Why It’s Dangerous to Compete

By Jean Fan

A close friend and colleague recently asked: “What are your views on competition?” He couldn’t get a read on me, even after having seen me in a variety of different settings.

When I spent some time reflecting on it, I realized that his confusion stems from the fact that I just have a strange approach to competitions.

Specifically, I am both crushingly competitive and not competitive at all. Most of the time, I will go to great lengths to avoid competition. A small fraction of the time, however, when there’s something at stake that I really care about, I will do whatever it takes to win. I will find paths that others miss, take risks that others won’t, and face pain that others can’t.

Why this dichotomy?

It’s not that I’m afraid of competitions. It’s just that I think they’re dangerous.

The Confusion of High School

In high school there are two well-known competitions. The “cool” kids compete in the popularity contest. The “smart” kids compete in the college contest.

The popularity contest is one that we’ve all experienced, or at least heard of. Depicted in movies like Mean Girls, this competition requires students to be attractive, have some knowledge of social rules, and invest time in obtaining social points. After all, as Paul Graham writes: “Popularity is not something you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an American secondary school.” If this is the competition you choose to spend time on and you win, you get the chance to hang out with the “cool” kids. For a brief four years, you and your friends rule the school. Enjoy it while it lasts, because after graduation, it won’t really matter

The second contest — the rat race to get into college — is the one I’m more concerned about. It’s the one parading around as though it’s the “right” competition to be in. In this competition, students race to rack up the most impressive credentials they can. With the abundance of default school activities, students can now do this without ever thinking about what they actually like. After they’ve gotten into their top colleges, therefore, these students often still have no idea what they actually want to do, and are now back to square one. “Smart” kids are not immune to dangerous competitions.

You Choose: The Forest or The Trees

In both of these cases, competitions encourage people to miss the point. It doesn’t matter if you’re popular. What matters is that you’re a good person. It doesn’t matter if you’ve gotten into your top college. What matters is that you’re closer to discovering who you are.

Once I figured out that what I actually wanted was to become someone interesting (as opposed to someone with the most leadership positions), I felt comfortable taking myself out of competitions that I judged to be counterproductive.

As a junior, as everyone else ramped up their involvement in school activities, I decided to quit everything I was doing. Instead, I gave myself time to go out and explore my interests in the real world. At the time this felt like a huge risk. I wasn’t sure if I was giving up my future by defaulting from the norm. Luckily, it was worth it. My last two years of high school were filled with adventure and self-discovery. I found things that I really liked, became an interesting person, and was accepted into Stanford University last spring.

The Problem With Competitions

By engaging in competition, it’s implied that you’re trying to win by the same means as everyone else. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that you will guarantee a win by approaching a race in the same way that your competitors are. If many other people have taken a certain path, you’re crazy to think that you’ll produce different (and radically better) results by taking the same one.

You need to find better ways. Much better ways.

I realized early on in high school that I wasn’t significantly smarter or more hardworking than my peers. I couldn’t gain a major advantage in the collegiate race just by outcompeting them. I would have to do something new. So I did, and I won.

If You’re Going to Compete…

First, make sure you’re competing in the right race and for the right reasons. Then, make it a point to ruthlessly win.

You’re not going to do this by applying the same procedure as everyone else. So instead, take some time to figure out what you actually need to win. Recognize and ruthlessly ignore social norms. Find a truth that other people are missing. Cut out the bullshit, and create a quicker path to getting ahead.

The best thing is when you are doing something so fundamentally different than your competitors that they don’t even realize that you’re still competing with them… that is, until you actually win.

People Compete For Known Successes

The final thing about competitions that bothers me is that you know what you get when you win. After all, the prize incentivized you to compete in the first place. In this respect, college is very much a competition.

As I finish the last stretch of my gap year, I find myself wondering (yet again) if college is the right path for me. If I graduate from Stanford, I know exactly where I’ll be in four years. I am effectively guaranteed a high-paying job, however predictable. This terrifies me.

Is This War Even Worth Fighting?

