I Miss School

Just like they say youth is wasted on the young, I think I squandered school when I was in it. The idea of having no responsibilities except general edification seems like such a luxury now. When I had it all I wanted to do was hack around on the web. Now that the vast majority of my hours are hacking around on the web, it’s a huge luxury to just sit and read for a bit.

Part of that, for me, has been learning how much I don’t know. My search for learning in the past few years is why I’ve attended so many conferences. Events are usually a terrible medium for communicating information, at least how most of them are run, and most of their value is human connections. In the past years I’ve been to a few TED-style ones that were entertaining in their fast-paced format (15-20 minutes per presentation, musical or theatrical fluff to break dense ones up) and the curiosity they sparked by nature of being short and incomplete: TEDMED and EG. The format does become tiresome and exhausting after a while though, too short, and like pizza I appreciate the talks more once they’re on TED.com. (TED has one of the best post-conference experiences, and a big inspiration for WordPress.tv. Also check out FORA.tv which also has amazing content.)

So while events are a brief hit, most of my pleasure from learning comes these days from books and highly interlinked websites. Wikipedia is the canonical example, it can be so blissful to be lost in a web of great content, like a choose-your-own-adventure of information, stumbling from link to link and always ending up someplace you didn’t expect.

I wonder if there could be some sort of metric for writing that told you the ratio of time-to-create versus time-to-consume. On Twitter it’s basically 1:1, you can craft and consume a tweet in a time measured in seconds. For this blog post, it may take me an hour to write it and 5 minutes to read (not skim) it. You can work your way all the way up through 8-10,000 word essays, and books that may take years and years (or a lifetime) to create. The higher the ratio, the more potential for learning and self-improvement. (I wonder how you would measure the Wikipedia which has taken lots of people a little time.) I could easily spend four hours a day surfing hundreds of posts in Google Reader, most of them that took a few minutes to create. It’s a sugar-rush of content that crashes after an hour or two and leaves me empty and hungry. A great novel or book feeds my soul. That’s why I love the Kindle — it has helped me read again.

63 thoughts on “I Miss School

  1. The Kindle is still my dream device– and now it’s available for customers outside the US! Someday I’ll get my hands on one.

    I learn tons by being a teacher– reading, reading, and more reading, both on the internet and in books.

  2. Good to see you writing again. I agree. But the other thing that happens as you focus on this non-superficial-stuff at conferences and books is that you realize the balkanized parties have been banging their heads against the issue with their own perspective for 120+ years (in any field) and then it’s disheartening and you go back to hacking away.

    1. “Balkanized parties”…? Why do you bring a completely unrelated issue to comments of such an interesting (and true) post? I am curious.

      1. what I meant to hit on there (a bit obliquely) that at some point talking/thinking/theorizing can be a bit wearisome after a while and one ends up wanting to get some “doing” in there. Make sense?

  3. I agree, I can spend hours reading posts in Google Reader and not feel like I learned anything. I also agree that I rarely ever learn more than a few things at a conference. Books continue to have the best time to learning ratio.

  4. You can always do what the founders of Microsoft (Bill Gates) and Intuit (Scott Cook) additionally did on their own time for general education — get an encyclopedia and read it from cover to cover.

    It takes about 2,000 hours of reading to do that.

    Those founders did it in their youth, but I speculate it helped them in their general business management decisions. The Britannica for instance has been undergoing revision for centuries, so the topics are pretty well hashed-out, though they say the 11th edition from the 1910’s is more scholarly and in-depth on the historic stuff. Or there’s stuff like the wisdom in the Bible that was like millennia in the making and vetting.

    The Great Books of the Western World series also has similarly profound content. Various intellectuals have created lists of profound or influential books like that, or you can make your own list as you go through reading an encyclopedia.

    I’m planning to do the same on reading an encyclopedia with my first complete one in a couple years..

