make a go of networking, and met some interesting people as a result.
It was a great opportunity for our fellows’ first networking experience to be at such a big-name event meeting a lot of people who were older and more experienced than them. There was something for everyone there, even for the fellows who weren’t very inclined to network. It definitely stretched their comfort zones a bit to get involved in their first networking experience, but they all came away with a positive view on it.
When I asked Gabe, one of our Program Specialists, why we have the fellows go to networking events and push their comfort zones in this way, he replied with this:
“When you are looking for opportunity, you find more of it in relationships than you will when you send your resume to a bunch of HR departments, hoping for a job. If you establish real relationships with people, you can get into jobs that you might be seen as unqualified for on your resume. If people like you as a person, it will play a role in what opportunities they connect you with, as opposed to someone looking over your resume and not knowing you at all.
In addition to that, people all have other connections that can also offer opportunities, and no HR department can connect people like one good relationship can. So it starts with networking, but if fellows follow up and put time into building relationships, they can find a lot more opportunities than they could otherwise.”
After their first networking experience, some of the fellows have followed up and are seeing how connections they made are influencing the opportunities they have access to. Some of them have been connected to potential jobs and others have made friendships with people they met.
Networking is where it starts, but the end result could be life-changing for our fellows. And taking that first, bold, uncomfortable step is the only thing separating them from opportunities and connections that could change their lives. Now that they’ve learned how to take that step, there’s no going back.
It’s day one of a year that will change the lives of 13 young adults.
The fellows arrive at the Gap Year house. With hugs and kisses, some apprehension and sadness, they say their goodbyes to parents. They say goodbye to the life they knew before their gap year, and they say hello to something entirely new, not completely sure of what to expect. There is fear, there is joy. There is excitement buzzing in the air as fellows find other fellows to talk to, looking for friends in each other, each wondering what lies ahead on this first day of the next year of their lives.
Soon enough, it’s time for their first dinner at the Gap Year house. And everyone around the table, both staff and student, have to answer a question that stretches their minds, and perhaps their comfort zones: “What makes you a misfit?” Each person at the table fills the silence of eating with something about themselves, something that sets them apart. Again, a bit of fear weaves its way into their stomachs. But they know to embrace this thing that sets them apart. They know to fight against the fear inside them. Because they know no one here will hurt them. They are safe. And they speak, each in their turn, and say that wonderful thing that makes them different. Their badge of pride. That thing that makes them a misfit.
And they find they aren’t so different after all. They are all different, but similar in the fact that they are different. They find pride in that thing that sets them apart from the others. And the next morning, they wake with the memory still in their minds as they come to the table a second time, now for breakfast made by the staff. The fellows stayed up late meeting and getting to know each other, sharing their hopes and dreams for the year, and they don’t waste any time with silence as they talk all throughout breakfast.
At 10 am, they all head downstairs to learn the the schedule of the first three months of the year they are embarking upon. Here they learn what the expectations are for these three months as well as the simple truth that what they’re doing isn’t just a program, but a movement. And they are a part of that movement. They actively have a hand in shaping it. And this brings upon the fellows both a sense of responsibility and an electric excitement. After this, they are reminded of the importance of taking good care of themselves during the year, with emphasis on sleep, exercise, food and generally being healthy physically, mentally and emotionally.
After a break for lunch where the fellows get to go out of the house for the first time to check out the restaurants around the neighborhood, they arrive back for the rock-paper-scissors world championship. Here, the rules are that when some one get beaten by another player, they have to follow them around, cheering for them. One fellow who was a more shy and introverted person than most of the other fellows began to get a lot of support from the others by winning a lot of games. By the end, the whole room was chanting her name in unison when she became the rock-paper-scissors world champion. She experienced what it’s like to have a bunch of support behind her in what she was pursuing and to see how it affected her. Needless to say, she was smiling wide and knew she had just made some new friends.
After some fun improv games, things progressed to a bit more serious tone. Fellows were asked to complete the sentence “One thing you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at me is…” fellows talked about everything from being very family-oriented to being self-critical or not being like other kids because they didn’t like to party. Then, they took a break where they spread out in the house, the park nearby or going on a short walk around the block and talked about their life stories on a one-on-one basis, getting to know each other better.