Venture capitalist Peter Thiel spoke a while ago about how, in the process of creating companies, people “get addicted to competition” and end up “fighting over things that don’t matter.”

In his lecture series at Stanford, he described how companies of the Dot-com era fixated on outcompeting each other: “All that mattered was winning. External questions that actually mattered — Is this war even worth fighting? — were ignored… You can find this pattern everywhere.”


Be wary of competitions, especially those that bring glory in the short run without contributing to your larger purpose. As you’re going through life, make sure to choose your competitions carefully, and check that you actually care about what you’re aiming for. Only then can you stop competing, and start winning.


Posted by on June 1, 2014
Read More

Review: “The Obstacle is the Way,” By Ryan Holiday

Review By Jean Fan

When we introduce ourselves to people, we talk about what we’ve done and what we’ve been given. What we rarely share is what we’ve struggled with, and more importantly, how we’ve responded to it.

In his latest book, The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday suggests that our response to obstacles is what actually defines us. Specifically, we can choose to treat obstacles as a nuisance, but in order to live up to our potential, we must treat them as a gift.

Holiday illustrates his claim with dozens of historical examples, from US presidents to renowned athletes to ancient rules. He shows us that in many cases, people who have achieved remarkable success are also those who have conquered remarkable challenges.

Unfortunately, Ryan Holiday paints a bleak picture of today’s youth:

“The majority of my generation decides to move back in with their parents after college… We whine and complain and mope when things won’t go our way. We’re crushed when what we were “promised” is revoked as if that’s not allowed to happen.

Instead of doing much about it, we sit at home and play video games or travel or worse, pay for more school with more loan debt that will never be forgiven. And then we wonder why it isn’t getting any better.”

Fortunately, with the right attitude, life doesn’t have to be this way. For hackademics, it’s not.

As a hackademic, you’ve committed to taking personal responsibility — not just for your education, but for life. You know that you will inevitably encounter obstacles, and you’re excited to tackle them.

The Obstacle is the Way is a manifesto for hackademics who want to understand how to face these challenges.

“Doing new things invariably means obstacles. A new path is, by definition, uncleared. Only with persistence and time can we cut away debris and remove impediments. Only in struggling with the impediments that made others quit can we find ourselves on untrodden territory only by persisting and resisting can we learn what others were too impatient to be taught.”

Unlike most personal development books, and in line with Ryan Holiday’s other writing, this book is not going to tell you how special you are. Instead, it will show you what kind of person you need to be.

Posted by on May 1, 2014
Read More

We’re Hiring an Admissions Officer!

UnCollege/Gap Year seeks an experienced admissions officer with previous experience in admissions to represent Gap Year’s growing global network of campuses to prospective fellows from a diverse range of backgrounds throughout the world. You have a unique opportunity to be part of an organization at the center of the revolution in higher education. The position will likely begin in Fall 2014, but could start sooner for the right candidate.

This admissions officer will advise students, families, and school counselors on admissions policies, procedures, our programs, and financial support opportunities. He/she will conduct school visits; host information sessions and events designed for target audiences; attend education fairs to increase the visibility of Gap Year and meet prospective students; and support the recruiting efforts of Gap Year by developing partnerships worldwide. The person in this role is expected to lead in the cultivation of relationships with key constituents in schools, community organizations, and governmental agencies. He/she will be instrumental in evaluating and recommending applicants for admission to Gap Year’s campuses.

2-3 years’ of direct admission experience

Required Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities:
Outstanding communication, interpersonal, and public speaking skills.
Ability to market UnCollege/Gap Year independently.
Travel and weekend hours required.
Ability to evaluate a high volume of applications for admission
Highly developed written and public speaking skills.
High degree of organizational and management skills.
Ability to deal with pressure and to handle a large workload to peak periods.
Some publications/editorial experience preferred

Preferred Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities:
Experience evaluating international credentials.
Experience recruiting students for highly selective program

Most importantly, you should care deeply about creating a world where people have the freedom to learn how, where, when, and why they want. When you work at UnCollege/Gap Year, it’s more than just a job that awaits you. You are joining an exciting intellectual and cultural community, one where everyone is working together to make education less expensive and more meaningful. You are part of a diverse, multi-cultural and creative organization – we are opening a campus in Sao Paulo this Fall. Capetown, Stockholm, and more will follow shortly.

