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How to Take a Self-Directed Gap Year with Zero Starting Funds

*Update: This post was picked up by the American Gap Association blog*

Today I’m interviewing Victor Saad for my podcast, and while googlestalking him to prepare for the talk I watched his fantastic TEDx talk:

The whole talk is worth your time, but something that stood out to me was how Victor funded a 12-month, travel-intensive series of apprenticeships that he called the Leap Year Project . Victor quit his job to do this, and at age 25 without significant savings, he needed a way to fund this project. Here’s what he said:

I asked 200 people to subscribe to the project at $10 a month. They would get to learn from my lessons and see what I was doing, and I would have the means to run the project. . . Roughly 100 trusting individuals gave me just what I needed.

To help pay for flights, a family friend gave him “buddy passes” that let him fly standby. For housing, he first asked friends and family, and then tried Couchsurfing, Craigslist, Airbnb, and posting on Facebook and Twitter.

I stayed in everything from office spaces to vehicles to mansions. I was a vagabond. But it was okay. I was a student.

Before our podcast interview, I asked him if he relied on any other sources of founding to make this year possible. He told me that some of the internships and apprenticeships he did paid him $15-$20/hour, and that he sold some possessions to earn a few thousand dollars at the beginning of the year. Beyond that, he received no outside support.

It’s clear from Victor’s story that he had a lot of assets going into the Leap Year Project that allowed him to pull off this funding trick, most notably a wide social network, excellent media skills (his promotional videos are masterful), and a little bit of starting cash.

Regardless, I see a model here for any young person who wants to take a gap year, doesn’t have the cash to fund it, and is willing to put in a little legwork:

  1. Subscription service: Instead of running one big crowdfunding campaign to fund your travels (as I’ve suggested but is difficult to pull off), have people “subscribe” to your gap year for a fixed monthly rate. Provide options ranging from $5/month to $30/month. The best platform for doing this is probably Patreon. For the different levels offer different perks ranging from a monthly email update to postcards to videos (which can also serve as accountability and journaling tools). Aim to generate at least $1000/month from this income.
  2. Airline miles: To deal with the major expense of flying around the world: Ask family and friends if anyone would be willing to donate accumulated airline miles or buddy passes to your cause. And get one of those airline miles credit cards that gives you 50,000 bonus miles as soon you spend a few thousand dollars (you can launder it through your parents by buying a new laptop for them and then having them repay you).
  3. Free housing: Get really comfortable with using Couchsurfing to stay at strangers’ houses (for free), tapping your extended Facebook network to find potential hosts, and working out temporary work-trades with hostels that let you stay there for free.
  4. Part-time work: Develop a “Masseuse Model” skill that will enable you to pick up part-time work wherever you go.
  5. Frugality: Learn how to cook rice and beans really, really well. Figure out to how entertain yourself without going out for drinks or going bungie jumping. Essentially: avoid every money-sucking tourist trap.

Who wants to try this? I’d love to see the experiment in action. I’ll help you set it up—write me.

Failure Survey, 2015-2016

I’ve been reading a lot of articles about the pernicious effects of social media: how we see only the highlights and victories of other people’s lives, and how that makes us feel less accomplished or worthy.

I’m guilty of perpetuating this, of course. On Facebook I only share the most beautiful photos, positive praise, and inspiring events in my life.

So for a change of pace, today I’m sharing a list of my failures over the past two years. Each of these has been a real struggle or concern in my life, and I don’t have a good solution for most.

Business: Many of my recently launched Unschool Adventures trips have not met minimum numbers, and I’ve had to cancel them (see them here). I haven’t grown my business’ audience enough to make these trips viable, or I’m offering the wrong kind of trips.

Dance: I’m an extremely slow learner, and I’ve had the experience of dancing with a stranger at an event (dance festival or tango milonga) who obviously doesn’t enjoy the experience and actively avoids dancing with me again.

Girlfriend: In my pursuit of a meaningful long-term relationship, it’s been swing-and-miss, over and over again. I’ve invested more hours in online dating than I care to admit. I make wrong guesses about who’s attracted to me, I misread people’s intentions, and I send mixed messages.

Running: Though I’ve been going on cool runs, I’m not getting any faster or more efficient. If anything, I’m getting slower. I’m really bad at doing anything resembling “training,” like going on shorter runs at faster paces.

Writing: Both of my big published works this summer, How to Live Nowhere and Off-Trail Learning, have received minimal traction. I’m trying to write for wider audiences and not doing a very good job of it. And my podcast listener numbers are flat, not growing.

Health: I’ve given up on strength training over and over again, despite my friend Fred even making a custom work-out plan for me. I’ve done nothing to curb my sugar addiction that I know is detrimental to my long-term health; I eat large bowls of ice cream most nights, and eat out when I could easily cook for myself (with healthier meals and less money spent).

Family: Despite living only 3 hours away from my west-coast family, I’ve failed to visit once this summer.

Long-term projects: As I review projects that I’ve launched with fanfare over the past years, I’ve given up or stalled on many of them (see: Open Master’s and Hogwarts).