    As an ambitious entrepreneur, I have to prioritize my time and learning on what will get the best ROI (and currently the more immediate ROI as there are bills to pay) for now — mainly entrepreneur bios, programming books and business management books — but you’ve got enough financial success under your belt already, and a CEO in place, that you could probably already justify the encyclopedic general education stuff for deferred long-term usefulness.

    I think you do have to put in your Google Reader 2-3 hours per day to stay on top of the tech industry. I was just finishing Andy Grove’s book “Only the Paranoid Survive” and he cited not keeping up with such news developments as why some companies die out during times of change

    PS — thanks for the Karl Fogel book recommendation from WordCamp SF.

  5. Interesting post. When I graduated college 7 years ago, I thought that I didn’t need any more education. I was incredibly wrong and now I read as much as possible. I’m now reading Warren Buffet biographies and it’s a blast.
    In regards to reading internet content, one of my high school teachers said to be careful what you read on the internet since there is a lot of nonsense posted in the internet world….:) Be careful what you read on the internet…:) I think that he meant that its a double edged sword.

  6. Wikipedia really is a treasure trove. I’m a big military tech junkie and you can just start with a random article about a random plane for example and spend a few hours going from link to link within the articles. Great stuff.

    As for school, I for one do not miss homework. 😛

  7. I like this post but I’ll tell you that school, for many folks, is not a leisure of reading and learning and fun fun fun. Don’t you remember finals and theses and the financial burden of tuition?

    I’m a BIG fan of higher education but I love being out of it. Much better to get paid to learn and have the freedom to study the blend of topics you enjoy vs the rigidity of degree programs.

    I remember sitting with a 10 year old once who was schooling me on CO2 emissions and geography. It’d been so long since I had to study that stuff I forgot. I became a specialist, because of what I studied but mostly because of what I didn’t study.

    As you pointed out, learning comes in many forms and the key is to never stop! Take classes, explore programs, study the art of Zen and building motorcycles… follow the links and fill your head with all the knowledge you can, every day, without limitations.

    Life is school.
    Deep, I know ;D

  8. I hear what you are saying… Look for used and anitquarian bookstores when you travel… or hit a Goodwill and see what kind of printed treasures are waiting to be adopted…

    1. I agree with you on the used bookstores and Goodwill (that is where I find most of my purchased books).

      Reading the encylopedia from cover to cover sounds like a better idea to me now after hearing who has done/wants to do it.

      Personally, I don’t know if I’m up to the challenge but then maybe I’m just not giving myself enough credit.

  9. Matt, Love your writing Brother. I like this post, because it relates to a thought that I cannot stop thinking about, who are our next great authors?

    I blog, and like millions of us, we are broadcasters, passionate, narcissistic, opinionated. We are not novelists, or journalists, because we write as we think. Our ratio of time to create vs. time to consume is very close, like Twitter.

    Who is going to be our next recluse genius? Our Salinger. Where will Roth, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald come from? The web hasn’t matured to that point yet. Don’t tell me Tucker Max.

    I realize your post was about School, well, you were warned like all of us, appreciate it while you can. The underlying theme is more relevant to TODAY, and our brave new world on the world wide web. Who will create work that influence us to do brave things?

    1. In the tech space I think we have them now: Kathy Sierra, Rands in Repose, Scott Berkun, 37signals, Paul Graham, Om Malik, John Gruber.

      1. I should check these folks out.

        Wonderful, thought-provoking post. You’ve got to put in the energy to reap the most healthful, calorie-full writing. So simple and true.

  10. I love the ‘choose your own adventure’ reference. Each day when i sit down after all my web wide searching and researching. I get to do a little Web Wide wandering, choose your won adventure is exactly how it feels.

    It’s like a debriefing from the wired

  11. I was lucky to be home schooled. It meant that I had a lot more responsibility for my education than I would have otherwise. It blurred the line between “school” and “life.” When I was 9 or 10, my dad asked me what I was reading and I responded “K”… as in the “K” volume of the World Book Encyclopedia. Cover-to-cover. For kicks.

    For family vacations, we bought a laptop with an encyclopedia, and every state or landmark we passed, we looked it up. Before laptops with CD-ROM drives, we actually took the physical books.

