What I Learned About Self-Directed Learning In Tokyo

During my Gap Year with UnCollege, I spent 3 months in Tokyo, Japan teaching English, doing housekeeping, learning Japanese, touristing around and making connections with super cool people. While I was there, I learned a few valuable insights about self-directed learning, specifically self-directed learning in another culture as contrasted with the culture I’ve lived in my whole life.

Japan is a place where conformity is valued highly, especially in the school and work culture of fast-paced Tokyo. It is said in Japan that if everyone behaves in the same way, they keep the harmony of the country. That’s a heavy burden for anyone who is at all “different.”

I was working in an English conversation cafe teaching English in a more informal setting than most Japanese people were used to; using conversation instead of lessons to teach. The first thing I always heard from newcomers was that this was different than anything they had ever experienced. In school, they “learned” English by studying spelling and grammar lessons. Even though they studied English for the majority of their schooling (all of middle and high school), when they came out of school, they couldn’t speak a word. All those years, they never practiced actually speaking English. They could read and (kind of) understand English, but they had no idea what it sounded like or how it felt in their mouths as they said it. They didn’t know how to form the sounds of the alphabet or make words or sentences.

At the cafe I worked at, everything was based around speaking and listening. New, random vocabulary wasn’t dished out using worksheets that were due at a certain time on a certain day. Instead, when someone encountered a word they didn’t know, they asked a question, looked it up in an English-to-Japanese dictionary or googled it on their phone. After they understood the word and how it fit into the sentence, then we would continue our conversation. So, what if someone came in knowing no English whatsoever? I would get a third party to translate between us and talk really slowly and simply. A lot of people would just sit and listen, occasionally asking questions to someone in Japanese, until one day, they would venture into speaking a few sentences of broken English. I saw this happen many times, and it always seemed like a brilliant transformation of the student.

While I went through my 3 months there, learning, working and touristing, I made notes in my head about self-directed learners and what I learned about them that crossed all lines of culture. Though there was a lot that I learned, the following three points are, I think, the most important things I learned during my time there.

  1. Self-Directed Learners Are Different

While many people are equipped to become self-directed learners, not everyone who can will. That said, not everyone is equipped to do it. The people who have already crossed that line are different than the mainstream of people inside their culture. And they were probably already “weird” before they started educating themselves. Self-directed learners are different, we use our time differently than most, and are usually ambitious as fuck. I met students who wanted to learn up to 7 languages, were freelance translators, wanted to change the education system and even owned their own businesses. I also learned that it was often viewed as a bad thing in Japan to be different and that these people were taking a risk socially by learning to speak English and pursue the other things they were learning or doing.

Self-directed learners are viewed as different, no matter where they live, because they are learning outside the system. We’re usually always viewed as different to begin with, but the fact that we learn on our own definitely is another thing that sets us apart. Usually, self-directed learners are also very ambitious. And you have to be in order to teach yourself something and really follow through on that.

The best self-directed learners are proud of that which sets them apart. The students I had that did the best were the ones who would look to see if someone was listening and then say to me “I’m weird.” And smile. In Japan, this is a big thing to do because their culture is very centered around conformity and the idea of being “normal.” Some students would even go on short angry rants about how they hate this about Japan. But other students, usually the ones who didn’t try too hard and didn’t return often, whenever someone would point out that they might be weird or different, they would come back with “No I’m not. I’m normal!” And they would say it urgently, looking unsettled, an unspoken fear showing on their faces. The more they embraced their weirdness, the better they did. It was a really interesting correlation I found as I taught there over the course of 3 months.

  1. You can’t do it alone

This I found in my own experiences as I ventured around Tokyo. Without the help of other people, I would have not gotten much accomplished. I would’ve spent most of my time lost, probably would’ve gone broke and might not have been able to muster up the courage to face culture shock and the language barrier every day. Alone, I would’ve learned little to no Japanese. With help of friends and teachers in Japan, I learned enough to be able to survive any given day in Japan. With the help of friends, I found work and therefore money. I met friends of the friends I made while teaching and ended up making lasting friendships with people I still talk to.

One of my goals while I was in Japan was to keep a daily writing practice. Without Hisa, a friend I met at the cafe where I taught English, I wouldn’t have known where outside my house I could write and research on my computer (most coffee shops in Japan don’t have wifi), and I wouldn’t have had anyone to keep me accountable. After meeting him, we started hanging out at the library, writing together between the hours of my morning housekeeping job and my night English teaching job. He did all his writing freelance, so he made his hours fit with mine, which was awesome. He also made sure I wrote at least 1,000 words a day.

Just because you’re self-directed doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. If you want good results, you really shouldn’t. With other people to  help motivate and keep you accountable, you achieve a lot more than you would alone, not to mention that they can introduce you to new connections.

  1. Don’t be so hard on yourself

When I was in Japan, I kept falling short of my goals in respect to language learning and writing. The more I tried, the more I failed. And when I failed, I was super hard on myself for it. I would get mad at myself and ruin my own day because of it.

In contrast, when I was teaching English and my students beat up on themselves even a little bit, I would call them out and tell them to stop. I would tell them that they’re learning and it’s okay to not be perfect, and that they needed to be nicer to themselves. It took me a while to realise what I hypocrite I was being. It took me even longer to take my own advice and put it into practice.

Often, we expect too much from ourselves, and when we don’t meet our goals, we become angry at ourselves. We go over all the reasons we failed. We beat ourselves down and that doesn’t help anything. This is probably the most important thing I learned in Japan. That I need to be kind and understanding to myself instead of expecting to succeed every time and getting mad over failures of any kind. I thought, if my students did this, I would call them out. And there was no one to call me out most of the time, so I didn’t catch on to this bad trend until a lot later than I should’ve. There’s a balance between completing goals, being held accountable and just letting up on all the pressure we put on ourselves.