To apply, please send a resume and cover letter to [email protected] with Admissions + Your Name in the subject line.

Posted by on April 28, 2014
Read More

Why should you take a different path?

By Jean Fan

By being part of the hackademic community and thinking critically about education, you’ve separated yourself from your peers. Perhaps you’re taking a gap year. Maybe you’ve dropped out of college. Even better, you’ve been hacking your education from the start.

Regardless, you’ve committed to taking a significantly different path than other people. This is incredibly important, for reasons I’ll explain below.

But first, why do people take the normal path? Let’s consider a few reasons:

1. They haven’t thought through their long-term strategy.

By the end of freshman year in college, we’re encouraged to declare a major, which in turn puts us on track to becoming a doctor/lawyer/[insert generic profession here]. But this selection mechanism doesn’t require people to actually think through their path. The process is too easy.

Figuring out what you want to do 20 years down the line is supposed to be difficult. And, if you’ve actually thought through your long-term plan, you’ll see that it’s littered with contradictions and uncertainty. People sometimes take a “normal” path because they can’t deal with this reality.

2. They’re uncomfortable being “weird.”

People have a strong desire for social acceptance, but go about achieving it in different ways. Some people gain it by taking a path that they know society will approve of. They have an aversion to doing things that will cause them to be seen as strange, because they’re afraid that others won’t like them as a result.

3. They’re aiming for average success.

If making a decent living working 40-hour workweeks is what you want, then by all means do what everyone else is doing, because it’s probably what you’ll get. Unfortunately, it’s all that you’ll get.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a normal path. It’s just important to note that a normal path yields normal results. You’ll get to live a very comfortable life, but the tradeoff is that you’ll be severely limiting your potential. If your goal is to do something phenomenal, this is not for you.

So why should you take a different path? Here’s what I think:

1. Competing is hard.

When you’re doing the same thing as everyone else, it’s really hard to be the best. The sheer number of people you’re competing against is brutal.

And if the way you’re trying achieve social acceptance is by being the best in a well-walked path, you’ll be constantly trying to keep your insecurity at bay. One solution to this is to take yourself out of the running and do something so different that the normal path can’t compare.

2. Also, competing is futile.

What’s more is that when people all aim to take the same path, they tend to lose track of who they’re actually competing against, and what really matters.

A good example of this is the rat race to get into college. In their haste to do more than those around them, students forget that they’re actually competing with thousands of other people that they’ve never met.

Except it doesn’t actually matter who has the highest grades or the most impressive activities, although both can be a strong indicator of ability. What really matters for getting into college, and what people should compete to have, is who has the highest capacity for learning and creating.

3. In order to innovate, you have to figure out how to access the world in a different way.

If you want to create something better than other people, taking the same path as them is a sure way to hold yourself back. You’ll be limited to coming up with the same ideas as other people, because you haven’t gained exposure to anything different.

But by taking a “strange” path, you’ll be able to gain a vastly different perspective than other people, and understand reality better. Armed with this new perspective, you’ll be able to access the world in a different way, and create valuable things that have not been created before.

Posted by on April 26, 2014
Read More

The Gap Between Going to School and Getting a Job

By Esther Ling

Esther Ling is a senior at Curtin University who is studying electrical power engineering. She writes for The Pencil Box, which she founded to help students accelerate their learning at university. Doing internships at Shell Malaysia and Agilent Technologies has left Esther musing about the differences between the school and work environment.

I recently attended a career talk hosted by a multinational company. The company is well-known among students at my university, so people from all grade levels attended the presentation. I’m glad, because the staff explained their recruitment process and gave advice that contradicts some of the messages we receive in school.