    I like to say that I know a little bit about everything, and a lot about some things. And I’m always trying to increase my knowledge in both categories. The iPhone is a big tool for that. Sarah mentioned something about blood types, so we read the Wikipedia entry on it in the car. And now I know why O negative is the universal donor.

    We live at the dawn of a new era. A wealth of information is available, worldwide, most of it free. The idea of being “in school” may be fading away, for all but the most specialized of educations. Why should knowledge acquisition be limited to a physical location, a time of day, or a period in your life?

    This is big part about why I’m excited to be having a kid… I get to raise someone with Wikipedia, the Internet and instant answers, as assumed references. I’m excited to get to impart a lot of knowledge, but more than that, I’m excited to share a thirst for knowledge and the skills to be a self-sufficient consumer of it.

    1. Quote”The idea of being “in school” may be fading away, for all but the most specialized of educations. Why should knowledge acquisition be limited to a physical location, a time of day, or a period in your life?”

      I’m going to disagree with you on this one…:)

      Read Chapter 1 in Napoleon Hill Law of Success

      The chapter is called “The mastermind”

      🙂 🙂

    2. @Mark,

      This struck a chord for me. As someone who was home-schooled until high school, I read about 3-5 books a week on my own. Once I hit the formalized ‘education’ system, I hardly read any books unless they were for school. 5 years out from college, I’m just starting to get back into it.

      It’s amazing–I probably only spent 2 hours a day learning things somewhat formally when I was home-schooled, but I still managed to pick up on the canon of knowledge that schools seem to need 8-10 hours a day to force on their students.

      The Wkikpedia point also made me smile–my wife bought the app for her smartphone and we looks stuff up in the car when the conversation demands –how else would I have learned the minute-by-minute breakdown of the events that caused the Three Mile Island disaster while traveling between Philly and Boston?

      Maybe that’s really the reason that books and other unique sources of wisdom and knowledge work so much more effectively than a formalized curriculum. The former are inextricably tied to real life and real experiences, whereas the latter are truly just ‘examples’ and hypotheticals.

  12. I know exactly how you feel. As Thomas Jefferson said about consuming books like food and they became a part of him. If you want some fun reading Amine try all the letters to shareholders from Buffett. Tons of little gems hidden in there. With Wikipedia it is amazing what gets hidden in the discussions, history, etc. but I doubt it is any different from the revisionist history in most encyclopedias.

    I suppose this is one of the reasons I blog; to craft a fabergé egg with every post. I love to see how far my skill has progressed. And yet my meager attempts pale in comparison to my intellectual mentors.

    Not sure what your interests are. One of my intellectual mentors is Dr. Edwin Vieira with four degrees from Harvard and practices before the US Supreme Court. He gave this great 16 minute speech which is a mix of history, economics and law.


    Since there are no links from his speech, if you want some to stumble my article on H.R. 4248 picks up on the tapestry Dr. Vieira has woven.


    [Note: Matt, feel free to edit out the links as they are not meant to be self-promoting. Based on some of your writings, like the article covering geographic discrimination, I think you will find the area Dr. Vieira covers fascinating.]

  13. As a Student myself, I have always had the feeling that this will be the case when I leave – I enjoy school way to much, but don’t take it seriously. As I walked to School everyday a few years back, there was a man collecting bins in a park I passed by through. We would always nod at each other and say ‘Good Morning’, and then one day he said to me “Why do you look so sad?”. I couldn’t reply, there was a lot to be sad about and I didn’t feel like sharing. He saw this and simply replied: “Cherish going to School, it will be the best time of your life”, and with that I felt I had been instantly let in on a secret only adults were meant to know. A strange story, but one that changed the way I think. Although I don’t work as hard as I should in Class, I’m not going to throw it away completely, I am going to seize the time I have been given and live it. Carpe Diem?

  14. I know exactly what you mean – I recently left my job for an accelerated software engineering graduate program, and over and over my mind’s reaction has been: “Wait…I just get to learn about all this stuff?!” It’s amazing how much you can absorb and process when it’s not wedged between work deadlines!

