By Jean Fan
If so, how?
This is the question that I’m answering for myself at the moment. Although I deliberately hacked my education in high school, there was never really an end in mind. I simply pursued interesting opportunities and let them take me where they may. They brought great things: a surprisingly nice letter from Stanford, my current position at UnCollege, and greatly improved social skills.
What I did not learn in the process, however, was how to set and achieve deliberate goals. Constantly swept away by the newest opportunity, I was always able to put off making time to work on a sustained and major project of my own.
Now I’m ready to get started. As I approach the 6-month mark of my first gap year, I am beginning to hack my education in a more deliberate way: towards the goal of contributing to the overlap between artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.
Why does this appeal to me? I am highly mission-driven, and through working at UnCollege I’ve discovered my interest in bringing profound (not incremental) change. With AI being the “future of the information world” and nanotechnology being the ‘future of the material world,” pursuing the overlap between the two highly technical fields would bring me the emotional satisfaction of making an impact, and the intellectual stimulation that I now know I crave.
Here’s where I’m at right now: I’ve read about both fields, their implications, and the previously mentioned overlap, and I’m really excited by what others are doing. But in terms of technical skills, I’m starting at the very beginning.
Below are 7 ways I’m currently approaching my education in AI and nanotechnology:
1. Creating things.
After an insightful conversation with a friend, I realized that to truly accelerate your scientific education, you have to start creating things right away. “Learn how to fail, and fail fast,” he said, “Then pick yourself up and keep creating.”
All I’ve created so far is is a wall-length mind map that visualizes my knowledge of the two fields. With the priority of “always be creating” in mind, however, I’ll be on the lookout for opportunities to create more as this journey progresses.
2. Finding unpaid internships.
This is something that’s worked out really well for me in the past. Not only is an internship a platform to meet interesting people, it’s also a great way to get real-world knowledge: gaining a better understanding of what needs to be created, and how to do so.
A few of the organizations I’ve looked into seem open to something like this. I plan on leveraging my skills in writing and marketing so I can contribute to the organizations as I learn.
3. Doing research on the overlap.
There are plenty of resources on AI. There are also plenty of resources on nanotechnology. There are very few resources on the intersection between the two.
Since that’s the overlap I’m interested in, I’m actively setting aside time to do research on what has already been done and what the future could look like.
4. Doing classroom-esque learning.
About 6 months into working at UnCollege, I forced myself to come to terms with this fact: that I actually really enjoy sitting in a classroom, reading textbooks, and listening to lectures! As someone who thinks by writing, I suppose it makes sense.
Because of this, I am taking Sebastian Thrun’s renowned Intro to Artificial Intelligence course and reading Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation.
5. Reading journals I don’t understand.
Another friend of mine posted an interesting link on Facebook a few weeks ago: “How to Learn About Everything,” again by Eric Drexler. The gist of it is that by regularly reading journals that you don’t understand, you familiarize yourself with the vocabulary and fill in pieces of the puzzle as you progress. It’s a great way to cultivate understanding of a subject.
I bought myself an online a subscription to Nature Nanotechnology and have been actively reading a scientific journals as a result.
6. Developing a technical background.
I never got around to learning how to program, never beyond the basics, anyways. I think it’s because I didn’t try to figure out how to learn in a way that makes sense to me, and instead just opted for a coding platform that everyone else was using.
I’ve been reading Think Python lately, and it’s been doing a great job of helping me understand the core concepts and goals behind programming. As someone who’s highly mission-driven, I desperately need to contextualize what I am learning in order to keep myself motivated.
7. Having conversations with people.
People have so much wisdom to share if you ask for it. Through conversations with peers and mentors, I’ve gotten rid of unfeasible project ideas, found invaluable resources, and been guided back onto the right path.
Seeking out people who will hear my ideas and tell me that they’re dumb (and why) is really difficult. It’s also incredibly rewarding.
I’m sharing this story on the UnCollege blog because I want hackademics to remember that when it comes to hacking our education, we are all still learning. It’s a continuous process of self-reflection and personal development, and feelings of being lost or stumbling your way through are completely normal. At least, I hope — since that’s what I’m feeling right now.
Suggestions on how I can better hack my education? Email me at [email protected]
By Lisa Nalbone
Lisa Nalbone loves helping people take control of their learning and take action to reach their potential. She shares her experience from teaching, community organizing, unschooling and raising Dale by offering tips, resources and consulting to support hackademics and parents at LisaNalbone.com. She is working on a book and e-course, The ABC’s of Learning Beyond School.
Dear Parents and Hackademics:
I often hear from children, of all ages, frustrated about not getting parental support for a gap year, trying self-directed learning, or what I like to call learning beyond school. I hear from parents who are unsure or upset about their child wanting to diverge from the path the parent thinks is right.
I see two issues getting in the way of Hackademics getting what they need and want.
One is an issue with how parents and kids communicate and interact around volatile topics. The second issue is with how we approach the decision making process. Just by virtue of being human, whether kid or parent, we have to fight the tendency to limit our options before we even start addressing what the right decision is.
So, if you need some secret sauce to help you communicate with your parents, understand each other better and “get to yes”, you’re in the right place. And if you have some thorny decisions ahead, read on.
Here is a bit of advice along with a few tips that can help you, parents and kids, have better interactions and make better decisions. These tips work for just about any topic. Do yourself and favor and use them.
Your children are not YOU.
Listen to each other. Respect that you each have different opinions, styles and dreams. That is ok. Ditto for kids. You can disagree respectfully. Start with trust.
Practice empathy. Open your mind, eyes, and heart. The world has changed and the future is shifting. Paths that made sense for us don’t necessarily make sense for them. Parents often expect kids to put themselves in the parent’s shoes yet forget to try the same exercise. Put yourself in your kid’s shoes. Ditto, kids. We love you. We want the best for you, even though you might not see it that way.
Let them be themselves. Let them be different from YOU. Let them be different from the neighbors, cousins, and the kids of your co-workers. Don’t let fear of what other people will think govern your relationship with and the future of your child. Just like we want kids to resist peer pressure, we parents need to resist peer pressure, too.
