The Self-directed Life

The Self-directed Life

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My wife and I have just come back from visiting an outlier education facility called North Star Teens, in Hadley, Massachusetts. They are early pioneers in supporting young people to adopt a self-directed approach to learning. It is really amazing to see how these young people are thriving in ways that most normal young people don’t. What is incredible is that most of them were completely written off by the traditional education system.   Believe it or not, if you give young people responsibility for their own lives, together with good support, magic happens.

I see this pattern everywhere I go. Given the right conditions, human beings can become self -directed without descending into destructive anarchy. There are increasingly numerous examples in which imposing less control on others leads to radically improved results. From unschools like North Star Teens, to companies like Zappos, and even city experiments like Burning Man, self-direction and trust are at the foundation of something truly extraordinary.

Education is no different from society, which is why I focus so much of my time reimagining both. Society and education are founded on order and conformity. They are products of the first industrial age, when humanity required an army of factory workers to provide for our basic needs. That old reality is becoming less relevant every day, and our societal systems are struggling to adapt. The price of conformity is the loss of ourselves, and this is why the mental health of the world’s population is suffering so badly.

The Dandelion Project in Guernsey is already demonstrating that people do not need government to improve where they live, and the unschool we are developing will prove that we do not need a traditional curriculum to radically improve educational outcomes.

One of the things I talk about is the move from pyramids to platforms. Old top-down hierarchies are being replaced by technology platforms that allow people to self-organise. In education terms, we now have instant access to global knowledge via the internet, whereas in the past, teachers and the local library were the gateway to that knowledge.

We now have the opportunity to learn in any dimension, rather than in the one-size-fit-all model derived from our industrial past. In practical terms, that means we can now pursue passion-based learning rather than curriculum-based learning. The former delivers far better outcomes. The difference is that you have to let go of the teacher and the classroom to do it.

You have to trust people to do it themselves.

You have to allow people to fall over to do it.

That requires a change that our hierarchical systems just cannot vote for. To make it happen the changes must come from the outside rather than the inside.

We are so conditioned to be waiting for permission and flowing through the life laid out in front of us few of us actually learn to make our own decisions. In Guernsey we are trying to create a country of 65000 leaders. At the heart of that is a community move towards self direction at all levels. That is a tough educational challenge for everyone to learn how to operate in an entirely new environment.

Learning to listen to your heart and curate your own life is a skill few people have developed and yet something that everyone is capable of.

To my core I believe in people.

I believe that everyone deep down has the ability to lead their own life and break free from blindly following what has gone before them.

Self direction is a skill that can be acquired by anyone. Much like we learnt to walk by falling over we can learn to lead our own lives by trial and error. As a society we need to create safe spaces to allow people to learn by falling over rather than live in fear of getting anything wrong.

Being the master of your own destiny is scary as hell at first which is why most people stay with the comfort of the crowd rather than follow the messages that come from deep within.

A self directed life is the path to a much fuller life. You just have to be prepared to fall over enough times to get there.


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  1. Your right Marc giving people responsibility and autonomy is key to setting them free; enticing people with the carrot on the stick is old school and must be challenged. See Dan Pink’s book ‘Drive’ for more on this subject, as well as Gary Hamel’s ‘What Matters Now’. Excellent reads.

  2. “The messages that come deep within”…I agree with your post and feel if humans tap into their God-given talents they will thrive. I am curious if your philosophies are connected to a spiritual component. To be transparent, mine are. As a Catholic I believe we are responsible to steward all the gifts we have been given. Those gifts need to flow through us and out to others. For example, if you have been given a great singing voice you are not meant to utilize it only in the shower…which is where mine needs to stay! You are meant to develop it and share it with others. I love the idea of learning platforms and your acknowledgement that those platforms provide an invaluable conduit to information that historically has been available primarily through teachers and school ‘systems’. The problem with school systems, other than the one size fits all mentality you rightly addressed in your blog, is that the philosophies of the system eventually become the philosophies of the culture and therefore society. The ‘systems’ have been effectively removing God from all dialog and as a result so has our culture and society. Needless-to-say, I believe this is to the detriment of society. I love your idea of ‘learning platforms’ as they espouse no philosophy at all…just a free marketplace of information (good and bad). Thanks for the post! I will be watching with great curiosity…

    • Hi Brian,

      I am spiritual but I do have issues with mainstream religion for similar reasons to mainstream education and society

      I am also someone who thinks that talent is something of a myth so I don’t particularly believe in God given gifts etc. That is one of the things we are looking at challenging as part of the project.

      These are just my views though. I am more than happy for anyone to pursue their own!

      • Thanks for the reply Marc. I will check out the links you provided and reply there if appropriate.

      • Tony Myles says

        One thought on this – a self-directed life when taken to the max would could to this conclusion, for if “I direct my own life” then what need to I have of God?

        It’s sort of like when my doctor tells me that I need to eat healthier, and I say, “I direct my own food choices,” so what need to I have of my doctor?