In the end, we won’t get as much done, learn as much or be as awesome if we spend a ton of time being down on ourselves. Instead, if we let up on ourselves and treat ourselves like people, we’ll bounce back from failure faster and learn more than we could otherwise. We’ll be better at communicating with others and managing our stress, which leads to a higher awesomeness level and overall a better life.

So there you have it: embrace your weird, get buddies to learn alongside and be nice to yourself. I learned a lot during my three months in Japan, but I would say that these three things are the most important things I learned. And I’m not a prime example of someone who is a master of any of these. I struggle with them all the time. But I’m working towards something better every day. And that’s what matters. It’s the journey, not the destination. And if you keep that in mind, the journey will be ever more meaningful for you and you’ll grow way more than you would’ve otherwise.

Posted by on October 4, 2014
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Starting Your Application? Consider a Gap Year

Applying to colleges is an exhausting process. There’s the matter of deciding on the colleges you want to apply to, filling out the application, sending your transcript and test scores in and usually writing an essay. All that on top of normal senior year high school classes, homework, extracurriculars and/or part-time jobs. It’s stressful and hard and sometimes you wonder why you’re even doing it. Of course, it’s because you want to get into college, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the reason behind going to college.

For a lot of people, including myself, college is an automatic decision. “Of course I’m going to college. I’m an intelligent, hard-working individual. Why wouldn’t I go?” was a natural thought for me. But when it came to deciding where to apply to, an anxiety crept over me like the shadow of some dark cloud coming to wreck my day. When it came time to actually fill out applications, I was exhausted by the mere idea. I kept wondering why I hated it so much, this was what I wanted to do right? I wanted to go be a productive member of society, get an education, get a degree and have a better chance of a stable job after college.

But what was the real reason I was applying to college without any real thought? I felt pressure from my family, my counselors and friends to do it. I was supposed to. I never thought about what I actually wanted to do. I never asked myself the hard questions, and instead went along with what everyone was telling me to do. I went straight to college without thinking about it, and I regretted it because I went to a school that was easy to get into and overall just not for me. Then, I started asking myself the hard questions, but by then I had significantly less money than when I’d started. I wished I had taken a gap year before deciding where to go to college, or deciding on going to college at all. So after my first year, I took a gap year. It changed my life.

Studies show that students who take a gap year have a consistently higher GPA than those who don’t. They also have less of a chance of academic burnout and a heightened sense of purpose in their studies. Students who take a gap year also get a great chance to recharge after 13 years of schooling. It’s a chance for a fresh start before your college career begins. You’ll also have a lot of experiences that your peers who go straight to college are missing out on. You’ll learn skills, cultural intelligence and independence, all of which will help you whether you decide to go to college or not. Taking a gap year also adds a different perspective to your college application essays, and deeper self-knowledge that will show in how and what you write.

In addition, you’ll have a whole extra year to finish applying to colleges. Not that I’m supporting procrastination, but hey, extra time is pretty great, right?

There are a lot of options out there for taking a gap year, and different approaches work for different people, so make sure to do your research when it comes to what you want to do. You could sign up for a specific gap year program, or do your own thing, but you shouldn’t fall into the trap of just taking a year off. Your gap year is a time to grow and learn in ways you can’t inside a classroom. Whether that means gaining a new skill, travelling, volunteering or interning, there are programs that can help you and there are unlimited options of what you can do with your time and some creativity. Think of your gap year not as a year off, but a year “on.” A year where you’re investigating opportunities and learning in new ways before you head off to college (or whatever else you might want to do).

The benefit to a gap year that involves some time abroad (especially 3 months or more) is that, studies show, extended travel abroad makes workers more flexible. Having to adjust to a new location, language and culture is hard to do, but it benefits us in the long run, both professionally and personally. And it provides us with unique life experiences. That’s why the UnCollege Gap Year program starts with what we call a voyage phase, during which our fellows spend 3 months abroad. They have a number of options for placement during this time, and those options include what country they will go to, where they will stay and what they will be doing there. These options are structured so that fellows don’t end up wasting their precious time abroad, and spend the time learning a skill, interacting with people and learning from them. This phase is a life-changing time for the fellows and will give them experiences that will make them more employable and empathetic.

During the voyage phase, fellows are tasked with learning as much of the language of the country they’re in as they can. This is not only helpful in making the fellows bilingual (if they aren’t already) but also in a way of stretching their mind and comfort zones to see what they are really capable of. Learning a second language also is really great for your brain. It helps delay the onset of dementia and alzheimer’s. In addition to that, it makes you more employable and gives you a better understanding of the world, other perspectives and your own language.

After the Voyage phase, our program has what we call a Launch phase which is multi-faceted.  There are workshops about professional skills, personal effectiveness, learning and thinking and social capital. There is also has an emphasis on networking and going outside of one’s comfort zone. The fellows are assigned deliverables at some of the workshops and that can include anything from building a website for their professional portfolio or designing business cards to starting a blog or writing their resume. Here, they also gain connections to potential internships, pick up new skills, learn to live in a shared space and learn how to manage their time effectively.

The skills our fellows learn here are invaluable to their future employment. During this time, they also have the task of finding an internship for their next phase. Their internship phase will give them real-world work experience and teach them a lot about themselves. This will benefit them in whatever they choose to do after their gap year, whether that is college, a career or entrepreneurship. They will learn communication skills as well as hard skills that they couldn’t learn any way other than through experience.

