I’ve thought about education a lot in the past couple years, especially when it comes to my own.
Most people enter college expecting the institution to hand them everything they need for their future on a silver platter. After all, college students followed all the rules in order to get into school, so the thinking is that if they continue to follow all the rules they will find themselves in a good career.
However, through my journey in learning over the past couple years, I realized I was responsible for my own learning, whether school is a part of it or not.
Strangely enough, this term used to refer to someone who is taking charge of their own learning is a “hackademic”. As if somehow learning isn’t supposed to be done apart from an institution, and you have to hack it in order to get take control of your learning. The other issue is that many hackademics think that being in college is somehow incompatible with being a self directed learner. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. In fact the whole point of this post is to show how college can be used within a self directed education.
Don’t get me wrong, college is a great experience to meet professors and peers, as well as open yourself up to a wide variety of perspectives and subjects. Being in school can be one of the best decisions you can make if you have reason to be in school. And even for me, I plan to finish up my Computer Science degree unless an opportunity of a lifetime presents itself before I finish. I am grateful that I have the means to attend a four year institution, and do not mean to belittle the privilege of being in school.
But by no means is college the end to learning.
Around the beginning of my undergraduate career, I began thinking about how I could fully take advantage of college while also fully being self directed in my learning. I wanted to figure out how to remain in the system in order to be relevant to my peers while also exemplifying how it was possible to have autonomy in education.
I had support from many mentors to bounce ideas off of as well as a few peers in the same boat to process things with along the way, and I am eternally grateful for their support.
I soon realized that the very core of being a self directed learner was having your own personal reason to learn, and things that you want to achieve.
I began pondering how to integrate college into self directed education by establishing a list of things I wanted to learn. As a list, I wanted to:
- Learn how businesses operate, how to go from an idea to a profit and value generating company.
- Learn how people operate, how to interact and network with people to add the most value to others.
- Learn as much as I can about technology, and areas that I can apply technology to industries such as agriculture and education in a significant, paradigm-shifting way.
The next thing I had to do was figure out the best sources to learn these different subjects, what college was good for that I could extract from, and what I needed to get around.
The good is that college is a great hub for networking and meeting people, especially being able to leverage my age and my status as a student to meet alumni and industry professionals. This power to network that comes with being a student is one that few people understand how to leverage, and fewer people actually do leverage.
The bad is that most classes bore me out of my mind, assignments often serve little purpose, and grades are often extremely arbitrary and not reflective of how well you actually learned, not to mention the astronomically unjustified price to attend college. Every once in a while you’ll meet a professor who truly knows how to empower their students in a way that is engaging and relevant, but in my experience, those are hard to come by. But when you do find yourself in a class with a phenomenal professor, taking advantage and putting effort into that class is totally worth your while.
Upon realizing that the value of being in school for me personally wasn’t primarily the academic material, but my ability to leverage my status as a student, I began setting up systems to implement the 80/20 rule into my academics. I began figuring out how to chunk course material in such a way that 20% of my effort would generate 80% of the academic result, while also spending time to deeply learn the things that were truly interesting to me.
One example sticks out very clear in the last quarter. I took a software engineering project project class last quarter. This class is based heavily on your team’s ability to build a software product within 10 weeks of the class. As our team was discussing and brainstorming projects to do, the natural tendency was to propose difficult projects that would require large API integrations and other complexities.
But as we thought about it more, we realized that the easiest way to get the best grade possible was to simply fulfill all the requirements. We realized that it would be better to create a simple application that works flawlessly rather than a complex application that barely functioned. At the end of the quarter, we had spent a total of 10 hours to complete our project, while some other teams were working 10 hours a day to get their project working. Our final grade? 100%.
School doesn’t reward people for taking bold risks, it actually often unconsciously penalizes the people who take bold risks. Failure is seen as a negative thing, not because it’s explicitly warned against, but because the rewards only go to the people that have followed all the rules.
Part of applying the 80/20 rule to my academics was learning how to play the game of school without being sucked into the toxic standardization and performance mentality that has been traditionally present. I had to set up the things that I did in order to maximize authentic learning and networking while being as efficient as possible in my studies.
The hardest part I found was keeping focused when my mind simply wanted to wander and not engage in any productive activities. I ran into this issue often as I was trying to be productive, only finding myself wasting hours of my day. This problem went away when I solidified my purpose and began to intentionally build routines and structures that would help me achieve my goals.
I began applying many of the principles from Tim Ferriss and other “productivity gurus” to my daily routines (Tim Ferriss has a great article on the choice minimal lifestyle). For example, my breakfast and lunch plans were a very specific handful of dishes that I would make over and over again to simplify decision making and standardize my diet. My exercise routines were very consistent from day to day. My sleep schedule looked almost identical day to day, and even the clothes I wore were chosen from a handful on a regular basis.
By freeing up my academic as well as streamlining my life errands, I suddenly found myself with more free time to learn, explore, network, and do the things that I knew I wanted to learn. Note that this is different than “following your dream” because I set up a way to systematically take steps toward achieving the things I knew I needed to learn instead of merely being driven by how I feel on a day to day basis.
That being said, this last quarter I was able to accomplish the following:
- 4 CS classes (101, 110, 130, and 140)
- Part time internship (8 hours a week)
- Kept my blog regularly updated (once a week)
- Worked closely with Student Voice
- Did freelance web design work
- Cooked nearly every meal
- Exercised 2-3 times a week
- Had a social life to the extent that I wanted
- Read one book every two weeks
- 7-8 hours of sleep per night
- Had time to spare for spontaneous fun activities
I’m not saying this to brag, but to provide an insight into what is possible with a little bit of structure and motivation. If I can do it, anyone else can.
I’ve found that the core to being able to “self hack” your education isn’t about whether you are a part of a system or not, but it’s about the mindset that you have when it comes to being able to critically consider the strengths, weaknesses, and value of the opportunities around you, and taking the best of what is around.
An illustration that can be used is imagine shopping for a set of wrenches. Not every repair project that you take on will require every single size of wrenches, but most people would rather get a whole set of wrenches rather than just one or two. And sometimes you’ll encounter projects where none of the tools in the set are adequate for what you are working on, and you’ll need to go out of your way to get a specialized tool for that specific scenario.
School, while providing access to a great deal of connections. knowledge, and experience, is much like a standardized set of tools that a person can draw upon when faced with different projects. It isn’t sufficient for solving every problem, and many of the tools acquired in school you will never actually find a use for. Thus, the mindset when it comes to self directed learning is your ability to combine the tools that you personally need, whether it be knowledge, experience, or connections.
The reason why most college students are simply satisfied with the tools that colleges give and rarely go out of their way to learn is because they have no idea why or what they need the tools for. And as I mentioned, the most important aspect of self directing your education is knowing what you want to achieve, and having a purpose for learning.
Self hacking your education in general isn’t simply doing whatever you want, but it’s about having systems that facilitate learning through understanding the value of the opportunities that are around you.