All posts in ZTC

Announcing Trailblazer

I’m excited to announce a big new event that I’ve created for self-directed learners ages 18-22+: The Trailblazer Gathering.


The mission of Trailblazer is to provide community, direction, and inspiration to college-aged self-directed learners—whether or not they’re going to college.

You can read a little more about why I created this event.

I’d love your help spreading the word about Trailblazer to any young adults who may benefit from it. We’re trying to bring in a diverse group of people from across North America to make this first event as awesome as possible.

Registration opens December 30th with early bird discounts.

Grown Unschoolers Need Community, Too

ZTC Camp 2011
I’m constantly amazed by the community and support networks available to teenage unschoolers. For grown unschoolers, it’s a different story.

As a teen, you’ve got summer camps (NBTSC, ETUSC), conferences (LIG, NEUC, HSC + more), regional resource centers and free schools (like North Star in MA, Tall Grass in IL, or Open Connections in PA), and tons of local support groups. I’ve added to this mix, too, with Unschool Adventures.

Such options make it easy to build community as a self-directed teen. Yes—it’s still difficult if you’re rural, shy, or don’t have the resources to bounce between camps and conferences. But the options are there.

Turn 19 or 20, and the game changes. You drop off a cliff, community- and support-wise.

You can still attend conferences—some may even court you—but you’ll pretty much be the only person between age 20 & 30. You’ve aged out of the camps and alternative schools, unless you become a staff member. Support groups start looking like collections of little kids and parents.

College becomes your best option, and many unschoolers do go to college and find great community and support there. But the four-year college price tag is quickly departing from the value it provides. If your interests aren’t academic, will you pay $5,000 – $30,000 per year for the privilege of hanging around other people your age?

This isn’t just an issue for grown unschoolers. Some 18-22 year-olds from traditional backgrounds discover their autodidactic natures in college. I did. Lots of others do too. They crave a community of fellow self-directed learners but have no idea where to find it.

I think we need more self-directed learners in the world. We’re doing a good job of supporting such learners at the teenage level. We could be doing better at the young adult level.

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To this end, I’m designing a big new annual event for 18-22 year-olds. Its explicit mission: to offer community, direction, and inspiration to the North America-wide community of young adult self-directed learners.

Unschoolers and the avowedly unlabeled… college students, college drop-outs, and college never-beens… entrepreneurs, artists, makers, travelers, and those without a clear direction: all will be welcome.

I’ll post more about this event very soon. (You may also join the Unschool Adventures notification list to get an e-mail when it launches.)

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To promote self-directed learning as a viable approach for young adults, we will need more than an annual gathering. But it will be a step in the right direction.

What other steps can we take?


[Cross-posted on the Unschool Adventures blog.]

5 Reasons to Replace College With Travel and Self-Directed Learning

This is my second piece published by The Matador Network. As before, they slightly modified my article from its original version, which you’ll find below.

The idea of taking a gap year between high school and college is no longer controversial. The logic is simple: you’ve already spent twelve years in a classroom, so why not take a break before jumping back in? Pack that gap year full of travel, work, networking, reading, and writing, and you’ll undoubtedly make better use of your time in college.

The idea of skipping college altogether, however, is still highly controversial. Over the past few years, eloquent arguments have appeared almost weekly both for and against the proposal.

For budding entrepreneurs and techies, there are innovative programs like Enstitute, the Thiel Fellowship, and Dev Bootcamp. But for the rest of us—those who enter 4-year liberal arts programs with high hopes of gaining some direction, enlightenment, and new friends—the biggest problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any viable, worthwhile alternatives to the college experience.

This is where self-directed learning—the type of learning that a gap year emphasizes—offers a compelling opportunity.

When you do self-directed learning, you take a self-organized and self-motivated approach to education. You follow no pre-structured curriculum—therefore you possess the freedom to learn in a style that fits you, seek out the best mentors and courses you can find, and pursue your quirky, individual goals. And you’re not alone in the journey: a growing community of young people are taking the self-directed path.

Here are five reasons why the full-time self-directed learning (and a healthy dose of gap year-style travel) can offer a respectable alternative to four-year college.

1) You’ll learn how to manage money and stay out of debt.

You can do a whole lot of self-directed learning for the same amount of money that you’d spend on college. But most families don’t have that kind of cash on hand, and there are no student loans for self-directed learning.

This seemingly large obstacle is a blessing in disguise. Why? Because when you take the self-directed path, you directly observe the costs and results of many ways to educate yourself. This teaches you how to manage money and shows you that education is valuable but not priceless. Everything has a price. Colleges tend to hide this reality by lumping exorbitant dorm rooms, sports teams, and exercise facilities into their tuition price tags—all in the name of learning.

Perhaps most importantly, the self-directed path doesn’t lock you into $20,000, $50,000 or $100,000 worth of student loans: an incredible burden that shoehorns many young people into unsatisfying career paths when the world is supposed to be their oyster.

2) You’ll ramp up your self-motivation.

Self-directed learning (and independent world travel) demands—and quickly builds— your self-motivation. But what if you don’t think you’re motivated enough to begin this kind of learning in the first place? It’s a classic chicken-and-the-egg situation: you’ve got to jump into the deep end in order to begin.

Self-education stokes your senses of autonomy, mastery, and purpose: the key ingredients of self-motivation, as explained by Daniel Pink’s excellent book Drive. It also lets you pursue the “flow” state described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi: another psychological state that reinforces self-motivation.

3) You can become successful without a degree.

The idea that fame and fortune can only be achieve by college graduates is a lie. The pay-off from a college degree is overhyped, and there are plenty of successful people who never finished college (or even high school). Unless you want to definitely become a professor, research scientist, or licensed professional, a college degree is not truly mandatory. The self-motivation that you develop as an independent learner will in fact become your greatest asset. As Seth Godin suggests: “A modern productive worker is someone who does a great job in figuring out what to do next.”

Yes, it’s more challenging for self-directed learners to get a human resources department to look at their résumés. But do you really need a résumé? Instead, build an online portfolio (like Vi Hart), tell your story in a compelling way (like Weezie Yancey-Siegel), demonstrate the value you’re capable of generating (like Logan McBroom), and then find a creative way to get noticed. Either you’ll get hired (without ever standing in the Craigslist breadline) or learn enough to start your own business.

4) You’ll build massive amounts of self-knowledge.

The Greeks got it right a long time ago: First, know thyself.

Self-knowledge is the skeleton key that unlocks the answers to a number of questions, such as: What are my deepest needs? In what environment do I work best? And how can I personally change the world for the better?

Short-term job experiments, long-term travel, extensive reading and writing, making new friends around the world, and other gap year-style activities can build self-knowledge much more quickly than the same time spent in college.

5) You’ll actually fulfill your travel dreams instead of waiting until age 60.

Don’t be the person whose first big adventure is taking a Carnival cruise at age 60. If you want to travel, do it now: when you’re young, broke, and free. Too many people defer their travel dreams, get caught up in a graduate school program, serious job, relationship, or family obligation, and then end up with one or two weeks free each year.  You can always go back to college as an adult—it’s a sensible option—but becomes more and more difficult travel like a young person can.

Let’s drop the false notion of college-for-all and start giving gap years, extended travel, and self-directed learning their proper due as educational options.


Blake Boles is the author of Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree and the director of Unschool Adventures, the travel company for self-directed young adults.