  15. Great post, solid words of wisdom. Been thinking a lot about the same notion. Wanted to recommend a great book for you — Stephen King’s book On Writing — (think that’s the title). I’m actually not a King fan, nor a big reader of his genre, but it is such a great book about writing and especially about READING, I loved it. So don’t miss it. He has a phenomenal Reading List at the back of the book, full of unexpected books for a horror writer, I just found it delicious. He is one very well-read (classic and popular fiction) guy. You might like it.

  16. “Part of that, for me, has been learning how much I don’t know”

    There is a Greek quote by Socrates (So-Crates for those of us young/old enough to remember Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure),

    ἓν οἶδα ὅτι οὐδὲν οἶδα hen oída hoti oudén oída

    Which translated (according to WIkipedia lol) “The only real wisdom is knowing you know nothing”

    So there is a real wisdom that you realized how much you don’t know.

  17. I have been told many times why did you leave school? I have several bachelors degrees and many technical certifications which I keep current.

    I tell them, I didn’t leave school, school left me.

    I have continued my own education and edification in many fields that I otherwise would never had that opportunity because of the limited nature and experience of the education system. At least here in the USA that is the case.

    I continue to read, discover, and be informed via updated to new and refined news and research from a variety of fields. I learn more now, than if I had spent 10 – 15 years in college.

  18. Doing is learning. If I knew how the discipline it takes to really learn outside of school, I definitely wouldn’t have minded the structure of academics nor slept through so many classes in college.

    I guess it’s true that youth is wasted on the young.

  19. Matt, I just read your post and I could not agree more. I completely wasted my time in school, including a bachelor’s engineering degree at a top university. I think this is mainly because I was never challenged and I was still trying to find what in life would be both a challenge and a passion at the same time.

    I think the forced curriculum is what really brings it down. If you hate english, it makes you hate your science classes and vice versa.

    Maturity might have played a small role in the situation as well.

  20. I still think that you raise a level of self-awareness tremendously and the ‘hunger for more’ at a certain point … tipping point.

    This point in time is influenced by your parents (do they read to you, explain things, do they go to cool museums, does your dad build rockets with you?), by your school (the quality, the teachers), by your peers, by your media exposure (self-thinking and exploring vs watching dull TV), what you do during the summer break, coming around a lot (travel), and certainly the income bracket in which you grow up. Higher income bracket = higher chance to activate the self-awareness of you in the environment as parents have a better understanding of better parenting or can do more with their kid(s). Malcom Gladwell explained that good, the studies.

    The switch flipped for me with ubiquity of internet and NO TV at all, being away from parents/moving out for fist job in another country … I was 21 back then.

    But Time wasn’t wasted when you enjoyed it. John Lennon said that.

  21. When it comes to buying a book for instance; if I find in it at least one interesting or special thing worthy for learning from, then likewise for me it was also worthy to buy the book and read it in full.

  22. The more we give, the more we get, my father told me. But looks like I give my 4 hours a day for Facebook and Twitter and I just not getting any. Looks like blogging and sketching abstract are far more better things to do. At least for me.

  23. Great piece, I like reading, but its all course work at the mo, writing a decent essay I like too. You’re sound – it can take a good chunk of time to write something substantial. Then its read through in minutes. Nothing beats a good book. It says around forever, well. I can remember a book I read ten yrs ago, the whole excitement of it. If you say the Kindle is good, I believe ya…
    Must go now, have two bleedn’n essays due. I didn’t like school the 1st time around and it’s not any better now. I really should stop doing courses and chill lol.

  24. I agree that books feed the soul. I’m visiting San Francisco this week and I’ve been at City Lights three times already. Jaron Lanier was there Tuesday evening discussing his book, You are not a Gadget. It’s a fascinating read.

    You don’t need a classroom to learn, just a curiosity about the world and how it works…

  25. I am in college now and hardly ever find the reading for my classes interesting, with the exception my the mas media class I currently have. But I love when I get to read on my own. I feel I learn much better from books I am not forced to read.

