a breakdown of Neil Gaiman’s tips: how to live big


I watched this speech called “Make Good Art” that got me all hyped up — so much so that I haven’t stopped thinking or talking about it since I saw it a month ago. In it, Neil Gaiman gracefully walks his audience of graduating artists through seven tips on “everything I wish I’d known starting out.” The title’s command, to “Make Good Art,” is half of the fifth tip, complimented by “make your art.”

Below are his tips followed by the tips translated for a different audience — educators, parents, learners.

Unschoolers let the student take the wheel, trust them, give them freedom. As I discover more about unschooling, as I read Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto, as I take notes on Emile (Rousseau) and How We Think (Dewey), this idea — this effing idea — just makes more and more sense. Let students decide for themselves — what to learn, where, when, how. Let them come up with questions and answers. But it’s a huge idea that will take decades to fully incarnate.

Until then, we, the big idea people, need some guidance along the way. Who better than a comic book writer to divulge seven of life’s secrets? Neil Gaiman’s tips are applicable to anyone aspiring to do something big.

For those who dream big, here's a collage of John Lennon. Artwork by Lauren Epifanio.

For those who dream big, here’s a collage of John Lennon. Artwork by Lauren Epifanio.

In order of appearance (not necessarily in order of importance):

  1. Embrace the unknown! Gaiman encourages us to try what nobody else has. “And you can. If you don’t know it’s impossible, it’s easier to do. And because no one has done it before, no one has made up rules to stop them from doing that particular thing again.”  Within the context of education, this piece of advice is especially liberating. Right now, unschooling IS the unknown. The numbers aren’t there — how many kids unschool in this country? In the world? What are the demographics like? How do they fair in adult life? There is little research to answer these questions because the movement is relatively new and, well, unknown. But it’s a lifestyle that excites me and a movement that I believe in. I believe, and so I embrace.
  2. Just go and do it. How do you know if you’re doing the right thing? Gaiman says as long as you’re focused on your goal, you’ll be fine. He suggests imagining your goal as a far off mountain. “I knew as long as I kept walking towards the mountain, I’d be alright.” Gaiman explains how he turned down “proper” jobs because he knew it wouldn’t be going towards his mountain. Likewise, we shouldn’t just do the next thing on autopilot — high school, college, that job offer. If you have an idea or a dream and you know how you want to do it, do it and do it your way. If your dream is to enjoy learning or to learn astrology or interior design, then go and do it. If your dream is to teach classes that are founded on building and creating and getting inspired, then go for it. If your dream is to work in a school with no grades, find that school or start that school. Why? Because if you’re not moving towards your mountain, you know it — on some level, you’ll know it — and it will tire you, sadden you, possibly slowly kill you.
  3. Get back up and keep trying. How do you deal with failure? Success? “You want everything to happen and you want it now and things go wrong,” Gaiman says. The trick is to be relentlessly resilient. I recently read a few chapters from The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. My favorite chapter hands down was the one on Iceland. “Happiness is Failure” is the name of the chapter, and it revealed all sorts of insights that truly resonated with me. For example, during Icelandic winters, most of the day is night — the sun only shines a couple hours a day — but they suggest not trying to fight the darkness, but instead to embrace it. (Remind you of anything? *cough* Embrace the unknown *cough*) According to Weiner, Icelanders are unafraid, even proud, of getting back up and trying again. Switching professions is expected and encouraged. In education, this kind of flexibility is critical considering the reality that everyone can, does, and will fail at some point. Especially with a movement like unschooling that is still so young, so put together by hand, it is important to keep at it. Rome wasn’t built in a day, right?
  4. Make mistakes. A friendly reminder — don’t be afraid to fall down because getting up will strengthen you. (See tip #3 for what to do after you’ve fallen.)
  5. Make good art and make your art. Here, think of art as a creation. Not just an expression, but an innovation. Make good ideas happen, and Gaiman stresses, do so with your ideas. Personally, my art form is mostly writing. Not novel writing or lyric writing, but note taking, record keeping, journal writing. I document my life — how I feel, what I’ve learned, my ideas, etc. I reflect. I have a notebook collection (that began in 2009) that is now 21 books and counting. Gaiman talks about art as that activity you turn to every time something happens. “Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.” Make art because it’s practice, make art because it’s a good habit, make art because you might make something (or think of something) masterful.
  6. Be bold and do what must be done. Gaiman described how he used to lie about job experience to get positions he really wanted. He also suggests 3 practical ways of keeping a job: quality work, popularity, and timeliness. “2 out of 3 is fine.”
  7. Enjoy it!!! “Enjoy the journey,” Gaiman advises. If it’s not satisfying and pleasurable along the way, what’s the point? Part of the reason I love unschooling is because it, unlike traditional schooling, values the journey, the process, the experience. Without standards and exams, there is no real “end point.” Usually, students are working towards that almighty, end-of-the-year exam. But with unschooling, every day matters.

the danger of a single education system

Our American school system was based on a vision of normalization. In fact, Horace Mann’s model for a teacher’s college was called the “Normal School.” (Learn more here and here.) The mission was/is to conform students — shaping them into neat and tidy citizens — and to produce a labor force for the industrial age.