The final phase of the UnCollege Gap Year program is a project phase, where the fellows have a chance to work on their own personal project for three months. Here, they combine the skills they’ve learned throughout the year and the connections they have made to produce a tangible product or service that they try to make a profit on. This not only teaches a lot of valuable lessons in life and entrepreneurship, but also provides a big project to add to their portfolios. This will be something that will set them apart if they are trying to get into college, a job or set out on their own path. The entire year will provide more real-world learning and self-knowledge than anyone would get just going straight to college out of high school, as is the case with any gap year program. Ours is different in that we focus on deliverables as well as experiences and personal growth. In addition to that, our program includes a year of individual coaching to help fellows achieve their personal, academic and professional goals, as well as stretch themselves in ways they didn’t think possible.

When you take a gap year, you have time to really think and learn about the world around you and yourself. You have the opportunity to call things into question, like how you work best, what kind of person you want to be, and what you want to do after your gap year. For some, that may involve calling college into question, or a certain major. For others, it may be rethinking their future career. Gap years are a personal experience, and everyone’s will be different, but they have been proven to have positive impacts, whether you want to go to college, start a career, start a company or just figure it out as you go. A gap year will give you confidence and independence, which are invaluable traits, especially at the age of 18 or 19.

Fall 2014 Reading List

Here’s a peek at what our UnCollege fellows and staff are reading this fall:



Jon Gordon photo

Jon is one of our coaches who specializes in non-violent communication and facilitation.


Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace) by Chade-Meng Tan. One of Google’s earliest engineers  breaks down  emotional intelligence in a google/science way.  Along the way providing evidence that mindfulness and vulnerability are not only important in life but key components to success and happiness



Morgan is a writer interning at UnCollege. He does content marketing and administration.



Shakespeare’s Sonnets. A challenging read for sure, but the imagery in his words  is unparalleled. Worth reading for anyone with any interest in poetry or english literature.

Second Treatise of Government by John Locke. If you want to know where a lot of America’s founders believed about government, you should know that many of them studied from this work. It influenced the government we’re in now so highly that many of the concepts – once you get past the Old English writing – are common sense to us now.

Sovereign by Ted Dekker. The third book in a trilogy about a medieval, dystopian future where people have no emotions. Dekker’s fast-paced style never bores and he writes plot twists like no other. Always a step ahead of his audience, he’s up there with Stephen King in quality.



Trevor is an UnCollege Fellow from a previous cohort who is interested in skill acquistion and is currently doing a sales internship.



The Social Animal by David Brooks. It’s a story of success told on a level deeper than the surface. It’s about the hidden qualities in us that can’t be measured, but in the end are what actually lead us to success and happiness.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Explores the science behind habits and how they affect our lives and businesses.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. Why character, confidence, and curiosity are more important to your child’s success than academic results.



Caleb is a Felllow from a previous cohort who is skilled in videography and does videos for UnCollege.



The Art of Self-Directed Learning by Blake Boles. If you’re looking to learn more about self-directed learning, this one can’t be recommended enough. It’s a short read, but the content is jam-packed with advice and understanding about self-directed learning, how it really works, and how to make it work for you.



Sharan is a current UnCollege Fellow who has a variety of interests, but is especially interested in neuroscience.



Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It explores adventure but also questions imagination.



Charles is a current Fellow who is focusing on music production.



His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. The story is about travelling, facing human cruelty, and finding inner beauty without dogmas. Science, witchcraft and religion become important parts as the books progress. The characters are amazing. These books helped me realize how great and important imagination is, and also how much human beings can be amazingly evil or beautiful.

Reveries of the Solitary Walker by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The true story of a philosopher trying to come to terms with his solitude and find happiness in nature. It’s written in a really beautiful way while being autobiographical at the same time.



Natalie is a current Fellow who is working to start her own cosplay and chainmaille business.



Sandman series by Neil Gaiman. What I really like about it is that it’s not dumbed down. It’s written in a way that you can understand, but you still sometimes find yourself looking up words. The concepts aren’t dumbed down either, like most things these days are. I like it when authors treat their readers like intelligent human beings.



Nick is a current Fellow who is interested in technology.



Zero to One by Peter Theil and Blake Masters. About how to innovate in any industry, and why innovation and progress shouldn’t be limited to technology and Silicon Valley.



Keri is a current Fellow who is interested in writing in many different forms, including poetry and her blog.



Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. What I like about it is the stream-of-consciousness style of writing, so you know what the main character is thinking, but it is also a well-crafted narrative.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I like it because it’s anti war. It does a good job of mirroring our lives and talks about things that most people are afraid to address and is honest about them.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It’s narrated by death, which is awesome, and it gives a really honest account of of World War 2. What I really like about it is how it captures what it’s like to be going through adolescence on the brink of World War 2.

No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay. A book of poetry that really links together family, love and the importance of human connection.

Posted by on October 3, 2014
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We’re Hiring an Admissions Advisor!

We at UnCollege/Gap Year are seeking an advisor 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 a revolution in higher education.

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. Most importantly, you should care deeply about creating a world where people have the freedom to learn how, where, when, and why they want.  The position could start right away for the right candidate.


Admissions (70%)

Evaluate and recommend applicants for admission
Manage the application system and ensure all forms have been collected
Assist in further implementation of a CRM system
Report on the admissions funnel
Build relationships with applicants as their primary point of contact
Respond to inquiries
Advise applicants, families, and school officials on our programs, admissions policies,and financial support opportunities

Marketing (15%)

Plan, write and edit content for the website, blog, and external sites
Manage Adwords campaigns
Provide design support
Update and maintain the website (WordPress)

Budget and Account Management (10%)

Assist with payment planning
Track tuition payments made
Explore and recommend payment planning solutions
Track marketing budget and expenditures

Events (5%)

Represent the Gap Year program at recruitment events, school visits, and information sessions
Make presentations to parents, students, and educational professionals in venues ranging from small groups to conferences
Assist with events involving Gap Year fellows, such as orientation

Direct admissions experience

Required Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities:
Outstanding communication, interpersonal, and public speaking skills.
Ability to represent and promote UnCollege/Gap Year independently.
High degree of organizational and management skills.
Ability to handle a large workload to peak periods.
Some travel and weekend hours required.

