Blake Boles is the founder and director of Unschool Adventures and the author of The Art of Self-Directed Learning, Better Than College, and College Without High School. He hosts the Off-Trail Learning podcast and regularly delivers presentations at alternative schools and homeschooling conferences.
In 2003 Blake was studying astrophysics at UC Berkeley when he stumbled upon the works of John Taylor Gatto, Grace Llewellyn, and other alternative education pioneers. Deeply inspired by the philosophy of unschooling, Blake custom-designed his final two years of college to study education full-time. After graduating he joined the Not Back to School Camp community and began writing and speaking widely on the subject of self-directed learning. He and his work have appeared on The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, BBC Travel, Psychology Today, Fox Business, TEDx, The Huffington Post, USA Today, NPR affiliate radio, and the blogs of Wired and The Wall Street Journal.
In his previous lives, Blake worked as a high-volume cook, delivery truck driver, summer camp director, Aurora Borealis research assistant, math tutor, outdoor science teacher, camp medic, ski resort market researcher, web designer, and windsurfing and tree climbing instructor. His biggest passion is sharing his enthusiasm and experience with young adults who are blazing their own trails through life. He was born in 1982.
He basically has no home and just works for our kids to experience life outside the box, moving from amazing place to even more amazing place with kids in tow.
Homeschool group leader in Washington state
I started this goal list at age 20. Completed goals are in red. Last updated: May 2019.
A few notes about my method:
- I only post big, exciting, and slightly intimidating goals—not the little stuff.
- I retroactively add goals that I’ve already completed, even if I didn’t know they were “goals” at the start.
- I remove goals that become irrelevant to my life (i.e., the list isn’t sacrosanct).
- I post my goals publicly because I believe the “public peer pressure” gives me better chance of completing them (even if there are drawbacks to this approach).
- I post failures as well as successes (thanks, Tina Seelig).
- I link to digital evidence of my completed goals whenever possible.
- Start a family
- Live long enough to play tricks on my grandkids
- Own a house
- Get a dog
- Graduate from college – B.A., UC Berkeley 2004
Writing & Speaking Goals
- Do a speaking tour in the U.S. – 2018
- Do a speaking tour in Europe
- Blog every day for a year – failed in 2011 and 2013
- Hand-write a letter or postcard to someone every day for a year – failed in 2015
- Write a 50,000+ word novel in one month (the NaNoWriMo challenge) – failed in 2006 & 2009
- Publish a book about going to college without high school – College Without High School, 2009
- Publish a book about giving yourself a higher education without college – Better Than College, 2012
- Publish a book about self-directed learning – The Art of Self-Directed Learning, 2014
- Give a TED talk – TEDx YouthDay Palo Alto, 2010
- Publish 10+ original audio or video episodes online – Off-Trail Learning, 2015
- Independently publish a professional-quality book – Better Than College, 2012
- Give away 10,000 free online copies of Better Than College – 2014
- Start a school (i.e. long-term structured learning program) – failed in 2015
- Start an international trip leading company – Unschool Adventures, 2008
- Start a leadership program for homeschoolers – Homeschool Leadership Retreats, 2010 (eventually merged with U.A.)