Discuss: How do you each define success? What is it you want for your child? What do they want for themselves? Try to have an unheated discussion. Don’t attempt to convince or persuade, but try to understand each other better, as equals. Share your self and your why, your hopes and fears.
Caution: Don’t push your fears on to your child. Make sure you relate your fears to your life experience. Make sure they know you are dealing with your own baggage, not your lack of belief in their abilities.
Do not use money to control your kids. Finances are a sticking point for lots of families. Invisible financial ties can be insidious if used to control, and are harmful to all.
It’s tricky to balance giving financial support with encouraging financial independence. You want to support kids learning and launching, but not undermine your kids by never letting them learn to wait and work for things they want.
Kids, don’t take money for granted. An entitled attitude is just as harmful as controlling one. Figure out how to earn a living, pay bills, take care of yourself and live within your means. If parents can support you, use that money wisely. Spending life in a job that makes one miserable in return for a “ solid secure income” isn’t worth it. Holding a less desirable job as you work toward your dream can be a great learning experience. You ultimately have to figure out how to make ends meet The sooner you start working on that the better.
On Decision Making:
“Decisions are commas, not periods.”
Thank you Chip and Dan Heath for my new mantra. Decisions are another big sticking point for people. Especially when emotions are high, we fall into traps when making decisions. In their book, Decisive, the Heath brothers have outlined a sweet system, the WRAP technique, with examples and exercises to help us outwit our tendencies for self-sabotage when we make decisions. They have a fantastic, detailed workbook on their site for making your own decisions or helping someone else. Here is just a very brief overview to get you thinking.
Widen your options.
Let me shout that one. WIDEN YOUR OPTIONS! UnCollege is essentially all about finding more options. One of the ways life has dramatically changed is in how many more avenues there are to access information, education, training, networks, and the world. There are myriad ways to skin this education cat. In Decisive they list 7 ways to help you get past a narrow frame of mind.
Reality-test your assumptions.
Find ways to fight your tendency for confirmation bias and obtain trustworthy information. I especially loved two of their suggestions. One is to brainstorm how to make the best of a situation if what you want to do was just not possible. Another is to “ooch”, that is, get started trying something small in the direction you want to go. They have 6 more ways to help you with reality testing.
Find ways to get out of the agonizing influence of short-term emotions and make sure you are using your core values and priorities to make decisions. Figuring out your core priorities is the first step. They have several tools to help you shift your perspective and avoid our tendency to get derailed by a focus on loss aversion and less important obstructions.
Prepare to be wrong.
This is not negative thinking, rather it is smart planning. I thought these were really useful strategies to help anticipate issues but not be defeatist. It helps us all when we have specific goals, deadlines and a Plan B. Determine a “trip wire”, a clear signal that it’s time to try a different path. You want to build in some reevaluation points and identify some objective criteria to help you make new decisions. They explain 5 more tools to help you prepare to be wrong.
I highly recommend that you read Decisive and then download the worksheets to use as you work through the WRAP technique. The resources are at their site.
There’s a lot we can do to build our relationships and make better decisions. I’ll leave you with a few final questions.
What is the worst case scenario with trying a new path? What if they decide to go back to school and it takes longer?
What do you wish you had done when you weren’t tied down with kids, mortgage, daily obligations?
Can we give our children the freedom to try? To fail? To experiment?
Isn’t it better to build a strong, honest relationship and talk about how they might tackle pursuing their dreams, even when their dream don’t match ours?
Can you say: “Why not? How? Okay, let’s figure it out.”
Good luck with your decisions!
By Jean Fan
About a year ago, I published a piece on the UnCollege site called 4 Important Skills for Hackademics to Develop. The four skills I listed were writing, coding, networking, and thinking entrepreneurially. At the time, I thought those were the key skills people needed in order to be successful. Each of them has very practical applications, and I believed that the combination of them would ensure that you never had trouble marketing yourself.
What I (and the rest of the team) realize now, at the end of the first phase in our inaugural Gap Year program, is that there are even more fundamental skills that people need to be successful — crucial meta skills that I glossed over before. I realized that not everyone needs to write, code, network, and think entrepreneurially in order to succeed.
Then what do hackademics need?
1. The ability to be self-aware
I spend a lot of time thinking about myself. Specifically, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’ve done, what I’ve learned, and what I want to do. This ability to analyze my life has been instrumental to my success— the small amount of success that I’ve achieved so far, that is.
It began, and always does, with the question: “Why?”
Why am I doing what I am doing? This is a question that I ask myself almost every day. I ask this question of myself to make sure I’m doing the right work. I ask this question of myself when I’m doing things that I don’t actually enjoy. I ask this question when I feel myself experiencing happiness or sadness or frustration.
Question everything, Immanuel Kant once said.
Understanding the “why” behind what you do means that you can properly tell your story later on, whether you need to explain your reasoning behind dropping out of college or sticking with that job or giving all of your things away to travel the world. You need to understand why, before you can explain it to other people. Therefore, self-awareness is key to effectively promoting yourself. For hackademics, effectively promoting yourself is key to success.
2. The ability to treat everything as a learning experience
As a community of people who have opted out of the traditional education system (either permanently or temporarily), we recognize that learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom. So where does it happen?
Learn happens when we work, intern, or volunteer. Learning happens as we engage with other people in conversation, whether that’s the knowledge we gain or the social awareness we develop.
Learning happens as we live our day-to-day lives. Instead of separating learning from working or from living, we should treat every experience as one that we can learn and grow from.
Living life like this is a great way to be optimistic. You can never really lose, because you’re always gaining knowledge and wisdom. Take every situation — good or bad — and ask yourself: “What can I learn from this?” You’ll find that you develop a much more positive outlook on life. At the same time, you’ll become a dramatically improved person.
3. The ability to maintain your well-being
At the Under 20 Summit in New York City last weekend, my friend Dany led a great breakout session on maximizing your mental and physical performance. He talks about the basics: drinking more water, sleeping regularly, exercising, and understanding your mind.
