Here is a radical truth: school doesn’t have a monopoly on learning. More and more people are declining traditional education and college degrees. Instead they’re getting the knowledge, training, and inspiration they need outside of the classroom.

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February 19, 2014


Not the kind with teeth.

My comrade-in-arms (or “fellow knuckleballer” as he calls it) Austin Kleon has a new book coming out soon called Show Your Work. It’s a wonderful book, with good solid advice about how sharing and showing are as essential to creativity itself as they are to making a name for yourself. Austin is a big proponent of teaching what you know as part of that sharing, as a responsibility to your community. He’s also a very astute observer of the trouble with egos and creative community.

Austin’s got a word or two about vamipires. The kind that drain your creativity instead of your blood.

“There’s a funny story in John Richardson’s biography, A
Life of Picasso. Pablo Picasso was notorious for sucking all
the energy out of the people he met. His granddaughter
Marina claimed that he squeezed people like one of his
tubes of oil paints. You’d have a great time hanging out
all day with Picasso, and then you’d go home nervous and
exhausted, and Picasso would go back to his studio and
paint all night, using the energy he’d sucked out of you.
Most people put up with this because they got to hang
out with Picasso all day, but not Constantin Brancusi,
the Romanian-born sculptor. Brancusi hailed from the
Carpathian Mountains, and he knew a vampire when
he saw one. He was not going to have his energy or the
fruits of his energy juiced by Picasso, so he refused to have
anything to do with him.

Brancusi practiced what I call The Vampire Test. It’s a
simple way to know who you should let in and out of your
life. If, after hanging out with someone you feel worn out
and depleted, that person is a vampire. If, after hanging out
with someone you still feel full of energy, that person is not
a vampire. Of course, The Vampire Test works on many
things in our lives, not just people—you can apply it to jobs,
hobbies, places, etc.

Vampires cannot be cured. Should you find yourself in the
presence of a vampire, be like Brancusi, and banish it from
your life forever”

The metaphor is so sharp and apt, and it made me mournful. There are people I love to spend time with, and who I admire, and they aren’t malicious, they are lovely and vibrant and even generous. But I leave them and feel that exhaustion. They bring out my own anxieties, they inspire me to measure myself against things besides my own ambitions and standards. They are vampires all the same.

September 11, 2013

Don’t Go Back to School party/teach-in on Sept 12

It’s Don’t Go Back to School Season. I’m throwing a party and you are all invited.

Don’t Go Back to School party & teach-in
Thursday September 12, 7-9pm
180 Varick St. Suite 1610

This is going to be an amazing night of celebrating, teaching, and learning. One of the biggest lessons I discovered in researching and writing Don’t Go Back to School is that learning together is the way people learn and create. I’m on a mission to make that better known and more possible, and this party is all about doing that.

I’m gathering some of the smartest people I know to talk about getting started learning things like creative writing, coding, cooking, loving art, and graphic design. Plus there will be beer and snacks. Come learn with us and stand up for independent learning!

Clay Shirky on being an autodidact (there’s a catch)
Nick Gray (Museum Hack/Hack the Met) on art appreciation
Keira Alexandra on graphic design
Jacqui Maher (New York Times) on learning to code
Kristen Taylor (Saucy Magazine, Al Jazeera Fault Lines) on cooking
Peter Richardson on learning new things really fast
Madhu Kaza on creative writing

To make the night even more special, I’ve recruited the team from Make It Happen to be on site doing ritual consultations that lead to commitments to learn and make things happen in your life. It’s a really special experience and I’m so excited to give it to you.

I really hope you can come, and I’d love to meet you, so please make sure you introduce yourself!

September 10, 2013

Don’t Go Back to School on Sale!

Amazon has dropped the price of Don’t Go Back to School, the Kindle book is now $9.99 and the paperback is $17.

If you need an ebook in a .mobi or .pdf format, email me and I’ll set you up with a discount to match Amazon’s price of $9.99!

Happy Don’t Go Back to School Season.

August 5, 2013

Interrupt the Program

Spoiler alert: I am about to tell you what to do.

1. Talk to a stranger

It’s simple, and harmless, and generous, a beautiful interruption. You can do it without even slowing down your pace. Catch someone’s eye, smile in passing, say “have a good day,” or “how’re you doing.” These are mundane utterances that are also deeply profound. They say to someone: I see you there, we are both people walking down this street or through this lobby, we are both real and it’s worth a nod to that. If you are still smiling for two seconds after you pass by, you are doing this right. You have created a moment of street intimacy.