- Direct a summer camp – Deer Crossing Camp, Assistant Director 2006-7, Acting Director 2008
- Run a “College Without College” program – ZTC Camp 2011
- Run an Unschool Adventure trip without me on it – UA Writing Retreat 2013
- Work at Not Back to School Camp – Advisor, 2006-present
- Work as a summer camp cook – Deer Crossing Camp, 2008
- Lead a workshop at a major homeschooling conference – 2009
- Be self-employed for a whole year – 2010
- Work a full season at a ski resort – Heavenly Ski Resort, 2007
- Organize a conference – Trailblazer Gathering, 2013
- Get paid to teach an online course – Launchpad, 2017
- Earn $2000+ in one month from a location-independent business – Launchpad, 2017
- Live abroad with child(ren) for 12+ months
- Travel the world with a girlfriend for 6+ months
- Hitchhike the Carretera Austral (Chilean Patagonia)
- See the Aurora Borealis with Matt & Patrick
- Live in New Zealand – 4 months, 2019
- Live in New York – 2 weeks, 2019
- Live in Buenos Aires – 3 months, 2017
- Live in Lake Tahoe – Winter 2007 + many summers
- Live in Portland, Oregon – 2009
- Live in one place for one year straight (post-college) – Asheville (North Carolina), 2012
- Go on an expedition with Jim Wiltens – tree climbing expedition in Guatemala, 2011
- Explore the Himalayas – India (2011) + Nepal (2014)
- Explore South America – 2007 (blog part 1/2/3) + much more w/ Unschool Adventures
- Explore Western Europe – 2002 + many times since
- Thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail – failed in 2005 (trail journal) and no longer surewhether I really want to
- Day-hike Mount Whitney – 2017 (failed in 1998, 2006, 2016)
- Summit every peak in the Crystal Range (CA) in one trip
- Walk a 100′ slackline and a high-line
- Hike on the Te Araroa (NZ) – yes, albeit not very much
- Thru-hike the Sierra High Route – did most in 2018
- Hike the Southern Sierra High Route
- Do a solo ramble (a la John Muir) in the High Sierra
- Hike on the Camino de Santiago – 2017 (the Camino Primitivo)
- Run 30+ miles on trail – 2015 (John Muir Trail)
- Run 26.2 miles on trail – 2014 (Marin Headlands)
- Run 13.1 miles on trail – 2010 (Asheville, NC)
- Windsurf in the Columbia River Gorge – 2014
- Backpack the Lost Coast (CA) – 2015
- Do a 10-day silent meditation retreat – did half in 2019, which was plenty
- Dance with a stranger in a Buenos Aires tango milonga – 2014
- Grace Llewellyn – 2006
- Daniel Greenberg – 2004
- John Taylor Gatto – 2010
- Russell Roberts – 2014
- Tina Seelig – 2010
- Seth Godin – 2012
- Daniel Pink – 2014
- William Deresiewicz – 2014
The Longer Story
Growing up, I wasn’t homeschooled, unschooled, or alternatively educated. I went to California public schools and certainly enjoyed some of my classes and teachers. I received the praise and benefits commensurate with high grades, and I did well enough to get into 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 simply irrelevant. Thus were sown the seeds of my discontent, specifically with middle- and high-school.
College was different, and better. I went to Berkeley to study astrophysics and ended up discovering (and subsequently designing my own major in) alternative education; that’s a story I’ve shared many times in my books and online. During the summers I went back to my childhood wilderness summer camp, Deer Crossing Camp, where I helped run a teen leadership program that convinced me of the transformative potential of the teenage years.
Upon graduating in 2004, I knew exactly three things:
- I wanted to keep working with teens in experiential / outdoor / travel / leadership capacities.
- I eventually wanted to work for myself.
- I wanted to thru-hike the 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.
I spent a number of seasons working in the California outdoor education industry, taking 4th- to 8th-graders on hikes, facilitating high and low ropes courses, teaching basic science, and acting like I knew ecology. These jobs were experiential and outdoors, and they fulfilled my loosely held goal of doing summer camp year-round, but they didn’t scratch the travel and leadership itches. So I jumped ship, taking off to South America for three 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 spontaneously scrawling handwritten notes about high school, college, unschooling, and teen leadership. Having just worked my first season at Not Back to School Camp (NBTSC) where I’d met my first real-life group of teen unschoolers—many of whom were getting into 4-year colleges—and still deeply inspired by my own self-directed college experience, the manuscript for College Without High School (my first book) emerged. I returned to the U.S., spent a winter snowboarding and polishing the manuscript, and submitted it to just two publishers. One never got back to me. The other sent me a contract.
Authority and expertise are funny things. A small Canadian publisher chose to publish 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, get interviewed on blogs and podcasts, and present to parent groups—even though I was 27 and had no kids or advanced degrees. And then, I did these things, my “expert” status was progressively reinforced, making it easier to publish the next book and get the next speaking gig… and on and on.