“When I dropped out of college to live and work on my own for the first time,” Dany says, “my attitude towards food changed. I discovered that my lethargy was caused by my eating habits… Nutrition plays a massive role in our lives. [Learn] how you can use the science to get up easier in the morning, be less stressed, and concentrate better.”
What I’ve realized in these past few years, as I’m studying the habits of the most successful people, is that most of them are also very healthy. Part of me is very intimidated by that. Not only is someone a professional rockstar, they also have a kick-ass body?! Unfair.
What I’ve missed, and what Dany’s session reminded me of, is how closely interlinked the two realms of success truly are. In order to be professionally successful, you have to make sure you are building a foundation of physical success — or else you’ll never be able to reach your true potential.
4. The ability to disappoint people (especially people you care about)
For me, those people are my parents. As first-generation immigrants who both have doctorates, they were not very happy when I became involved with UnCollege. In fact, they were quite upset — especially because I started working here just as I began applying to university. My family life during my senior year of high school was turbulent.
Yet I continued working at UnCollege anyways.
Why? It was something that I deeply cared about, and its vision makes sense to me. I recognized that UnCollege was promoting a dramatic shift in paradigm, and I anticipated pushback. I realized that taking an unconventional path will inevitably make the people around you emotionally distressed — whether because it forces them to rethink their own lives, or because they are deeply invested in you and can’t bear to watch you fail.
There were moments in my past when I distinctly remember thinking to myself, ”My life could be so much easier if I just did what people expect of me.”
Then I remember that I only have this one life. I have to be selfish. I can spend it living to appease the needs of everyone around me, but I choose to live it in a way that satisfies me.
By Mariana Zanetti
Mariana lives in France and has over twelve years of international marketing experience in three countries. She is the author of The MBA Bubble.
I have been questioning the value of my many academic credentials for years. I have always received the highest grades. I even have a fancy “top” MBA degree. I cannot say I did not meet my professional goals… but I met them in the most inefficient, unsatisfactory and least cost-effective possible way.
If you know that the traditional path is not the best for you but you still feel tempted not to give up to it, you are risking getting stuck in an educational bubble just as dangerous as any other financial bubble. How do I know? I just spent a fortune on an optional degree that had almost no influence on my professional results and that even limited some of my options. I learned some interesting business concepts, but they were far from what I needed to know to make a difference in the world or in my life. I was pushed to conform, and I did it. I know how you can be trapped by an educational bubble, so pay attention to the following signs and avoid falling in the trap too:
The “everybody-is-doing-it” pressure is too high: Do you feel that if you give up college you are out of the party? Do your friends and family look at you with an “are-you-out-of-your-mind” look when you tell them your thoughts? Maybe that’s because most of them did not even consider creating their own paths, not because college is the best option. For most people, taking the least crowded path is really scary. That is how bubbles grow: under the widespread and unanalyzed conclusion that there is a high return on some determined investment that cannot be obtained otherwise.
Many people talk about the benefits of an education investment as if they would be worth it no matter the cost: But the costs in time and money DO matter. If you know that you can learn by yourself in a much more efficient way, you probably don’t need college. If you know you can build an amazing network on your own, you probably don’t need the debt. If you know you have a deep desire to make an impact in the world, you definitely don’t need to conform.
Most of the benefits of an education investment are overrated: You do build a great network of people at college … people just like you. You meet people like you everywhere you go. I can make similar points about knowledge, the experience itself, and even the degree itself. You don’t need to go to college if it is just not the best way to go for you. You can have the same benefits and even much more, following alternative and more cost-efficient paths adapted to your talents and concerns.
Tuition prices rise over inflation: As in any financial bubble, demand and prices grow as people give away reason and prudence in favour of hope. This does not mean that there is an increase in the value added by formal education. On the contrary, many driven unschoolers get much more personal and financial value from their education than their college graduate peers, while wages and opportunities for the latest graduates have severely diminished in the last decades.
The most unconditional supporters of the formula are those who want to sell it to you: In the 10 years that have passed since I received my MBA, I have read many articles and interviews on the value of the degree. They were all written by people who have interests in the business of business education, not by employers or graduates themselves. Even if most employers will tell you they value degrees, the defining characteristics that drive a hiring decision are mainly personal and professional experience. The sometimes unethical marketing efforts of many educational institutions make you believe that you should conform and bury yourself in debt to be on the “waiting list” of success, while the truth is that you can go out to the world and get some winning experience on your own or create your own business.
“Whenever you find yourself in the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” I wish I had heard Mark Twain’s advice earlier.
By Jean Fan
1. It’s absurdly expensive.
The cost of college has skyrocketed in recent years. Attending a decently-ranked university can easily cost upwards of $100,000.
What’s even scarier: according to the Wall Street Journal, college graduates who take out loans leave with, on average, $27,000 in student debt. Moreover, this is debt that they can’t default on.
2. You mistakenly think it will prepare you for career success.
School teaches obedience and discipline. If you think about it, the most successful students are the ones who do their homework, and do it on time.
Yet employers are looking for something that schools don’t teach. They value people who are self-directed: who can set goals, take initiative, and succeed at work (not just in school).
3. Getting a degree =/= getting a job.
The New York Times calls recent college graduates “Generation Limbo.” More than 44% of college graduates under the age of 25 are either unemployed or underemployed, which means they are forced to take jobs that don’t require a degree.
And if you have student debt, how are you going to pay it back if you’re making little to no money? (The Tumblr blog “We Are the 99 Percent” helps illustrate this tragic reality.)
4. Everyone else is doing it.
Almost 15,000,000 students enroll as undergraduates each year. Going to college no longer distinguishes you from the crowd. Instead, a college education has become ubiquitous.
How the hell do you plan to stand out?
5. It’s what you “should” be doing, but not what you want to do.
You’ve been told your entire life that college is the logical next step, but you don’t actually have a reason as to why you’re going. College doesn’t excite you nearly as much as does going out into the real world.
6. You haven’t seriously explored any other options.
Attending a 4-year institution is far from the only path to take after high school, despite what your college counselor (or parents, peers, and teachers) might tell you. In reality, you have a spectrum of options, from taking a gap year to entirely designing your own education.