Then they returned to the community space in the house for a continuation of orientation. The room had a different feel this time when the question was asked. Complete the sentence “if you really knew me you would know…” There was anxiety in the air as people began to talk about their deeper selves and everyone got 2 minutes to talk uninterrupted. Honesty filled the air as the fellows allowed themselves to become vulnerable with one another, and the gentle caring of the fellows and staff in the room was palpable in the air. As they mustered their strength to show their true, raw selves, tears were shed and hugs were given. By the end, the fellows knew each other better than most friends know each other.
After a short break to collect themselves, the feel of the activities changed again. Again, there was a spark in the air. Excitement found itself in the back of the fellows’ minds. They started playing a game called elves-wizards-giants. Which is like rock-paper-scissors, but dividing people into two teams, miming silly fantasy characters and chasing people in an effort to tag them and recruit them to their team.
Jon, the main staff member in charge of orientation and one of UnCollege’s Program Specialists, has been getting people to open up and become closer in business and academic settings for about 10 years. His work is very intentional, and there is a purpose behind every activity in the orientation. When asked about why he gets people to open up to each other so early in the program, he had this to say:
“I’ve noticed, after doing this thousands of times, that when people get real with each other, they become comfortable with each other, and whenever you’re trying to create a culture or an ideal learning environment, people being comfortable with each other is an integral part of that.”
The day ended in a group meal. After a long day of teamwork games and brutally genuine moments, the fellows ate together as a family of deeply connected friends.
This fall, more than 3 million students are heading off to college for the first time. Many of them will take out student loans in order to afford it, and for a few, it’ll turn out to be a decision they wish they could have back.
For them, we’ve created a new program to pay back their student loans.
If you are a college freshman reconsidering your choices about college and student loans, think of this as a do-over.
Stopping out of college is a big decision. We know. Four years ago, UnCollege was born out of Dale’s decision to choose his own educational path and stop out of college. He’s written about it a lot. He’s shared his very personal story. And he just published a new guide on the topic (which can be downloaded for free).
College can be a great choice, especially for students who are certain of their interests and career pursuits. But there are other choices, and fortunately there are more of them today than ever before. Real learning means actively choosing the experiences that have the most value to you. And the conventional college path doesn’t work for everyone.
So if you are a freshman choosing to stop out of college this winter to explore other possibilities, we want to help you get out from under the burden of your first-semester student loans so you can consider another option. The UnCollege Gap Year is an experience-based program that teaches young adults practical skills that they might miss in conventional classroom settings. Our participants, called fellows, are guided through a year-long course of self-directed learning marked by an overseas expedition, professional internship, personal coaching, and the launch of an individual project. It’s far beyond a traditional gap year. We leaned on decades of educational research to build this program, engineered it in Silicon Valley, and made it flexible enough that it can be taken as a supplement to a conventional college experience or as a stand-alone.
Here’s what you need to know about the Unspend Your Student Loans program:
Who is eligible?
• students currently enrolled in their first semester of college
• students with fewer than 18 completed semester units or 24 completed quarter units
• students who have active Federal Direct Student Loans (subsidized and unsubsidized)
• students applying for the UnCollege Gap Year program winter 2015 cohort only
• students must be admitted for the winter 2015 cohort by November 15, 2014
How does it work?
• UnCollege will select a total of two recipients by December 1
• after the recipients exit college, a six month grace period goes into effect before the loan repayment period begins
• before the grace period elapses, UnCollege will pay up to a maximum of $2750 each to satisfy the loans of the selected participants
We’re piloting this program with the hope of expanding it in the future, but for the Winter 2015 term we’re starting small with two participants. Obviously, inclusion in the Unspend initiative is competitive. Selections will be made based on a comprehensive review of the candidates’ application materials.
If you know a college freshman who might be interested in making a new choice, we’d love to pay back their first semester student loans and have them join our Gap Year program. It’s easy to get started. Grab Dale’s white paper “Should I Drop Out of College? A Dropout’s Perspective” and read the six crucial questions you need to be asking as you contemplate stopping out. You can always jump right in and apply to the program for the Winter 2015 term.
It takes courage for a student to step away from the conventional educational path when that paradigm is so entrenched. We hope this new program will help make it easier for students to take that step and join us for Gap Year.
By Jean Fan
Two years ago, I met Jean Fan. When a petite Asian woman sat down for coffee, I had no idea I was about to meet one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. I knew that she was smart and kind. I didn’t know that she was only sixteen or that she would become one of my closest friends. She told me she wanted to help UnCollege and ended up writing our newsletter. At the time, she was still in high school and planned to apply to elite universities. After two years working with UnCollege, she begins at Stanford next week.