Just when my first book was in the works, I began my other business: Unschool Adventures. Inspired by my own teen travel adventures—and my incessant desire to work for myself and continue exploring the world—I organized a 6-week trip to Argentina (with the help of my NBTSC friend Abbi Miller) and offered it to the Not Back to School Camp community. The trip filled, and I earned $4000 galavanting around South America with nine super-cool teens. Whoa! I had struck it rich. Within two years I was full self-employed, running a few Unschool Adventures programs each year—supplemented by a little book income, speaking fees, the occasional summer camp gig, and keeping my personal expenses quite low.
Since 2009, this has been my modus operandi. I’ve continued writing, speaking, building things online, and offering a few Unschool Adventures each year (most fill, some don’t—it’s a tight market). In 2017 I worked my 12th year (and 20-something-th session) of Not Back to School Camp. I tend to only work 3-4 months per the year doing in-person programs; otherwise I’m working from my laptop wherever I darn well please. I spend most summers in the mountains of California, doing as much hiking, backpacking, and trail running as I can.
* * *
I’d like to say that there’s a thread running through all this: a clear mission. It’s true I was thinking about this self-directed learning stuff as soon as I finished college (here’s some entertaining evidence from 2004), I feel like I’ve really just been stumbling forward since then, keeping my eyes open for opportunities, reaching out to people who interest me, and throwing metaphorical pasta at the wall to see what sticks.
But okay, I’ll give it a shot. Here’s my mission.
My mission is to help young people discover self-directed learning and begin to take charge of their educations, careers, and lives.
Let’s dissect this.
“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.
“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 I’m just an aide along the path.
“self-directed learning”: Here’s my best definition of self-directed learning. Essentially, it involves:
- defining a system of personal values that aren’t thoughtlessly harvested from those of your family, friends, or society
- figuring out what kind of work you love so much that you’d do it for little (or no) pay
- embracing the dual notions of freedom and responsibility
- making all of the major decisions in your life for yourself to the extent that’s it possible given legal and practical constraints
“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.
Some of My Adventures
Running away to South America for 3 months—more or less my quarter-life crisis. Surfing and hiking in Peru, Carnaval in Bolivia, searching for killer whales on the Valdez Peninsula with Matt and Patrick, biking around Bariloche, falling in love with Buenos Aires.
Starting Unschool Adventures and leading trips in Argentina, New Zealand, Peru, Chile, Nepal, Australia, Oregon, North Carolina, and Colorado: more than 100 weeks of my life.
All the backpacking trips in the California High Sierra. Many on the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail. Some totally off-trail.
Working harder than ever in my life at Deer Crossing Camp. Serving as instructor, assistant director, cook, and interim director. So many Desolation Wilderness trips. LIT Quest and the Tahoe ascent in 2004. Almost getting fired my first week.
The tree-climbing expedition in northern Guatemala with Jim, Julie, and Vince. Waking up in a tent in the high canopy, watching howler monkeys swing past.
Starting a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, my first big adventure after college. The stark beauty of California’s desert hills. Quitting after two weeks and dealing with the feeling of failure.
Couchsurfing in New Zealand, India, Peru, Europe, and the United States. Hosting Couchsurfers at my cabin in South Lake Tahoe. Here’s my profile.
Writing three books. Having the first one magically picked up by a publisher from a direct email. Independently publishing and financing the other two.
Starting a podcast as an excuse to interview some of my favorite thinkers in education.
Hiking the Camino Primitivo in northern Spain. Discovering a magical hiker community.
Short-term international living experiments with friends: Amsterdam, Xela, Medellin, Barcelona.
Hitchhiking across New Zealand’s South Island.
Organizing and teaching a class to other undergraduates at UC Berkeley, at age 21, about alternative education theory. Helping revive Democratic Education at Cal (DeCal) with Nate and others.
Backpacking around Western Europe for 5 weeks at age 19 with Mehar, Bryan, Sam, and Dave. Tasting the freedom of international hostel-hopping.