Specifically, they gave great advice on how to approach the interview process. As a student who is looking for a job, it’s important to understand that it’s a whole different world out there. Below are the 4 primary things I learned:

Employers Look for Capacity

First on the list of criteria was capacity for thought. “We throw graduates a general-knowledge question,” the staff member said, “and then we examine their answers. What we look for is the thought-process behind the answer.”

I wonder: How well are today’s university students versed in matters of general knowledge? Are we able to provide well-reasoned opinions on current politics, government policies, world events, [fill in the list]? If no, why not? If yes, why so?

There seems to be a gap when it comes to capacity for independent thought. In school we’re taught to play by the rules, because that’s the only way we’re going to do well on our tests. Forget critical thinking, it’s “model” answers that get you the grades you need to get into university. Old habits die hard.

You Should Steer the Interview

This was a new one for me. Isn’t the more experienced person supposed to take the lead?

No, not really. Instead, you should take control and drive the conversation.

Why? Because you have to make sure your story is understood, and passively responding to questions might not accomplish that.

Think about how you can demonstrate that you’re a leader, a team player, a critical thinker, and so forth. Take the time to convey how you’ve grown as a person, since that’s often difficult to get a sense of on paper.

The recruiter has read your resume, but there are so many blanks in your story that need filling in.

Understand What You’re Applying For

Of course, you can’t completely understand a job before actually doing it. At the same time, it’s important to demonstrate that you applied for this position for a reason, and that you’ve taken specific steps to prepare yourself for it.

Apply – Even If You Don’t Think You’ll Get It

The process of applying for a job makes you think about what you actually want to do in life. The application process usually has a series of questions that force you to reflect on your strengths and weaknesses. The gap between going to school and getting a job becomes a journey of self-discovery, even if it is a short one.


Posted by on April 19, 2014
Read More

How to Build a Network in 30 Days

By Michael Thomas

Michael Thomas leads inbound marketing at Highfive, a startup backed by Andreessen-Horowitz, Google Ventures and some of the top investors in Silicon Valley. Previously he was the founder and CEO of SkyRocket. He blogs about startups, marketing and technology on his personal blog.

A year ago, I decided to leave school and start a company. However, I quickly realized that at 18 years old I had a lot of catching up to do. Not only did I lack any real world experience, I lacked something much more important: a network.

In the early days of my startup, I struggled to validate my idea because I didn’t know anyone in education administration (the logical buyer of my product). Once I was able to validate the idea itself, I had a hard time recruiting a team to help me build the product. And finally when I figured out a solution to both of those complications, I hit a third wall when I decided to raise money.

The phrase “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” kept resonating in my head. So I crafted a solution.

One day while walking around Kitsilano beach in Vancouver, a mentor of mine told me about an old strategy that IBM sales managers used to employ. They called it 10 before 10: reach out to 10 people before 10am every morning. That meant calling, cold emailing or leaving 10 different people a voicemail every morning.

The idea appealed to me and at the time I desperately needed capital — whether it was revenue or angel investment — so I created my own 10 before 10 strategy. Every morning, I reached out to 10 people on LinkedIn, or Twitter, or in many cases via a cold email.

It didn’t always work. As you might imagine, many of the people I called or reached out to blew me off. But the 10-20% that did respond added up. After 30 days I “touched” 300 people and connected with about 30-60 of them. Then those people introduced me to their colleagues and pretty soon my network was snowballing.

In the process I learned a couple tricks that I thought I would share. Here were the three main conclusions I was able to draw:

“Take the initiative and you can meet just about anyone you like”

This month I had a chance to meet with the founder of, Aaron Patzer. After a great conversation in San Francisco’s South Park, I followed up and received this email in return:

This statement summed up the core of my strategy. We’re all human and there’s no reason you can’t meet with anyone you’d like.

Be methodical in who you reach out to

In general, if you reach out to someone you should have a specific ask and a suggestion for why the meeting will benefit them. In my previous case with Aaron Patzer, I asked for help crafting a pre-launch inbound marketing strategy (something he is famous for). Then I told him that I knew some programmers that might be good fits for his latest project.