Preferred Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities:
Experience evaluating international credentials.
Experience recruiting students for highly selective programs.
Experience producing publications.
Editorial writing.

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

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3 Ways to Be a Leader

By Nelson David Bassey

For many years society has imposed certain myths about leadership on us, which sadly, we have accepted unquestionably. Many of us have been taught that leadership is about position, roles, job description, politics, greed or manipulation. Some of us have even been lured to believe that leadership is about personality types, or that there is a genetic factor to leadership. But is that really what leadership is about?

In January 2011, as a young college student, I set out to explore and find the true meaning of leadership. I started out by reading lots of books. Many of them emphasized management practices. Some of them introduced complex systems and definitions of terms that left me even more confused. Nonetheless, I kept on learning. What I didn’t know at the time was that leadership doesn’t have to be learnt or sourced through elitist education, expensive seminars and privileged programs. But I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn experientially as well. I joined clubs, started one, managed teams, pioneered programs, failed terribly and succeeded remarkably too.

After three years of my personal journey in leadership, I came to understand what truly leadership is about.

  • It’s not about having or holding a position.
  • It’s not about having connections or high social standing in society.
  • It’s not about being born with a special leadership microchip in your left brain. (Just if you’re wondering, I certainly was not born with one)
  • It’s not even about having charisma or possessing certain personality traits (introversion or extroversion).

I learned that “The real secret about being a leader is finding yourself, discovering your purpose, believing in your abilities and living it every day of your life – thereby growing your value and influence, and impacting the lives of other people in different ways.”

My life exploded. Today, through writing, speaking and training, I help students understand the true meaning of leadership, embrace it wholeheartedly and increase their value and influence through it. Because of what I learned and the change I made in my own life, at age 23 I authored my first book, and have since had the privilege of speaking at conferences, conduct training and workshops for institutions across Malaysia and internationally.

People ask me, “What is leadership?”

Leadership is not a strategy. It is not a role or a responsibility. It is a way of life. “[It] is first an attitude and belief, followed by the ability to stand up and take ownership in walking taller and stronger on a new path or an improved current path.” – Rhae Duttagupta [paraphrased].

The next question is, “How can I become a leader today?”

Well, the answer is – you already are! We all have the seed or conviction of leadership within us. It can either be active, emergent or dormant. So, the right question is “How can I become a great leader?”, “How can I become a leader that will leave a positive impact for generations?”

Here are three (3) ways – not all the ways – of becoming that kind of leader:

  1. Become “Leaderless.”

There are four kinds of people in our society today. There are people who do the right thing without being asked to do so. There are other people who do the right thing after been told once. There are also people who do the right thing after been told twice. And lastly, there are people who will not do anything even if you told them to. These people do not get any reward. The people who get the most rewards in life are the first kind. Which one are you?

True leaders are people who do the right thing without being told to. These are initiative takers. They take initiative to solve problems by asking the right questions (quoted from my book, “The New Generation of Leadership” page 51-52):

“…What can I do for my country today? What can I do for my community today? What can I do for my institution today?”

  1. Create ladders for other people to climb higher.

Less than two weeks ago, I was blessed with a humbling privilege to share stage with Professor Muhammad Yunus (the ‘father of social entrepreneurship and microfinance’), in Jakarta, Indonesia. There I addressed 2,000+ ASEAN youths and social entrepreneurs on leadership and social entrepreneurship. The impact was remarkable, beyond words. However, that would not have been possible without a lady I truly love and respect. I call her “Ms. Chong.” She is the CEO of a non-profit in Malaysia. Ms. Chong got me on what became my biggest platform without any prior request from me. I received a call one bright morning, and was presented with one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. I accepted the opportunity which turned out to be a game changer for the Indonesian youths and for me personally.

Just like Ms. Chong, great leaders are people who create ladders for other people to climb towards higher performance, to succeed, to win and to actualize their dreams and potential.

  1. Stand up for people and not for ideas.

From Nelson Mandela to Mother Theresa, Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr. each one of them, like every other great leader you can think of, stood up for people. They didn’t stand up for ideas. They fought for people and not for ideas.

When you are starting a project, creating a product or making decisions in the boardroom, are you doing so for the “idea” sake, to prove that you’re intelligent and smart; or are you doing so thinking about the “people” who will be affected by it? Great leaders stand up for people. You can, too! These are the people who leave an impact for many generations long after they are gone!

In conclusion, my challenge to you is this:

How can you be “leaderless” today?

In what ways can you create a ladder for someone else within your network today?

Who can you stand up for today?

Remember, “There is no off switch on leadership. Every one of us can demonstrate leadership in every role we play, not just at work but everywhere, every day.” – David A. O’Brien


Posted by on September 27, 2014
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Willpower vs Habits: Why Habits Work

Learning to make effective habits instead of relying on willpower to help you give yourself a world-class, self-directed education is something that will set you ahead of the rest of the pack, and set you far ahead of your traditionally-educated peers. It will help you have a more manageable life and workload, as well as make self-educating much less stressful.

During the Gap Year program, our fellows learn about habit building and sharpen this skill in order to become better self-directed learners throughout the course of their lives. We have workshops dedicated to the skill of habit building, and, in addition, our coaches help each fellow on an individual basis to form habits that will benefit them the most. We see habit-building as a very integral part of being a self-directed learner and a more effective person. But before the fellows can start building habits, they have to understand the difference between operating on pure willpower and relying on strong habits. Then, they have to know the most effective way to build habits that will make them stick.

Let’s take a look at the difference between using willpower to accomplish our goals and relying on well-formed habits:

1. You only have a set amount of willpower

Every day, we have a set amount of willpower. We all know this because we’ve all gotten to that point in the day where we just can’t do it anymore. Something inside us says “no.” And it says it strongly, with such force that even if we try to go against it, we will feel miserable and stop partway through what we’re doing because the voice was right. We can only do so much in a day out of pure willpower. But, that’s where habits come in.

