The UnCollege Blog

Design Your Own Learning Bootcamp: A 13-Step Guide


There’s been an explosion of school-like learning programs in the past few years. Programming bootcamps are trendy. Entrepreneurship programs are everywhere. What is hard to find outside of the college system, however, are learning bootcamp for people who want to immerse themselves in other areas of study. What is also hard to do is participate in these learning bootcamps with limited resources — they cost a lot of time and money.

Going into my gap year, I took interest in participating in a formal bootcamp program. I planned to work really hard to save up money. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that it wasn’t the right choice for me. I harbor a strong dislike for externally-imposed structure, and wasn’t very interested in the end goals of existing programs (e.g. doing a programming bootcamp to land a job at a tech company).

More importantly, if I wanted to do immersive learning, I could just cut to the chase. I didn’t have to save up money and then participate in one of these programs. I could just get started now, and do it on my own.

Among hackademics who are coming out of the traditional system, there’s a tendency to shun school in favor of school-like programs. It’s comfortable. Structured. Easy.

They can also be, in my opinion, kind of a cop out. If you want to truly hack your education, you are doing yourself a disservice if you jump from program to program, always outsourcing your education to other people. There is obviously value in structured programs. But there is enormous value in completely designing your own learning experience.

So now I am: a few weeks ago I wrote a post about hacking an education in AI and nanotechnology. There’s a lot I want to learn, and the rate at which I’ve been learning is underwhelming. I’m not dedicating myself enough, because I haven’t created an adequate structure for myself to do so.

In the past two weeks, I’ve been designing and piloting my own learning bootcamp. Here’s how you can do it too:

1. Find a mission that excites you.

Think about why you want to spend time dedicating yourself to intense learning. What do you want to create or contribute to? Choose a mission that is worth investing a significant amount of time into, and then choose your fields of study.

My mission, for example, is to expand human capacity for learning. I’ve been doing this through advocacy for the past two years; now I want to contribute scientifically. People are doing cool things in AI, IA, and nanotech that relate to my mission, which is why I’m excited to learn about these fields. Contextualizing my learning like this is a tactic I use to stay motivated.

2. Compile your own list of resources.

Make a list of books you want to read, MOOCs you want to take, people you want to talk to, organizations you could get involved with, and so forth. Don’t bother designing your own curriculum (you’ll inevitably get off track and lose motivation). Instead, always have a list of resources on hand that you can use. This process of curating resources is a key learning experience in itself, because you have to figure what is relevant to your mission and what is not.

3. Decide on your deliverables.

What will you have created? Finished? Learned? Come up with a list of 5-10 tangible things that you will have to point to after this learning expedition. This is as much for yourself (so you don’t feel like you’re actually accomplishing something) as it is for other people (who will only see the results of your bootcamp, and not the process).

4. Keep a work-progress journal.

Divide each page in a notebook into three columns. The first is “date.” The second is “work planned.” The third is “work completed.” Fill out the first two columns at the beginning of each day. At the end, either check off the third column or write an explanation as to why it didn’t get done. A work-progress journal is a great tool to confront laziness (writing down “It was too hard and therefore couldn’t focus” is shame-inducing) and staying motivated to do hard learning.

This is a key piece of advice I picked up from Cal Newport, who has been instrumental in shaping my perspective in the past few years and who is one of my favorite writers. Although he seems fiercely pro-college, his advice is applicable for all high-achievers, regardless of their chosen path.

5. Write publicly about your learning.

Specifically: keep an online learning journal. Share your journey with others. Write about things you discover, realizations you have, as well as questions you ask. It will keep you on track.

6. Set your hours. Define your dates.

It's easy as an ambitious learner to feel guilty when you're not spending time learning. To eliminate the anxiety that you're not doing enough, specify when you will be learning, and when you can feel comfortable clocking out. For example, you can choose to set weekdays from 7am-9am and nights from 8pm-10pm as your key learning times. The key is to schedule less than you think you need, but to non-negotiable stick with your learning times.

Also: make sure to set beginning and end dates for your bootcamp. This enables you to delay gratification and put your head down and work hard, because you have set a date when you can stop.

7. Don’t set time-based goals.

In school, the curriculum moves at a set pace. If you don't understand a topic, you have until the day of the exam to figure it out, after which the teacher moves on, and it doesn't really matter if you actually know it. If you want to actually apply your knowledge, however, this approach is terribly ineffective.

Setting goals can detract from learning if it’s done at the expense of real understanding. Recognize that you’ll encounter roadblocks. Give yourself time to figure out what you don’t understand, instead of trying to force “Unit 1 Chapter 1” in between the hours of 4-5pm.

8. Find your ideal workspace.

Some people enjoy silence, and work in libraries. Others prefer background noise, and work in cafes. Many crave a social scene, and work at a hackerspace. Choose a space outside of your home where you do your best work and work there every day. Avoid working where you sleep. It’s too easy to crawl into bed when learning gets tough. And it will.

9. Automate as much as possible.

If you spend a lot of time deciding what to wear, for example, choose an outfit that you know looks good on you, and wear it every day. If you spend a lot of time deciding what to eat, choose a few meals to eat over and over so you can divert less energy to the endeavor of eating. Spend as little time thinking about things that don’t matter as possible, so you can spend more time thinking about learning.

10. Take care of your body.

Eat to optimize your brain for learning. Fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats will keep you physically prepared to push through your learning bootcamp.

11. Choose what to say no to.

If you really want to commit to your learning bootcamp, you have to change aspects of your current routine to reflect that. Cutting down social engagements, for example — or at least limiting them to specific hours of the day — might be necessary. Going out with friends and not getting enough sleep every day will hinder your ability to learn effectively. This is a learning bootcamp that you’re designing, after all, so take it seriously and build a habit of saying no.

12. Get comfortable with uncertainty.

One of the most difficult parts of self-directed learning is the inherent uncertainty. As you learn, you learn more and more about what you have to learn next. But you never have more than a few steps of foresight, and that’s okay. Unlike when you’re enrolled in a formal program, where the curriculum has already been designed, a self-directed mode of learning can be more fluid. If you give yourself the flexibility to change gears and allow yourself to almost stumble your way forward (given proper reflection along the way, of course), your learning bootcamp will be less predictable but perhaps more effective.

13. Get comfortable without stimulation.

Learning is difficult, and a lot of the time, quite boring. Especially when you’re building technical knowledge, which often requires just a textbook and time for memorization, it can be quite boring. You’ll have the urge to procrastinate, to quit, to check Facebook, to go buy something, etc. It’s a difficult process, but creating a successful learning bootcamp requires that you get comfortable without this kind of stimulation.

As James Clear put it: “[R]eally successful people feel the same boredom and the same lack of motivation that everyone else feels. They don’t have some magic pill that makes them feel ready and inspired every day. But the difference is that the people who stick with their goals don’t let their emotions determine their actions. Top performers still find a way to show up, to work through the boredom, and to embrace the daily practice that is required to achieve their goals.”

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