By Zach Obront
Zach Obront runs a blog at http://zachobront.com, where he rambles about entrepreneurship, psychology and history. He’s also the founder of Landline Assassin, a telecommunications company leading the battle against home phones, and the head of recruitment at GiveGetWin, a growing non-profit dedicated to turning the philanthropy model on its head. He likes Stoicism and good Mexican food.
Remember on the first day of school, when you had to go around the room and tell everyone something about yourself? I hated the first day of school.
One line bios still scare me. I didn’t get Twitter for years because I couldn’t decide how to describe myself. Capturing an entire person in a couple words seems to trivialize life, doesn’t it? Maybe I’m just a weirdo. But it could explain my obsession with living in a way that can’t be captured by a tagline.
Polymath. Renaissance man. Jack of all trades. Forget BA, MD, or PHD – these are the designations I lust for. I’ve got some messed up, romanticized vision of myself saving the day with my MacGyver-like creativity and Ken Jennings-esque breadth of knowledge.
But more than delusional daydreams and an existentialist fear of insignificance, I’m simply plagued by curiosity. There are so many cool things the world has to offer. Who could afford to pigeonhole themselves onto one path? This is part of the appeal of choosing hackademia over academia – the freedom to chase every wise or foolish idea that draws you in, not matter how off-the-beaten-path.
For a long time, however, I didn’t get much done. On a day-to-day basis I’d be busy but, looking back, I didn’t know where the months were disappearing. What was I doing wrong?
IS VARIETY A VICE?
“There are nine rabbits on the ground. If you want to catch one, just focus on one” – Jack Ma
Although I dreamed of being a master of everything, the honest result was that I was mastering nothing. I hopped from obsession to obsession, never making any significant progress.
Everyone has heard that it supposedly takes 10,000 hours to become world-class at a skill. That’s a lot of hours: a 40-hour-per-week job for almost 5 years, for those keeping score at home. I didn’t have that much time. I wanted to be world-class by lunch.
As many thinkers have pointed out, it seems that the key to becoming elite isn’t to do more, or to move faster, but to do less, focusing on fewer things. Deep and narrow seems to trump wide and shallow every time.
I knew I had to make a change, but I also realized something else: my goal was never to be world-class at any one thing. I’m more concerned with filling my days with novelty and adventure. Indulging in varied interests is a major part of that. As Robert Heinlein wrote: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
So how can we solve this dilemma? How can we spread ourselves out, but make sure there’s still enough to go around? How can we create learning plans that balance our lust for novelty with our desire to accomplish? I present to you: The Generalist’s Four Laws of Self-Directed Learning…
HOW TO LEARN LIKE DA VINCI
1. Serial, Not Parallel
You know that feeling when your to-do list gets too long, and you get paralyzed just thinking about it? Trying to learn 20 different things at once is just asking for that feeling. Yes, I know there’s a thousand and one things that interest you. Me too. That’s good. Pick one or two to focus on. The rest can wait.
This is common knowledge is habit building circles. Will power is a limited resource, and if you overuse it, it won’t be long until you crash and burn. Apply the same thing to skill building.
This realization has led me to develop Monthly Challenges for myself. They’re a way of restraining myself to focus on one thing at a time. Instead of swimming in a sea of skills that I dabble in briefly, I immerse myself more deeply in each one until I see actual results. According to Josh Kaufman, 30 days is long enough for that to happen, and so far I agree.
2. Real Artists Ship
There’s a big difference between learning something conceptually and applying it. Reading a marketing book isn’t skill building. Studying marketing and doing free work at a startup to apply what you’ve learned is. Not only are you using your time to make a difference in the world, you’re turning knowledge into skills and thoughts into concrete projects.
Sure, the fun of the learning is the process, not the end result. But the end result signifies that real learning took place. Interesting (completed) projects are the kinds of things that make unschoolers so desirable to colleges and employers. They’ve done things. A surprising number of 21 year old university grads can’t say the same.
3. Slow Down
“But there’s 50 things I want to learn! I can’t do just one a month! I won’t be break dancing until 2015!” First of all, maybe break dancing will actually be cool by 2015 (but I hope not). Secondly, what’s the rush? Life is long. If you could learn everything you wanted to know by next week, the next 80 years would be pretty boring.