Think about brushing your teeth or showering. Those don’t take any effort, do they? They’re completely automatic. But think back to when you were a kid. Brushing your teeth every night felt like a chore. It made you squirm and you couldn’t wait to be done. You might’ve been mad at your parents for making you do such a miserable task. What changed?

You formed a habit. And you stuck to that habit for a really long time. Now, tonight, if you were to skip brushing your teeth, wouldn’t it feel weird? If you didn’t take a shower tomorrow morning, or whenever it is you take a shower, wouldn’t your day feel kinda thrown off? That’s because you’re breaking a habit. It would probably be way harder for you to not brush your teeth for a month than to brush your teeth for a month because that habit is ingrained in your mind.

2. Using willpower is exhausting

I recently started working out because I know that I need more exercise in my day to stay healthy. Working out isn’t so hard in and of itself, it’s getting to that point that is exhausting. Saying in my mind “I’m gonna do this.” and motivating myself to go do the routine is harder than the actual routine. A million excuses pop up in my mind as to why I shouldn’t work out, or what else I could do instead. It’s hard to silence those voices.

In contrast to that, I have a daily writing habit. I sit down at the same time every day and write for the same amount of hours until it’s time to stop. This is easy, and I even look forward to it, because it’s just a natural, enjoyable part of my day. If I don’t write one day, I feel wrong. My day is off. But if I follow that habit I set, I feel great when I’m done. Starting that habit was hard. I had to figure out when I would start and end, where I would write and what my writing goals were. Then, I had to commit. I had to put myself in the mindset of “I’m gonna do this.” Which is a hard mindset to get into. But now that it’s a habit, it feels natural. I don’t use any willpower on it, and I have willpower leftover for dealing with other occurrences and forming more habits. I’m less exhausted when I use less willpower and rely on habits I’ve built instead. Who doesn’t want to be less exhausted?

3. Using willpower takes longer

Mustering up willpower calls upon your mental and emotional faculties, as well as taking time out of your day. Even if it’s just a few minutes of time – which it’s probably not – that’s still time you could be using more effectively. Whether you’re trying to educate yourself or work on something of your own,calling upon the willpower to read the books, practice the skills and send the emails isn’t practical.

When you use willpower to accomplish tasks, you will procrastinate. It’s a fact. Your mind will find ways to distract you from doing that right away – consciously or unconsciously – and you will lose time. A lot of time. Procrastination wins over willpower almost always, and always at first. This will make tasks take longer to get done than if you just form a habit and rely on that to carry you through your day.

Alright, so you’re convinced that habits are better than relying on your willpower reserves to accomplish your goals. But you’re wondering how to effectively make habits that will help you get shit done and keep your willpower for when you really need it.

So, how do we form habits?

1. Use another habit you already have to link this habit to

For years, I struggled with forgetting – or just avoiding – practicing piano. I loved playing piano, the feel of the keys, the satisfaction of finally getting something right, just getting to hear the sound of the music coming out. I loved it. I still love it. But it was hard as hell to get myself to practice.

Every night before bed I studied music theory and literature for a couple hours. It was my nightly routine. After this, I would brush my teeth. I had two habits that were linked to one another. After a couple hours of reading, my brain said “After this chapter, I should brush my teeth and go to bed.” Without realising it, I had effectively linked two habits together, making the formation of the reading habit much easier than it could have been.

But I still struggled with getting my piano practice in. So I decided that, between studying music theory and studying literature, I would practice piano. Suddenly, not as much willpower was needed to practice piano, because once I finished one habit, my brain fired off the message that I should practice piano. After a while (the standard 28 days to form a habit), it paid off and practicing piano was simple. I didn’t really think about it. And I was getting way better at piano by practicing daily.

If you link the habit you’re trying to form to another habit in your mind – either fitting it in before or after another habit – then, it will become easier to build that habit. They will become linked in your mind and you won’t be able to procrastinate. I think it’s especially helpful to put the habit you’re trying to form before a well-established habit, like showering or brushing your teeth. That way, since you want to get to the other thing – because you’ve hardwired your brain to do that at “x” time or before you do “y” thing – you power through the part that needs willpower to get to the easy stuff that is already a component of your day.

2. Use the clock to help you

If you want to do something, set aside a certain time for it. Be specific. Not “I’ll do this in the afternoon” or “I’ll do this sometime before 9am” but “I’m going to start this at 7:30 and end at 8:30.”

If you attach the thing you want to do to a specific time in your mind, it becomes easier to do. The more specific you can be, the better. Linking an activity and a time in your brain helps create a more solid habit and will be much better than having a vague idea that’s harder to set goals around.

3. Only form one habit at a time

Building up a habit takes willpower, which is inherently exhausting to use. Therefore, the beginning of habit making will be just as hard as it is to do things without habits. As time goes on, it will become easier, but in the beginning, it takes just as much willpower as you were using before you decided to build a habit. Because of this, you should not try to build multiple habits at a time.

If you do try to build multiple habits at a time, doing so many new things will leave you exhausted and you’ll end up right where you started: with no new habits and out of willpower. In order to avoid this, you have to strictly only create one habit at a time. After 28 days, you can go on to the next one, but until then, decide in your mind that you will not make any new habits other than this one. And focus your willpower into building this habit, so you can get onto the next one and have a host of good habits to fall back on to make your life easier. Don’t stretch yourself thin, only focus on one habit at a time.

