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.
[Written in 2017]