I often find myself admiring the fascinating life paths of older people. But, when we discuss things more deeply, I realize that each of these twists and turns took years to unfold. In the moment, it may feel like things are moving slowly, but trust me, they aren’t.
4. Build Towards Something
What’s the point of all this learning? Sometimes we get caught up in doing things just because instead of thinking about why. I’m a why guy.
Often, you’ll find that all the skills you’re interested in fit together in some way. They all have some overarching purpose. That’s good. Even if these goals are something as vague as having interesting thoughts to share, it’s a lens through which to evaluate your learning decisions.
Steve Jobs’ interest in design, and computers, and calligraphy, and Buddhist minimalism all seem unrelated. But if we see Jobs’ overarching purpose as to create beautiful technologies (whether this was conscious or not), clearly his scattered interests built towards something greater.
So there we have it. I may not become world-class at any one thing, but I will kick your ass at Jeopardy. And, as long as I learn in serial, turn my knowledge into action, slow down a little, and build towards something, I’ll have a lot more good to show for it, too.
Saskia Bünte (18) is lucky enough to have parents from two very different countries: Germany and China. After having lived in both Germany and China for 8 years each, she decided to challenge herself by moving back to Germany at the age of 16 to attend boarding school and complete the IB diploma. Saskia’s main passions are culture and language – shaped by her cosmopolitan upbringing in an international school as well as fluency in German, English and Chinese. As she is on the brink of graduation and still does not have a concrete idea of what career she wants to pursue, Saskia hopes to expand her horizons and gather new experiences by completing the UnCollege gap year program along with the 9 other fellows.
Sometimes to think outside the box, you have to break it. That is just what Julia Kavuma intends to do. This 22-year-old Canadian is taking a year off from her Systems Design Engineering studies at the University of Waterloo to explore the world outside her box through UnCollege. Julia loves to surround herself with people who make things happen; whether it be collaborating with students who engineer microrobots or coordinating construction work for a trauma centre. Julia aims to reconcile the rigors of the engineering profession with the multitude of possibilities that exist in the world, to learn how to innovate and execute solutions that could never fit in the box.
Anna Sides is 18 years old and has lived in the Pacific Northwest of the United States all of her life. She just graduated high school on Bainbridge Island and was on track to a traditional university until she had a change of heart. Having no idea what she wanted to do, she left the path of college to join UnCollege. Anna prefers to be outside and active to anything else. She did a variety of sports and clubs as she was growing up and does not stay still for long. She is looking forward to the challenges and opportunities that UnCollege will present her with as well as all the wonderful people she is bound to meet along the way.
Ferry Kluger (26), from Berlin/Germany, was a triathlete in his youth, spent some time in New Zealand, worked as a full-fledged bartender and toured with a band before starting his studies in business and becoming an IT project manager for a German furniture startup. He loves hosting dinner parties and spends his leisure time playing all kinds of sports, doing photography and fundraising for a non-profit organization that offers guidance to underprivileged kids. His heart set on becoming an entrepreneur, Ferry sees UnCollege as a way to gain new international perspectives and develop ideas with a group of like-minded fellows.
Jordan Boyd (23) is the founder of EducationRevolution.ca, a website that helps young people from around the world to learn more about the projects that are revolutionizing the education industry. During the week, Jordan works for HootSuite Media Inc. with the HootSuite University team. He helps to deliver HootSuite University online courseware to universities and educational institutions around the world, as well as educating professors and teachers on how to use the courseware. Jordan believes the future is bright for the education industry, and looks forward to helping it adapt for the brilliantly creative minds of the 21st century.
By the time she completed her first year at McGill University, Lindsay could no longer overlook her uncertainty about her education and her future. Against all advice, she withdrew from her Engineering studies, leaving behind an educational system she believes is profoundly flawed. Now twenty, Lindsay aspires to demonstrate to the world what any one individual can and should do without a formal education. While taking time to rediscover her free spirit and indulge her multitude of interests in a non-campus setting, Lindsay hopes to catalyze the educational reform she feels is much needed and alleviate the paralyzing indecision that often accompanies young adulthood in our rapidly evolving world.
Marcela Fernandez is 23 years old and from Colombia. A traveler by nature, she has learned that the world can always be an outdoor classroom. After spending two years studying journalism in three different cities and three different universities, she realized that none of them satisfied her hunger of knowledge, and decided that the conventional way of learning was not suited to her. She speaks French, Italian, English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and has just started learning with Arabic. She is passionate about volunteering and social impact activities, and spent a year as a volunteer in Italy. Marcela is a Phoenix Institute alumni and a candidate for Your Big Year 2014.
