Self-Directed Life Newsletter: Homeschooling college
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Hey guys,

How was your week?

It’s an exciting time around our house. In lieu of going to college, my 19-year-old son is starting a small business, and it feels like the ultimate project — not just for him, but for us too.

One, he’s essentially homeschooling college. Telling people you’re homeschooling is bad enough. Telling people you don’t use boxed curricula is a whole other thing. But when you tell people your kid is homeschooling college, look out.

Two, he’s working in the area of my own expertise, and you know how tough that is. It’s one thing to stay quiet and supportive and swallow your suggestions when your child is working on something you know nothing about; it’s exponentially more difficult when they’re wading around in your specialty.

Three, you know that heavy pressure you feel in your chest when you’re deciding whether to let your child drop out of a community to do something related to his weird personal interest instead … or maybe just do NOTHING, because you fear that if he doesn’t have more empty time he’ll never discover his weird personal interest? Well, the stakes are even higher when your child is teetering on adulthood.

Luckily, as my son has leveled up as a project-based homeschooler, we’ve also been leveling up as co-learners and mentors.

I managed to make most of the possible mistakes getting to this point. (I’m gifted like that.) I won’t say I’ve made ALL the possible mistakes — although I’m tempted — because I’m sure I’ll discover some I missed.

Recently someone emailed me saying children aren’t ready to be in charge of their own learning until they’re in college. Before that, they need a foundation of knowledge and skills chosen for them, and they need to learn how to do work that doesn’t interest them, how to be bored, how to follow directions, and so on. Later, this person opined, they’ll be ready to be in charge, because they’ve learned how to do things *right*.

But what gets us ready to direct and manage our own learning? A lifetime of having someone else direct and manage us?

We learn what we do.

Does someone else being entirely in charge of what you do and how you do it give you the confidence to take over? I’m looking around and I’m not seeing a whole lot of self-motivated, self-directed adult learners. I see a lot of people escaping into entertainment, but very few enthusiastically diving into self-chosen work. When people do things for me, I don’t usually think — they do this so well … I should start doing it for myself! I just let them continue with that thing they obviously know way more about than I do. Especially if I never thought it seemed very interesting anyway. And I’m afraid other-directed education often makes learning seem necessary but dull.

And anyway, how do we know we’re doing it *right*? I took stenography in high school in the 80s. It didn’t exactly prepare me for the work I actually did even a few years later.

In the end, it makes more sense to me to prepare learners to be in charge of themselves, knowing how to get the skills and knowledge they need to accomplish whatever it is THEY want to do, in the world THEY are going to live in, about which I know pretty much nothing. I can’t predict that world or that work — I can predict that this 8-year-old is going to become an 18-year-old who later becomes a 28-year-old. When I invest in him as a learner, I know I’m not wasting my time. (Cut to my A+ in shorthand…)
Starting his own business now doesn’t mean my son won’t decide to go to college later on. If we’ve learned anything from this adventure, it’s that the road ahead is full of twists and turns, and the journey is unpredictable. He wants to find out whether this is a good career path for him. Does he like this work? Is he good at it? Does he want to continue in this direction? Or will he learn along the way that it doesn’t really suit him? Is this *particular* company something he wants to grow? Or should he move to something else? What will he discover along the way that he doesn’t even know about now?

As with every project, he is relishing all that he will learn, not only about what he’s exploring but also about himself.

And so are we.

Lest you fear that PBHing will mean your child will NEVER want to participate in formal learning, that has not been my experience. The majority of children I’ve worked with have gone on to college. When you direct and manage your own learning, that includes taking advantage of classes, school programs, and degrees if they help you do what you need or want to do. Self-directed learning doesn’t replace formal learning; it subsumes it.

My business-starting son was my intractable learner. He has always wanted to be in charge of his own learning. He cannot stand to have someone get between him and what he wants to learn and do. Someone else’s curriculum feels impossibly rigid and confining to him; he wants to learn at his own speed, choose his own resources, and have the time to really dig into each thing that interests him, including any interesting byways. Self-directed learning wasn’t just the best way for him to learn; it was truly the ONLY way.

My younger son is considering going to college. He is carefully weighing the decision, because (1) his interests don’t make college necessary — e.g., he isn’t planning on being a brain surgeon or an aeronautical engineer — and (2) he’s already taken classes and can meaningfully compare the results to his self-directed efforts. If he does decide to attend college, he won’t turn over responsibility for his education or his career preparation to someone else — even a respected university. He’ll still be the general manager of his own learning life.

Parents have a lot of fear around this area. I know, because I’ve been hearing a lot about it recently. Their biggest fear seems to be that their child will eliminate opportunities by making a wrong choice — say, by deciding not to go to college.

I’m sure that I feel more comfortable with a nontraditional path because I skipped getting a real job after graduation and started my own business instead. Everyone told me then what a terrible mistake I was making, sinking my own career prospects before they’d even gotten underway. I had that shiny new degree — what a waste not to use it to get a job!

Of course, looking back, family and friends later said, “Oh, I always knew you’d be successful.”

Uh huh.

That’s the thing about success, it’s much harder to predict looking forward.

I started that first business when I was 22. I’m pretty sure I made every mistake it’s possible to make in every single area of running a business. (I’m gifted like that.) And I ran that business for 25 years, with international clients and up to a dozen employees.

Mistakes didn’t prevent me from being successful; they were part of the process I had to go through to know how to be successful.

There is absolutely no guarantee that my son’s business will be a success. On the other hand, if you go to college for four or five years, accumulate enough credit hours, and can pay all your tuition and other bills, you WILL get a degree. Guaranteed success! Of a sort. The entrepreneurial path has no guaranteed result … except learning. He’s going to learn a tremendous amount. He’ll learn everything it takes to run a small business, and he’ll learn a lot about himself and other people, too.