2. Fall down a rabbit hole

Ignore the kerfuffle about what the internet is doing to your attention span. There are kinds of distraction that are deeply focused. There are many clicks involved in this. Someone, somewhere on your internet has posted something that intrigues you, that you want to know more about. Read it, watch it, wonder about it. What questions does it leave you with? Dig deeper into it. Or, what does it remind you of? Follow unexpected tangents. You are not scattered, you are on a quest. You are looking for answers. If what you find are more questions, you are doing this right. You have been distracted from what you were doing when you started all this. You have been curious.

3. Do nothing

Sit by yourself somewhere in public for 7 minutes without looking at your phone. It has to be somewhere without a TV. Neither of these are bad, I like them too. Do it anyway. This may make you uncomfortable. Do it anyway. Unless you choose to sleep, you will find that you are forced to look at something. What is it? Are you reading signs or looking at things in store windows? Are you looking at other people? Are you looking at trees? Water? Sand? Cement? If you start talking to yourself in your head, you are doing this right. I should have said at the beginning, take a pen in case you want to write something down. You can write on your hand, it’ll wash off. You have been awake.

(Also posted on Medium, if you read there and want to comment).

July 22, 2013

New Don’t Go Back to School interview: Jimmie P. Rodgers

“Effectively, how I got into designing electronics was by doing. It’s not any more complex than that, I did it.” jimmie

Jimmie P. Rodgers is a programmer, circuit board designer, artist, teacher, and writer. He dropped out of college several times over 5 years and a handful of majors, and did not complete his degree. With no formal training in electronics, he currently makes a living selling DIY electronics kits of his own design, and is well known in the hacker/maker community. Like others I interviewed for Don’t Go Back to School: a handbook for learning anything, Jimmie cites his local Dorkbot chapter as an vitally important in his journey as an independent learner. Participating in the group’s events and mailing list led to the creation by Jimmie and others of a Boston hackerspace/gallery (now defunct) called Willoughby and Baltic. The space, with its extensive tools and machinery, along with a strong community of committed makers and learners, was a crucial learning institution for Jimmie. I was also struck by Jimmie’s insight about workplaces that had rigid degree requirements—that they would be quite hierarchical and not a workplace he’d thrive in.

I’m basically a self taught electrical engineer. I have no formal training whatsoever in electronics, but I make a living making open source hardware and selling electronic kits through my website and a bunch of retailers online. I went to college for five years and had more than enough credits to graduate, but still didn’t get my degree. The problem was I kept switching majors every year because I wanted to learn what I was interested in, not a bunch of prerequisites. So, I started off in computer science and I did that for the longest, almost two years.

I first went to a community college because of residency requirements for in-state tuition for the university, and I actually had a pretty decent time there. It was a very practical and hands on. But when I got to the university, it was kind of potluck. Most classes are designed around standardized tests. I had a real problem with that. I knew I learned better when it was more open-ended, more about thinking. Some of my instructors were fantastic and really engaging. I had a history class on imperialism and the early 19th century through 20th century that was entirely essay based and I loved it. We weren’t learning a set of facts. You had to find something you were interested in and you had the space to focus on it. But most were like my calculus teacher. He would come in and just talk, write some stuff on the board and then walk out.

Then later at the university in the Computer Science department, I got very bored with the course work. I’d do assignments my own way, to make them more interesting for me. Once I used the Game of Life, which is a program with only four rules, but you can do pretty complex things with it. I used it to program something which was technically very complete—it generated output and reacted to output—but it used 600 lines of code instead of the twenty or so that was the ‘right answer’ for the assignment. I had fun and got creative, and that wasn’t what they wanted. Everybody was expected to do the exact same thing. And that didn’t suit me well.

I did learn a lot at the university, but it wasn’t technical stuff, it was life stuff. Like living with people, and talking to girls. I got socialized. It was a good experience that way. I encourage people to at least try it. But maybe not stick around for five years if you figure out it’s not working for you.
While I was in school, I also started my first business doing tech support for students. That actually got way too popular. I had more business than I could handle. Because of that, I got a taste for having my own business, and some experience at it. I had already been working with computers from the time I was fifteen in high school. By the time I dropped out of college, most of my other friends had their four year degrees, some in computer science. But, I had close to eight years of experience on my resume, plus a half dozen different certifications via the community college, which the larger universities didn’t even offer. So, I found work right away, anywhere I went.