Arnaud Schenk is an 18 year old unschooler from Switzerland, although almost half of his childhood was spent in the United States and in Brazil. Finding the curriculum boring, he left High School in 2011 and got a job and started learning on his own, mainly about computer science, life sciences and some business oriented hardskills. For fun, he likes taking part in events such as Startup Weekends and hackathons. Arnaud finished a 3 month internship in a Swiss startup earlier this year and got his first client as a freelance web developer in April. He is learning Mandarin as his 4th language in his spare time.
Zelia Ziegler Hunts
Zelia is from Cupertino, California. A year after leaving High School she was still unsure about College, so she applied for the UnCollege Gap Year Program. She has spent the last twelve months working on the Obama campaign in Aurora, Colorado as an Early Vote organizer; interning as a lab assistant at Svaya Nanotechnologies in Sunnyvale, California; and teaching English in Madrid, Spain. She has no idea what she will do with her life in the future, but is perhaps interested in something biology related.
Ever since turning his first profit selling baseball cards at ten years old, David has aspired to be an entrepreneur. Throughout high school he built and sold custom computers and at nineteen began sourcing books and selling them online, later using the profits to travel across the country and attend seminars on business, marketing, and psychology. Now twenty-three, he sees business as a powerful vehicle that can and should be used as a force for good, and believes many of the world’s challenges can be solved through entrepreneurial creativity and innovation. While at UnCollege, David plans to further develop his skills, find where they fit, and form the foundation for his future contributions to the world.
By Vincent Nguyen
This is a guest post by Vincent Nguyen, author of Selfstairway.com. Vincent helps people build confidence in themselves and challenges people to think unconventionally. Learn how to be confident and charismatic with his upcoming free eBook.
Hackademics hate this question.
You know if you open your mouth and talk about your unconventional ideas you will get a frown, a raised eyebrow, and an immediate objection. “You’ll change your mind when you get older,” they’ll say. It sounds as if you just told them you never want kids or something.
You’ll hear the usual rant about how the economy is worse than ever and how you can’t possibly do well without a college degree. You know, the usual arguments that come from people who think college is the only path to success.
I finally figured out how to answer when people ask what you want to be. The best part is that it works for people who don’t know too. If you have zero ideas about where you want to go in life, this will still satisfy them. It may even give you some direction, if that’s what you need.
Instead of telling them about how you’re going to be an entrepreneur or how you dislike college, talk to them about the sort of lifestyle you want.
This gives you something to think about before the next time you’re asked about your future. If you can figure out the sort of lifestyle you’d like then you can start working backwards and narrowing down possible options. It may even help you figure out your long-term goals.
I personally can’t ever imagine myself sitting in a 9-5 job with walls surrounding me with less than one foot away. I’m after flexibility in everything I do, whether it’s work hours, where I’m working from, or doing things I actually enjoy.
“What do you want to be when you grow up, Jimbo?”
“Truthfully, sir… I haven’t figured it out yet. I do know the lifestyle I want though. Not the 9-5 standard job that most people have. I want to be able to work when I want, from wherever I want, and I want to do something I feel passionate about.”
Usually they’ll then ask if you want to be an entrepreneur. If you do, say yes. If you don’t, say no.
Even if you say no, they won’t push on because it’s clear you’ve given it more thought than others. People are worried when someone is directionless. At least you’ve got a general idea even if it’s vague.
No more pressure from people who don’t understand your “crazy” thinking. No more hostility from concerned folks who dislike hearing uncertainty.
Start thinking in terms of lifestyle.
How do you find yours? Ask yourself these questions:
Where do I want to work? Remotely? An office? Maybe both?
Do I want to work for myself?
Do I want to be able to travel a lot?
What would my daily work schedule look like? Would it be flexible?
Do I want to be interacting with others often?
What would others think of how I live?
What sort of connections do I need to get my foot in the door or just get started in general?
Who do I know that is living an admirable life? Am I going to be able to connect with this person?
Is my family going to be connected to my life on a regular basis?
Where will I live?
The 10 questions above should get you started on thinking about the lifestyle you want.