- Dale Stephens
It’s a habit I picked up in high school, one that I can’t seem to shake. I’m (luckily) not referring to a secret smoking habit, but rather to my propensity to question everything.
Why am I doing this? Why are others acting this way? Why does the world work like this?
It can be a painful habit. Ask too many questions, and you start to notice that everything you thought you knew is fundamentally flawed.
Some days, I just want my brain to shut up. Most days, I’m grateful that it doesn’t.
The Benefits of Asking “Too Many” Questions
Despite the internal turmoil that it can cause, this questioning approach has done me a lot of good.
It’s led me to meet interesting people who share similar opinions. It’s allowed me to take advantage of opportunities that many people overlook. It helps me make decisions that are truly mine.
Questioning the cut-throat approach to college admissions helped me get into Stanford, and also have an enjoyable high school experience. Questioning the value of college led me to meet Dale, get a job at UnCollege, and decide to take a gap year.
During this year off from school, I’ve continued to ask myself many hard questions. By doing so, I was able to have an incredibly fulfilling gap year experience, and gain insight into what I want to do in the future.
In this piece, I want to share three questions that I thought a lot about during my gap year. Hopefully they’ll prompt you to continue your own lines of questioning as well.
The first question: Should I travel during my year off?
I didn’t want to travel, but I felt pressure to after realizing that it’s the thing you’re “supposed to do” on your gap year.
When I told people that I was just planning to stay in the Bay Area and work, I’d always feel a bit lame. In the beginning, I’d have to constantly remind myself that I didn’t have to do what others expected.
Ultimately, after thinking about why I wanted to take a gap year to begin with (to learn more about what I wanted to do in the future), I decided against traveling.* Instead, I had a very rewarding year working first at UnCollege, and later at Leverage Research.
It wasn’t as glamorous as spending the year abroad, and it’s not what many other people would want, but it’s what made me happy.
Do what you want, not what others expect: this is a lesson that I find myself having to learn over and over and over again.
*Towards the end of my gap year, I did end up running an experiment to test whether I’d regret not traveling. After 20 looong days in Peru, I can happily say that I won’t.
The second question I struggled with: Is education really the industry I want to be in?
I was a junior in high school when I started actively thinking about the education system. Now, a few years and internships later, my identify felt inextricably tied to this line of work.
Unfortunately, I was no longer happy. The more I learned, the more obvious it became to me that the deficiencies in education were symptoms of a much larger problem: we don’t understand humans nearly well enough.
For a while I felt very lost. It took me a few months before I was able to step away from what I was doing, and rethink one of my core beliefs.
But only because I pursued this line of questioning did I stumble upon something that was a better fit. For the second half of my gap year, I ended up getting hired for a research position that let me do exactly I wanted: study how people think, and think about how to improve it.
One of the features of my brain is that it constantly asks me, “Why are you doing what you’re doing?” If I can come up with a good answer, I continue. If I can’t, then I stop.
The benefit of questioning yourself like this is that it allows you to make very deliberate decisions. It makes you aware of when you’re doing things that sound good but don’t make any sense, and when you’re blindly following the crowd rather than thinking and choosing for yourself.
The third question I asked myself: Is college actually the thing I’m frustrated with?
Don’t get me wrong. After writing the UnCollege newsletter for two years, it’s obvious to me that there are problems in higher education.
I’ve spent a lot of time feeling frustrated with universities. During my gap year, I began to question whether that frustration was misdirected.
In the past few years, I’ve met a lot of wonderful people both in and out of school. It became obvious to me that my friends in college were often hacking their education just as avidly as the ones who weren’t.
What I see now is that I’m not frustrated by college. I’m frustrated by complacency. The thing I want is for all students to “take control of their education” — not for all students to drop out of college. In fact, I actually want to go to college.
The End of a Beginning
As I write this, I am finishing up my gap year. In one week, I will be a college freshman, and that is so so insane. I have to say that I’m excited.
After this year, I have much better picture of what I want to get out of school. I also know that if school doesn’t end up working out for me, I have the ability to get a great education on my own.
I wish I could say that I’m sad my gap year is coming to an end. But right now, all I can think about is how excited I am to begin the next phase of my education.
