My mission is to help young people discover self-directed learning and begin to take charge of their educations, careers, and lives.
So there you have it. Want to learn the story behind the mission? Keep reading.
People often ask me how I got into the world of homeschooling, unschooling, alternative schools, etc. It’s an appropriate question because (1) I wasn’t homeschooled, unschooled, or alternatively educated myself, (2) I attended standard public schools in California and Colorado, and (3) who in their right mind chooses to work with weirdo homeschoolers? (Joking.)
When I went to school, I certainly enjoyed parts of it. I got good grades and received the praise and benefits commiserate with high achievement. Some of my classes and teachers opened my eyes in important ways. I made a few close friends, became “socialized” in both good and bad ways, and got myself admitted to UC Berkeley.
But none of these good parts of school ever outweighed the feeling that I was wasting a giant portion of my youth sitting bored in school.
Not only bored, but frustrated. The large-group aspect of classrooms never worked well with me. It seemed like, for a shockingly large part of my time in school, my classes were either going too slow (i.e. not challenging enough), going too fast (i.e. I wanted to dive deeper), or focused on something that felt irrelevant to my life.
I believe that teenagers have better relevance-detectors than we commonly give them credit. They can see when something is going to help them achieve their most important goals (or not). They know when someone is trying to teach them something because it’s “required” rather than because of a genuine belief in the power/importance/relevance of that thing.
No, most teenagers cannot foresee how discussing To Kill a Mockingbird or studying physics might benefit them in the future. But they’re pretty good at noticing when they’re bored. And the state of boredom—I humbly propose—is the default for a majority of teens in school. What a colossal waste of human time, energy, and potential!
Thus were sown the seeds of my discontent with school: specifically middle- and high-school, where I experienced most of my frustration. That’s a big reason why I’ve chosen to work with teenagers. (Another is that, in college, I helped run an incredible teen leadership program at a wilderness summer camp that convinced me of the transformative potential of the teenage years.)
I went to Berkeley to study astrophysics and ended up discovering (and designing my own major in) alternative education; that’s a story I’ve shared many times in my books and online. Upon graduating in 2004, I knew exactly three things: (1) I wanted to keep working with teens in experiential / outdoor / travel / leadership capacities, (2) I wanted to eventually work for myself, and (3) I wanted to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail. (The third one didn’t work out. I hiked for a few weeks and then quit, having finally discovered what “too much alone time” felt like. But the first two stuck.)
Right away I spent a few years working in the California outdoor education industry, which usually amounted to taking 4th- to 8th-graders on hikes, facilitating high and low ropes courses, teaching hands-on physical sciences, and acting like I knew ecology. These jobs were experiential and outdoors, but they weren’t fulfilling my higher goals. Sure, these kids were having a blast, and maybe we were inspiring them to develop a closer relationship to nature—but we weren’t empowering them as leaders, and I wasn’t working for myself. So I jumped ship from outdoor ed.
Travel has always served to clear my head, so I took off to South America for 3 months without specific plans. Along the way, a funny thing happened. On notebook pages and blank sheets of printer paper hijacked from internet cafes (yes, this was before the time of ubiquitous wi-fi), I started scrawling tiny handwritten notes to myself about high school, college, unschooling, and teen leadership. What emerged was a book manuscript called College Without High School: a teenager’s guide to getting into college without going to (or completing) high school.
I had just started working at Not Back to School Camp (NBTSC) where I’d met my first big, real-life group of teenagers who purposefully opted out of school. These kids had blown me away with their intelligence, grace, passion, creativity, and authenticity. I had promptly decided that—if this was what “unschooling” meant—I was a full-blown proponent of unschooling in the teen years.
Something else I discovered at NBTSC was that many of these unschoolers were going to 4-year colleges and universities (and some pretty darn competitive ones, too). My own eye-opening, highly engaging, and largely self-directed college experience was still fresh on my mind. And I was aware of the (still ongoing) trend for parents to take home/unschooling seriously in the teen years because of the assumption that you can’t get into college without a traditional high school background. So I put it all together, and out popped my first book, which I submitted to only two publishers (both of whom had published John Taylor Gatto’s work). One never got back to me, and the other sent me a contract.
“Authority” and “expertise” are funny things. A small Canadian publisher had chosen to purchase and print my manuscript, and all of a sudden I leapt into a group of so-called “experts” on alternative education. College Without High School served as a giant business card that enabled me to start speaking at homeschooling conferences (and get paid to do so!), get interviewed on blogs and podcasts; and present to parent groups even though I was 25 and had no kids or advanced degrees. As I did these things, the “expert” status was progressively reinforced, making it easier to (self-)publish the next book, or get the next speaking gig… and that’s how my career continues to work to this day.
Homeschooling, unschooling, and alternative schooling prioritize the development of messy human traits like intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and engagement. These are incredibly hard to measure and analyze in a meaningful way, unlike standardized tests. That’s why I base my assertions on anecdotal evidence, personal experience, and the synthesized ideas of others. I’m aware that this methodology makes me susceptible to confirmation bias and selective data gathering. I do my best to keep that in mind and not overly generalize my conclusions (i.e. “everyone should unschool!”).
As I launched my writing and speaking career, I developed another business in tandem: Unschool Adventures. Inspired by my own travel adventures as a teenager—and my incessant desire to keep seeing the world and become self-employed—my friend Abbi and I offered a 6-week trip to Argentina (original webpage) to the Not Back to School Camp community. To our pleasant surprise, the trip filled, and all of a sudden I had a flexible, location-independent business on my hands. By keeping my personal expenses low, within 18 months I was able to pay all of my bills by running a few Unschool Adventures programs each year (supplemented by speaking fees, a little book income, and the occasional odd part-time job).
So what’s the common thread between all this? Where did my mission come from? I’d like to tell you that starting Unschool Adventures, writing my books, speaking for parents, etc., were all part of some grand scheme. And while it’s true that I was thinking about this stuff as soon as I finished college (evidence from 2004), it’s more true that I stumbled into each milestone by simply reacting to what felt pressing/important in my life at that moment. I developed a mission as a consequence of the neat projects I found myself working on.
So, here it is again: My mission is to help young people discover self-directed learning and begin to take charge of their educations, careers, and lives. What does this really mean?
“young people”: I’m most interested in working with people age 13-19 who are deep in the process of forming their individual identities, testing their limits, and questioning the world. I find that, by providing the right words or experience to someone this age, I can create a life-long positive impact. This is why I mostly create my books, travel adventures, and other program directly for teenagers.
“help… discover”: I’m not in charge of this process. You cannot force someone to become more self-aware, responsible, or motivated. They’ve got to want it—and I believe that most people do inherently want these things—and someone like me can only become helpful as an aide in this process.
“self-directed learning”: I still don’t have a good one-line definition of self-directed learning, but I know that it involves (1) defining a system of personal values that aren’t thoughtlessly harvested from those of your family, friends, or society; (2) figuring out what kind of work you love so much that you’d do it for little (or no) pay; (3) embracing the dual notions of freedom and responsibility; and (4) making all of the major decisions in your life for yourself (to the extent that’s possible given legal and practical constraints).
“begin to take charge”: This is a life-long process that doesn’t happen overnight. And, fundamentally, we’re never totally in charge of our own lives. But starting is better than not.
“educations, careers, and lives”: These three really aren’t that separate, but each felt necessary to mention. I don’t believe you can be “self-directed” in one area and not another.
As I observe my life’s work thus far, in retrospect, this is the mission statement that feels most right.
(Last updated: September 2015)