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