7. It’s not a choice between attending college and working at McDonald’s.
Despite the way they’re portrayed, normal people can and do succeed without going to college. Their stories are just not as widely publicized as are those of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.
Here’s a tried-and-true route: get an unpaid internship in a field you’re interested in. Learn as much as you can, and then leverage your experience and new network of professional contacts to get a paid internship. Then use that experience to get a full-time job. And repeat.
8. Most people learn more outside of the classroom than inside of it.
For some people, learning via textbook is tedious. They prefer learning by doing — working, exploring, creating, or otherwise doing things in the real world. Others have no problem learning out of a textbook. Instead, it’s the one-pace-fits-all atmosphere of school that bothers them.
A classroom setting is optimal only for a small number of people. Maybe it’s for you. Maybe not. Figure out out how YOU learn best.
9. There is an incredible (and increasing) amount of resources available. For free.
Almost any knowledge you could possibly hope to gain these days can be found on the internet. If not, you can get in touch with someone who has this knowledge (or knows how to get it) by using the internet. Magical.
“You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.” — Will Hunting
10. Curating your own education can be cheaper and more meaningful.
You can pay lots of money for the curriculum and social experience that college provides, and have it delivered on a silver platter. Or you can do it yourself, creating an educational experience that you actually want to have, often for a fraction of the cost.
By Jean Fan
Many of you folks have been actively following UnCollege since it started in 2011, but some of you are relatively new to the site.
There are many great resources and blog pieces here. It can be, however, a hassle to go through all of them, so I’ve compiled a sort of site map to help you navigate.
In this piece, there are collections of links for different types of readers — a good place to get started if you want to think more critically about your education. Below, I’ve first given a brief summary of UnCollege and our beliefs.
What’s wrong with college?
Today, college is often pushed as the path to success (Read: “The Reasoning Behind Our College-Centric Culture”).
Unfortunately, that’s just not true. The New York Times calls the population of recent college graduates “Generation Limbo,” because 44% of them under the age of 25 are unemployed or hold jobs that don’t require a degree. They hold, on average, $27,000 in student debt.
Going to university is often expensive and ineffective. College is an option, but that’s all it is — just one option.
Textbook Turmoil: The Hidden Costs of College by Dale Stephens
The Economics of Student Loans by Jean Fan
What is UnCollege?
UnCollege is an organization challenging the notion that college is the only path to success. We provide resources that help people curate and take control of their education, and we run Gap Year programs that help young people become more self-directed.
Our goal is not to convince everyone to drop out of school. Instead, we want to give people the agency to make good decisions about their education.
The UnCollege Manifesto by Dale Stephens
Hacking Your Education by Dale Stephens
Who are we?
We’re a kick-ass team of hackademics based in San Francisco, California (Read: “Are You a Hackademic?”). Each of us has a very different path and story. All of us value education, especially the self-directed kind.
Our Core Values
Our Kick-Ass Housing Team
Who are you?
Our audience of hackademics is very diverse. We have readers of all different ages, interests, and enrollment statuses. Here are some archetypal members of the UnCollege community, and resources for each.
I’m a dropout. How do I succeed without going to university?
Know that dropping out of school does not mean dropping out of learning. Be able to eloquently explain your non-traditional path — in person and on paper. Find a community of people that supports and understands you.
Create Your Own Curriculum with Better Than College by Katrina Desopo
How Do I Explain to Others That I’m Not Going to College? by Alex Clifford
People Told Me I Was Making a Huge Mistake by John Gallagher
How to Write a Traditional Resume Without Traditional Credentials by Tiffany Mikell
I’m considering dropping out of school. Am I sure I want to do this?
Consider the opportunity cost of school. Learn how to curate your own education. Be honest with yourself about how much you actually learn inside of a classroom. Ask yourself what, why and how you want to learn. Does school fulfill those desires?
Should You Drop Out of School? A Dropout’s Perspective by Alex Berger
How Dropping Out Can Save Your Life by Ryan Holiday
Everything I Learned Out of School by Rainesford Alexandra
Decentralizing Education: How Startups Are Dismantling University by Dale Stephens
I’m on a gap year or am considering one. Why should I do it, and what should I do?
Realize that it is low-risk and high-reward. Understand that taking time off from school and time on in real life is increasingly socially acceptable. Explore your options. See what others have done before you. Ask yourself, “What would I do with a year of free time?”
Introducing Our Inaugural Gap Year Fellows
Traveling the World for 9 Months on Under $10,000 by Wilson Cusack
How Not Getting Into College Changed My Life by Robert Shin
Reasons Not to Take a Gap Year (And Why You’re Wrong) by Jean Fan
Why I Wish I Took a Gap Year Before Starting College by Ben Kim
I’m in school, and planning on staying there. What should I be aware of?
Understand that the education system is flawed, and read up on the ongoing debate surrounding it. Make the most of your time in school, but consider its opportunity cost. Realize that you can be a hackademic, regardless of your enrollment.
The Cost of Being a Perfect Student by Alex Clifford
Don’t Let College Keep You From Creating Opportunity by Kathryn Cannon
Forced to Attend College? Don’t Wait Until Graduation to Start Living by Vincent Nguyen
What Schools Don’t Teach: Leadership by Jean Fan
I’m just passionate about education! How can I become a better learner?
Be deliberate about your learning. Discover the science behind it. Improve your meta-learning skills. Realize the difference between learning and being taught. Find opportunities for growth everywhere.
The Art of Learning, With David Mansaray by Dale Stephens
How to Be an Effective Learner by Dale Stephens
Too Much Teaching, Too Little Learning by Jean Fan
How to Learn Anything by Dale Stephens
I’m feeling lost. Does anyone else feel this way?
Yes. We all do.
Stop Trying to Figure Out Your Future by Jay Cross
UnCertainty: As a Hackademic, Get Used to It by Jean Fan
How to Answer: What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? Vincent Nguyen
By Radhika Morabia
Radhika Morabia is a high school junior who writes at http://rmorabia.com/. She obsessed with attaining success and not being pseudo in the process. You can email her at [email protected], she loves talking to people.