I did run into a number of jobs where they said, we’re concerned that you didn’t finish your degree. And some employers it was just flat out, no, this job at this pay grade requires a degree. And then there were other employers who looked at my application and said, well, come in. And then when they saw what I could do they said, oh wow, you actually know your stuff. That’s right, because I’ve been doing it.

It wasn’t really a problem when I ran into a situation where they won’t hire you because of some qualification or degree you’re missing. What that tells me is it’s going to be a very bureaucratic, hierarchical type place, which I don’t do well with. It’s not that I have issues with authority or anything like that. I actually like having a good competent boss who can help direct me. I just don’t like the arbitrariness of the way bureaucratic places work. Things just have to be done a certain way with no reasons. And anyplace like that is usually not going to reward creativity.

In terms of what I do now, I really got going in electronics while I had a normal 40-hour a week job, so I actually had spare time to myself. This was around 2006. I made enough money that I could just buy an electronics kit that I got interested in, and a good soldering iron, stuff like that. I started getting kits through Adafruit and Sparkfun, and using their tutorials.

At that point, I was mostly learning from the internet, and then I got involved in Dorkbot and hackerspaces, where you get to learn stuff with other people physically around you, instead of just being in touch online. I bought some books as well. It was all driven by the fact that I really, really wanted to know how these things worked.

In the hackerspace I was part of in Boston, I started running workshops, that were very informal, like, “There’s an electronic synthesizer I’d like to build. The parts to build it cost this much money. If we get ten people together, it’s one quarter of the price for each person and so is anyone else willing to go in on this?” I’d get 15 people who’d want to do it and luckily I was in a position where I could just buy all the parts and then have people pay me at the class.

I didn’t know how to teach, I just organized people to get together and figure it out. I said, I’m ordering the parts, let’s sit down with the schematic and the instructions and build one of these things. Then five or six of us would get one working and then get everyone’s working. After that, I would often run a workshop teaching how to do whatever it was we’d figured out.

I fell into the teaching role because I really enjoyed it. For those classes that I didn’t know anything going into them, I was teaching and learning at the same time and then following it with teaching, I learned it so well. No other method works as well for me. I still try to do that; anything that I’m learning how to do, I just run a class on it. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I don’t have fear about doing that because people are understanding as long as you’re up front about it then it’s fine.

Effectively, how I got into designing electronics was by doing. It’s not any more complex than that, I did it. I sat in my room late at night struggling with learning to solder. It’s easier now. Having resources so freely and easily accessible online is really important. The instructions are there and if I had the hacker space at the time I could have gone and learned how to solder in five minutes. On the other hand, I know how to solder really, really well since I had to figure it out.

Connecting with people was also a big way that I learned. Mitch Altman, who is big in the hacker electronics scene and sells kits, he became my mentor. Very early on when I was starting with my electronics business, he sat down with me and went over openly the finances of everything that he does, how he does it, how he has everything structured. That was super helpful, having somebody sit down with me who’s doing the kinds of stuff that I wanted to be doing. That’s actually been way more effective than school. I learn things so much faster in that way, sitting down with people who are engaged and like I’m engaged in the same thing. I get a lot of information from people I don’t know. I send people emails asking questions about various things. At hacker conferences if somebody gives a talk on something that’s interesting and later on I see them at the conference, I might sit down and have a beer with them. That’s one of the magical things about conferences.

I’ve generally found that if you’re enthusiastic about something and you talk to somebody else who is also enthusiastic about the same thing, they tend to also be enthusiastic about talking to you about it. This is how I’ve met all my personal heroes. They tend to be quite approachable because I’m excited about the same things they are.

To read more interviews like this, check out Don’t Go Back to School on Amazon or get the ebook here.

July 16, 2013

New fiction: “Pretend You Can Hear Me.”

The Orphan has just published a story of mine that I really love. You may want to read it first before you read what I have to say about it.

I wrote it five years ago when I was preparing to teach a class about intimacy and technology. The story is a chat conversation between two lovers, a man and a woman. I had seen a novel written entirely in emails, but never at that time a story in chat. The choice of form was both an exploration of form itself, and more deeply, of the capacity of our everyday technology for containing deeply felt intimacy. There were arguments floating around, and there still are, that our everyday communication, mediated as it is by devices, has closed distances but worked against closeness, that the closing of distances opens new ones. This is an alarmist idea, conservative in the literal sense of the word, denying our finest animal quality, the propensity to adapt. Not just get used to, but expand into, that is adaptation. We do that. We have done that. We still touch fingers, and whisper, and hold tight. We still talk with our hands and flirt with our eyes. We still feel the weight of a child’s cheek on our shoulder long after they have grown. We are still physical and ever will be. And we are in the ether too, living our lives, closely.

