What Matters More Than Talent: Meta-Learning

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I once led a six-week leadership retreat for five young people taking self-directed Gap Years. I rented them their own apartment in the bustling town of Ashland, Oregon, and challenged them to devise a clear set of independent learning goals, which they would pursue with daily mentorship from me and my co-leader.

One student wanted to learn about biology and Kendo; another wanted to improve her photography and web design skills. So I sent them away to interview biologists, martial arts instructors, photographers, and designers. My students boldly introduced themselves to complete strangers, pushed themselves to learn both online and offline, and blogged about their successes and failures, over and over again.

Those were just the weekdays. On the weekends, I sent them on wild adventures to build their self-directed resolve in some rather unusual ways.

For “hobo weekend,” they hiked on train tracks (on which trains weren’t actually running) to a local reservoir and camped out under tarps and thin blankets, a lesson in the importance of maintaining one’s attitude in a difficult situation: like not having a home to return to at night.

For “travel weekend,” I challenged teams of students to get as far away from our home base as possible, and back, in 48 hours with only $50. I showed them how to use Craigslist (to find cheap rideshares) and Couchsurfing (to find free housing), gave them some safety protocols, and then sent them on their way. One team made it as far as San Francisco, a 700-mile round-trip.

For “entrepreneur weekend,” the students attempted to earn as much money as possible using only $5 seed capital. For “paperclip weekend,” they traded up a worthless starting object (a paperclip) into a more valuable one (a set of golf clubs) using only their wits.

For the final weekend, I gave them surprise one-way tickets on a Portland-bound Amtrak train, a to-do list with tasks drawn from previous retreat activities, and the challenge to eat, sleep, and get themselves back four days later, with a budget of only $80 each. (My co-leader also boarded the train, trailing the group undetected with a fake moustache, as an extra safety measure.) Spoiler alert: they made it.

meta-learning-in-portland

What Matters More Than Talent

When the program ended, everyone went home happy—and I spent a long time asking myself why I ran it.

The leadership retreat combined some of the most fun and interesting activities I’d picked up over my years of hanging around innovative summer camps, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, world travelers, and outdoor educators. I hadn’t thought about how they fit together before I ran the program, but there had to be a common thread. What was it?

An excerpt from a blog post by the author Seth Godin finally nailed the answer for me:

“An organization filled with honest, motivated, connected, eager, learning, experimenting, ethical and driven people will always defeat the one that merely has talent. Every time.”

The world is full of places that try to teach “talent,” school and college being the preeminent two. But the world has far fewer places that attempt to teach honesty, motivation, ethics, and the other traits Godin described.

Yet for many businesses and other enterprises, these traits ultimately matter more than talent. People get hired for professional skills and fired for personal skills.

That’s when I realized that what I was teaching at the leadership retreat was what educators call meta-learning: the personal skills that help you learn effectively in complex and unpredictable environments.

Building the Skills That Matter

The leadership retreat wasn’t really about sleeping under a tarp or finding rideshares or learning Kendo: it was about building resourcefulness, creativity, self-regulation, self-motivation, conscientiousness, and focus.

It was about greeting a stranger, learning from a defeat, arguing one’s case, and telling a good story. Meta-learning was the thread that connected all of my own formative educational experiences, and I was trying to pass that thread along.

If you’ve spent the majority of your life on the competitive college-prep track, then you’ve gained a very specific set of meta-learning skills:

The ones that help you succeed in structured and academic-focused learning environments. But if you don’t see yourself becoming an academic or corporate professional—if you want to have a more self-directed life that defies conventional expectations and boundaries—than you’ll need to expand your meta-learning capacities.

Gap Years are Laboratories for Meta-Learning

When you leave the academic bubble to travel, work, and learn in the real world, you’re navigating complex and unpredictable environments. You’re tackling novel, multi-faceted problems each day. You’re developing your heart as much as much as your mind.

No matter if you sign up for a traditional Gap Year program, do a crazy program like mine, or bootstrap a solo gap year, you’re doing a service to your career and your soul. You’re signing up for an experience that doesn’t just pour information into your head; it helps you learn how to learn. The investment will pay for itself over and over again.

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Blake Boles is the author of Better Than College and The Art of Self-Directed Learning. He leads gap year and travel programs through his company Unschool Adventures.

This post was adapted from Chapter 15 (“Learning How to Learn”) of The Art of Self-Directed Learning.

How to Bootstrap a Solo Gap Year

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If you have almost no money, how can you fund a self-designed Gap Year experience? Most give up. Some get really creative.