First of all, we are no longer a workforce of laborers. We no longer produce things, we produce ideas. (There is no second of all, but that statement alone should trigger someone to reconsider training a child for an obsolete goal.)

For the purposes it sought out to accomplish, it worked. Sort of, kind of. And maybe because it worked, (kind of, sort of) it stuck. Today, the United States offers a public education to anyone and everyone of school age. The problem is that there aren’t many options. You can choose between the various public schools. Some are better than others. You could even branch out and try a charter school or a private school. The rare family will seek out something even further off the beaten path — a Montessori school or a Waldorf school perhaps. That’s five options. I can literally count that on one hand.

I believe that the options should be innumerable. Learn however feels right.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In her TED talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned against telling a singular story. She began her speech by comparing the circumstances of the Western literature that she was first exposed to (white, blue-eyed kids that ate apples and played in snow) versus her reality in Nigeria (where people ate mangoes and “we never talked about the weather because there was no need to”). She grew up and exposed herself to African literature, which stretched her understanding of her home continent. Doing so, she says, “saved” her from the “danger of single story.”

Similarly, it is problematic to ignore the ENORMOUS spectrum of children and their individual needs. Each child is a different circumstance. The danger of a single education system is that of limits. We limit the student when we subject them to an education that isn’t custom fit. However, a custom tailored education is impossible as long as the common core is still around to flatten a child’s reach.

The really brave parents look into homeschooling, free schooling, or unschooling. I didn’t mention these options because so many families are uninformed about the possible alternatives. Many homeschoolers still abide by the common core, for example. We limit the various forms of learning when we try and stick to standards created by strangers; standards that often don’t fit that specific child.

One unschooler I really admire – a young Canadian woman by the name of Idzie – didn’t learn to read until she was 8 years old. The Montreal Gazette said this about Idzie: “She was never forced to go to school and follow a curriculum, yet has a love of the written word to which few her age can profess.”

By opening our eyes to alternatives, we discover the “many stories” which Adichie applauds. We avail students to possibilities that can rescue them from an education which does not work for them.

For so many children, this means allowing them to run free, make mistakes, and learn at their own pace. Self-directed learning liberates a student from the irrelevant pressures of the common core while opening them to a world of their own.

Adichie recognizes the “many stories” of the world. We need to follow her footsteps and recognize the diversity of our students. They come from different values, different backgrounds, have a myriad of learning styles, and each one of them is capable of something great when provided with a personalized learning environment. Once we can accept that each student must have the freedom to choose how they learn, we will, as Adichie says, “regain a kind of paradise.”

defending my good decision

We all want to make good decisions; healthy, conscious, stable, sturdy choices. Taking time off school is my most recent good decision. I used to consider it a risky, yet necessary move… that is, until I read something that changed how I view risk.

taking risksEvery week, the good folks at Uncollege email me a few interesting articles. A couple weeks ago, I received an article on not taking risks. This struck me as odd. Uncollege is an organization founded by, run by, supported by some very capable risk-takers. Or at least, that’s what I used to think. When I read Jean Fan’s “A Short Guide to Taking Risks: Don’t,” I had to relabel my decision to leave college.

According to her, a risky decision that has been thought through is not a risk at all. Once all the pros and cons have been weighed, and it has been decided that it is a risk worth taking, the riskiness factor actually dissipates. What is left is sound decision making. I asked myself the following: What is more risky? Investing in an education I am doubtful of or taking a break to re-evaluate my situation and solidify my beliefs and goals? What is more risky? Leaving high school devoid of passion or taking control of my education?

My vision for an ideal life is a picture of me working hard, taking advantage of the immense freedom I have been given. Part of that includes the freedom to choose how I learn, what I learn, when, where, and why. What will I learn today? Whatever I need to, whatever I want. What are my reasons for learning this topic? Not to measure up to some alien standard, but because of a personal interest. Using that freedom wisely — that is an ideal, successful life.

When I look back at my high school years, I deeply regret not taking advantage of the freedom I never knew I had. My teachers were fine, my classes often interesting, but my overall experience was being conducted by adults who didn’t really know me or what I needed. Ever since I got a taste for alternative education four years ago (when I got my GED), I have not looked back. I only wish I had the courage to have realized this sooner.

I am 22 years old with way more college credits to go than credits earned. I am far from obtaining my college degree and therefore far from living the American Dream. But that dream is not my dream. This is how I want to live my life, and I don’t consider it a risk anymore. Right now, investing in school is a bigger risk. I will continue my DIY education for as long as I feel is necessary, and that is my good decision.

when young people are in charge, good things happen

Sam Levin

A few months ago, I stumbled on something called The Independent Project. In 2008, the idea for the project hatched. The Independent Project’s founder, 10th grader Sam Levin, created an experiment: to learn better, without teachers. Levin, his guidance counselor, Mike Powell, and a few students who craved something different created a school within a school. Eight students all together.