Going back to my sample lifestyle I gave way back in the middle of this article, I probably wouldn’t be a high school teacher. Neither would I be working in a lab. Living as a freelancer or entrepreneur? That’s much more likely.
You start crossing options out and maybe you’ll learn a bit about yourself.
Do they teach you to think like this in school? Nope.
By Jean Fan
Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding, just came out with a book called Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success. It’s an insightful read for anyone looking to take control of their career. Instead of waiting to be promoted, make it so there is no reasonable chance that you won’t be. Instead of waiting for your resume to get you a job, learn how to use social media platforms to connect yourself with relevant people in your industry.
In this book, Schawbel focuses on helping you build skills: hard, soft and online. You always have to be learning, especially if you want to stand out in the job market. Before you promote yourself, he realizes, you have to have become someone worth promoting.
What I like about this book is this kind of honesty. Succeeding in today’s world isn’t easy, and Schawbel acknowledges that. Books in this genre can be fluffy (“Just be yourself, and you’ll be fine!”). Promote Yourself does not do this. It encourages you to stay true yourself, yes, but it also pushes you to be better. Instead of merely feeding your ego, it offers concrete rules and strategies that will help you understand the realities of the working world — and excel in it.
Schawbel is also unafraid of helping people face embarrassing and potentially destructive weaknesses. Addressing the negative perception surrounding self-promotion, he at one point highlights the difference between bragging and self-promotion. A few pages later, he gives you a test:
If you have fewer than three Trues, you’re not terribly obnoxious. If you’ve got 3-5, you’re moderately obnoxious, and if you’ve got six or more, you’ve got some serious obnoxiousness issues and you might want to fix that.
He is also open about how tendency to promote himself can sometimes backfire. He shares this experience with us so we are aware of it and won’t make the same mistake:
This is a lesson I learned the hard way. Everyone I know knows that I’m a big self-promoter. Once I was out with some buddies at a bar and caught the eye of an attractive female bartender. After bringing our drinks she asked me what I do. I launched into a long recitation of all the things I’ve accomplished professionally. When I was done she looked at me and said, “That was really unattractive.”
Most importantly, he’s realistic. Very few people experience meteoric success. Usually, you just have to start from the bottom and work your way up. He’s telling the truth even if it’s not one that people want to hear:
You’re the new kid and you’re walking into an established company with established ways of doing things. Sure, you may be able to change things, but that’ll take a while. In the meantime, drop that attitude and start paying more attention to your performance and making things happen for your company and yourself.
This kind of honesty is, for me, crucial. There are so many books that claim success can come easily — too easily. It can’t. Success requires hard work and diligence and self-awareness. This book strongly emphasizes this fact, and gives readers plenty of advice on how to embody these characteristics. At the same time, it is optimistic about how much we can achieve and how awesome we can be using the resources we have available to us.
Learning how to express how awesome you are is incredibly important in today’s world. It allows you the power to connect other people and build a community that is every bit as awesome as you. This is the key to success. Promote Yourself motivates you to take action in doing this by offering specific advice as to how to kick ass at your career and build your online presence to support it. After reading it, I have ideas for what to do, rules for how to do them, and a vision for how useful social media platforms can be.
“Visibility,” Schawbel writes, “creates opportunities.” I want opportunities. Don’t you?
To order Promote Yourself, visit Schawbel’s website or check out a free webcast of his book launch event.
By Vincent Nguyen
This is a guest post by Vincent Nguyen, author of Selfstairway.com. Vincent helps people build confidence in themselves and challenges people to think unconventionally. Learn how to be confident and charismatic with his upcoming free eBook.
We all want to go on and do amazing things, right? Of course, we do. In America, we’re raised to believe that to achieve success you have to go to a good college and wait until graduation.
It’s the golden formula and is preached as the only way to success. People who want to go another route are foolish, lazy, or unrealistic. Anyone who hears “college isn’t the only path to success” will shake their head and talk about how only Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg got lucky. It’s all luck. Why take the risk? Then these same people will tell you everyone has to go to college.
Since you’re on UnCollege, you’re no stranger to unconventional thinking. You’re well aware that college is no longer a guarantee and you know that it has many risks, with many students drowning in debt and struggling with unemployment as a graduate.
Even though you know this, you may be stuck attending college against your will. There’s no one holding a gun to your head or anything, but there are a lot of external pressures. Society’s disdain for people who don’t want to go to college, your family’s traditional mindset, or peer pressure from your friends, any of these can be factors.
