By Daniel Windham
Daniel builds intellectual community and studies physics at Harvard. He took a year off following freshman year to work on a knowledge mapping startup in Palo Alto. He was also part of the first Hackademic class. His experiences are most pertinent to studying STEM but generalize to other fields as well.
I spent my freshman year of school meeting people and running around to all the interesting speakers and events on campus. I had signed up for two dozen mailing lists and got about 40 emails a day, which I raked constantly to find these events. Coming out of high school, most of my peers were far more interesting than any group I’d ever spent time with (and the university culture reinforces this attribute), so I kept recalibrating what I wanted in the people I spent time around and became close to. Classes were pretty good, especially some of the lectures I went to, and (at least for problem set classes) the homework felt worthwhile. I didn’t focus heavily on classes though.
Until the end of high school I found engineering, science, and math dull (though I was great at math), and I wanted to counteract that mistake. Freshman year I leapt into CS and life-sci classes. I was frequently distracted by the many other opportunities, however, and I had trouble engaging myself with technical subjects or interacting with peers on technical material. It wasn’t that I was having doubts about whether tech was for me, it was that I lacked the frameworks for these subjects.
So I ran off to a software startup for a year. This built a strong framework and experience base for CS, immersed me in hacker culture, and coincidentally led me to science, too. There were some other reasons for doing this: I developed an understanding of startups and of the many elements of a company; I worked crazy hours on a single project for months, compared to the dinky 12-hour problem sets you build for a class and then never look at again; I gained motivating perspective on the value of academic studies.
As I approached the one-year mark I wanted to focus on academic learning. Before this semester I’d never done that. I’d taken classes and learned from them, but it was never my main priority. This semester I went all out on my physics class, and it was fantastic. There were two other reasons I returned to school. I wanted to build strong relationships and, ideally, long-term teams. I also wanted to dig into the world of science, gaining insight into the world of research and developing patterns of hypothesis testing. I decided to switch to physics because it was harder, it would force me to learn math, it was deeply tied to experimental science, and CS is a lot easier to learn outside of school. Fundamentally, physics is about understanding what is going on in a system, no matter how convoluted it is, while CS is about writing rules that achieve human goals and that humans can understand. Both are powerful and useful, but I wanted to train the former.
When I say “physics is harder,” I mean that undergraduate physics comprises a small number of individually difficult ideas that each take a lot of effort to wrap your mind around and integrate into a successful framework. Biology is “easy” at the undergraduate level – there are few if any hard ideas in it. Bio undergrads learn many, many more chunks, and the major is about churn more than integration. I prefer “how deep” to “how much,” and physics is the extreme of “go deep.”
So these are my experiences so far. As for advice, take difficult classes. As best you can, differentiate between classes that are difficult (ones where each hour you spend is intense) and those that are simply time consuming. (This is another thing that turns me off from CS classes, actually – intro CS classes, and I think a number of upper level systems classes, often suck up a lot of your time doing pretty standard coding.) Math is the basis for everything technical, so do a lot of math from the beginning.
When you learn about classes that build community, take them. When you learn about classes that successfully teach intuition for technical systems and problem solving, these are extremely valuable, take them (most classes just teach content).
I’ll conclude my suggestions with three generic pieces of advice that are notoriously hard to follow. (I’m great at the first and suck at the other two, though I’m getting better.)
Developing deep understanding and expertise is important. Developing deep relationships with fantastic people is important. Grades don’t matter much. Titles and positions don’t matter much. Being a cog and getting tugged along by the incentive systems sucks, don’t do it, you will be wasting your life. Plus the most interesting people are the ones who are making their decisions on their own, and they tend to congregate away from the cogs.
Professors (and grad students) are fantastic. They have office hours, go to them regularly. Ask them questions about what they do, how they came to do that, what excites them, their experiences as undergrads, their families, university and departmental politics, university and departmental gossip, the history of each of these, key questions on your mind about anything (related to their field or not). To be a pro about it, go learn about them ahead of time, whether by reading their lab papers or reading their wikipedia entry. If you don’t think you have anything to talk about, that’s irrelevant. It will be difficult to mess up worse than by not going at all, even if you often come out of meetings feeling like you wasted their time. If you don’t have time to go chat with professors, you’re doing something wrong, make time. In particular, aim to build relationships with professors.
There are more cool opportunities to pursue than you have time for. Two to five orders of magnitude more, depending on how curious you are. You should prioritize one or two any given quarter, and you should minimize the time you spend on non-priorities. Furthermore, you need to get very good at organizing your time. If you don’t have a system that says how much time you’ll spend on what each day (blocking out what you’re doing hour by hour is probably optimal), you should experiment with that. If you’re not convinced that you should do this, start tracking how many hours you spend working productively and think how nice it would be if you could increase that by even 20%. And yet, through all of this – don’t be a cog checking off predefined boxes. Stay flexible enough to harvest the fruits of spontaneity, relaxation, timelessness, and freewheeling creativity, too.
 To illustrate what I mean by classes that build community, consider the question, “If my classmates, professor, and I get dinner together, how natural does this feel?” If it feels similar to getting dinner with your friends, the class has built community; if it feels like the dinner your academic advisor throws with you and the dozen other people she’s had two conversations with and who probably haven’t met one another, it hasn’t.
By Jean Fan
In school, learning happens in a vacuum. We associate it with the hours of 8 to 3, with orderly schedules and heavy textbooks, with boredom and the grind. At the end of the day, we leave, glad that it’s finally over.
When I began my gap year and embarked on an exploration of self-directed learning, I knew that learning would be very different in the real world. Specifically, I knew that in school, I wasn’t learning nearly as effectively as I could be. I knew that this year, I wanted to be.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few months thinking about this question: How can I expand my capacity for learning? Below, I share four things that I’ve started to do (or do better):
1. Treat everything as a learning experience.
Too many students fail to understand that there’s a distinction between learning and getting an education. They think learning only takes place in the context of school, and end up missing out on incredible learning opportunities in the real world.