Without an idea of how either party will benefit, getting coffee with someone is a waste of both people’s time.

Be concise and direct

Along the same lines as my last tip, it’s important to be concise and direct when you reach out to people. Sending a long email with multiple questions or open ended questions yields lower response rates across the board and wastes people’s time, so send brief ones.

Today, if I email someone I write three concise sections that aim to address the recipient’s initial questions:

1. Why the heck are you emailing me? (ie. some background information on what I’m working on or how I heard about them)

2. What do you want from me? (ie. a specific ask. Usually 30 minute meeting)

3. What’s in it for me? (ie. a reason why they should help. Usually benefitting their current business venture)

If you want something in life odds are you will need some help. For some that means reaching out to friends and old co-workers, but for those of us with little professional experience, it’s important to get scrappy and find an alternative. Over the last 12 months I’ve built strong relationships with hundreds of interesting people. The ensuing conversations have taught me more than I could have ever learned in school.

The goal was never to reach 500+ connections on LinkedIn; it was to find mentors, friends and in some cases customers whose problems I knew I could solve. In summary, the key to building strong relationships is giving more than you take and a whole bunch of ambition.


Posted by on April 4, 2014
Read More

Meet UnCollege’s Spring 2014 Fellows!

Anmol Agrawal

Anmol is an aspiring UX and Interaction Designer. He gets really excited about the idea of startups and hacking his education. He is a “learning junkie” who loves asking questions, doing research, attending conferences, reading about personal development, finding new ways to improve his health and well-being, meeting like-minded people, downloading new and exciting eBooks and joining the next life-changing eCourse.

Bobby Tocornal

Bobby found UnCollege through a friend, who thought it was awesome. After reading Dale’s book himself, he was fascinated. For him, Gap Year is an opportunity to bring his music into the world. During the launch phase, his goal is to master his his music, reading, and writing skills, as well as study philosophy and business. He is very excited to learn from the rest of the fellows.

Colin Spicer

Colin is 23 years old and is from the metro Detroit area. He came to UnCollege to pursue computer programming, and land a job at the end of the year that will lead to a career. His interests include hockey, kayaking, journalism, film, and graphic design.

Dane Wertz

Dane is a 20-year-old hackademic who attended the University of Tennessee for two years before leaving to pursue opportunities that school can’t offer. He comes from a competitive suburb in Virginia, where the expectation is to graduate from college and makes six figures. This is a concept he wants to challenge by forging his own path. Dane is coming to UnCollege to explore his interests (e.g. real estate, screenwriting, and playing/watching sports) and use them to craft his career.

Ilana Sawyer

Ilana Sawyer is a writer from Walden Pond, Massachusetts — Thoreau’s neck of the woods. She is a natural Transcendentalist and a resolute advocate for the education revolution. Right now she is writing a book (92,224 words in!), and is launching herself into freelance humanistic journalism. She’s excited to sit in coffee shops with fellow rebels, drinking in their idealism and their vigor — adrenaline far more powerful than caffeine. Ilana is preparing to gain perspective on the human condition by traveling to Nepal to teach English in the rural towns of the Himalayas.

Kylee Ganoa

Kylee was born in Santiago, Chile and grew up in Parker, Colorado. During high school, she traveled between Chile and the US, attending several different schools. At the beginning of her senior year she decided to forgo traditional high school and instead get her GED. After a brief stint at college she then decided to take her life and learning into her own hands. Her self-appointed learning plan consists of traveling, working, and using online resources to learn about anything from music to art to computer science to motorcycles to auto mechanics.

Trevor McGlynn

After becoming disillusioned with university, Trevor began unschooling himself by travelling and working around the U.S. Too many Jack Kerouac books at a young age then led him on a 13,000 mile motorcycle trip. Now, he and his motorcycle have reunited and pointed their compass towards San Francisco. Trevor comes to UnCollege hoping to find news ways of learning and solutions for opening education. He recently won a lifelong battle against having two left feet by learning to swing dance and prides himself on being a banjo aficionado.