Benjamin Franklin was an awesome figure in American history. He was the first person to suggest independence from Britain, invented the bifocals, and discovered electricity. Your resume can’t get much better than that. But wait, Ben also published a yearly almanac that became a best-seller for the twenty years in which it ran.
You would expect Ben to have extensive schooling and an aristocratic family, but his father was a soap boiler and only schooled young Ben long enough to learn basic writing and arithmetic. Through books and a large array of mentors, Ben went on to become the first Postmaster General of the United States, along with many other impressive titles.
That’s right. Benjamin Franklin, the Newton of Electricity, ultimate hackademic. The groundwork for his later accomplishments was mostly laid out within his first twenty years of life, starting with guidance from his father, and ending with his famous thirteen virtues. He applied calculated wisdom and immense energy towards rapid development. He wasn’t an inborn genius, but a dedicated individual who had the good fortune of being exposed to challenging ideas early on.
The Wisdom of Young Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin began his ascent with a huge influence from his father, Josiah. Described as “…very strong; he was ingenious, could draw prettily, was skilled a little in music, had a clear pleasing voice…but his great excellence lay in a sound understanding and solid judgment in prudential matters, both in private and public affairs,” in Ben’s autobiography, Josiah allowed Ben a good amount of freedom and encouragement. He was also intelligent and popular enough to expose Benjamin to an assortment of ideas and peoples.
Once, when Ben was a child, he and his friends needed to build a wharf at the edge of a marsh to fish for minnows. He saw large stones nearby, to be used for a new house, and used them to build a wharf when the workmen left. Feeling very pleased with himself, he didn’t expect the workmen to look into who had stolen the rocks. They found out and told the fathers of the boys. Although Benjamin tried to convince his father that what he did was useful, Josiah said “nothing is useful which is not honest.”
That lesson stuck with Ben for the rest of his life. Later, when Ben had grown up and began to form ideas and argue about books, he met a boy named Collins. Together, they argued on friendly terms by sending one another letters. One day, Josiah picked up these letters and read them. He proceeded to tell Ben that although his ideas were sound, his eloquence was lacking. Benjamin agreed, and proceeded to diligently work towards improving his craft.
He picked up a periodical called the Spectator, and thinking the writing was exquisite, attempted to imitate it. He pulled a couple of the essays and tried to rewrite them by focusing on one sentence at a time. Then, Ben would compare his work to the Spectator’s and quickly found his flaws.
TAKEAWAY #1: Look for opportunities for improvement everywhere. Although this may not be the best way to improve your writing, once Ben was met with criticism, he found an unconventional, yet efficient solution. He didn’t throw money at the problem or simply continue to write and rewrite letters until his writing might have improved. Ben developed a focused, creative solution with constant feedback.
Around the same time, Ben happened upon a book about the Socratic method.
I was charm’d with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer and doubter.
…the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so, or it is so, if I am not mistaken.
With this newfound knowledge of argumentation, Benjamin went out and “practis’d it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved.”
TAKEAWAY #2: Apply what you learn. It would have been easy to simply read the book, think about it, and move on with life. Benjamin did what 99% of readers don’t do. He took action, and this event allowed him to become an ambassador to France–the ally who helped win the American Revolution.
After working with his father for a couple of years, he was sent for an apprenticeship with his brother, a printer. Being a bachelor, his brother didn’t own a home and paid a family to house and feed him and his apprentices.
Ben did something extraordinary during this time. He went to his brother and told him that he would feed and house himself if his brother gave him half of what he gave the family to house him. His brother couldn’t resist. Ben stayed in the printing house at night and ate mostly bread to sustain himself. With the rest of his money, he bought books.
TAKEAWAY #3: Question your surroundings. As an apprentice, Ben received no income, and he ingeniously thought of an alternative method to fulfill his #1 priority: books. You don’t have to survive on bread to do this. This can help other quantities in your life, like time or energy. If you’re spending 2 hours a day on your workout routine, think about adopting an intense regimen that lasts less than 15 minutes.
Eventually, Ben ran away to Philadelphia, got scammed by the governor, met his future wife, stayed in Britain, tried to woo his friend’s girl, and met a ton of interesting people. If you want to hear about all that, I highly recommend picking up a copy of his autobiography. (It’s $2.25!)
He did this all with a genuine interest in meeting people. What often started with a pleasant, intelligent, and respectful conversation, led to financial advantages through either discounts (housing, etc.) or employment opportunities.
TAKEAWAY #4: Learn to network. Every relationship is an opportunity, as long as you view the relationship as an opportunity, and not only as a means to an end.
Finally, on the trip back from London to become a clerk for a merchant, Benjamin developed the thirteen virtues which would guide him for the rest of his life.
…I conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our best interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct.
Through his reading, he saw patterns of virtues that he thought were important. However, he found that most were too strict, and he “propos’d to myself, for the sake of clearness, to use rather more names, with fewer ideas annex’d to each.”
From this, came the thirteen: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquillity, Chastity, and Humility. He wrote a bit accompanying each name, and you can look at that here.
TAKEAWAY #5: Develop a set of virtues. They don’t have to be the same as Benjamin’s, but make a list of of something you wish to strive towards every single day. Then document it, perhaps like Ben did:
I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul’d each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross’d these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.
I prefer to mark the box when you successfully abide by said habit for motivational reasons, but do whatever works for you.
After all this, he went on to open his own printing business, soon to get involved with politics and science, writing Poor Richard’s Almanack, and basically transcending all measures of how much you can get done in one life.
The biggest takeaway from reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography was that he was human. That’s why I can call him Ben. He made mistakes, he got stressed, and life wasn’t always easy. It taught me that I can accomplish at least half of what he did, which is more than 99.99% of people.
All five takeaways are a bit similar, and can be easily summarized into three words. Diligence with awareness. Proceed forward purposefully. Focus on your energy.
It’s simple, but it’s not easy. As a hackademic, it’s your job to take on the difficult. Here’s your challenge: become the modern Benjamin Franklin.
By Jean Fan
This week, I interviewed our housing team to get a better sense of who they were and why they joined UnCollege. Jo Welch is our Housing Director, and Gabe Stern is our inaugural House Manager. They both have had diverse experiences and hold fascinating perspectives. Below are their stories.