Try to learn from everyone and everything. This requires a very open mindset, especially when you’re doing things or talking to people that you don’t find yourself particularly interested in. But hey, if you find yourself in a situation where you have to be doing something, you might as well take something from it as well!
2. Take care of your body.
Earlier this week we had ran a workshop on “Wellness” at UnCollege. Based on the logic that mind and body are one, it makes sense to take care of your body if you want to learn as much as you possibly can.
Eat right, get enough sleep, and work out every day you plan to work. You’ll be a lot more focused and in the right frame of mind as you try to learn.
3. Make learning what you do for fun.
It’s a Saturday morning. You have the entire day free. How do you choose to spend it? If you’re a hackademic, you wake up and want to get started on learning.
You take classes and read books — not because you have to, but because you want to and you’re intensely curious. Maybe you decide to learn about biotechnology, or maybe you decide to take a windsurfing class. What you learn doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you feel about it. Aim to associate learning with fun.
4. At the same time, understand that learning is supposed to be challenging and dynamic.
This has been the most difficult thing for me since leaving school, where learning is very structured and organized and sometimes not all that difficult. At the beginning of my gap year, for example, I tried setting a rigid schedule for my learning. It didn’t work.
If one section was particularly difficult, I couldn’t just scrape by with a B on a test and forget about it, like I often did in school — I needed to spend more time and just keep trying until I actually understood it, or what was the point?
Moreover, I found my attention naturally shifting as I began to learn more about certain areas. I realized that, unlike in school, where you often stick with one textbook throughout the entire course, in real life you can jump between resources and topics and entire fields however you please.
If you anticipate that learning will be challenging and dynamic, it’s less likely that you’ll get frustrated and quit. And if your goal is to learn more effectively than you ever did when you were in school, that is an immensely helpful realization to have.
By Alexandre Vaz
Leaving mainstream education is awesome. It is, really! You will never be rated and classified by people who tell you how much you know or if you’re “capable” of being a good professional through exams. You can learn what you’re really interested in and not what others say you should learn to become a successful person. You can build and follow your own path to success.
However, there’s a price for this freedom: Loneliness.
There is a built-in support structure in the school system that does not exist when you leave the existing trails to forge your own. Actually there is a lack of support in our culture in general. Alternative education is still very far from being accepted as a viable choice. It is still very hard to be supported when you choose this path, because of the prejudices against those who don’t want to follow the standard way, seeking to live differently, and because of the lack of knowledge about the subject. Leave your B.S. in Computer Science and your internship at Google for chasing an opportunity in the entrepreneurial world is and chances are that your whole family think you’ve gone crazy and your parents break down in tears asking what they did wrong.
If you tried to get off the regular life, it’s likely that you’ve faced a similar situation. And after that first month of excitement, when you passed from “that-ol’-classic-bored-and-uninspired-guy” to “the-super-productive-and-creative-guy”, you look around yourself to see who was with you and… no one. “That’s ok”, you say, “I can still go on by myself”. And a semester later, there you are, that ol’ classic bored and uninspired guy, back at your college and seeking an internship. After all, we are the average of the five people we most spend time with.
To live with people who encourage us, inspire us and force us to evolve is essential to successfully become a lifelong learner and a kick-ass professional. Being backed by a supportive and active community is the key for mastery and success. When you work with awesome people, you tend to be awesome at what you do. You breathe inspiration and have no problem with challenges and hard work, because you know that you’ll have support whenever you need it.
For a long time, the lack of a supportive community has been a problem for self-educated persons and entrepreneurs. How to get a good job working on things you are passionate about, if you studied and learned by yourself and you don’t have a piece of paper that “proves” you can handle that responsibility? Well, times are changing. Programs like Uncollege, Startups like Exosphere… People who’ve already followed this tough lonely path and know how difficult it is to make it, now are working to make it supportive and sociable for newcomers. Say goodbye to that lonely scary journey and say hello to a new world where you’ll find support and be truly prepared to build your own path. Consider yourself privileged. You’re about to see (and perhaps join) a great revolution.
I need the help of this community to pursue my path as a self-directed learner. My goal? Becoming a world-changing entrepreneur. Seeking ways to improve my entrepreneurial skills and be part of something bigger, this year I was accepted to a Boot Camp for entrepreneurial training organized by Exosphere, an institution created with the mission of establishing a long term community of entrepreneurs and innovators. This Boot Camp will take place in Santiago, Chile, from March to June 2014 and unfortunately, this is going to be an expensive trip that I can’t afford. I didn’t let this bring me down and started a crowdfunding campaign called Mission Exosphere. I need your support to start making my own way and attend Exosphere. You can contribute either by sharing or donating. Donations will be rewarded with one of 8 awesome perks of your choice. Check it out, like the fan page and spread the word! Thanks!
Alex is from the United Kingdom — which means he wears a top hat, a monacle and tweed jackets. He had offers to study Economics at top universities, but declined. He didn’t think he should pay to learn dull theories that had no practical application. Instead, he got a self-education in marketing. He headed marketing at a financial consulting firm and then at a tech startup before working as a freelance copywriter. Frustrated with the exam-centric education system, Alex wants to change how schools work.
Alex is a fun and funky professional. He is an Eagle Scout looking to fly in a different direction than the traditional education route. He is an avid cyclist, selling bikes since age 14. At 15 he founded TatemTunes, a mobile DJ company. He spent his high school career thriving outside of the classroom, meeting with successful entrepreneurs and attending business conferences in the Washington, D.C. area. Alex spent his senior year of high school interning at LivingSocial. Through that experience, he realized that there was no rush to jump straight back into the classroom after graduation.
