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Success Story

A decade ago I stumbled onto this comic:

Success Story by Billy Burg

For reasons I couldn’t clearly articulate, the comic deeply affected me. Now I think I have an idea why.

Here in North America (and much of the Northern Europe), we subscribe to the protestant work ethic: the idea that salvation comes through hard work and deferred gratification. In general, I think this is a good thing, and I’d rather live in a North American or Northern European culture than a Latin American or South Asian one (to name only two with which I’m familiar).

But taken to its extreme, the protestant work ethic can lead you to work doggedly to climb the next rung of whatever ladder is placed in front of you, sacrifice all pleasurable and “non-productive” activities to the altars of career and “efficiency,” and end up with no life to truly call your own.

Success, it seems to me, involves a proper balance between future-orientation (a.k.a. planning, goal-setting, ambition, determination, “grit”) and present-orientation (a.k.a. following curiosities, indulging whims, hedonism, enjoying the moment, “flow”).

The first without the second becomes endless toil, asceticism, and martyrdom—and if you only have one life, what’s the point of that? You might die any day, after all.

The second without the first becomes aimless pleasure-seeking and willful disregard of the fact that tomorrow exists and your actions today will affect it. (Maybe in the cartoon above, Beatrice ends up destitute and unhappy a few years down the line because she never took a moment to stop playing with her puppy and making necklaces to consider her future.)

These ideas seem intricately connected to education. My biggest gripe with traditional high school has always been its massive waste of human potential: so many kids sit bored and listless and unengaged in school, prodded along by carrots and sticks to do problem sets and standardized tests that they resist at every turn. If we instead focused on the big, hard, messy, important questions like “How do we kindle voluntary engagement and buy-in from young people?” and “What kind of school would kids be heart-broken not to attend?”, we educators & taxpayers would better spend our time/money/energy. I believe we should more seriously consider what makes young people happy and engaged right here, right now, today. Hence my enthusiasm for unschooling and self-directed learning.

I’m clearly a skeptic of the kind of relentless future-orientation that traditional education promotes and a fan of present-orientation and the potential it holds for self-motivation. I love the idea of young people tackling the question “what will I do today?” instead of following some prescribed path. But I also find myself constantly nudging the young people with whom I work towards goal-setting, deeper self-reflection, and long-term commitment to their learning projects. Hmm. Balance seems to be the key.

[See also: My 2012 blog post defining success.]

New Unschool Adventures for 2016/2017

I’m proud to announce two new Unschool Adventures programs and one awesome partner program for the upcoming year and beyond:

  1. Real World Retreat 2016 (ages 16-20)
  2. Argentina Semester 2017 (ages 18-21)
  3. High Desert Center Gap Year 2016-7 (ages 17-23)

(Looking for something for participants under age 16? Keep your eyes peeled for a potential Fall 2016 writing retreat and/or international trip, to be announced in early 2016. Join the U.A. notification list to be the first to know.)

Real World Retreat 2016

May 12 – June 9, 2016

The Real World Retreat gives 16- to 20-year-olds the skills and confidence necessary to move out of their parents’ houses, support themselves financially, build community, and continue living a meaningful, learning-centered life.

Think of this retreat as a giant scavenger hunt with 25 of your new best friends. For 4 weeks in the mountains of Colorado, you’ll go on daily adventures in which you’ll learn how to rent a room or apartment, cook for yourself and others on $6/day, make friends anywhere, draft a personal budget, understand credit cards, write an awesome résumé, and develop healthy exercise practices.

Program fee: $1900
Apply now

Priority application deadline: December 1st, 2015

Argentina Semester 2017

January 25 – April 19, 2017

The Argentina Semester is a 12-week experience for 18- to 21-year-olds who want to live independently in a foreign city, improve their Spanish, practice group living, and build real-world skills. Facilitated by U.A. director Blake Boles, this is our newest and longest program for self-directed learners seeking an immersive international experience with lots of personal freedom and a positive peer community.

Program fee: $6500
Apply now

Super early bird deadline: December 1st, 2015
Priority application deadline: January 15th, 2016

High Desert Center Gap Year: September 5, 2016 – June 1, 2017

Want to make the Argentina Semester part of a full gap year program? Dev Carey’s High Desert Center 2016-7 Gap Year gives you the option of combining the Argentina Semester with 16 more weeks of group living and adventure in Western Colorado. (You can also go to Mexico with the Gap Year program and not go to Argentina.) See the website for program fees.