Jo Welch, UnCollege’s Housing Director
Gabe Stern, Inaugural House Manager
Q: What was your educational background?
Jo: I was the nerd at school. My teachers always said that I asked too many questions, whatever that means. I think my fourth grade teacher even met with my parents to discuss how precocious I was.
In the 5th grade, I got into my school’s gifted and talented program. I studied for and took the SATs in the 7th grade, tested into the IB program, joined the Academic Pentathlon team, and learned college logic in the 8th grade. This was all very exciting for me. I felt like I was finally learning in school.
Unfortunately, my dad got sick around that time, and in the midst of family issues I ended up dropping out of school in the 9th grade. Finishing school was always a big priority for me, however, and I went back in the 11th grade.
In order to make up the classes I missed during my first and second year, I found high school correspondence courses through Texas Tech University. I took classes like geometry, and was able to learn at my own pace. Instead of studying 6 or 7 subjects at a time, I did about one subject a month. I really enjoyed this, because it meant that I got the chance to immerse myself in a subject and know it well, instead of glossing over aspects of it as I would’ve done in school.
By going to school during the day and taking correspondence courses at night and on the weekends, I was able to graduate high school on time.
My GPA was terrible though, so I went to community college full-time while also working full-time. That was unsustainable. There was a constant tension between being professionally and academically successful. My career suffered when I focused on college, and vice versa. After 5 or 6 years, I realized that I just couldn’t do both. I saw that there were other ways to get where I wanted, and that college wasn’t the only option.
Gabe: In school, there’s always that one kid who is smart but doesn’t try. That was me. I went to a Waldorf school for twelve years, but it wasn’t until after I took a gap year after high school that I found the motivation to apply myself. Specifically: I spent my time off from school working at a supermarket, and I realized that that wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
When I went back to school (McDaniel College in Maryland), I took college very seriously and tried hard to do well during the first two years. Getting A’s was a new thing for me, and it felt really good, at first. But soon I became suspicious of the college system.
I spent a lot of time during my senior year of college reading about pedagogy and thinking about effective and scalable ways to educate a population. The Sudbury model of education, where students take complete personal responsibility for their education and lead with their curiosity, was the one that aligned most with my ideology, and it’s very similar to what we’re doing here at UnCollege.
This hands-off model of education teaches self-reliance, and helps young people learn how to get what they want, even if they don’t get a pat on the back for it at the end of the day. That’s key. I think it’s healthy to step back and give yourself the space to ask yourself what you really enjoy doing.
Q: Between college and UnCollege, what did you do?
Jo: Wow. So many things. I’ve had a very wide range of work experiences, and have learned so much on the job — that’s actually what I optimize for. It has not been, however, a clear trajectory of any sort. I think that’s one of the most important things for young people to learn: you don’t have to have your life planned out in order to be successful.
In high school, I waited tables, learning about customer service. I was a dispatcher at a trucking firm for a little while. I worked at a call center. Later I worked as an admin at a construction company, where I taught myself how to use Access and discovered my love of databases.
When I got bored doing that (I had learned all there was to learn), a friend recommended me for an RF drive testing position, where you drive around the country and check data signals. I was traveling all the time, while getting to learn a lot about RF engineering and about how cell networks were structured. I had zero experience in that before, so it was intellectually stimulating and a lot of fun for me.
Then I got a job as a SQL Data Analyst — I still can’t figure out how I got that job — and learned SQL on the job. I fell in love with data analysis and relational databases. They’re beautiful and sexy and I am madly in love with them.
Of course, when the learning slowed on that job, it was time for me to go. There was a company that wanted to do a full data migration from an old system to a new system. I said, “Yeah, I haven’t done that before. Let’s do it.” That was a much smaller team with a much looser company structure, so I was able to get involved with the business side of things as well. For example: I rewrote the training materials, created and staffed a QA department, and redesigned their implementation process. I was able to get really hands-on.
After working with a defense contractor for a few years, I then worked at Dell, which was awful. Big companies are so wasteful with resources.
Gabe: Like Jo, I did many different things before finding myself here. Immediately after graduating college, I worked for the Obama campaign. Then I played in a band in Pittsburgh for a while, and city-hopped between Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and New York City. I also traveled to Israel and Palestine, learning about the history and immersing myself in the culture there.
One of the best learning experiences that I had was working remotely from D.C. for an environmental startup for just under three years. As its third employee, I got to watch the company go from ideation to implementation (and ultimately, to failure), wearing many different hats along the way.
When I moved to San Francisco, I did canvassing for Amnesty International and the Red Cross. I’m very driven by causes that end suffering. It was also very fun for me to interact with strangers — I learned how to use charisma to encourage people to take action, which is a very powerful skill. Eventually, they hired me to do higher-level recruiting, which I did for about a year.
Q: What is the most pertinent example of self-directed learning that you’d like to share?
Jo: I started learning a lot about the Paleo lifestyle and grain-free baking. That grew into my own bakery, called Lembas. It’s a reference from Lord of the Rings to the exceptionally healthy bread that elves make. Yeah, I’m a nerd.
Lembas was a food trailer, and I learned about what it takes to start a small business from my experience there. Perhaps my favorite part of running Lembas were all the amazing people I met along the way.
Gabe: For me, it was learning electronic music production. I watched Youtube videos, outsourced questions to forums, and regularly took people in the industry out for coffee.
Soon I started teaching private lessons, and eventually started my own business. I taught myself a few hard skills on the way. I learned how to code in order to make my own website, for example, and design in order to do advertising.
This is what I was doing right before I joined the UnCollege team.
Q: Why did you want to work at UnCollege?
Jo: From my personal experience, starting projects on your own and seeing them to completion can be a lot more valuable than going to school. I think more people should have the chance to choose this type of learning, and I’m excited to be part of the movement that is giving people that opportunity.
Gabe: Education is one of the most important leverage points for fixing global problems. If you can educate people to be smart, creative, and hard-working, then you’re essentially training the next generation of people to do bad-ass shit and improve the world.