After completing a private college-prep high-school, Brent advanced to the next logical location: college. However, he was disappointed in the product, which was given so much advertising during high school. After finishing a semester and a half at college, he discovered the UnCollege movement and chose to learn elsewhere. Brent has many passions, including programming, gaming, model-building, science-fiction, philosophy, and studying methods of profiling, observation, and deduction.
Bruno is a high school dropout and 19-year-old from Brazil. Since the 5th grade, he’s felt that the education system prevents students from learning what they actually need to learn, especially for students like him who learn at a very quick pace. Bruno has spent a couple years professionally playing the popular online game League of Legends. He is also very passionate about movies, travelling, and technology. By joining UnCollege, he is challenging himself to change the world.
Caleb Muller is a 2013 high school graduate from Long Island, New York. Because he didn’t make a strong connection with any of the colleges that he visited, he went on a quest to figure out what was next for him. When he discovered UnCollege, he knew it was a perfect match. Caleb is particularly interested in video production and photography. He also does cross-country, lacrosse, skiing, and golf. In the past year, he has developed a strong interest in world travel, visiting Italy, Greece, and Brazil. Before arriving at the Gap Year Program, he traveled across the United States via Amtrak. Caleb is ready to be a pioneer and experience a different approach to higher education.
Erik Brock is anaverage kid from the Midwest with above average dreams and aspirations. After years of frustration with the American public school system and no apparent course of action for after graduation, Erik stumbled upon UnCollege in the fall of his senior year after applying to numerous colleges. Erik is driven by his passion to make and write music that will create a lasting, positive impact on the world as a whole. He plans on using UnCollege to launch his music career, as well as start his own multi-national business.
Evan Luthra is a 18-year-old entrepreneur and innovator, who is thinking of new ideas to make this world a better place. He started out by curating Technology news at the age of 13 and amassed over 200,000 readers. At 14, he started developing mobile apps. He hasn’t looked back since, creating various web 2.0 companies with a user base of 1,000,000 users, and with a following of 100,000 people on the Big 3 networks: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. After working on startups and gaining expertise in the field, he now does consulting for other startups, helping entrepreneurs distribute and develop in a much smarter way. Evan speaks at universities and corporations about entrepreneurship.
Born in Sao Paulo and raised in Manaus, Filipe made his triple début (typography with Circular Limit, photography with Expanding Illuminated, and literature) through Caro Jovem Adulto, an autofictional novel (2012). He has also dealt with descriptive manuals while working as a technical translator for Ralc, an industrial engineering company. Still in the translation field, he tagged along Guerrilla Skepticism, a project devoted to bringing accurate versions of Wikipedia pages worldwide. He’s archiving under #changebrazil in Facebook material regarding massive street protests from all over the country, his curated “best-of” can be seen in a Pinterest image board. An avid reader, Filipe intends to put his knowledge to practice.
Hanaan is an 18-year-old working on quantum cryptographic protocols with Prof. Srikanth of Raman Research Institute, India. At age 14, she stopped out of school to start pursuing her research career. Her invention, Qu-ATM, won her national recognition and was acknowledged by Ministry of Information Science and Technology-Intel as a very innovative project. Hanaan delivered a tech talk at IEEE student event in Sept 2012. She is also interested in neurobiological aspects of human free will and applied technologies. While at UnCollege, Hanaan intends to broaden her management and tech skills to build a startup in the Bay Area.
Jessica is from South Dakota. She started unschooling at fifteen and hasn’t looked back since. She worked in a bakery for two years during that time and is a certified nursing assistant. Her plan for the future is to work as a web developer. In her free time she enjoys reading, writing, sewing, and interior design. She is also interested in the futures of education, green technology, and alternative housing solutions. Her goal in life is to see the day where everyone has a roof over their head and a chance to succeed, with or without a traditional education.
Kevin Park is a 20-year-old aspiring entrepreneur with a creative mindset, business adeptness and technical expertise. Before coming to the United States in 2009, he lived most of his life in South Korea and China. Instead of continuing his computer science degree at UC San Diego, Kevin decided to drop out and pursue unconventional education. He’s currently working as a UX designer at a startup that is trying to give high school students a platform to land careers without a college diploma (e.g. programmers and graphic designers) through mentorship and an online community. At UnCollege, Kevin plans to spend time becoming a better programmer and public speaker.
After living the college life for a couple of years, Michael wanted to supplement his education with something a little more substantial. However, not willing to throw away the time and money he spent working towards a degree, Michael plans to return to Emory University after the program to complete his degree in interdisciplinary studies. His participation in the UnCollege gap year will, in part, serve to inform his senior thesis on the current state of higher education in America. Trying to inject a little independence into his academic studies for years, Michael is excited to get a chance to freely pursue his curiosities outside the ivory tower.
After hating the school system the whole time she was in it, Morgan Ostrowsky went to college because everyone expected her to. Then, she dropped out because she hated it and wanted to do something real with her life. Now, Morgan is cherishing her school-free life by traveling, reading, working and exploring entrepreneurship on the side. Morgan hates writing in the third person and referring to herself as a “she.”
Nathan Abergel is a recent high school graduate from Paris, France. While Nathan was always interested in Math, Philosophy and History at school, he thought that the environment of the French education system prevented him from freely cultivating his curiosity and pursuing his own interests. At age 14, Nathan decided to leave France after high school to go in the US. He learned English by going to summer camps and discovered that he could learn on his own. As a professional gamer, Nathan would like to explore the intersection of video games and education.