Once you decide to build habits instead of wear yourself out trying to get through your day with willpower, remember to go slow. Take it one habit at a time and attach that habit to other habits and set times to make them easier to remember and to act upon. Keep on keeping on when it gets tough until suddenly, you notice it’s no longer tough. Then, you’ll know you’ve constructed a habit. After you do that, take a moment to be proud of yourself before you continue on to other habits. It’s good to take pride in an accomplishment. And it will give you motivation to start the next one.

Posted by on September 25, 2014
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Fall 2014 Fellows’ Night At LinkedIn

The other day, the Gap Year fellows had an awesome chance to network with the amazing people over at LinkedIn. LinkedIn moved into the space next door to the coworking space that UnCollege does coaching meetings and workshops out of. And since we are in the neighborhood they moved into, they had an open house networking event that we were invited to.

This was the fellows’ first chance to network, and a lot of them seemed really involved. They were talking to people perhaps twice their age and keeping up intelligent conversations with confidence and ease. It was a really great thing to see.

Another cool thing about the event was that there was a ping pong table. The fellows definitely got a lot of use out of this during the event. They played against each other as well as with new people they’d just met. Other fellows were going around the room getting as many business cards as they could, or munching on free snack food that was offered. The event was only an hour and a half long, but the fellows used all that time to network and have fun in a really effective way. Of course, many of them wanted it to last longer so they could connect to more people.

Since I wanted to show the event from the perspective of the fellows, I interviewed them afterwards. Here’s what a few of them had to say about it:

First, I talked to one of our fellows named Daniel.

Me: “What did you think? Were you excited to go? What was your general impression?”

Daniel: “I was really impressed by it. Beforehand, I was excited to go because this is our first chance to network, it’s still the first week, and we get to go to LinkedIn. Like, how cool is that? So I told my parents afterward. It was great. The people there were really professional and just getting to see the business side of something like that is really cool.”

Me: “Did you meet any interesting people?”

Daniel: “Yeah, I met this guy who was living in an incubator and trying to get his tech startup off the ground. He was pretty cool.”

Me: “Did the people you talked to know about UnCollege?”

Daniel: “Not many of them had, but there were a few. Once I told them about it though, they all seemed really interested. They had a lot of questions and really supported the idea. They were all about the opportunity it gives us and were really happy to see an opportunity for advancement other than college. Even though they can’t be in the program, they were happy to see that something like that was finally getting traction.”

Then, I asked another fellow, Addie, to share her experience.

Me: “So, what did you think? How did you like it? What impression did it leave?”

Addie: “Well, networking isn’t really my thing, so I was a little anxious. But I was really surprised when I got there because everyone there was pretty chill. The whole place just had a good vibe to it. How things went down, how it was mostly networking, that was exactly how I expected it to be, but I didn’t expect it would be so relaxed. It was really nice.”

Me: “Did you meet anyone interesting?”

Addie: “Yeah, I met this one guy who was in marketing. I can’t remember where he worked, but he was pretty cool. I played ping pong with some cool people too, but we were pretty focused on the game. It was nice though, because networking isn’t my thing, but I got to do a little and not feel like I had to network the whole time. It was a good way to get out of my comfort zone and connect to new people, but it wasn’t totally overwhelming. And now I know what networking is like and can push myself more next time.”

Me: “Did you get a lot of questions about the program?”

Addie: “Not really. When I told people about it, they were happy to listen and to learn about it, though.”

Finally, I asked Rayan for his experience.

Me: “Did you meet an interesting people at the LinkedIn open house?”

Rayan: “Yeah, I met a lot of people. I met a software engineer and a programmer and they  both worked for LinkedIn. I met another guy who works at the Wall Street Journal. I also met a woman who was an architect. She was from China, so that was cool. I met another girl who worked at LinkedIn. I got some business cards and I’m planning on following up with a few people I met there.”

Me: “Did people have questions about the UnCollege Gap Year program?”

Rayan: “Yeah. A lot of people were really skeptical. Wondering how anyone can “make it” in life without college. Like they think it’s impossible. They had a lot of questions though, and I think some people warmed up to it after a while. But there was definitely some skepticism.”

Coming away from the event, it’s clear that each fellow had a different experience and perception of the night and the people they met. There were so many people there, it would’ve been impossible for the fellows to meet everyone, but they did seem to make a go of networking, and met some interesting people as a result.

It was a great opportunity for our fellows’ first networking experience to be at such a big-name event meeting a lot of people who were older and more experienced than them. There was something for everyone there, even for the fellows who weren’t very inclined to network. It definitely stretched their comfort zones a bit to get involved in their first networking experience, but they all came away with a positive view on it.

When I asked Gabe, one of our Program Specialists, why we have the fellows go to networking events and push their comfort zones in this way, he replied with this:


“When you are looking for opportunity, you find more of it in relationships than you will when you send your resume to a bunch of HR departments, hoping for a job. If you establish real relationships with people, you can get into jobs that you might be seen as unqualified for on your resume. If people like you as a person, it will play a role in what opportunities they connect you with, as opposed to someone looking over your resume and not  knowing you at all.

In addition to that, people all have other connections that can also offer opportunities, and no HR department can connect people like one good relationship can. So it starts with networking, but if fellows follow up and put time into building relationships, they can find a lot more opportunities than they could otherwise.”


After their first networking experience, some of the fellows have followed up and are seeing how connections they made are influencing the opportunities they have access to. Some of them have been connected to potential jobs and others have made friendships with people they met.

Networking is where it starts, but the end result could be life-changing for our fellows. And taking that first, bold, uncomfortable step is the only thing separating them from opportunities and connections that could change their lives. Now that they’ve learned how to take that step, there’s no going back.

Posted by on September 24, 2014
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Gap Year: Day One

It’s day one of a year that will change the lives of 13 young adults.