According to a recent MindShift article on the project, Levin “took it upon himself to design a school where students would feel fully engaged, have an opportunity to develop expertise in something, and learn how to learn.” Through discussion, they decided on the structure of the program (and wrote about it in The White Paper). On Mondays, an overarching question was agreed upon. This is what they would spend the week studying. For example: Why do we cry? After they spent the week exploring the topic together (and individually), the group used Fridays to share, critique, and assess.

John Holt

In a 2011 Spin Education interview, Sam Levin said that he started the Independent Project because “school was not meeting everyone’s needs.” For years, educators, thinkers, and policymakers have lamented over the education system’s inadequacies. In a 1983 interview with John Holt, Holt referred back to the 1946 complaints about progressive education and school not teaching the basics. We have been complaining forever.

The solution is engagement, and the method is simple: give education back to the student.

Some students find their schools stimulating and are able to “pull everything” from their teachers and their peers. But this is rare, and I think we all recognize this. Here’s Susan Engels on the failure of education system: “Our current educational approach doesn’t just fail to prepare teenagers for graduation or for college academics; it fails to prepare them, in a profound way, for adult life.” (NY Times) For those of us circular folks who do not fit into the public education square hole, it is high time to venture into learning alternatives. When one thing doesn’t work, try another. 

To increase engagement, we need to allow students to learn for themselves. Think: don’t give someone a fish, teach them how to fish (they’ll eat forever). The Independent Project put the students in the driver’s seat of their own education, an arrangement which better facilitates the “pull everything” process  (see: Rule #2 below).

Nothing works for everyone. For some, public school is the best option. But for the millions of students that don’t mesh with traditional schooling, an offer like The Independent Project would be a life changing gift. When asked if The Independent Project was a good alternative for public education, Sam Levin said that it was. I totally agree.

The beauty of Levin’s project was that it was formed by the students and run by the students. With practically no teacher involvement, they managed to create a seemingly Utopian learning community. Unschooling camps, free schools, and democratic schools are formed by adults and generally run by adults. A student engineered experiment is a tricky model to reproduce because such a critical component are the students. The most adults can do to help create these programs is to discuss the idea with kids. Ask questions. What would a no-teacher school look like? What would you learn? How would you learn it?

I encourage everyone to approach a child in your life with this idea. Plant the thought in their head, water the thought, nurture the thought. Talk to them about self-directed learning and community (and revisit the idea periodically). Encourage them to self-direct on a small scale. Learn one skill for themselves, and see how that pans out — what went right, what went wrong. Show kids the benefits of controlling your own education (more fun, more focused, more flexible, etc.).

The Independent Project is a great innovation. Let’s see more students do that.

10 rules for living well



my roommate: proof that learning happens naturally

Eileen is a highly curious individual. I have lived with her for almost 3 years (we are now in our 2nd apartment), and, throughout all of this, I have watched her skip from subject to subject with a voracious appetite for learning. When she watched the movie, “The Aviator”, the genius/insanity of Howard Hughes intrigued her so much that, after researching to satisfaction, she shared Hughes’ life story and weird anecdotes to whomever would listen.

Most recently, she took up an interest in Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters (after spending some time on the Beatniks) and, from that, she showed me this great Kickstarter project. She she does not “need” to learn — by which I mean, she’s not committed to any class, she’s not on deadline to research these topics — but she craves the information. Her desire to learn is natural, and so is her ability. She is capable of learning without walking into a classroom at 9:00 AM every Tuesday and Thursday.

eileen and I

Eileen and I in apartment #1 (warmly nicknamed the Thunderdome)

As adults, we see this relationship with information often. When we are curious about something, we go after information without even really thinking about it. Maybe via asking a friend, googling a topic, or going so far as to sign up for a class. Children should be allowed to explore their interests just as adults do. Yes, sometimes they need help. That’s what teachers are for: to facilitate the learning process, not dominate over it. As Professor David Uttal says, referring to Rousseau’s educational philosophy, “Adults should set up the environment and stay out of the way.”

Self-directed learning works. During the public school years, we are shuffled through separated subjects. It’s apartheid learning, and it impedes engagement and connection. “Learning is living,” as John Holt says. In life, connections are made because learning is holistic. In school, we do not choose the books we read or the homework assigned. So the autonomy is stolen from the students. When you learn for yourself, you are fully engaged because the motivation is intrinsic.

Eileen’s interest in American culture is active not passive, and I think that her self-education in this area reflects the amazingly organic process that is learning. It also reflects how cool she is. “Learning is living,”  and learning is also sharing. If it weren’t for living with Eileen, I would not know about all these different 90s game shows (Double Dare, Legends of the Hidden Temple, and Figure it Out). As an immigrant, watching 90s TV in my funky apartment with my roommate strengthened my identity as a die-hard New Yorker, and, for that, I am forever thankful.