I’m not writing this post so that you’ll comment and say “Oh Blake, don’t worry, you’re wonderful.” I’m not looking for sympathy or praise. Just trying to keep it real here in the online world.

Book Summary: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Without concentration there can be no learning, and today our ability to concentrate is taking heavy fire from the armies of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, clickbait links, and plain old email and text messages. Just as we begin to get something important done, our phone vibrates—or we check our inbox, or scan our Facebook feed—and we are pulled away into another world, losing our focus over and over again.

Though I consider myself a hard worker and self-directed learner, I am completely guilty of the above crimes. I leave my inbox open while working, ready to be distracted by the most mundane incoming message. I check my phone multiple times an hour (sometimes dozens). I respond to momentary boredom by opening Facebook. And I go down internet black holes more often than I care to admit, checking back into reality many hours later.

So when I heard that Cal Newport had written a new book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, I was curious, but also hesitant. I had serious issues with Cal’s previous book where he argued that following your passion is a bad idea. Eventually I succumbed and read the book—and I’m so glad I did.

Deep Work is a really great book.

Cal has tackled a giant problem in the modern world—how we have invited distraction and fractured attention spans into our lives—and offers many practical ways to deal with it. He makes a strong case for “deep work” being both a major asset in the information economy and a more satisfying approach to getting important work done.

For self-directed learners who don’t have a teacher peering over their shoulder to keep them on task, Deep Work offers practical advice that’s more coherent and actionable then whatever you’ll pick up from browsing online articles about productivity.

Below you’ll find the notes I took while reading the book. They don’t offer a complete summary—because my goal was to write down things that felt highly applicable to my own life—but most of the big ideas are here. Enjoy, and happy focusing. Continue Reading

The Problems with the 10,000 Hour Rule

In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers, which popularized the work of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson through the “10,000 Hour Rule”, suggesting that expert-level performance in any field can be achieved through ten thousand hours of practice. Based on Ericsson’s 1991 study of violinists at a music academy in Berlin, this now-famous rule has taken on a life of its own. But it’s not so simple.

This year, Ericsson published a book (Peak) clarifying his research and explaining the caveats to this so-called rule:

  1. There’s nothing special about the number 10,000: that’s just the number of hours that the top violinists Ericsson studied had accumulated by age 20. And while these were very promising students, they were not yet masters of the violin. “Pianists who win international piano competitions tend to do so when they’re around thirty years old, and thus they’ve probably put in about twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand hours of practice by then; ten thousand hours is only halfway down that path.” Ericsson also cites his first major research subject, Steve Faloon, who he helped become “the very best person in the world at memorizing strings of digits after only about two hundred hours of practice.” Certain obscure types of expertise don’t require 10,000 hours.
  2. Ten thousand was only an average number of hours that the top violinists had put in by age 20. Half of the violinists in the group had put in less than 10,000 hours; so 10,000 is not some hard minimum number as the rule implies.
  3. Most crucially (in my opinion), Gladwell didn’t properly distinguish between the general notion of “practice” and Andersson’s very specific definition of “deliberate practice”, which involves focused, individualized, goal-oriented training under a teacher or coach. (Here’s the chapter from The Art of Self-Directed Learning where I explained the difference.) The Beatles, for example, put in many hours of “practice” by playing shows in Hamburg, but that’s not the same as “focused, goal-driven practice that is designed to address certain weaknesses and make certain improvements.” (The Beatles success may be better explained by their songwriting, so it’s more relevant to identify what John Lennon and Paul McCartney did to develop their songwriting skills.)
  4. Although Gladwell didn’t say it himself, the rule implied that almost anyone can become an expert in a given field by putting in 10,000 hours. But to prove this, Ericsson would have needed to “put a collection of randomly chosen people through ten thousand hours of deliberate practice on the violin and then see how they turned out.” His original study just showed that those admitted to the Berlin music academy, the best students had put in more hours of solitary deliberate practice.

Given all these caveats, Ericsson acknowledges that the general spirit of the rule is correct: “becoming accomplished in any field in which there is a well-established history of people working to become experts requires a tremendous amount of effort exerted over many years. It may not require exactly ten thousand hours, but it will take a lot.” There are no shortcuts, and there are no insta-geniuses. Everyone needs to put in their time.

(All quotes from Chapter 4 of Peak.)

Do I Own My Business, or Does it Own Me?

A friend recently shared an article that describes Unschool Adventures, my little travel tour business, with scary precision:

Let me ask you a question. If you went overseas for six months leaving your business behind, when you came back would it be in better or worse shape than you left it? Would you even have a business left?

If your answered negatively to either of these questions, then it’s likely you don’t have a business – rather you ARE the business. . . .

Don’t get me wrong, [such a business owner] may be financially successful. Their business may be thriving with a loyal base of customers but the problem is they are stuck – shackled to their business.

If they were to leave or get sick for an extended period of time, their business would cease to exist.

Yup, that’s pretty accurate. Unschool Adventures is me. Although I hire staff assistants on the trips I run—and once in a blue moon an entire trip happens without me—if I completely ignored my business, ceased my marketing efforts, or attempted to outsource everything, it would soon fold. Continue Reading