Spencer is a lifelong learner without bounds. He fundamentally and constantly asks questions that probe at the deeper truths of basic concepts. Any of Spencer’s peers will tell you is that he motivates everyone around him. He is successful at helping others realize their potential and self-worth. He is an individual who desires to unleash the intellectual abilities of those around him in ways that will fundamentally augment the number of educated individuals in our society. Spencer has always been an intellectual peer, friend, and mentor.
After spending a year studying English at Virginia Commonwealth University, Taylor felt that college was not giving her the full experience that she had imagined. She decided to explore her options and came upon this program, which she believes will allow her to expand her education in a different and exciting way. Only nineteen, she is excited about what the world holds for her, and hopes to be able to enter the world of adulthood prepared with a little more knowledge of who she is and what she wants to do with her life. Her biggest goal is to leave the world a better place than it was when she entered it.
Terrence, or T.J. as he’s known by everyone, is an accomplished product of ‘the system.’ He attended private Catholic school all his life, spent his high school years at a top prep school, and graduated with many accolades receiving multiple scholarships. After a year of university, he decided that he had enough. Having gained most of his knowledge outside of school over the years, T.J. knew that he learned differently than most, and was eager to join UnCollege as soon as he learned about it. Generally an artsy person, T.J.’s passions include theatre, religious studies, and teen leadership training. T.J. has starred in lead roles in his high school productions, currently interns at his Catholic Diocese, and planned and executed a week-long intensive leadership summit for teens at University of California Irvine during his senior year of high school.
Tim is a 22-year-old with a diverse background. His mother’s background granted him an eye for design and a touch of creativity, while his father provided him with problem solving skills through careful analysis. He built his first computer at age of 13 and had hiked and canoed over 500 miles by 15. After achieving the rank of Eagle Scout and graduating high school, he enrolled in a large state university. After two semesters he found himself disgruntled with the institutional aspects of such a large school with little regard for individual guidance. He dropped out and began to search for a passion, pursuing many different fields in the process, from physical fitness to internet marketing. He’s going to use the Gap Year program as an exploratory phase to collaborate with other bright minds and learn about himself in the process.
By Jean Fan
Among hackademics, this seems to be a frequent dilemma:
“Should I go to college with my parent’s financial support, or should I choose a non-traditional path and go it on my own?”
Other situations are very similar. People want to spend lots of time learning and creating outside of the traditional system, but are forced to confront their financial reality. They don’t have parents who will support them if they don’t go to college. They can’t take out student loans for their unconventional education. They have to find a way to support themselves if they want to do what they love.
My question to you is this: what are your priorities?
Freedom vs. Time
As a hackademic, you like learning. You also like learning in your way. Perhaps you don’t enjoy classroom-style learning. Instead, you see your education consisting of internships, entrepreneurial endeavors, and online resources. Educational freedom is important to you.
Unfortunately, this freedom often comes with a price. You can go to college (sacrificing freedom in how you learn), or you can curate your own education (possibly sacrificing time to achieve financial independence).
I say “possibly” because…
The Ideal Situation
There are, of course, ideal situations. If you already have marketable skills (e.g. writing, coding, marketing), it’s entirely possible to find an opportunity that allows you to financially support yourself and learn how you want to be learning at the same time.
Here are three ideas:
1. Start a microbusiness.
Perhaps you’ve already spent time cultivating a skill or learning a trade. You can build things, and sell them. You can teach people, and help them learn what you know. You can advise people, and help them succeed in their ventures.
At the same time, you’re creating something you can be proud of and learning a ton about what it means to be an entrepreneur. This is ideal situation #1.
Further reading: Chris Guillebeau’s The $100 Startup.
2. Get a paid internship.
Maybe you’ve already done a few unpaid internships, and developed some valuable skills in the process. Now is a great time to leverage your experience to get a paid position. Working with an established organization (be it a nonprofit, startup, or corporation) is a great way to get exposure to a new field, meet friends, and find mentors.
This is also an ideal situation: you’re getting paid — perhaps not very much, but enough to get by on — and your job is to learn and contribute. Getting an unpaid internship is a catalyst for accelerated learning, because you’ll always be pushed to actively apply your knowledge, doing things that you’ve never done before.
3. Crowdfund your education.
Finally, perhaps you’ve surrounded yourself with a very supportive group of individuals. You’ve put together a learning plan for yourself, and know that you can carry it out. You also know that you will be able to produce tangible results afterwards, results that will provide value to people who agree to financially support you.
Platforms like Pave and Indiegogo might be worth checking out. By convincing your team of friends and supporters to directly invest in you, you’ve created a novel system of accountability for yourself. This is yet another ideal situation.
The Reality of Most Situations
Sometimes, however, you have to confront the reality of your financial situation. Maybe you’re just getting started on developing valuable skills. Maybe you haven’t gotten a chance to get relevant work experience yet. Maybe your community is wary of nontraditional education.
A while back, we shared an article by satirical news source The Onion, called “Find the Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights and Weekends for the Rest of Your Life.” The piece pokes fun at people who don’t spend the majority of their time working on what they’re most passionate about.
In the long-term, I firmly agree: you shouldn’t spend the rest of your days doing something that you don’t enjoy. In the short-term, however, you might have to.
As you’re getting started, perhaps learning and working have to remain separate. Maybe you take a service job that pays the bills, so on nights and weekends you can learn and do what you actually love. This is perfectly fine.
In fact, it may actually provide good structure for your creative endeavors. A post titled “T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Joseph Heller: They All Had Day Jobs,” sums it up nicely:
“And yet having too much to do is also an unbeatable motivator. If you can truly only spare a couple hours a day for a particular task, it is amazing how much you can get done in those hours. As Nicholson Baker told me—referring to a time in his life when he was writing and running a nonprofit at the same time—’You find out a way to get more done when you’re really busy. You just learn how to fit it in.’”