I don’t hate college, nor am I anti-college, I actually love most of the experience. However, I know that my passion doesn’t lie in a field that demands a piece of paper. People much rather see experience and talent, which is why I’m setting down the framework for a flexible lifestyle filled with passion-driven projects that bring in a decent flow of cash while waiting for graduation.
Most people in my position would just wait out the four or so years of college and then go off to do their own thing after. Or worse, they force themselves into a career they absolutely hate and they continue to live a miserable life they had never wanted.
I looked into the future and I couldn’t imagine myself doing something I wouldn’t be excited to wake up and do every morning. I also couldn’t just wait another 4 years before I started something I’m proud of.
So what am I doing in the meantime? I started a personal development blog on January 23, 2013. That doesn’t sound like much does it? Well, that’s not all.
I self-taught myself things like Search Engine Optimization (SEO,) Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO,) copywriting, and some other content marketing skills through my journey of building up my site. It paid off very well as it helped me grow my blog incredibly quick. Then I used these skills to build up my resume and get 3 internships.
It gets better.
My blog’s traction attracted people who wanted me to write for them, so I had guest blogged on several of the biggest personal development blogs. Those posts attracted companies who pay freelance writers and sometimes I make more than $150 for a single article.
Having my blog made me reach out and connect to a lot of influencers. Just last month I cold-emailed dozens of famous authors, entrepreneurs, and writers and got them to help me out on a project. I can’t really talk about that yet but I made several connections as a result of what I just did.
None of this would have happened if I waited around until graduation. There are so many things you can do while you attend school and I’m only one example. Don’t make excuses either. “I don’t have time,” just doesn’t cut it. If you have kids, a few full-time jobs, all while attending college then maybe you can say you have no time. Fortunately, most college students aren’t in that situation.
Stop waiting for graduation. Do something amazing right now.
Need ideas? Here are a few things you can do right now. There’s bound to be something you can have fun with:
Practice your informal writing skills. Don’t let college be the only time you get practice writing. Most of what you learn in classrooms is formal and restrictive writing. Most writing outside of journalism allows you to be flexible with rules and more personal.
Reach out to influencers and connect. You’ll be surprised with how easy it is to get your foot in the door or to become friends with someone you think is very busy. Start becoming a part of the community of someone you look up to. Casually chat with them on Twitter. Email them one day. See if you can get a reply.
You are going to get rejected or ignored by a few people, but that’s good rejection therapy. Best-case scenario is that you make a new contact.
Start a blog. I’m a bit biased here but it really is a lot of fun. If you take the time to learn all the basics then graduating to more advanced forms, you’ll realize there is a lot of work that goes into building a successful online presence. I’m personally seeing exponential growth and it brings a lot of personal satisfaction. Also, it’s really cool to have other people read your thoughts. This does take a lot of work though.
Study what gets people to take action. Lacking motivation? It’s always good to hear how people began their journey and what pushed them through. TED Talks are one of my personal favorites. They’re engaging, intellectual, and relevant.
Get published on a popular blog. Why not try to see if you can get your name out on a popular blog? Believe it or not, you don’t need your own website to get accepted.
Figure out how to rank your full name on Google’s first page (especially if it’s a common name.) Search Engine Optimization (SEO.) A lot of people think it’s sleazy and that you pay your way to the top of Google results, but that’s not true. There are some people who deploy illegal tactics to dominate the rankings, but they usually get fleshed out pretty quick.
Learn the basics of SEO. It’s fun and it may benefit you in another course.
I did everything above. Why can’t you?
By Jonathan Haber
Jonathan Haber has taken a year off from a career in entrepreneurship and work in educational research and curriculum development to create Degree of Freedom, an experiment to see if it’s possible to learn the equivalent of a four year liberal arts degree in just twelve months using only MOOCs and other forms of free learning. His experience is being documented at the www.degreeoffreedom.org web site which also includes links to a weekly newsletter featuring course reviews and a podcast that includes interviews with thought leaders in the field of free learning (which includes an interview with Dale Stephens).
Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) are one of the hottest trends in technology-driven education. And in order to test how far MOOCs have come (and how much you can actually learn from taking them), I began a project called Degree of Freedom.
This project documents my attempt to learn everything I would get from being enrolled in a four year liberal arts degree program in just one year using only MOOCs and other forms of free learning.