The fellows arrive at the Gap Year house. With hugs and kisses, some apprehension and sadness, they say their goodbyes to parents. They say goodbye to the life they knew before their gap year, and they say hello to something entirely new, not completely sure of what to expect. There is fear, there is joy. There is excitement buzzing in the air as fellows find other fellows to talk to, looking for friends in each other, each wondering what lies ahead on this first day of the next year of their lives.

Soon enough, it’s time for their first dinner at the Gap Year house. And everyone around the table, both staff and student, have to answer a question that stretches their minds, and perhaps their comfort zones: “What makes you a misfit?” Each person at the table fills the silence of eating with something about themselves, something that sets them apart. Again, a bit of fear weaves its way into their stomachs. But they know to embrace this thing that sets them apart. They know to fight against the fear inside them. Because they know no one here will hurt them. They are safe. And they speak, each in their turn, and say that wonderful thing that makes them different. Their badge of pride. That thing that makes them a misfit.

And they find they aren’t so different after all. They are all different, but similar in the fact that they are different. They find pride in that thing that sets them apart from the others. And the next morning, they wake with the memory still in their minds as they come to the table a second time, now for breakfast made by the staff. The fellows stayed up late meeting and getting to know each other, sharing their hopes and dreams for the year, and they don’t waste any time with silence as they talk all throughout breakfast.

At 10 am, they all head downstairs to learn the the schedule of the first three months of the year they are embarking upon. Here they learn what the expectations are for these three months as well as the simple truth that what they’re doing isn’t just a program, but a movement. And they are a part of that movement. They actively have a hand in shaping it. And this brings upon the fellows both a sense of responsibility and an electric excitement. After this, they are reminded of the importance of taking good care of themselves during the year, with emphasis on sleep, exercise, food and generally being healthy physically, mentally and emotionally.

After a break for lunch where the fellows get to go out of the house for the first time to check out the restaurants around the neighborhood, they arrive back for the rock-paper-scissors world championship. Here, the rules are that when some one get beaten by another player, they have to follow them around, cheering for them. One fellow who was a more shy and introverted person than most of the other fellows began to get a lot of support from the others by winning a lot of games. By the end, the whole room was chanting her name in unison when she became the rock-paper-scissors world champion. She experienced what it’s like to have a bunch of support behind her in what she was pursuing and to see how it affected her. Needless to say, she was smiling wide and knew she had just made some new friends.

After some fun improv games, things progressed to a bit more serious tone. Fellows were asked to complete the sentence “One thing you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at me is…” fellows talked about everything from being very family-oriented to being self-critical or not being like other kids because they didn’t like to party. Then, they took a break where they spread out in the house, the park nearby or going on a short walk around the block and talked about their life stories on a one-on-one basis, getting to know each other better.

Then they returned to the community space in the house for a continuation of orientation. The room had a different feel this time when the question was asked. Complete the sentence “if you really knew me you would know…” There was anxiety in the air as people began to talk about their deeper selves and everyone got 2 minutes to talk uninterrupted. Honesty filled the air as the fellows allowed themselves to become vulnerable with one another, and the gentle caring of the fellows and staff in the room was palpable in the air. As they mustered their strength to show their true, raw selves, tears were shed and hugs were given. By the end, the fellows knew each other better than most friends know each other.

After a short break to collect themselves, the feel of the activities changed again. Again, there was a spark in the air. Excitement found itself in the back of the fellows’ minds. They started playing a game called elves-wizards-giants. Which is like rock-paper-scissors, but dividing people into two teams, miming silly fantasy characters and chasing people in an effort to tag them and recruit them to their team.

Jon, the main staff member in charge of orientation and one of UnCollege’s Program Specialists, has been getting people to open up and become closer in business and academic settings for about 10 years. His work is very intentional, and there is a purpose behind every activity in the orientation. When asked about why he gets people to open up to each other so early in the program, he had this to say:


“I’ve noticed, after doing this thousands of times, that when people get real with each other, they become comfortable with each other, and whenever you’re trying to create a culture or an ideal learning environment, people being comfortable with each other is an integral part of that.”


The day ended in a group meal. After a long day of teamwork games and brutally genuine moments, the fellows ate together as a family of deeply connected friends.

Posted by on September 20, 2014
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Unspend Your Student Loans

Patrick Hoesly

This fall, more than 3 million students headed off to college for the first time. Many of them took out student loans in order to afford it, and for a few, it’ll turn out to be a decision they wish they could have back.

For them, we’ve created a new program to pay back their student loans.

If you are a college freshman reconsidering your choices about college and student loans, think of this as a do-over.

Stopping out of college is a big decision. We know. Four years ago, UnCollege was born out of Dale’s decision to choose his own educational path and stop out of college. He’s written about it a lot. He’s shared his very personal story. And he just published a new guide on the topic (which can be downloaded for free).

College can be a great choice, especially for students who are certain of their interests and career pursuits. But there are other choices, and fortunately there are more of them today than ever before. Real learning means actively choosing the experiences that have the most value to you. And the conventional college path doesn’t work for everyone.

So if you are a freshman choosing to stop out of college this winter to explore other possibilities, we want to help you get out from under the burden of your first-semester student loans so you can consider another option. The UnCollege Gap Year is an experience-based program that teaches young adults practical skills that they might miss in conventional classroom settings. Our participants, called fellows, are guided through a year-long course of self-directed learning marked by an overseas expedition, professional internship, personal coaching, and the launch of an individual project. It’s far beyond a traditional gap year. We leaned on decades of educational research to build this program, engineered it in Silicon Valley, and made it flexible enough that it can be taken as a supplement to a conventional college experience or as a stand-alone.