        That is, until my self-directed wisdom backfires… and I suddenly see my doctor as wiser than I ever did before.

        I wonder if the same is true of conclusions about God when we’re doing fine. One of the greatest tragedies is how it takes great tragedies to help us realize what is truly important. I’ve seen this when my kids get sick and I remember to hold them closer because I am a flawed man who forgets to remember.

        I’m just a fellow person on this journey, too. I do believe whether or not God exists isn’t up to us, but is a truth we will face down one day whether our opinions were even remotely close.

        I so, so look forward to that day.

  3. Totally agree. I see this happen all day every day as my child is educated at home. I wish I had had the opportunity to live this way when I was growing up.

  4. Hi Marc, you mentioned that you’re turning 65,000 people into leaders. But surely not all 65,000 of them want to lead. I appreciate going for the clean sweep. What do the people in Guernsey who don’t want to lead think about the Dandelion Project?

    • I am not sure that we have a lot of choice going forward. The advent of robotics and artificial intelligence will radically change the employment landscape and consequently how much money government will have access to. We need to learn how to fend for ourselves.

  5. I think normal people have to wake up and go to work and pay the bills and don’t have much time or the experience to change things. Most people go with the flow and I doubt if a few goods ideas will change anything much as much as they may be great ideas. Caught in the hum drum of life and trying to make ends meet means that many will not be able to give these ideas any time at all. Politicians will always play it safe to secure votes so change is VERY slow. Making “Guernsey the best place to live in the world” is taking a step backwards if they introduce paid parking as the vast majority do not want it but do we have a choice in the matter?
    Getting on planes and seeing new ideas on another side of the world is great but don’t expect the masses to follow you when they have such a hard time just try to pay the water and electric bill every month!
    To some a Dandelion is a pretty flowering plant to others (in America) its a noxious weed…
    Not trying to piss on anyone’s fire but I am trying to be realistic about what we can expect.

    • Hi Chris,

      We are finding a lot of ‘normal’ people are starting to switch off their televisions and do something more meaningful with their free time. In my experience people always have time.

      Politics is not something that we plan on engaging in or commenting on. There is a lot that can be done to improve where we live without needing permission. This is a 6 year mission. It is about building community and small wins in the beginning…

      As we did with TEDxStPeterPort we plan on bringing those who have done great things around the world to Guernsey. There is no need for most people to get on a plane.

      Personally I don’t think realism makes my days any better. That is why I don’t have much time for it.


  6. Dyrke Schaefer says

    Hi Marc, great insights, as usual. I checked out the North Star Teens to learn more. While I applaud the concept, I couldn’t help but notice that the fees are, unfortunately, quite prohibitive for many families with teens that would greatly benefit from such a program. Any idea if North Star and similar programs are having any success in making their programs financially accessable to the more “financially challenged”?

    Here in Holland, there are some schools that are trying to make somewhat similar changes within the confines of the “standard” school system. The Junior High / High School that our son attends has been running an iPad pilot this year…and with success. The entire school is moving to the iPad in September. The inclusion of web-based and interactive learning tools is giving teachers the opportunity to re-think curricula and, many times, freeing them up to give more individualized attention to students who need / want it. This progression will also give companies the opportunity to develop much more interesting educational materials. Best of all…. most of the kids really seem to be embracing this new approach to schooling. It’s just a beginning, but it looks to be a very interesting wave for the future of education.

  7. Marc,
    Your article reminded me of an article I read in the Guardian last week (or the week before) about industry “greenwashing.” The key point: “Research conducted with Samuel Touboul, from the Society and Organization Research Centre, HEC Paris, shows that when societies are willing to rely more on individual responsibility than on governments, it paradoxically creates pressure on other powerful entities to step in to this ‘institutional void’.”

    Thanks for pointing out that this theory likely holds true in other important areas of life too!

    Kind Regards,

  8. I agree with you Marc. In the business world we have been talking about empowering employees for decades. However, the western society has been indoctrinating us so intensity, that severe mental barriers prevent most people from pursuing self-directive paths. It is a huge challenge to remove these barriers, especially as they still continuously are re-enforced. I admire your work and I’m following it with excitement.

  9. James Arnold says

    Hi Marc,

    I enjoyed the article. No doubt there is a shift occurring, new century, new technology, new ideas. The internet will no doubt cause complete transformation in the end from the industrial age model. It takes awareness and courage to start treading the new path before it is firmly established, and smalls things such as posts like this and big things such as the organisations and movements you mention will continue to be the catalyst and help to open our minds and create possibilities, so thank you for reminding me of the exciting time this is and also for some new info on what is out there.


  10. I am literally so excited after finding and reading your website, this post in particular. I completely agree that we are on the cusp of a new world and we need invent as we go, relying on our own sense of direction, not on an outdated system of governance (whether that’s in schools, Government or social norms). Thank you for putting your efforts in this direction.

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