Trail running epic distances. 32 miles on the John Muir Trail & 27 miles on the Seven Summits with Hannah. 34 miles on the Tahoe Rim Trail. Those long solo runs on the Kepler, Routeburn, and Abel Tasman tracks in New Zealand.
Snowboarding in British Columbia during college winter breaks with with Bryan. Spending an entire winter getting paid to snowboard at Heavenly Ski Resort. Experiencing pure snowboard bliss at the Termas de Chillán, age 14.
Spending at a month in Chile at age 14 with a host family. Total immersion Spanish. “Varvala”.
Building a relationship of almost 4 years, growing from it, loving it, ending it.
Changing my major from astrophysics (impressive / socially validated / vaguely employable) to alternative education (fringe / hippie / no clear career path) half-way through college. Designing my studies from the ground up, taking full ownership. Writing the crappy 40-page senior thesis paper.
The 10-day Tibetan Buddhism retreat that actually reduced my respect for Buddhism. Meeting another international trip leader, sneaking onto the roof to talk with her for hours each night, falling for her, getting my heart broken.
Spending an unplanned night in the north rim of the Grand Canyon in December, wearing only canyoneering gear. Good times, Bailey.
Learning to dance Argentine tango beginning with the very first Unschool Adventures trip. Classes in dark, rainy Portland. Running the U.A. tango trip and NBTSC tango project. The private lessons with Alejandro and Zoe. Finally feeling confident in milongas.
Dancing fusion. The first awkward, wonderful festival in the High Sierra. Micro in Seattle. Dancing on Vail Pass (Colorado) with Unschool Adventures. The Spain Recess.
[This list inspired by Dev Carey’s adventure page.]
Miscellanea in Bullet Points
- $8,357 raised: Kickstarter for The Art of of Self-Directed Learning (2015)
- $1,634 raised: IndieGoGo for The Unschool Adventures Guide to Online Travel Fundraising (2012)
- $9,200 raised: IndieGoGo for Better Than College (2012)
- $2,370 raised: IndieGoGo for Zero Tuition College (2011) – This was to build a social network (ztcollege.com) for young adults opting out of the college path. I shuttered the website in 2017 due to the challenge of ongoing maintenance.
Bets I’ve Made Against Myself
- $1000 Stickk wager: Publishing Offtraillearning.com
- $500 Stickk wager: Building a free online course (which became The Way of Adventure)
- $500 Stickk wager: Dancing tango 6 nights/week for 5 weeks ($100 forfeited)
- $500 personal wager: Not eating refined sugars for a month
A Few People I Admire
- John Taylor Gatto – New York teacher-of-the-year-turned-education-reformer
- Grace Llewellyn – Author and founder/director of Not Back to School Camp
- Jim Wiltens – Leadership trainer, author, and founder/director of Deer Crossing Camp
- Ken Danford – Co-founder of North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens
- Dev Carey – Outdoor educator, big-systems thinker, and paragon of simple living
- Russ Roberts – host of my all-time favorite podcast
- Deirdre McCloskey – author of eloquent books about economic history
- Bryan Caplan – spreader of provocative educational ideas from an econ viewpoint
- Thomas Sowell – powerful communicator of basic economic concepts
- Scott Williamson – long-distance hiker
- Anton Krupicka – mountain runner and ultra marathon runner
- Andrew Skurka – jack-of-all trades adventurer
- Dean Potter – climber and slackliner extraordinaire (RIP)
Social Scientists / Philosophers:
- Jonathan Haidt – moral psychologist, author, and eloquent speaker
- Sam Harris – neuroscientist, author, New Atheist, and podcaster
- Jordan Peterson – psychologist and iconoclastic truth-teller
A Few People To Whom I’m Indebted
- My smart, supportive parents.
- Jim Wiltens and Grace Llewellyn for guiding my young-adult career path.
- The Berkeley Student Cooperatives for my social development in college.
- The greater Not Back to School Camp and Deer Crossing Camp communities.
- Every parent who ever sent their child on an Unschool Adventures program.
- My readers, all of whom are highly intelligent and good-looking.
- Those on the Internet who I’ve never met yet generously support and promote my work.
(These are by no means exhaustive lists.)