I’ve just gotten to the halfway mark (or, as I like to put it, finished by “sophomore year”). And I can attest that most if not all of the 16 courses I’ve taken to completion offer the resources needed to master the subject without having to apply to a college or (better yet) spend a cent.
But there’s a catch. For while these courses are easy to sign up for and start, they’re just as easy to let slip and drop out of. What this translates to is that these courses are best for self-motivated learners who want to understand a topic, not just kick the tires of the latest ed-tech fad.
Now self-motivated learning is what being an Uncolleger is all about. Which means the revolution underway in free learning can provide those pursuing alternatives to traditional college education opportunities to learn important subjects without having to set foot in a classroom.
That said, MOOCs are pretty much replicating the college experience (albeit in unique online formats). This means that if you take a MOOC class, you need to be ready to do things like listen to lectures, do assigned reading, take tests, write papers and the like. So if you’ve gone down the Uncollege route to get away from these traditional learning modes in favor of interships and other forms of experiential learning, MOOCs may not be for you.
But I suspect that even the most adventurous independent learner can find a MOOC that teaches a subject critical for success (or just one covering a subject you’ve always wanted to learn). And given that success often involves drawing from knowledge and experience across differing fields, Uncollgers may discover that studying via a modality they are uniquely wired to master might be the most efficient means to becoming that most powerful of all people: the well-rounded thinker.
By Tom Maxwell
Tom Maxwell is the co-founder of Chakra, and blogs about startups and technology at blog.tommaxwell.me. Tom has interned at various startups, including Lockerz.com, and is now building a journal app for the masses. Follow him on Twitter.
MOOCs (massive open online courses) are creating a renaissance in the education sector. For the first time, hundreds of millions of people around the world have access to structured, reputable (most of the time) courses for free or limited cost. As someone who has had their life positively affected by these resources, I’m a big proponent of movements like the Thiel Foundations 20 Under 20 and UnCollege. These movements expand on this renaissance further by cultivating and nurturing communities of people that believe in one’s ability to learn how to learn. And more importantly, they create support networks for those that have chosen a road less traveled. However, with a completion rate of ~5-8% for most courses (according to data from various MOOC providers), these MOOCs are not yet mature and have a long way to go before proving their viability.
As I alluded to above, I have managed to find success through the use of these massive open courses. Since beginning my journey of becoming a self-taught programmer roughly two years ago, I have interned at two technology companies, created a viable freelancing business, and have met amazing people along the way. But most aren’t so fortunate, and the overarching complaint I hear is that people simply forget to continue logging in and progressing through the courses. I can’t even recall the amount of times I started a Codecademy track only to fall-off within a week or two. After a strong start and high hopes, I simply lost interest and stopped visiting the site. This occurred multiple times before I decided I had to rethink my strategy. I knew that there must be a way to stay motivated. Something, anything, that would keep the drive burning inside me to reach the finish line. That motivation for me was through applied learning.
Applied learning emphasizes the relevance of the material being learned in the real world. Because at the end of the day, if one doesn’t see how new information will be relevant to them, often times they’ll lose interest altogether. Proponents of self-learning can often recall of times when they wondered why their teachings in school would ever matter — the same thing happens regardless of format or setting. So the question becomes not necessarily where the material falls short, but where can we align incentives and find more relevance for the student. What if material could reflect the direct interests of the student consuming them? This can also be applied to traditional brick & mortar schooling, but I think MOOCs are in a strong position to innovate here.
The last time I began learning how to code, the seed of a real-time news application idea had been planted. What I found was that through every lesson, from HTML basics to jQuery and Rails, simply being able to understand how the information would be applicable to me made a huge difference. I was significantly more engaged, interested, and driven to learn. I truly believe that if MOOCs can successfully implement applied learning strategies, completion rates will increase dramatically. At the same time, maybe it comes down to the mindset of the individual from the get-go.
The intrinsic interest among students has to be there, but I think there’s more to it than just an interest to learn. Students have to feel engaged, and they need to have goals, attainable or not, to keep them moving. In traditional academia practically everyone is working towards the goal of success in life, but more realistically success in their careers. With the fluidity and open nature of free online courses, I don’t think most actually set long or short-term goals. I don’t know exactly what companies like Coursera can do about this, but whoever can crack the nut will be a winner.
Only time will tell where this movement goes from here.