Priority application deadline: December 1st, 2015
Apply now on the High Desert Center website

Teens: How to Write Two Important E-mails

Last week at the Adventure Semester, I showed the teens how to write two important types of e-mail—and then challenged them to hit “send” six times before the day was over. They were:

  1. How to write a request for a letter of recommendation
  2. How to introduce yourself to an interesting stranger (and make a small request)

Below are my workshop notes for your perusal, along with example emails that were written and sent by Adventure Semester teens.

How to Request a Letter of Recommendation

  1. Write to someone with whom you’ve had a strong working relationship: the longer and more recent the relationship, the better. Parents don’t count!
  2. Begin by clearly stating that you’re requesting a letter of recommendation. (Don’t bury the lead.)
  3. Explain what the letter is for: An upcoming college application? The Common App? A job? A general letter of recommendation that you’ll use for various purposes in the future? An endorsement to post on your website? Clearly answering this question will help the writer address the letter to a specific audience.
  4. Explain the guidelines:
    1. How long should it be? (Give a specific target range in terms of number of paragraphs or word count. For a general letter of recommendation, think 3-5 paragraphs.)
    2. When do you need it? (Provide a firm date whenever possible. 2-4 notice is respectful.)
    3. Who should I send it to? (Most professional letters of recommendation for college or jobs go straight from the author to the organization; they don’t pass through the hands of the person being recommended. A general letter of recc can be sent straight to you.)
  5. Help me write the letter. This means:
    1. Tell me what our professional relationship means to you.
    2. Tell me what aspects of our work together you want me to highlight in the letter: your perseverance, team spirit, creativity, or a specific accomplishment?
    3. Is there a specific story you want me to recount? This is not a weird or manipulative thing to do. Rather, it jogs my writer’s memory and helps them write a better, more authentic letter.
    4. Include a list of your recent significant activities and accomplishments (i.e. other stuff you’ve been up to) so that the writer can have a better sense of context and possibly reference your other activities in the letter.
  6. If you don’t hear back within 5 days, write a gentle follow-up email that displays respect for the fact that this person is probably busy (which you should always assume). For example: “Hi Tabi, just checking in to see if you receiving my request for a letter of recommendation. The deadline is 3 weeks from now. If you have the time to work on this, that’s awesome, and If not, I totally understand! Let me know and I’ll find someone else to write a letter for me.”
  7. After the person writes you the letter, send a thank-you email. Some people even send thank-you cards or gifts. (This is appropriate after receiving a letter, not before! That’s called bribery.)

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Freedom Businesses

I have a dream that needs to die.

Ever since reading The 4-Hour Work Week in 2007—a book that influenced an entire generation of entrepreneurially-minded, recession-affected young adults like myself—I’ve dreamed about starting an online “freedom business.”

A freedom business typically looks like this:

  • You can run it online from anywhere in the world using your laptop
  • It often relies on automated technologies that provide “scalability” and let you remove yourself from the equation
  • Once the gears are in motion, profits happen easily and generate so-called “passive income”

Think of an online t-shirt business that outsources all of its production to third parties. Or a Kindle book, a monthly membership community, or an iOS app. If the owner sets things up intelligently, hires a little help when needed, and keeps the marketing machine going—she has herself a freedom business. It’s an attractive idea.

“How can I combine my passion for education, self-directed learning, and unschooling with the freedom business model?” I’ve asked myself approximately a dozen times in the past few years. I dream up a new idea, get really excited, and create a new website to flesh out my ideas. A few recent examples:

[Note that none of these programs are active, although they might look like it! That’s just how my mind operates—I need to flesh out the final product on the web to really get a feel for it.]

Sometimes I throw one of these out to the world to see if they’ll bite, like I did with LaunchPad, which failed to draw sufficient interest. But more often, I simply lose steam for the idea, because I realize that neither I nor anyone I know pays for online communities or courses.

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Andy Weir on Self-Publishing

In this ~9 minute segment, Andy Weir, author of “The Martian”, discusses how he wrote and published his book.

My takeaways:

  1. There’s no shortcut to good writing; you have to do a lot of mediocre writing first.
  2. Building up a readership / fanbase over a long period of time is super helpful.
  3. Crowdsourcing feedback on your book is smart.
  4. Amazon can empower small-time authors in incredible ways.
  5. Every good writer is first and foremost an avid reader.

(HT to Addison Pond for lending me his copy of The Martian and pointing me to this interview.)