In addition, working in a job just to pay the bills can in itself be a very humbling learning experience. You’ll encounter people from all walks of life. It will also help you value “learning” time so much more.
Between the hours of work and sleep, you’ll likely be working hard learning a new skill, doing work for an unpaid internship, or networking to meet people who can give you advice. This will be hard. Some days, you’ll have doubts. The thing is: learning is not supposed to be easy.
Finding time and finding freedom to learn are by no means mutually exclusive. But sometimes, especially in the beginning, they are.
Set the expectation that life as a hackademic will be challenging. Choose what your priorities are, and understand that sometimes you’ll have to compromise freedom for time, or time for freedom. And that’s totally okay.
By Ryan Krebs
Ryan Krebs is the Business Development Manager at Crowds on Demand, an LAbased entertainment and PR company that has been featured in Good Morning America, Dubai’s MBC and GQ, among other media outlets.
He previously served as a Political Panelist on Larry King Now, and a Summer Associate at UCLA’s startup accelerator. Within a year after graduating high school, Krebs ran for Mayor of his hometown and became President of an organization with a $2.2 million budget.
Krebs left traditional schooling after 2nd grade, and was homeschooled and unschooled. He then attended Moorpark College and Charles University in Prague before graduating from UCLA debtfree, at 21.
He can be contacted at [email protected]
In this day and age, the barriers of entry to launch a business are as low as ever. At the same time, the type of education needed to achieve success in business can be opaque. How can you teach yourself basic business principles? I figured out how to do so myself. I crafted my own business education, not through completing a $150,000 MBA program, but through reading books, spending $15 on stamps, and a few hundred dollars on launching a venture.
From my experiences, there are three key ways to craft your own business education, at minimal cost:
“Ready”: Do the research. “Aim”: Ask for Advice. “Fire”: Start Something.
Ready: Do the Research!
First off, you should do the background research to discover how a business can be built. I would go to the library and check out as many books as I could find, in order to discover what makes a venture work. Not just business books I read psychology, politics, fiction, many different writings, and how they could be applied to business. For example, through reading about politics, you learn how political systems work, and how these systems and techniques could be applied to business in general, and a venture of your own in particular. Find out what makes one company succeed and another fail. This is the key to business research, in this context.
Aim: Ask For Advice!
To learn, you should seek out advice from people directly in the field you want to go into. I decided personally that, in order to achieve success, I should reach out to the people at the top, that is, the CEO’s of companies, and other world leaders. Through sending letters to these leaders at their publicly available corporate addresses, I asked them two simple questions:
- “Is it hard being a leader in your position?” (Virtually all would say yes, and they would also include valuable insights.)
- “Do you have any advice on making it to the top (of a company)?” This yielded the most indepth answers: The CEO of DHL, for one, sent me a multipaged response.
You may be telling yourself that this is impossible that CEO’s and political leaders will not reply to a student of life. However, very few people actually take that step to reach out to these luminaries and you can be one of them. As the CEO of Nike told me, when I asked him for business advice, “Just Do It.” In the end, a multitude of leaders in business, politics and elsewhere replied to my letters. I received replies from Bill Clinton, the CEO of Ferrari, Brad Bird from Pixar, and many others. I was able to, and still use, this advice in my life today. It also inspired me to launch my own venture someday.
Fire: Start Something!
After getting all of these pieces of advice and after my research, I decided to launch my own venture. After all, the best way to actually see if an idea works is to just do it. Indeed, the costs of launching a venture these days is very low. While this does not make it any easier to actually succeed with what you start, it creates a low barrier of entry.
Find something that you are passionate about, or a problem that you face, and create a solution. Then, develop a way to monetize it. For instance, after I transferred to UCLA, I was without a car, and wanted to get some items for my apartment. All of the listings on Craigslist were too far away for walking, so
I cofounded a hyperlocal classifieds site for UCLA students exclusively, “Unifieds.” Did it become the next Facebook? No. Was I able to learn a lot? You bet! I was able to learn tons of things about what works and doesn’t work in a business while scaling Unifieds, and I keep in mind what I learned, today. You can keep costs low, through bootstrapping and applying “lean startup principles.” Even if your venture fails, it is still an incredible learning experience, with lessons which you can use later in life. This is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg, when launching a venture I highly recommend that you do your due diligence, and do the research, in order to learn how to start something.
In conclusion, you need to be ready to move fast and get things done. You need to be ready to learn and challenge assumptions. There is no finish line in business only goalposts. Through studying the foundations of business, asking for advice, and launching your venture, you can get your own company started, while gaining your own business education along the way, at minimal cost. So, go out there and make it happen. “Ready, aim, fire!”
By Jean Fan
There’s been an explosion of school-like learning programs in the past few years. Programming boot camps are trendy. Entrepreneurship programs are everywhere. What is hard to find outside of the college system, however, are learning boot camps for people who want to immerse themselves in other areas of study. What is also hard to do is participate in these learning boot camps with limited resources — they cost a lot of time and money.
Going into my gap year, I took interest in participating in a formal boot camp program. I planned to work really hard to save up money. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that it wasn’t the right choice for me. I harbor a strong dislike for externally-imposed structure, and wasn’t very interested in the end goals of existing programs (e.g. doing a programming boot camp to land a job at a tech company).
More importantly, if I wanted to do immersive learning, I could just cut to the chase. I didn’t have to save up money and then participate in one of these programs. I could just get started now, and do it on my own.
Among hackademics who are coming out of the traditional system, there’s a tendency to shun school in favor of school-like programs. It’s comfortable. Structured. Easy.
They can also be, in my opinion, kind of a cop out. If you want to truly hack your education, you are doing yourself a disservice if you jump from program to program, always outsourcing your education to other people. There is obviously value in structured programs. But there is enormous value in completely designing your own learning experience.