By Jean Fan
As a freshman in high school, I remember enviously eyeing club presidents, student council members, and editor-in-chiefs. They led the school, or so it seemed. By junior year, when I held some positions of my own, I remember thinking: this can’t be real leadership.
TAUGHT: Hold a leadership position
In high school and in college, we’re encouraged to demonstrate our leadership potential by holding positions in clubs or organizations. So we apply for some, and we get them. Then we proceed to do the bare minimum: attending weekly meetings, diligently finishing our assigned tasks, and occasionally telling others what to do.
It’s easy, I quickly learned, to get called a leader without having to act like one.
So can we really equate holding a leadership position with actually being a leader? Given the extrinsic motivation of putting it on a resume, no, we can’t. I know a lot of “presidents” who demonstrated no leadership whatsoever, and I know a lot of great leaders who never held a title.
We know that leadership is not determined by the number of positions that you hold. Then what is it, really?
NOT TAUGHT: How to be a leader
Leadership means different things to different people, and in different situations.
To me, leadership is a character trait. It’s not something that you do at specific times of the day, or in front of certain people. It’s not easy, or else everyone would have it. It’s certainly not defined by speaking the loudest or having the most to say.
Instead, if you are a true leader, you are always taking initiative, cheering on your team, solving problems, offering your opinions, and thinking in the long term. You lead by example, and often from behind. Oftentimes you lead others without any prospective reward. It’s just something you decide to do.
Like anything else, being a leader means having the habits of a leader. All it takes is defining and developing these characteristics in yourself. You could, for example, decide to compliment the actions of one person on your team every day, or regularly determine and fix a problem that is out of your domain.
The bottom line is this: you can choose to be a leader, but you have to act like one for it to matter. Will you?
By John Gallagher
At some point during my sophomore year of high school, I stopped showing up. Shortly thereafter I tested out of my remaining graduation requirements (this was actually more out of a desire to avoid being prosecuted under state truancy laws rather than an actual desire to have a high school diploma). I was 16 years old. I’ve never regretted my decision to leave school.
I found school disgusting. The unctuous behavior of spoiled teenagers desperate to go to Harvard repulsed me. Teachers and administrators were horrified that, despite my high test scores, I displayed zero interest in joining the ranks of US News & World Report obsessed ranks of adolescent drones. One day, I couldn’t take it anymore. So, I left.
People told me I was making a huge mistake. That I was making a mess of my life. That I’d never make it without a college degree. People told me I’d end up on the streets. They insisted that unless I went back, I had no future. But, I stood firm. I was going to make it on my own. I was determined. In the end, I was also right.
I got a job almost immediately after leaving high school as the Volunteer Coordinator on the biggest congressional primary of the election cycle. Then in the general election, I was the Fairfax County GOTV Director for the Obama Campaign (Tim Kaine’s US Senate Campaign also folded into my operation). Today, I’m an Account Executive at a full service political consulting firm based in Washington, DC.
I’ve learned more by living and doing than I ever would have by sitting in a classroom listening to some academic lecture. What seminar will teach you how to manage a large, multi layered staff? When will you ever learn how to make an effective sales pitch in a school? Which degree confers upon you the ability to function effectively in a public relations crisis? I may not have a fancy piece of paper from some Ivory Tower, but I’ve got real world, marketable skills and substantive track record of success.
Not too long ago, I went back to my old high school. Surprisingly, most of the teachers I talked to agreed in retrospect that I’d made the right call by leaving. But they also told me that veering from traditional educational route wouldn’t have worked out for other people. That’s where I disagree. I think that anyone who consistently finds themselves challenging the conventional wisdom of education should seriously consider opting out of the system.
I got my first gig in politics because I walked into a storefront campaign office and asked to help out. I got my big break because I asked the Campaign Manager for a ride to the metro and used the travel time to convince him to fire a top gun twenty something operative and hire me in their place. If you’ve got the balls to ask for great responsibility as a teenager, people will generally give you a shot. If you’ve got the intelligence and talent to handle it you can reap the rewards of that.
The combination of guts, smarts and ability will take you as far as you need to go regardless of what field you choose to enter. What’s more, it’s easy to turn what conventional wisdom would suggest are liabilities like youth and a lack of formal education into a whiz kid persona (which will do wonders for your career). Plus, skipping four years of college will give you a huge head start on your peers.