By Jeff Maxim
Jeff is a 15 year old unschooler who is ignoring cultural norms and as a result is finding plenty of opportunities and adventures. He is also an avid writer and has recently started his freelance writing business. To contact him or to find out how to keep updated on his journey message him at [email protected].
Ditching the conventional educational systems can be scary and different. I became unschooled at the start of this year and have had a crazy ride in learning about how to learn freely. It was so unfamiliar and different it took a while to figure it out and capitalize on the opportunities it offers. In this post I hope to share with you some tips I have gained about learning freely.
1. Sit Back And Relax.
Most new converts to a free education often stress out because they try to focus on productivity. The unfamiliarity of this new lifestyle doesn’t subtract from the stress either. I would advise taking time to relax and really find out what makes you happy and catches your interest. It may be a week or two months but never less, use this time to deschool and rid yourself of the misconceptions that may be ingrained into your mind.
2. Find your passion!
Now that you have had some time to think about what makes you tick and interests you, you probably have at least somewhat of an idea of it. Now use this time to put it to the test and see if it is something you enjoy. Perhaps after actually testing those interests out you find out you enjoy none of them. That’s okay. By deciding that those ideas weren’t for you, you have probably learned a lot about yourself. This makes you better equipped to find out what really interests you. Keep on investigating until you have something you really enjoy. It may be hard to slow down and figure it out but it is worth it.
3. Kill the weak ideas.
One of the big problems I have had was weak and fruitless ideas. Now that I could choose what I wanted to learn, my mind came up with so many ideas – big and small. Something to check for while figuring it out is if you have the means of pursuing it, whether it is money, skills or any other resources. Also check for small ideas that have more steps than needed and have over-complicated the process. I don’t find it too useful to try to track productivity with scientific precision but just check if it is helping you reach your goals.
4. Break projects down into manageable pieces.
Chopping things up into bite size pieces is also very important. So many people fail before they even start because the task seems so big and they don’t know where to start. Figuring out the steps needed to complete the task is half the battle.
5. Just do it.
Preparation and research are really important but don’t let them be an excuse for not actually doing it. Abstract reasoning is a very powerful and helpful tool but it alone is flawed. You don’t know the new type of tire is going to work until it hits the road. Sometimes I would spend a lot of time and energy preparing for something but then I’d put it off for a long time because I was scared. After waiting so long I would finally do it and come across some huge problems that I didn’t anticipate so I got overwhelmed and gave up. If I had taken action early on, I would’ve been able to handle it.
6. Dive in headfirst!
I been trying to cut my day into sections and would get pissed at myself if I didn’t follow it. I was unconsciously replicating school because I didn’t know what else to do. I wouldn’t allow myself to dive head first into something and forget about everything else. That just messed up everything! Now I give myself the freedom to do that and I am still able to keep weekly obligations. If you want to be good at something, you need to practice it often. Hopefully you enjoy it so it is easy to keep up but hey stuff happens and you forget it. In order to keep on track and give myself freedom I don’t track it per day but per week. So If I want to practice writing around 4 hours a week I just make a note for the week with my goal and a counter of how much I have done so far. That way I can regularly practice while still giving myself the freedom to either practice not at all or devote the whole day to it.
7. Being productive… sometimes.
In the conventional educational systems productivity is a getting a good mark of some predetermined standard and some predetermined work regardless of how you felt about it. Life is not predetermined and you do not know what is going happen next. It teaches you not to be flexible or think out of the box which is what is needed in the real world. Also in the conventional systems there is no reward for getting work done more efficiently and quickly, there is just this praise of going through the same hoops everyone else has gone though. Most importantly there is no consideration of how you feel and what interests you. Some really crappy event might have happened and you feel like doing nothing that day and that is fine if that is what you need to do to process it.
If there’s one thing that I want you to get from this post is that just be self aware and authentic. Having a free work ethic rests around one thing. You!
When you are free it is you who decides what you do and that is why it is important to be conscious of yourself. No one knows how to run your life better than you yourself.
At the UnCollege team retreat a few weeks ago, we came up with our list of core values: curiosity, respect, excellence, integrity, and independence. Each member of the team shared a few insights on each value. Read them below.
It’s funny how there are so many stories about the dangers of being too curious. Pandora opens the box she has been given, despite being warned not to, and all the evils of the world fly out. Adam can’t resist eating from the Tree of Knowledge, despite (or maybe because) God has forbidden it, and gets expelled from the Garden of Eden. Curiosity killed the cat.
These stories reinforce a powerful cultural message that suits those in power; don’t ask too many questions, do what you’re told, and you’ll be fine. But that message sucks, and I have always wanted to know more, no matter what the cost.
A few years ago, I began to wonder what would happen if some global catastrophe put an end to our modern world. How would the survivors cope? To answer this question, I came up with the idea of doing a bizarre experiment. Instead of trying to imagine, from the comfort of my armchair, what life might be like in the aftermath of a global catastrophe, I would act it out, with the help of some volunteers. We would grow our own food, make our own clothes, and do everything else necessary to survive, without any of the resources of our modern high tech world.
So I gave up my job in one of the world’s leading robot labs and decamped to the Scottish Highlands, where I invited an eclectic assortment of volunteers to join me in imagining what life might be like if civilization collapsed.
To cut a long story short, my experiment went horribly wrong, and the following year I headed back to London to lick my wounds and figure out what I was going to do next with my life. My former supervisor from college found out I was back, and invited me to give a talk about the experiment to a group of colleagues. After the talk we all went to the pub for a drink. One of the people who had heard my talk, a Professor from a distinguished US university, came over to me and shook my hand. “I admire your curiosity,” he said, “but boy am I glad I’m not quite so curious as you!”
I could see where he was coming from. I had given up everything to pursue this crazy experiment simply because I was so curious to find out for myself what life might be like for the survivors of a global catastrophe. And in a weird kind of way, I had found out. But the price I paid was huge. I ended up homeless, with my career in ruins, and my health seriously damaged.
At first I bitterly regretted my decision to do the experiment. But after a while I came to realize how much it had taught me. Sure, my curiosity gets me into trouble. But I don’t care, because that’s just who I am. It’s in my nature.