And I will keep my very experienced mouth shut as much as I possibly can because I know that what helped me learn the most was making all of those mistakes I made, one after the other.

Is his choice eliminating opportunities? Or increasing them?

It may be that later on, down the road, he’ll decide to go to school, pursue a degree, or chase a completely different goal. Very few of us know exactly what we want to do at 19 and then stick with it for the rest of our lives. (Which raises the question — how are kids supposed to choose a major at 18, anyway?)

We aren’t worried about whether this is THE right career path for him, because we’ve always been more interested in investing in him, knowing that wherever he goes and whatever he does, he’ll have more success if he knows himself and knows how to learn, communicate, create, and contribute. We’re excited by the sheer amount of learning he’s going to be doing — and we’re busy trying to keep out of his way.

Fear is so entrenched in the education process. It starts with parents and it infects children. It’s fed by the constant competition. We’re afraid that if we make one wrong move, our kids are doomed. They’ll never get into that selective program or that good school, they’ll never get that great job or that big raise or that deluxe lifestyle.

What does it take for us to not be afraid anymore?

The truth is, we aren’t always going to succeed. We aren’t always going to get what we thought we wanted. And we can’t have everything.

At the beginning of this newsletter, I said that the stakes are even higher when your child is a young adult, but that’s not actually true. It just feels that way, because as a society we load up this time of life with so many expectations — and fears.

Actually, the stakes are higher when your child is 8, because that’s when the trajectory is set, either for active, self-directed learning or passive, tell-me-what-to-do-and-when-I’m-done learning.

If you wait a full decade before letting your child take responsibility for his own learning, then you will really be eliminating opportunities.

It is never, ever too late to get started. But it’s also never too early. The best time to start is now.

If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now. — Debbie Millman

It’s not about how to achieve your dreams. It’s about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you. — Randy Pausch

Loads more to read about college/uncollege if you’re interested.


Applies to most things, not just writing:

Nothing you write, if you hope to be any good, will ever come out as you first hoped. — Lillian Hellman


Hey, parents — leave those introverts alone!


Khan Academy wants to start offering diplomas.


Let’s change this: Girls do a disproportionate amount of household chores compared to boys.

(We’re always planting seeds. The above is a seed. It’s why women still do way more housework than men. Plant better seeds.)


Why do we make this effort to help our kids direct and manage their own learning, pursue their own interests, and do things that matter to them?

“If you…haven’t recently talked to children…you would be shocked by the extent…‘teach to the test’ culture [has] suffused education.”

“[S]tudents think that learning is ‘simply a matter of knowing the right answer’. ”

“This [is] ‘embedded in the entire education system’.”

“A lack of curiosity & ‘sheer love of investigation’ were…traced…to an underlying approach to schooling that reduces learning to test prep.”

“Far from being open spaces for free enquiry, the classroom of today resembles a military training ground.”

“[T]he focus is not on open-ended discussion or enquiry, but on learning ‘what we need to know’ to succeed in whichever examination is next.” — Can school today teach anything more than how to pass exams?


In the same vein:

“Too many students use grades to figure out how to do only what’s required, asking their teachers questions like ‘What do I have to do to get an A?‘ At the same time, they’re trying to determine the minimum they can ‘know’ to pass. ‘How can I game the system?’ ‘What are the fluff courses that will get me an easy A?’”

“When we reduce students to numbers and grades, they and we focus on test-taking skills and grade requirements rather than on learning.”

“[An] alumna…teaching at a large state university reported feeling appalled by the number of students who want to do the bare minimum with the goal just to pass.”

“Grades become labels … these labels become engrained in children’s views of themselves, as well as in those of their teachers and the beliefs are too often self-perpetuating.”

“[N]ot being graded translates into deeper intellectual engagement and the courage to take more intellectual risks.”

“Any student can improve. Intelligence isn’t fixed; it’s malleable. And education is about growth and improvement.”Why do schools use grades that teach nothing?

Even if you homeschool/unschool, it’s so easy to get caught up in outside scoring and validation. We have to keep reminding ourselves (and our kids) of what we think is really important. We have to help our kids decide for themselves whether they’ve met their goals.


Why should you set your child’s interests at the center of their learning life?

The interested, curious child simply learns more.

“A study published in the October issue of the journal Neuron, suggests that the brain’s chemistry changes when we become curious, helping us better learn and retain information.”

“‘There’s this basic circuit in the brain that energizes people to go out and get things that are intrinsically rewarding,” Ranganath explains. This circuit lights up…when we’re curious.

When the circuit is activated, our brains release a chemical called dopamine which gives us a high. ‘The dopamine also seems to play a role in enhancing the connections between cells that are involved in learning.’”

“[C]urious brains are better at learning not only about the subject at hand, but also other stuff — even incidental, boring information.”

“Curiosity really is one of the very intense and very basic impulses in humans. We should base education on this behavior.”Inside the brain of a curious child


Written about design but easy to see how it applies equally well to the “gamification” of learning/edutech:

“The lesson games have for design is not really a lesson about games at all. It’s a lesson about play. Play isn’t leisure or distraction or the opposite of work. Nor is it doing whatever you want. Play is the work of working something, of figuring out what it does and determining how to operate it.”Play anything


If you have Amazon Prime, they have now added Prime Reading with a rotating selection of free e-books and magazines (including children’s books).


Action is endlessly searching for the right lifehack to finally make you productive; right action is getting to work. — Kyle Eschenroeder

Kids need to know that they matter to you because of who they are not what they do. — Alfie Kohn

Thank you as always for your continued support. If there’s anything you need, reply to this email and let me know! Have a great week!

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