I didn’t know the story was about any of this until long after I wrote it. I knew only two people, in rooms far apart, staying close and feeling far. Doing their best. Ghosts with keyboards.

June 6, 2013

Ed Tech Innovators, Start Here

Online education at a massive scale has become commonplace, and that makes me worried—for learners, for the higher education industry, for the public good.

Let’s assume that’s not going to change. And for now, let’s set aside the hard questions about access, quality, the role of higher education, for-profit education, the value of professors and the curricula they develop in concert at individual schools.

For learners, there is another critical issue that hasn’t been put solidly on the table. It’s simple. Classrooms are conversational spaces. Learning happens through student collaboration, community and conversation, far more than it happens in lectures and tests. MOOCs replicate a lot of the worst things about traditional school, and the one thing they fail to reproduce is the only one that really matters. Online learning in whatever forms it takes needs well designed conversational spaces too. That means, at minimum, attention to group sizes and composition within large populations, useful moderation, an innovative conversational structure that doesn’t rely on threaded comments. This is a non-trivial problem, and it’s the most important one for technologists to tackle.

The real promise of online education is the idea that we can design educational experiences that put collaboration at the center, that let students connect meaningfully, whether they are working through established learning channels or in collaborations of their own making. This is a chance to do something amazing.

C’mon technologists. Bring it.

May 7, 2013

Asking and Giving: the way we live now

This will start with a gift and end with a call-to-arms.

Among the happy things the internet brings me, from time to time, is a bit of writing so striking it stays with me. Nothing to do with facts or the immediate moment. Rather something about what it is to live right now. In this manner, I held onto an essay on cities and loneliness, by a writer named Olivia Laing. The essay is part of a book, which turned out to be a book I very much wanted to read. I found her site and learned that this book, which touches on themes I am obsessed with, strangers and cities and how it is to live among them–this book did not exist yet. The last line of Laing’s page about the book is this:

If you’re interested in supporting The Lonely City, I have a wishlist of research material here. All donators of books will be thanked in the acknowledgements.

So I did it. I sent her a book from her Amazon wishlist of research materials she needed and couldn’t afford. And I tweeted that I had done so. Someone who follows her asked for the link to the list, and this morning I found out that I am not the only one to have sent her a book. Which is the most wonderful outcome I can possibly imagine.

What I’m interested in here is how in our culture right now, the ivy of generosity is growing over every structure we have built. The research and first printing for Don’t Go Back to School was funded by Kickstarter backers. We create, publish, and sell our work now outside traditional channels, and we make communities in the process. None of this is new, but its pervasiveness is new.

One of the most significant findings of my research for Don’t Go Back to School is that people learn together. They form communities and learn with and from each other. They have as much access to experts as any enrolled student would. The people I interviewed told me stories about asking experts questions–polite, respectful questions (in the book they give advice about how to formulate these). They told me stories about those experts taking them seriously and helping them.

We are deep in the culture of generosity now in how we learn and think and create and contribute and live. It did not seem strange to me to ask strangers to support a book I wanted to write, and it does not seem strange to me every time I support another person’s creative production. It did not seem strange at all to me to send a book to a stranger, a writer whose work I wanted to read more of. It does not seem strange to me when people ask me for advice about independent learning. It does not seem strange to me when people write to me after reading my syllabi on the internet and ask me to suggest further reading on specific topics they’ve discovered there. None of those seem strange at all. They are a part of how we live now. If you are not living that way, you are doing it wrong.

April 30, 2013

All the Names

Last week, I did a repetitive, mundane thing. I printed postage labels for each of my Kickstarter backers to send them their copies of Don’t Go Back to School.

Except it wasn’t mundane at all. I printed postage labels for around 900 people who were about to become my readers. I saw their names, wonderfully colorful and wonderfully common. I saw the names of their towns and cities, wonderfully colorful and wonderfully familiar. Nine hundred real people, every single one of whom knows how to reach me and tell me what they think about the book.

Writers don’t get this, under ordinary circumstances. Readers remain abstract and mysterious unless they come to your readings. Writing is terribly, terribly lonely, any writer will tell you this. All those names made it less so.

Writers don’t print their own postage labels either, under ordinary circumstances. I’m not trying to tell you it’s fun, it’s not. But it’s also a task I hope every writer will have a chance to do sometime in their careers. It represents a newly-possible relationship between writers and readers. We’re all real people here.

April 3, 2013

Don’t Go Back to School Table of Contents

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