The creators of the UnCollege Gap Year Program are bringing you the Self-Directed Learning UnConference this fall! This one day event will be a hybrid of keynotes, participant-led breakout sessions, and networking opportunities.
The summit will kick off with a keynote presentation by Dale Stephens, founder & CEO of UnCollege. He will speak about his experience as a self-directed learner, and how the tide in higher education is shifting towards self-directed learning. Participant-led Breakout Sessions will follow.
Whether you have taken control of your education, are an advocate for self-directed learning, or are just curious about how this movement is shaping the future, you won’t want to miss this event.
Get up close and personal with people who are leading this movement, and network with those who have found success outside of the traditional educational path. These are the movers and shakers!
With an UnConference, breakout sessions are decided upon and signed up for at the beginning of the conference. Breakout sessions can be about anything from traveling to business plans to resume writing and more.
Anyone is invited to apply to lead a session! We welcome creative topics and session formats, as long as they add to the dialogue on self-directed education.
UnCollege Staff and Gap Year Fellows will be involved in contributing to Breakout Session dialogues, facilitating networking, and sharing their experience in self-directed learning.
If you would like to lead a session, apply here!
>>> Register for the Self-Directed Learning UnConference here.
By Mohnish Soundararajan
A couple years ago, I almost died.
“Unlock the door you dick,” I said. Of course, I knew how these things went. It was the classic ‘lock-him-out-of-the-car-then-drive-off’ maneuver. It was late, there were girls in the vicinity, and the conditions were perfect: why not make a scene? So I jumped on top of the car. As I gripped the roof, I felt a jolt and then, the car started picking up speed.
He didn’t know I was on the roof.
The pace started to quicken. I yelled. No response, and the car started hitting twenty. Then thirty. Then — without thinking, I smacked the windshield. Crack. My friend slammed the breaks. I flew off and hit concrete.
Flash forward a few years.
It was me and my best friend, in high school Econ, ripping up a quiz in front of our entire class during the last semester of our senior year. The reaction we got was nothing short of hysterically beautiful.
And it was worth 10 points.
There was no denying how great it was to graduate, college acceptance and denial letters in hand. It was a time where everyone felt like they could look forward to the future without the burden of the past, while also pretending that the college they were going to was their dream school.
Yet, after a barrage of quizzes, notes, tests, study packets, folders, textbooks, and frantically shared finals study guides, high school had both given and taketh away.
It had taken a toll I couldn’t quite put my finger on. And after we left, none of us could. There are stories that we tell ourselves and then, there‘s the truth. When I was in high school, I — as well as everyone else — had our stories wrong.
I remember one of my classmates asking the teacher:
“Why is this important? When will I ever in my life need this?”
Our science teacher made jokes that were raunchy enough to get a laugh but didn’t push the envelope enough to be arrested for sexual harassment. Here, though, he looked visibly pained when she asked, like she had just told him some awful knock knock joke and he just had to sit there and take it. For a moment, I really thought he was at a loss for words.
“You just need to know this stuff to get into college. It’s good for you”
And that was that. In my four years, I realized that no one had a good answer to this question. Because after it was all over, most of the work we did in high school was pointless, unusable, and forgotten.
The truth is that we knew back then that all the work we did was simply practice for a future so far off we couldn’t even conceptualize what it would look like. No one was excited to learn and build their future. Talk to any high schooler and they’ll tell you, first hour on a Monday is like being physically assaulted by the devil.
The problem is that adults, policy makers, and nearly anyone east of the west coast believe that being uninspired for 8 hours a day was a rite of passage, a mark of tradition, not something that could be improved, changed, even solved — even though in history, especially the Renaissance, teenagers looked up to adults because they had the expertise, the wisdom, and the well-grown beards they themselves wanted to inherit. Their teachers truly inspired them.
Now, teachers don’t play that role.
Instead, it’s a “love-hate-mostly-hate” relationship with teachers. They aren’t judged by how much they taught you, a useful metric, but by how often they let shit slide. The best teachers, we thought, were always athletic coaches.
Every break we got, we took. I remember a stretch of three days with no homework and thinking: I’m so glad I don’t have to learn today.
And that was when I kind of sensed that high school was starting to lean me away from wanting to work hard, from wanting to crack open a book, and exploring what I was capable of. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, especially not the teachers. But it felt like it was mine.
We tuned in to teachers the day before the test, not because we wanted too, but because we had too. I like to say the difference between an author researching American Literature and a student studying it, is that the student is probably trying to find a window to jump out of.
