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2016 in Review

Welcome to my annual year in review! I’ve got lots of photos and stories to share with you from a very adventurous 2016.

This year I’m also doing something new: Instead of just recounting the past 12 months, I’m also doing a forward-looking review. I’m going to tell you now what I hope to have accomplished by the end of 2017.

The question I’m asking myself, as Chris Guillebeau puts it: “This time next year, what 3-5 things will have made the year amazing?”

By December 2017, I hope to tell you that I…

  • ran two impactful programs for self-directed young people that earned glowing feedback: the 12-week Argentina Semester and 7-week Southeast Asia trip.
  • gave presentations in England and Europe as part of a self-organized speaking tour meant to spread the ideas behind self-directed learning.
  • dedicated serious time to dance—tango and blues fusion—through festivals, private lessons, and social dancing.
  • built, tested, and launched my first online course.
  • spent at 30+ days hiking or backpacking.

I see this as a combination of new year’s resolutions, staying true to my goals, and fortune-telling. I’m not discounting the possibility or importance of serendipitous events; I’m just trying to go into 2017 with some clear intentions for how I’ll measure my success.

Alright—now back to 2016! I’ve divided the year into five parts:

  1. Guatemala
  2. New Zealand
  3. Argentina
  4. California
  5. On The Road

Part 1: Guatemala

January

On New Year’s day I woke in Xela, Guatemala, where I spent January escaping the winter, improving my Spanish, and reflecting on my nomadic lifestyle. I arrived on December 31st from Oaxaca (Southern Mexico) via a series of buses, taxis, and bicycle rickshaws. Traveling solo with a lingering lower back injury, I wasn’t able to walk very far, so I spent a lot of time working from my sweet top-floor apartment overlooking Xela (a.k.a. Quetzaltenango) which I rented for $550/month.

Xela, Guatemala

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Only beautiful things lead us out to join the world beyond our heads.

Matthew Crawford

The World Beyond Your Head is Matthew Crawford’s second book, following Shop Class as Soulcraft—one of my all-time favorites.

I enjoyed this book, but cannot say that I recommend The World Beyond Your Head to the casual reader. It’s much denser, more philosophical, and less accessible than Shop Class. But if you have a soft spot for sometimes-intractable political philosophy and social commentary with brief shining moments of illuminating truth (as I do), it may be worth your time.

What I took away was a powerful critique of the Enlightenment-driven concept of the autonomous individual which lies at the base of how I understand (and promote) unschooling and self-directed learning. Yet at the same time, Crawford reinforces the value of experiential education.

Here are my favorite quotes, all taken from the U.S. paperback version. All emphases are original; all typos are mine.

On silence and stimulation:

The benefits of silence [such as in an airport waiting area] are off the books. They are not measured directly by an econometric instrument such as gross domestic product, yet the availability of silence surely contributes to creativity and innovation. They do not show up explicitly in social statistics such as level of educational achievement, yet one consumes a great deal of silence in the course of becoming educated. (p. 11)

The media have become masters at packaging stimuli in ways that our brains find irresistible, just as food engineers have become experts in creating “hyperpalatable” foods by manipulating levels of sugar, fat, and salt. Distractability might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity. . . When we inhabit a highly engineer environment, the natural world begins to seem bland and tasteless, like broccoli compared with Cheetos. Stimulation begets a need for more stimulation; without it one feels antsy, unsettled. Hungry, almost. (pp. 16-17) Continue Reading

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