So now I am: a few weeks ago I wrote a post about hacking an education in AI and nanotechnology. There’s a lot I want to learn, and the rate at which I’ve been learning is underwhelming. I’m not dedicating myself enough, because I haven’t created an adequate structure for myself to do so.
In the past two weeks, I’ve been designing and piloting my own learning boot camp. Here’s how you can do it too:
1. Find a mission that excites you.
Think about why you want to spend time dedicating yourself to intense learning. What do you want to create or contribute to? Choose a mission that is worth investing a significant amount of time into, and then choose your fields of study.
My mission, for example, is to expand human capacity for learning. I’ve been doing this through advocacy for the past two years; now I want to contribute scientifically. People are doing cool things in AI, IA, and nanotech that relate to my mission, which is why I’m excited to learn about these fields. Contextualizing my learning like this is a tactic I use to stay motivated.
2. Compile your own list of resources.
Make a list of books you want to read, MOOCs you want to take, people you want to talk to, organizations you could get involved with, and so forth. Don’t bother designing your own curriculum (you’ll inevitably get off track and lose motivation). Instead, always have a list of resources on hand that you can use. This process of curating resources is a key learning experience in itself, because you have to figure what is relevant to your mission and what is not.
3. Decide on your deliverables.
What will you have created? Finished? Learned? Come up with a list of 5-10 tangible things that you will have to point to after this learning expedition. This is as much for yourself (so you don’t feel like you’re actually accomplishing something) as it is for other people (who will only see the results of your bootcamp, and not the process).
4. Keep a work-progress journal.
Divide each page in a notebook into three columns. The first is “date.” The second is “work planned.” The third is “work completed.” Fill out the first two columns at the beginning of each day. At the end, either check off the third column or write an explanation as to why it didn’t get done. A work-progress journal is a great tool to confront laziness (writing down “It was too hard and therefore couldn’t focus” is shame-inducing) and staying motivated to do hard learning.
This is a key piece of advice I picked up from Cal Newport, who has been instrumental in shaping my perspective in the past few years and who is one of my favorite writers. Although he seems fiercely pro-college, his advice is applicable for all high-achievers, regardless of their chosen path.
5. Write publicly about your learning.
Specifically: keep an online learning journal. Share your journey with others. Write about things you discover, realizations you have, as well as questions you ask. It will keep you on track.
6. Set your hours. Define your dates.
It’s easy as an ambitious learner to feel guilty when you’re not spending time learning. To eliminate the anxiety that you’re not doing enough, specify when you will be learning, and when you can feel comfortable clocking out. For example, you can choose to set weekdays from 7am-9am and nights from 8pm-10pm as your key learning times. The key is to schedule less than you think you need, but to non-negotiable stick with your learning times.
Also: make sure to set beginning and end dates for your boot camp. This enables you to delay gratification and put your head down and work hard, because you have set a date when you can stop.
7. Don’t set time-based goals.
In school, the curriculum moves at a set pace. If you don’t understand a topic, you have until the day of the exam to figure it out, after which the teacher moves on, and it doesn’t really matter if you actually know it. If you want to actually apply your knowledge, however, this approach is terribly ineffective.
Setting goals can detract from learning if it’s done at the expense of real understanding. Recognize that you’ll encounter roadblocks. Give yourself time to figure out what you don’t understand, instead of trying to force “Unit 1 Chapter 1” in between the hours of 4-5pm.
8. Find your ideal workspace.
Some people enjoy silence, and work in libraries. Others prefer background noise, and work in cafes. Many crave a social scene, and work at a hackerspace. Choose a space outside of your home where you do your best work and work there every day. Avoid working where you sleep. It’s too easy to crawl into bed when learning gets tough. And it will.
9. Automate as much as possible.
If you spend a lot of time deciding what to wear, for example, choose an outfit that you know looks good on you, and wear it every day. If you spend a lot of time deciding what to eat, choose a few meals to eat over and over so you can divert less energy to the endeavor of eating. Spend as little time thinking about things that don’t matter as possible, so you can spend more time thinking about learning.
10. Take care of your body.
Eat to optimize your brain for learning. Fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats will keep you physically prepared to push through your learning boot camp.
11. Choose what to say no to.
If you really want to commit to your learning boot camp, you have to change aspects of your current routine to reflect that. Cutting down social engagements, for example — or at least limiting them to specific hours of the day — might be necessary. Going out with friends and not getting enough sleep every day will hinder your ability to learn effectively. This is a learning boot camp that you’re designing, after all, so take it seriously and build a habit of saying no.
12. Get comfortable with uncertainty.
One of the most difficult parts of self-directed learning is the inherent uncertainty. As you learn, you learn more and more about what you have to learn next. But you never have more than a few steps of foresight, and that’s okay. Unlike when you’re enrolled in a formal program, where the curriculum has already been designed, a self-directed mode of learning can be more fluid. If you give yourself the flexibility to change gears and allow yourself to almost stumble your way forward (given proper reflection along the way, of course), your learning boot camp will be less predictable but perhaps more effective.
13. Get comfortable without stimulation.
Learning is difficult, and a lot of the time, quite boring. Especially when you’re building technical knowledge, which often requires just a textbook and time for memorization, it can be quite boring. You’ll have the urge to procrastinate, to quit, to check Facebook, to go buy something, etc. It’s a difficult process, but creating a successful learning boot camp requires that you get comfortable without this kind of stimulation.
As James Clear put it: “[R]eally successful people feel the same boredom and the same lack of motivation that everyone else feels. They don’t have some magic pill that makes them feel ready and inspired every day. But the difference is that the people who stick with their goals don’t let their emotions determine their actions. Top performers still find a way to show up, to work through the boredom, and to embrace the daily practice that is required to achieve their goals.”