When you’re in it, there is no life outside the school hallways. You seem to know everyone yet, at the same time, you don’t know everyone. As far as your 15 year old self was concerned, high school was the world and that was all there was to it.
And you care — more than you’d like to admit — what other people think. I remember walking into the school restroom and about 3 guys checking, wetting, and matting their hair. It was like walking into the early moments of some bizarre beauty pageant nightmare but with dudes.
For most people, high school is awkward and frustrating. And outside of high school, there was truly nothing to do. If you felt like your town was empty, sterile, and fake, well, that’s because it was. A precondition of being a good parent is moving to the suburbs, where ironically, giant nursing homes are erected for students and seniors alike. It was scribbling away at home work, glowing phones, hanging out in basements, discovering alcohol, and trying our best to accrue new experiences in a place where new experiences were in short supply.
Those new experiences get stunted when we realize there’s only so many people in this small, small town. You’re forced to be friends with the same people regardless of whether or not they’re the types of people you love being around or if they’re even a good fit. I was lucky to have great friends in high school, but I was also painfully aware of the people that didn’t — not because they were insane or weird, but just for the fact that they were an island of one, end of discussion.
There is nothing you will miss more than having a locker, walking in the hallway, chatting with friends, giving out ridiculous handshakes like it was free candy, wondering who will say “hi” to you in the hallway (and who won’t), and of course, truly understanding the silent anxiety of picking a lunch table.
With nostalgic-tinted glasses, I tell people I enjoyed high school. But I also recognized the bullshit that was so classically emblematic of it.
When you’re older, you get to choose who you’re tight with, who you fit in with, and what you want to do. Yet high school, more than yourself, dictates the terms and conditions — for better or worse.
Like many smart adults have told me, finding out who you are is a long, arduous process that takes years. But it’s incredibly noticeable during your high school ones, a time where you’re making fake and real friends and you’re picking up good and bad social skills and you’re learning a lot more quickly about yourself than you ever have in your entire life.
Because even if you feel lost, that’s fine — the long con is that most people in high school are.
After I flew off the car, nothing really changed. I loved telling the story like it had life-changing implications and that I saw every moment of my life before I hit the ground — me at 10, me at 30, me marrying Kate Upton — not because it did, but because it should have. It was nearly the most exciting thing to ever happen to me at the time and like every high schooler attracted to the dramatic, I wore the moment with a badge of honor. It wasn’t that I was too risky or reckless or that my friend was in the wrong or anything. Nobody got hurt, we got ice cream afterwards, it was fine.
No, the thing about that is, it just happened. Sort of like how high school just happens. You start it, you do it, you’re done, and you look back, and you’re like, whoa, what just happened? What did it all mean? What did I just do?
And no one is giving answers because, like a science teacher, most of the time, all they have is an empty gesture — a nod, a wink, a smile, maybe a pat on the ass if they’re creepy, and then? You’re on your way.
During Prom, I remember the moment when the Sophomore escorts and I arrived in suits, freshly pressed. Prom was new to the us. And when we arrived we were (how do I put this delicately…) ready to get some ass. After it happened, we traded hilarious stories, somehow wrecked a hotel room, and realized we had just gone through something Lifetime movies were made of. Prom, the big deal. And at 16, it was the biggest of deals, on top of flying off a car or getting shot in a parking lot. At the time, it was nice knowing that. But afterwards, the next Monday?
We went straight to class. And just like that, it was over. And all we had left was nostalgia.
Mohnish Soundararajan works for bestselling authors and startups. If you dig this and want more, subscribe via email here and check out www.mohnish.net.
We are excited to announce the creation of a future fellow nomination process to allow parents, counselors, and those in the UnCollege community to identify motivated individuals who would be great for the Gap Year program.
Over the last few admissions cycles we have realized that some of our best and most passionate applicants have come from referrals from an UnCollege fellow, parent, mentor, or friend. That’s awesome! In an effort to support the continued referral of potential fellows by those within the community we are launching the Nominate a Future Fellow Campaign.
Think you know someone who would excel in the Gap Year Program? Nominate them! We’ll reach out to them and they could receive a tuition discount as a Nominated Fellow.
Here’s how it works:
1. Use this form to nominate as many awesome, motivated people as you would like
2. We’ll reach out to them to let them know they have been nominated
3. If they complete their application and are admitted to the program they will receive a $1,000 discount on their tuition as a Nominated Fellow.
