The idea of taking a gap year between high school and college is no longer revolutionary. The logic is simple: You’ve already spent 12 years in a classroom, so why not take a break before jumping back in? Pack that gap year full of travel, work, networking, reading, and writing, and you’ll undoubtedly make better use of your time in college.
For budding entrepreneurs and techies, there are innovative programs like Enstitute, the Thiel Fellowship, and Dev Bootcamp. But for the rest of us — those who enter 4-year liberal arts programs with high hopes of gaining some direction, enlightenment, and new friends — the biggest problem is that there don’t seem to be any viable, worthwhile alternatives to the college experience.
This is where self-directed learning — the type of learning that a gap year emphasizes — offers a compelling opportunity.
When you do self-directed learning, you take a self-organized and self-motivated approach to education. You follow no pre-structured curriculum — therefore, you possess the freedom to learn in a style that fits you, seek out the best mentors and courses you can find, and pursue your quirky, individual goals. And you’re not alone in the journey: A growing community of young people are taking the self-directed path.
Here are 5 reasons why full-time, self-directed learning (and a healthy dose of gap year-style travel) offers a respectable alternative to the traditional four-year college route.
1. You’ll learn how to manage money and stay out of debt.
You can do a whole lot of self-directed learning for the same amount of money you’d spend on college. But most families don’t have that kind of cash on hand, and there are no student loans for self-directed learning.
This seemingly large obstacle is a blessing in disguise. Why? Because when you take the self-directed path, you directly observe the costs and results of your education. This teaches you how to manage money and shows you that education is valuable, but not priceless. Everything has a price. Colleges tend to hide this reality by lumping the costs of exorbitant dorm rooms, sports teams, and exercise facilities into their tuition — all in the name of learning.
Perhaps most importantly, the self-directed path doesn’t lock you into $20,000, $50,000 or $100,000 worth of student loans — an incredible burden that shoehorns many young people into unsatisfying career paths when the world is supposed to be their oyster.
2. You’ll ramp up your self-motivation.
Self-directed learning (and independent world travel) demands — and quickly builds — your self-motivation. But what if you don’t think you’re motivated enough to begin this kind of learning in the first place? It’s a classic chicken-and-the-egg situation: You’ve got to jump into the deep end in order to begin.
Self-education stokes your senses of autonomy, mastery, and purpose: the key ingredients of self-motivation, as explained by Daniel Pink’s excellent book Drive. It also lets you pursue the “flow” state described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi — another psychological state that reinforces self-motivation.
3. You can become successful without a degree.
The idea that fame and fortune can only be achieved by college graduates is a lie. The payoff from a college degree is overhyped, and there are plenty of successful people who never finished college (or even high school). Unless you want to become a professor, research scientist, or licensed professional, a college degree is not truly mandatory.
The self-motivation that you develop as an independent learner will in fact become your greatest asset. As Seth Godin suggests: “A modern productive worker is someone who does a great job in figuring out what to do next.”
Yes, it’s more challenging for self-directed learners to get a human resources department to look at their résumés. But do you really need a résumé? Instead, build an online portfolio (like Vi Hart), tell your story in a compelling way (like Weezie Yancey-Siegel), demonstrate the value you’re capable of generating (like Logan McBroom), and then find a creative way to get noticed. Either you’ll get hired (without ever standing in the Craigslist breadline) or learn enough to start your own business.
4. You’ll build massive amounts of self-knowledge.
The Greeks got it right: First, know thyself. Self-knowledge is the skeleton key that unlocks the answers to a number of questions, such as: What are my deepest needs? In what environment do I work best? How can I personally change the world for the better?
Short-term job experiments, long-term travel, extensive reading and writing, making new friends around the world, and other gap year-style activities can build self-knowledge much more quickly than the same time spent in college.
5. You’ll actually fulfill your travel dreams instead of waiting until age 60.
Don’t be the person whose first big adventure is taking a Carnival cruise at retirement. If you want to travel, do it now, when you’re young, broke, and free. Too many people defer their travel dreams, get caught up in a graduate school program, serious job, relationship, or family obligation, and then end up with one or two weeks free each year.
You can always go back to college as an adult, but it becomes more and more difficult to travel like a young person.
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Blake Boles is the author of Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree and the director of Unschool Adventures, the travel company for self-directed young adults.