Posted by on March 29, 2014
Read More

If You Could Offer One Piece of Advice…

By Jean Fan

If you could offer one piece of advice to fellow hackademics, what would it be? What is something you’ve realized that has changed the way you act? What is something you’ve done that has helped you learn and grow?

For me, it was having a variety of different work experiences early on. This was instrumental in my process of self-discovery.
The piece of advice that I always give is this: if you’re trying to figure out what you want and don’t want to do, get an internship.

My first internship was at a charity fashion show. I was 15 and convinced that I wanted to be a fashion designer. I helped promote the event, working remotely until the day of the show. It wasn’t glamorous, though I should’ve anticipated this from watching The Devil Wears Prada.

I learned a lot about the fashion industry during this internship. But I learned even more about myself — including the fact that I didn’t really want to work in fashion.

So a few months later, I tried something new. I got an internship at a hackerspace in Silicon Valley. Again I worked on the business side of things, this time helping out with their fundraising campaign. As you can imagine, there was a huge contrast in culture. The people that get excited about hacking are quite different from those that get excited about clothing.

Having these work experiences opened my eyes to the spectrum of different communities out there, each with a distinct culture. Internships, I learned, are a great way of accessing them.

Later on, I interned at a yoga studio, and after that, at an education-technology startup. By doing internships in many different fields, I had to learn how to succeed in a variety of work environments. I also had to understand what implicit and explicit skills I needed to thrive.

Internships vary greatly in pay, structure, industry, and so forth. Some of my internships paid me in money. Others “paid” me by giving me knowledge and experience. Sometimes I was given a lot of guidance. Other times I was able to choose what I wanted to work on. When you’re doing an internship, you have a lot of freedom in deciding what you want to get out of the experience.

And you can get a lot by doing internships. If you’d like to gain skills and knowledge, friends and mentors, and understanding of the world and of yourself, getting an internship is a great way to do so.


Posted by on March 21, 2014
Read More

What Rules Do You Break?

By Jean Fan

Some people break laws; they are convicts. We put them away. Others break unenforced rules, like the guy who cheats when the professor isn’t looking in order to pass a test. They are cheaters. We don’t like them very much. Still others unknowingly break rules — rules of social conduct. They may seem awkward or abrasive. They aren’t very cool, either.

But then you have hackademics, who actively defy social norms and challenge “common sense.” They break many rules. Yet people like them, look up to them even.

Why? Because hackademics break rules with good intent.

They are not trying to hurt anyone. They are not doing it unintentionally, either. Rather, they purposefully disregard ideas that limit them from reaching their full potential, setting a precedent for others in the process.

You will inevitably break rules. There are simply too many of them. Therefore, learning how to break rules — and which rules to break — is really important, especially if you’re trying to hack your education.

So what rules do you break?

Posted by on March 8, 2014
Read More

UnCollege is hiring!

UnCollege is hiring an apprentice to assist the program team in the operation of our Gap Year program this Spring. This is an excellent opportunity for a young person to gain experience working in a quickly moving startup environment.

As an apprentice at UnCollege you will:

  • Support the UnCollege staff with operational needs

  • Assist in supporting the program participants (Fellows)

  • Schedule guests speakers, collect feedback, research sweet events and organizations for our fellows to take advantage of

  • Take initiative and work on projects that match your skills and interests

To be an apprentice, you must be:

  • willing to live at the UnCollege house in San Francisco, CA

  • an excellent writer

  • smart as hell, dedicated, and organized

  • incredibly self-directed

Why should you apply for this position?

  • It is a paid position.

  • This is an apprenticeship, not a long-term job. However if it works well it could turn into something longer-term.

  • You will interact with well-known people and make connections that will advance your life and career.

  • I know lots of people who do interesting things, and, if you perform well, will gladly serve as a reference.

To apply, please send a cover letter, resume, and writing sample to [email protected]

Posted by on February 27, 2014
Read More