If you have any questions about the program feel free to get in touch with the Director of Admissions, Zack Martin at 415-347-9715 or via email at [email protected]
By Jon Gordon
Many of us look at college as a time to play. I did. The grand plan was to meet people, take some classes, party, and make some friends. Maybe there would be a few romantic connections along the way. If all went well, I would get a degree while doing as little work as possible. I figured once I graduated, I would get hooked up (perhaps with one of the friends I made) and start working in the “real world” in some fantastic job that recognizes my potential and puts me on the fast track to wealth and happiness while also doing some good for the world.
I was shocked when it didn’t work out.
I am writing this in my 30’s, as someone who is leading a good life. My path to here has meandered, and I’ve sometimes doubled back to where I started. I wish that someone had told me a few things when I was going to college, but the truth is I probably wouldn’t have listened anyway. However, what I’m about to share would have helped me and therefore I offer them to you, just in case you decide to listen.
Each time I read the statistics around college, I shake my head. Student loan stats are staggering: over a trillion dollars owed, the average being around $30,000. The unemployment statistics are depressing: just over half of recent college graduates are underemployed or unemployed.
The bright spot is that this time in our lives there are more and more alternative forms of education and programs designed to sidestep this flaw in our system. Do a quick search on some of the programs – I dare ya – the future is out there.
Yet, the dream of a college education still remains the avenue most of us are taking. So if you’re not planning on going all Robert Frost on us then you’d better take advantage of your time in university.
Here are the essential six tips to successfully Hack your First Year of College.
1. Be proactive.
Insert your favorite cliche here about seizing opportunity. Colleges have so many resources designed to help their students and yet a small fraction of students use them. Go to things! Stop by your career center or counseling center or student life center. Whatever, go some place and poke around. Show up to events. You’d be surprised how many things there are that you may be interested in. Utilize the resources they have.
2. Don’t be stupid about being stupid.
Some could argue that doing stupid things is one of the best things about college. Hear me out. I’m all for stupidity, but in moderation. Sleep and exercise have been proven to be two of the biggest factors in learning. Throw in healthy eating and you’ve got the tripod of setting yourself up for success. Sleep is when we incorporate our short term memory, aka learning. So staying up till 4 every night is probably a bad choice. Same with eating. Late night burritos are amazing, and please enjoy them, just don’t be stupid all the time. Your college will have a workout facility. Probably. Use it. Exercise helps to improve our brain cognition, lowers stress, increases endorphins, in short it is a good thing. And it can help make up for your lack of sleep and all the burritos. Freshman 15 is a real thing. Believe it.
3.Talk to your professors.
Go to office hours. Speak up in class. Get to know them. They are here to help teach you. Plus, when it comes to internships, opportunities, recommendations or anything else cool that they know about or you will need them for it helps if they know your name. Plus if there is a subject that you are interested in and want to know more about…they are literally experts in the field. Nothing bad comes from developing a relationship with your professors.
4. Have original & creative thoughts.
Much of our education system growing up is you repeating what you have heard. While this has it’s uses in the workplace it’s far more important and fun to offer new ideas. Be aware of this as you are going through your experience. Don’t choose classes because your friends are taking them. Or you can get the notes. Don’t sit silently in your classes. Being able to articulate and then defend an idea is one of the greatest life skills there is. Don’t just listen to your professors and accept what they say. Question everything. Yourself. Those around you. Everything. Find out what you really think.
5. “Stay on target.” – Porkins, Star Wars
Once you have an idea of what you like and want to do then start doing it. Move towards that goal. Stay focused. Work towards creating experience in the field. What classes or knowledge from other disciplines would be helpful? What can I do to make this more efficient? Are there meetup groups? Online courses? In short…what can you do to get ahead while still having fun and enjoying yourself.
6. Take Breaks
Enjoy your time. Enjoy the people that you are meeting. Have less all night study sessions and more all night conversations. You actually learn more taking a break in the middle of a couple 25 min sessions then going straight through for an hour. Work hard. Work smart. Chill. Hang out. Repeat.
We support all forms of learning, and if you’re going to take the time and spend the money to go to college, please make the most of your experience. You’re young, and despite the feeling that you have too many choices to make, I implore you to start learning. You’ll make mistakes, and that’s part of the journey.