When you opt out of the traditional educational system, you turn reality into your classroom. The people you meet along the way in your own personal journey of self discovery will be your teachers and your classmates. Your shared experiences will be your textbook and the only tuition is an open mind.
My rise over the last few years has been pretty meteoric. I’ve proved all those who doubted me wrong. I may not have gone to prom, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t go the official inaugural ball. I saw my opportunities and I took them. At the end of the day, that’s why I’ve come out on top. If you’re brave enough to blaze your own trail, you can make it to the top as well.
I’m a huge fan of the UnCollege movement. I found out about it while researching unschooling. I think that as a society, we need to move away from higher education. If people choose to go to college, that’s fine. But it should be a footnote on your resume, no more important or prominent than a summer spent backpacking across India or a stint in the Marines (although I think either of those are a lot more valuable and fulfilling than four years of frat parties punctuated by boring lectures from academics with no real world experience).
By Robert Shin
Some background information for context: I lived and attended school in New Zealand my entire life, where the school year begins in February and ends in December. All references made are in relation to the New Zealand education system.
If you had met me a year ago, you would have seen the epitome of modern education’s top-tier student. Having built a well-rounded and highly academic high-school career consisting of Olympiads, sports, music, leaderships, scholarships, and science fairs, I had my eyes fixed for a long time on the elite US colleges as my next platform for growth. But plans changed quite suddenly 4 months ago when I found out I had been rejected from all five colleges I had applied to.
I was the one person who people thought had everything figured out in life; heck, even I thought I had everything figured out in life. But there was no more prestigious college ahead of me, no more open road to walk in the system that had nurtured me. Instead, I was forced to grow past the system, and began considering alternative routes for the first time in my life. It wasn’t easy, and I initially spent weeks being lost for ways to use my time productively. But not getting into college hadn’t changed anything about my identity – I still had my dreams, passions, and hobbies. And with the freedom of time and choice, I paved trails through connecting the dots of my pastimes.
Anything and everything I held interest in became viable options, from long-held hobbies to distant curiosities I never explored. Interests in meditation lead to my entering a Buddhist monk temple in Kyoto, Japan; spontaneous enthusiasm in cooking lead me to an organic farm restaurant in the mountains of Nagano; my wish to visit family relatives exposed me to the lower-class lifestyles of South Korea. I opened my mind to all ideas and people, and it showed me chasms of a beautiful world I had never bothered to look for. And as I am writing this piece now, surrounded by young entrepreneurs at the heart of Silicon Valley, I am cultivating a growing belief that productive gap-years are a necessary part to understanding life.
It is impossible for me to explain in detail my growth as an individual from my (half-finished) gap-year, but I want to highlight how time spent outside the educational bubble can build a foundation that will prepare you for a deeper, more colorful life. The beauty of a gap year is the endless creativity in which you can craft a path; there is nothing you cannot do if you learn to give yourself permission. As the focus shifts from life in an education system to life in the real world, you begin to truly clarify where you really want to go and what you really want to do. Dreams crystallize, and the path in which you choose to attain these dreams is no longer restricted by the conventional methods of modern society; your journey is defined not by the academic years of school, but rather by a continuum of spontaneous, changing environments, that force you to open your mind and heart.
The diverse and profuse group of people you meet will help you identify your own flaws and strengths, and understand what it means to connect as a human. The lack of titles, awards, and grades in the real world leads to a deeper, more meaningful reflection of what you want out of life, and you are continuously humbled by the lives of strangers. What becomes apparent is that it is not so important what you know, as it is what other people have to say. Life is a constant flux of learning, thinking, and doing, and whereas in school you spend your days learning and thinking, it is through leaving it you actually do.
At this point I would like to give me two cents worth regarding college. I for one am not against college in any way; in fact, I personally support entering college at some point during your lifetime. One thing I am certain of is not to simply disregard an opportunity or pathway without having experienced it first-hand, as often the most pleasant surprises arise from not well-thought-out experiences you planned, but the spontaneous, less certain happenings you decide to ‘just try once’. Having said that, however, learn to take a breath and look around you periodically. Don’t be in any rush to enter college, and take some time off to gain insight into what matters in life and what doesn’t. Understand that school is simply one of many platforms for growth, and that you can break the rules that were meant to be broken. Have confidence in your judgments and decisions, and don’t let trivial formalities prevent you from enjoying the ephemeral beauty that life is.