Victor Saad was 25 years old and seriously considering MBA programs when he decided that he could get a better learning experience—and spend much less money—by designing his own professional gap year, or in his words, a “self-made master’s degree.” He made plans to quit his job and take 12 business apprenticeships over the course of 12 months.

But he had one big problem: money.

Victor’s adventures would take him across the United States and the world, including China, Costa Rica, and Cairo. All these flights and living expenses would have to come from somewhere. As Victor explained in his TEDx talk:

I don’t have some massive trust fund, and FAFSA doesn’t let you take a loan out for your own self-made degree. So I got creative. 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. After several really interesting conversations about why in the world anyone should give me a penny, roughly 100 trusting individuals gave me just what I needed.

In other words, Victor crowdfunded his expenses—but not in the typical fashion.

When most of us think about crowdfunding, we think of IndieGoGo, Kickstarter, or GoFundMe: powerful platforms that can certainly be used to run a successful fundraising campaign. But many potential contributors are hesitant to fund someone else’s travel adventure, and many cannot give more than a small amount of money. Many of these traditional campaigns fail to meet their goals.

A Different Approach: Providing Value to Supporters

Victor took a different approach that employed the same core idea behind crowdfunding—you give me some money, I provide you with meaningful updates and rewards related to my project—but turned it into a subscription service instead. It’s a lot less intimidating to ask someone for $10 a month for the next 12 months than asking for $120 right now. This model also ensured that Victor wouldn’t take the money and then neglect to provide the goods he promised (as too many crowdfunding campaigners do), because a contributor could simply cancel their sponsorship. For contributors, this approach feels much safer and friendlier than a traditional crowdfunding campaign.

What about travel costs? Victor’s subscriber income wouldn’t cover all the flights he needed, so he asked his network for help. The father of one of his former students ended up giving him a number of “buddy passes” for standby flights.

What about lodging cost? Victor’s approach was to first ask friends and family if they knew anyone in the area he could stay with. Then he tried Couchsurfing, Craigslist, Airbnb, and “frantically posting on Facebook and Twitter.” Essentially, he took whatever the world offered him:

I stayed in everything from office spaces to vehicles to mansions. I was a vagabond. But it was okay. I was a student.

I learned all this while researching Victor before interviewing him for my podcast, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, so I asked Victor if he relied on any other sources of funding to make this year possible. He told me that some of the apprenticeships he took did pay 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 and completely self-funded his 12-month, travel-intensive learning experience.

Recipe for Independent Gap Year Funding

It’s clear from Victor’s story that he had a number of resources that allowed him to pull off this feat of funding, most notably a wide social network that let him recruit a critical mass of subscribers and people to donate things like flight buddy passes. 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 exercise her entrepreneurial muscles.

Here are the ingredients:

Subscription service: Instead of running one big crowdfunding campaign to fund your travels, offer “subscriptions” to your gap year for a fixed monthly rate. Provide options ranging from $5/month to $30/month. (The best platform for doing this at the moment is probably Patreon.) For the different levels, offer a range of perks including monthly email updates, postcards, souvenirs, and videos (which can also serve as accountability and journaling tools for you). Aim to generate at least $1000/month from this income.

Donated airline miles and buddy passes: To tackle with the major expense of flights, ask your family, friends, and communities if they would be willing to donate accumulated airline miles or buddy passes to your cause. You can also get one of the many credit cards that gives you 50,000+ air miles as soon you spend a few thousand dollars (which you can launder through your parents when they need to buy something expensive like a new computer).

Free housing: Get really comfortable with using Couchsurfing to stay at strangers’ houses. Tap your extended Facebook network to find potential hosts where you go. Investigate work-trades situations with hostels or private homeowners who will let you stay for free in exchange for a few hours of work each day (find these opportunities at Help Exchange and Work Away).

Part-time work: Develop a highly transferable skill (what I call a Masseuse Model skill) that will enable you to pick up part-time work wherever you go.

Frugality: Learn how to cook rice and beans really, really well. Figure out to how entertain yourself without going out for drinks or going bungee jumping.

Good-looking personal website & travel blog: Tell the story of your financing efforts on a highly polished personal website, which also serves as your travel blog. Victor was a master of sharing his story online, being genuine, inspiring people, and gaining their support. Be like Victor.

 

Together, these six ingredients could fund a Gap Year. It’s not an easy path, but it’s a rewarding one. Good luck, gappers!

PS- If you try putting this plan into action, I’d love to follow your progress, and maybe even help you set up your subscription service. Write me: yourstruly@blakeboles.com.

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Blake Boles is the founder of Unschool Adventures, the travel and education company for self-directed young people ages 14-21. His most recent books include The Art of Self-Directed Learning and How to Live Nowhere. Learn more at blakeboles.com.