I believe in respecting people’s ability to make their own decisions regardless of any other factors, particularly age. I feel so fortunate that my parents had enough faith in me to allow me to leave school at age twelve, at time when most parents are barely even willing to listen to their children.
That experience has changed my perspective on what it means to have respect people. I do my best not to write people off for trivial reasons, because I think back to when I was twelve and how easily I could have been written off – but I wasn’t.
Cultural implications of what would happen if we made the simple effort to believe in people’s ability to make decisions would be huge. It would change how adults and kids interact. It would change how students and teachers interact. It would change how bosses and employees interact.
Making the world a more equal and respected place is an intention that I think we can all agree is positive. That’s why at UnCollege we hold the value of respect with the utmost important. And we don’t just mean basic physical respect for people regardless of age or gender or skin color – perhaps more importantly respect for people’s idea, opinions, and actions.
We live in an exciting time. From the education to healthcare to tech industries, there are a plethora of problems waiting to be solved, and there are ample resources to help you do so. More than ever, the world needs excellent people to come up with solutions.
Unfortunately, today’s schools don’t encourage students — the supposed “leaders of tomorrow” — to excel. It makes no difference in your GPA, for example, whether you strive for an A+ or skate by with an A-. Because of this system of incentives (or lack thereof), students too often choose mediocrity over excellence.
Just being “good enough” easily becomes a habit. That’s a huge problem, given that real life rewards excellence. Do exceptionally well at what you love and you’ll gain confidence, distinguish yourself from the crowd, and lay a foundation for a satisfying life.
Hackademics understand the importance of going above and beyond in what they do, both for the sake of their future as well as for that of the world at large. So although the UnCollege community is diverse in age, interests, and enrollment, we’re bound together by our collective drive to excel.
We don’t wait for people to tell us what to do; we take initiative. We don’t meet requirements; we exceed expectations. We don’t settle for less; we set our own highest standards.
Excellence is, like anything else, a choice. Choose it.
UnCollege, as an organization, has declared integrity to be one of our core values. We even ask that all candidates applying for positions with us include their personal definition of integrity in their cover letter. Integrity matters, both personally and professionally. So what does it mean?
If you look at the definitions in most dictionaries, you’ll find many references to moral and ethical codes. These have always implied some form of external force to me. If I follow a code, I am moral or I am ethical. If I follow a rule book, I am obedient. Integrity is more than that.
I have always thought of integrity as a step above other values, a meta-value as it were.
Honesty is admitting you missed a deadline when your boss asks for your work. Integrity is reaching out to your boss to let him know you will miss a deadline and asking how you can solve any problems caused by the delay. Charity is donating to organizations that plant trees. Integrity is choosing to purchase with minimal packaging and recycling and composting regularly. Integrity is the opposite of hypocrisy. It is the proactive embodiment of ideas and values. In this way, integrity itself is less a value and more of an approach to values.
When I was young, I thought that the moment my 18th birthday hit I would be a full-fledged adult. Didn’t have to answer to anyone, making my own decisions, eating what I wanted, living on my own. I thought there was some magical switch that went off when suddenly everyone treated you like you knew what you were doing and they would know by default that you were old enough to buy cigarettes and lottery tickets. Needless to say, it didn’t quite work out that way once the clock struck midnight; however I did manage to book a plane ticket out of my hometown to sunny California and didn’t look back.
Moving to the west coast, I learned a lot about what independence truly meant. It wasn’t what I thought it was while growing up — it wasn’t just living on my own, paying bills, and going to school or working. If it was, I would have been considered independent way before eighteen (funny how that happens). Instead, I learned that there are no set-in-stone qualifiers for what makes a person “independent.” Self-sufficiency is a very loud independence trait, to be sure, but what really makes someone independent?
The definitions for the word “independent” are a good jumping-off point. It starts with “not subject to control by others,” moves on to “not requiring or relying on something else” and “not requiring or relying on others,” and ends up at “showing a desire for freedom.” My focus as a young adult was very much on the first two definitions: not being controlled, and not needing anything or anyone. I could also go so far as to say I showed a desire for freedom, but it wasn’t so much in the scope of for myself as it was against things. I made choices not grounded so much in what I wanted, but rather by default knowing what I didn’t want — and we all know that “better” does not always equate “good.”
So, I made a lot of mistakes, many of them under the guise of being an adult, independent, and not wanting to need anyone or anything. I tried community college but dropped the classes pretty quick. I worked jobs that made me unhappy, I dated people who made me even more unhappy. I still managed to pay my bills on time, though — was that independence?
I’d go so far as to say that, well, maybe on paper (and only to an extent). Once you strip it of all of the bits and pieces that make it human, that bring the person into view, possibly I could pass for an “independent person.” However, I would absolutely make the argument that internally, mentally, emotionally, I didn’t have the freedom from what I tried to escape from once becoming an adult, but I still had the desire — and once I started listening to it, I started making decisions that would not only present me as independent, but would also guide me into feeling like I could actually control the trajectory of my life and move it forward into more positive, healthy directions. Instead of letting things happen to me, I started trying to make things happen for me.
And that’s where it shifted. I left my dead-end job and my dead-end boyfriend, started listening in to what really moved and inspired me, tried things that I never would have thought about trying. I started shaping my life, even if just in the smallest ways, into a life that didn’t trap me. This was letting go of the idea that “maybe I’ll go back to college one day.” It was trying a yoga class, it was trying to remind myself that the guy who bumped into me probably has his own struggles going on, it was letting go of “I just sling coffee” and learning “coffee is fascinating!” It was finally quitting smoking and learning how to make something on the stovetop rather than a microwave. It was actively trying to surround myself with people that supported me and helped me forward, even if just by way of a good joke and a cup of tea.
That’s when I learned that independence is totally subjective. All of these little things, these tweaks and adjustments that we can make to our thinking and to our everyday lives, they build a solid foundation for someone to learn and grow outside of these pre-conceived notions of who you’re supposed to be once you turn eighteen. You stop imitating and you start cultivating a life that you’re living for yourself, and whatever that life is, that’s where you’ll find your definition of independence. It’s where I found mine.