By Jean Fan
For a long time, I didn’t see the value in using Twitter — at least, not as an individual (as opposed to an organization). It seemed to be filled with people whining about their day, and generally sharing details of their life that I just didn’t care about. Why did people like about Twitter, anyways?
A recent conversation with a friend changed my mind. He reminded me that there are two ways to use social networking platforms: actively and passively. I realized that I would get nothing out of Twitter if I kept using it passively (e.g. merely scanning my already-existing feed and responding to mentions). Used actively, on the other hand, Twitter could be a fantastic resource for hackademics like me.
Specifically, Twitter can be a great resource to find and access other resources. Here are a few very basic steps to using this social networking platform to hack your education (and not just to waste time):
1. Follow individuals and organizations that are doing work you admire.
Aspiring journalist? Follow some names from major publications. Interested in science? Follow publications that report on recent innovations. To further expand your network, check out who they’re following and see if anyone catches your eye.
Finding major players in your fields of interest who Tweet, however, is just the first step. You should also vet for their usage of Twitter. Do they post meaningful content or just share insignificant details of their day?
Organizations generally aim to post valuable and relevant content because they are trying to curate a following. Individuals, on the other hand, often post whatever comes to mind. Remember: you are using Twitter as a learning resource. Be very selective about who you follow, and who you don’t.
2. Create a list of hashtags of interest to discover shared resources and key insights.
Hashtags are just words that people put a # sign in front of to make their Tweets searchable. It can be a great way for you to expand your understanding of what’s out there, and see what’s going on in real time.
First you need to brainstorm a list of keywords that exist in the field that you’re studying. If you want to learn about economics, for example, you might be interested in things like: #economics, #finance, #wallstreet, #investing, and so forth. Refer back to this list of hashtags when you’re looking to curate your own list of news, or if the people in your existing network are not sharing useful resources.
3. Engage with your newly-curated community. Ask questions.
After you’ve taken the time to curate an intentional community, then you can really start using Twitter as a learning resource. Read articles that people in your community have shared. Retweet insights that resonate with you. Ask questions of ideas or resources that you don’t fully understand.
Because of how short Tweets are, Twitter is great for accessing busy people who might not respond if you reached out to them by email. Ask people you admire specific questions about a single piece of their work. Read the information that your peers are sharing and make comments. Start a concise conversation about what you’re learning, and see where it takes you.
4. Put ideas into your own words, establishing yourself as an expert.
Use Twitter as a micro-learning log. Share insights that you have in your daily life, as you’re attending a lecture, or as you’re reading a book. Retweet ideas that your community has shared, or put them into your own words (giving credit where it’s due, of course).
Tweet meaningful thoughts, and establish yourself as a resource for other people. Look back on it in the future, and see how much you’ve grown.
What are other ways you use Twitter (or other social networking platforms) to learn? I want to know! Email me at [email protected].
By Adrian Perez
If you had met me back in my freshman year of high school, you wouldn’t think I was lean enough to run on a high school cross-country team, much less to do any sport my school offered; to prove my point, my first 5-K (3.1 miles) was 31 minutes while standing at 5’8” and weighing close to 200 pounds. Many people in the United States can relate to this problem, but most aren’t willing to do anything about it. Still, I thought that I can drop my weight, and use running as a message for everyone that it’s possible to develop good habits that will make you just as successful in your professional and personal life.
Then when I graduated in 2010, I dropped my 5-K time to 19:41 and my weight was down to 160 pounds. Not bad as a former couch potato. Afterward, I went to a local community college in my hometown, because it was expensive for me to complete my basics at a university. However, unlike a university, they don’t have a collegiate cross-country or track & field programs on their sport roster. Many of the people I knew in my high school cross-country team that went to the same path I took, have immediately gained weight, and my high school coach cannot coach me like he does with his high school runners; in other words, I had no one to run with, and no one is going to coach me.
Luckily, my coach lend me a book by elite marathoner Dathan Rizenhein’s coach, Brad Husdon, called, Run Faster from the 5K to the Marathon: How to Be Your Own Best Coach. Hudson was a former self-coached elite runner back in his day and he advocates his readers to take charge of their own training programs without relying on a coach as the only source for customizing their training. I applied this training system for three years in college that is tailored to my needs. I have to admit, it was difficult to run mostly by yourself early in the morning while most of my friends are away from your hometown and having a good time as college students in public universities.
Still, I kept at it and I have done more work than I did than in high school. Eventually my times were better than they were by lowering my 5-K time to 18 minutes, and 35 seconds while running a marathon in 3hours and 33 minutes. What was more important is that I can apply this kind of system to take the initiative, and customize own educational path without waiting for someone to tell me what to do, such as creating a blog, and writing my novel, Personal Best. Here are some of the things that I did that can be applied to both athletes and hackademics to take their performance to the next level.
Set goals: Make sure they are realistic for you and write it down. Otherwise, you’ll be more likely to quit. Back when I first started my yearly goals were to go faster than my personal best. As I kept running during college, I was able to keep up with the best runners in my hometown. By the end of each year, I examine my results and realized that I have improved by at least a minute or two.
Find a mentor: Take advice from people that are getting the results you desire and make sure you’re being critical about it. I was fortunate to have a good running coach in high school, and today, I still ask him for training advice.
Set a routine: These rituals do not need to be outrageous; do something simple like get up at 6:00 in the morning, and walk around the block to start the day. When I first started, I did about a mile in the morning for a couple of weeks. Then, I progressed to two miles, then three, and eventually, ten-miles.
Keep a journal: Whenever you’re training on your own or learning a new skill, it’s crucial that you keep a journal in order to gain feedback. Whenever I get the runner’s knee, I go back to my training diary and realized that I’m running too much. So, I cut back on training to let it rest.