Here’s what you need to know about the Unspend Your Student Loans program:

Who is eligible?
•  students currently enrolled in their first semester of college
•  students with fewer than 18 completed semester units or 24 completed quarter units
•  students who have active Federal Direct Student Loans (subsidized and unsubsidized)
•  students applying for the UnCollege Gap Year program winter 2015 cohort only
•  students must be admitted for the winter 2015 cohort by November 20, 2014 (deadline extended)

How does it work?
•  UnCollege will select a total of two recipients by December 1
•  after the recipients exit college, a six month grace period goes into effect before the loan repayment period begins
•  before the grace period elapses, UnCollege will pay up to a maximum of $2750 each to satisfy the loans of the selected participants

We’re piloting this program with the hope of expanding it in the future, but for the Winter 2015 term we’re starting small with two participants. Obviously, inclusion in the Unspend initiative is competitive. Selections will be made based on a comprehensive review of the candidates’ application materials.

If you know a college freshman who might be interested in making a new choice, we’d love to pay back their first semester student loans and have them join our Gap Year program. It’s easy to get started. Grab Dale’s white paper “Should I Drop Out of College? A Dropout’s Perspective” and read the six crucial questions you need to be asking as you contemplate stopping out. You can always jump right in and apply to the program for the Winter 2015 term.

It takes courage for a student to step away from the conventional educational path when that paradigm is so entrenched. We hope this new program will help make it easier for students to take that step and join us for Gap Year.

Posted by on September 17, 2014
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Question Everything: A Gap Year Experience

By Jean Fan

Two years ago, I met Jean Fan. When a petite Asian woman sat down for coffee, I had no idea I was about to meet one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. I knew that she was smart and kind. I didn’t know that she was only sixteen or that she would become one of my closest friends. She told me she wanted to help UnCollege and ended up writing our newsletter. At the time, she was still in high school and planned to apply to elite universities. After two years working with UnCollege, she begins at Stanford next week.

- Dale Stephens

It’s a habit I picked up in high school, one that I can’t seem to shake. I’m (luckily) not referring to a secret smoking habit, but rather to my propensity to question everything.

Why am I doing this? Why are others acting this way? Why does the world work like this?

It can be a painful habit. Ask too many questions, and you start to notice that everything you thought you knew is fundamentally flawed.

Some days, I just want my brain to shut up. Most days, I’m grateful that it doesn’t.


The Benefits of Asking “Too Many” Questions

Despite the internal turmoil that it can cause, this questioning approach has done me a lot of good.

It’s led me to meet interesting people who share similar opinions. It’s allowed me to take advantage of opportunities that many people overlook. It helps me make decisions that are truly mine.

Questioning the cut-throat approach to college admissions helped me get into Stanford, and also have an enjoyable high school experience. Questioning the value of college led me to meet Dale, get a job at UnCollege, and decide to take a gap year.

During this year off from school, I’ve continued to ask myself many hard questions. By doing so, I was able to have an incredibly fulfilling gap year experience, and gain insight into what I want to do in the future.

In this piece, I want to share three questions that I thought a lot about during my gap year. Hopefully they’ll prompt you to continue your own lines of questioning as well.


The first question: Should I travel during my year off?

I didn’t want to travel, but I felt pressure to after realizing that it’s the thing you’re “supposed to do” on your gap year.

When I told people that I was just planning to stay in the Bay Area and work, I’d always feel a bit lame. In the beginning, I’d have to constantly remind myself that I didn’t have to do what others expected.

Ultimately, after thinking about why I wanted to take a gap year to begin with (to learn more about what I wanted to do in the future), I decided against traveling.* Instead, I had a very rewarding year working first at UnCollege, and later at Leverage Research.

It wasn’t as glamorous as spending the year abroad, and it’s not what many other people would want, but it’s what made me happy.

Do what you want, not what others expect: this is a lesson that I find myself having to learn over and over and over again.

*Towards the end of my gap year, I did end up running an experiment to test whether I’d regret not traveling. After 20 looong days in Peru, I can happily say that I won’t.


The second question I struggled with: Is education really the industry I want to be in?

I was a junior in high school when I started actively thinking about the education system. Now, a few years and internships later, my identify felt inextricably tied to this line of work.

Unfortunately, I was no longer happy. The more I learned, the more obvious it became to me that the deficiencies in education were symptoms of a much larger problem: we don’t understand humans nearly well enough.

For a while I felt very lost. It took me a few months before I was able to step away from what I was doing, and rethink one of my core beliefs.

But only because I pursued this line of questioning did I stumble upon something that was a better fit. For the second half of my gap year, I ended up getting hired for a research position that let me do exactly I wanted: study how people think, and think about how to improve it.

One of the features of my brain is that it constantly asks me, “Why are you doing what you’re doing?” If I can come up with a good answer, I continue. If I can’t, then I stop.

The benefit of questioning yourself like this is that it allows you to make very deliberate decisions. It makes you aware of when you’re doing things that sound good but don’t make any sense, and when you’re blindly following the crowd rather than thinking and choosing for yourself.


The third question I asked myself: Is college actually the thing I’m frustrated with?

Don’t get me wrong. After writing the UnCollege newsletter for two years, it’s obvious to me that there are problems in higher education.

I’ve spent a lot of time feeling frustrated with universities. During my gap year, I began to question whether that frustration was misdirected.

In the past few years, I’ve met a lot of wonderful people both in and out of school. It became obvious to me that my friends in college were often hacking their education just as avidly as the ones who weren’t.

What I see now is that I’m not frustrated by college. I’m frustrated by complacency. The thing I want is for all students to “take control of their education” — not for all students to drop out of college. In fact, I actually want to go to college.


The End of a Beginning

As I write this, I am finishing up my gap year. In one week, I will be a college freshman, and that is so so insane. I have to say that I’m excited.

After this year, I have much better picture of what I want to get out of school. I also know that if school doesn’t end up working out for me, I have the ability to get a great education on my own.

I wish I could say that I’m sad my gap year is coming to an end. But right now, all I can think about is how excited I am to begin the next phase of my education.

Posted by on September 10, 2014
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