Drink enough water: It is crucial for you to drink at least 16 ounces a day or until your urine is clear. When I was running a marathon in my hometown, I was nearly dehydrated during the race, because I wasn’t drinking enough water. Luckily, there were aid stations that have cups of water nearby. Thankfully, that happened or else I would have dropped out of the race with an IV inserted in my arm.
Eat enough nutritious food: Your body is like a race car and like any vehicle, it must be fueled properly by the right gasoline or it will breakdown. In this case, I eat fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes with very small amounts of meat, dairy and junk food.
Get enough sleep: In my opinion, this is more difficult to achieve than eating healthy food. We live in a culture where it’s great to hang out in bars late at night after work or pull in all nighters just to finish schoolwork. Doing these habits long-term will not get you to set a personal best in a marathon race or do well as a hackademic. Ever. I try to sleep 6-8 hours a day during training.
Be patient: Many people will not be successful overnight. It takes years to get to where you want to go and you might have to get use to many people laughing at you while telling you, “You’re wasting your time” along the way. It took me five years to go from 31 minutes in the 5-K all the way down to 18-minutes. Each year had its ups, and downs, but they did pay off in the long run.
Find Kindred Spirits: What Jim Rohn says is true; you are the average of the five people you hang out with. Associate wisely with others who are better than what you’re doing instead of hanging out with people who you don’t like, and are wasting your time. There aren’t many people who are interested in running as I am, but I find some kindred spirits whenever I attend to local running races in my community.
By Jean Fan
If so, how?
This is the question that I’m answering for myself at the moment. Although I deliberately hacked my education in high school, there was never really an end in mind. I simply pursued interesting opportunities and let them take me where they may. They brought great things: a surprisingly nice letter from Stanford, my current position at UnCollege, and greatly improved social skills.
What I did not learn in the process, however, was how to set and achieve deliberate goals. Constantly swept away by the newest opportunity, I was always able to put off making time to work on a sustained and major project of my own.
Now I’m ready to get started. As I approach the 6-month mark of my first gap year, I am beginning to hack my education in a more deliberate way: towards the goal of contributing to the overlap between artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.
Why does this appeal to me? I am highly mission-driven, and through working at UnCollege I’ve discovered my interest in bringing profound (not incremental) change. With AI being the “future of the information world” and nanotechnology being the ‘future of the material world,” pursuing the overlap between the two highly technical fields would bring me the emotional satisfaction of making an impact, and the intellectual stimulation that I now know I crave.
Here’s where I’m at right now: I’ve read about both fields, their implications, and the previously mentioned overlap, and I’m really excited by what others are doing. But in terms of technical skills, I’m starting at the very beginning.
Below are 7 ways I’m currently approaching my education in AI and nanotechnology:
1. Creating things.
After an insightful conversation with a friend, I realized that to truly accelerate your scientific education, you have to start creating things right away. “Learn how to fail, and fail fast,” he said, “Then pick yourself up and keep creating.”
All I’ve created so far is is a wall-length mind map that visualizes my knowledge of the two fields. With the priority of “always be creating” in mind, however, I’ll be on the lookout for opportunities to create more as this journey progresses.
2. Finding unpaid internships.
This is something that’s worked out really well for me in the past. Not only is an internship a platform to meet interesting people, it’s also a great way to get real-world knowledge: gaining a better understanding of what needs to be created, and how to do so.
A few of the organizations I’ve looked into seem open to something like this. I plan on leveraging my skills in writing and marketing so I can contribute to the organizations as I learn.
3. Doing research on the overlap.
There are plenty of resources on AI. There are also plenty of resources on nanotechnology. There are very few resources on the intersection between the two.
Since that’s the overlap I’m interested in, I’m actively setting aside time to do research on what has already been done and what the future could look like.
4. Doing classroom-esque learning.
About 6 months into working at UnCollege, I forced myself to come to terms with this fact: that I actually really enjoy sitting in a classroom, reading textbooks, and listening to lectures! As someone who thinks by writing, I suppose it makes sense.
Because of this, I am taking Sebastian Thrun’s renowned Intro to Artificial Intelligence course and reading Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation.
5. Reading journals I don’t understand.
Another friend of mine posted an interesting link on Facebook a few weeks ago: “How to Learn About Everything,” again by Eric Drexler. The gist of it is that by regularly reading journals that you don’t understand, you familiarize yourself with the vocabulary and fill in pieces of the puzzle as you progress. It’s a great way to cultivate understanding of a subject.
I bought myself an online a subscription to Nature Nanotechnology and have been actively reading a scientific journals as a result.
6. Developing a technical background.
I never got around to learning how to program, never beyond the basics, anyways. I think it’s because I didn’t try to figure out how to learn in a way that makes sense to me, and instead just opted for a coding platform that everyone else was using.
I’ve been reading Think Python lately, and it’s been doing a great job of helping me understand the core concepts and goals behind programming. As someone who’s highly mission-driven, I desperately need to contextualize what I am learning in order to keep myself motivated.
7. Having conversations with people.
People have so much wisdom to share if you ask for it. Through conversations with peers and mentors, I’ve gotten rid of unfeasible project ideas, found invaluable resources, and been guided back onto the right path.
Seeking out people who will hear my ideas and tell me that they’re dumb (and why) is really difficult. It’s also incredibly rewarding.
I’m sharing this story on the UnCollege blog because I want hackademics to remember that when it comes to hacking our education, we are all still learning. It’s a continuous process of self-reflection and personal development, and feelings of being lost or stumbling your way through are completely normal. At least, I hope — since that’s what I’m feeling right now.
Suggestions on how I can better hack my education? Email me at [email protected]