  26. This is an excellent article that I am going to show my 11 year old son. I am equally impressed with the nature of the comments; much more literate and complete than what is found on many blogs. I have reread the article twice now, so your hour was well worth the effort.


  27. It’s like when you’re still schooling you wanted to get out from your boring classroom and explore the world. And now that you’re already exploring and enjoying the world, you suddenly miss that boring classroom. I did went back to school a year ago because I miss schooling and took my second bachelor degree. But then, a year later, I realized that I enjoyed my life more outside the campus. I quit my BA in Psych last year. Hehehe.

  28. Matt,

    Ever been to a diner very late in the middle of nowhere? Nevada, Arizona, Montana…

    Ever take a walk for miles in a city you thought you knew well?

    Ever talk to an old man drinking coffee at 4 AM in a Waffle House in the South?

    Ever sit down and have a few cold ones and maybe a few cigarettes knowing nobody at a hotel bar and nobody knowing you to strike up a conversation that leads to an epiphany?

    Ever read a book called Nonzero, the logic of human destiny?

    Ever take a ride in wide open spaces in the sunset to stop the car and park off the edge of a massive cliff to see the new bridge being built over Hoover Dam?

    Ever been to the shady parts of a town to watch and learn economics that can change the world?

    Ever tried eating at El Taco Veloz on Buford Highway in Atlanta Ga to learn the beauty of simplicity and of humility?

    Ever been to the missile capital of the north and had your hair buzzed while talking to owner who just opened your mind to something so vast while pondering the future of nanotechnology?

    Each person, each place is a classroom. Books are indeed soul food but so is life my man…

  29. Reading this post, I can’t help but think of Seneca’s “lifelong student” that he talks about in “Letters From a Stoic”.

    You are still young, as am I (in fact I’m much younger than you), but at some point we will have to “dispense our thirst for books” and realize that we cannot learn everything. Instead, learn what you want to learn, and intertwine that into your career/life as you go along.

    I prioritize my education by reading books first, doing schoolwork second, and pursuing business ideas and web-related reading/hacking third. After I’m out of school, maybe business ideas will be first priority, but it’s too far off to tell now.

  30. “I could easily spend four hours a day surfing hundreds of posts in Google Reader, most of them that took a few minutes to create. It’s a sugar-rush of content that crashes after an hour or two and leaves me empty and hungry.”
    This really sums up my feelings lately. “Empty and Hungry.” Although the web is amazing… amazing… in so many ways… nothing beats a book!

  31. “…learning how much I don’t know.”

    I’ve found that it is true that the more you learn the less you know.

    You’ll never know it all. Consider yourself lucky if you know enough to know to keep learning.

  32. *grin* We homeschool our kids. School is never out. We are never out of school. Part of our day is physical labor. Part is education or research. Part is building new / construction. Part is relaxation. I’ll second that “Doing is Learning” quote. Life is learning. When you stop learning you start dying.

  33. … most of my pleasure from learning comes these days from books and highly interlinked websites. … like a choose-your-own-adventure of information, stumbling from link to link and always ending up someplace you didn’t expect.

    That is what I am trying to create in my school, classrooms that have “free” learning time where students can use computing tools for the pleasure of learning. I am just not sure how to change the standards movement to make this possible. Ideas? I read your article in the Houston Chronicle and one point you made intrigued me, so I looked you up to get more feedback. Now writing the technology application standards for Texas has been lost to your interlinked website. Do you think all students should be given the opportunity to learn to read source code as part of literacy education? Blogs like you run allow HTML programming, should all students learn this? If yes, how do we provide the computing resources to make the shift to 21st century learning that can allow students to explore and love school? How do we write standards to give students the opportunity to choose-your-own-adventure of information?

  34. Matt,

    Excellent article. It echoes some of what I have been feeling lately – I feel as though I squandered my college education as well. I believe I chose the wrong field, and now I have such a strong desire to learn more – something new, something different and go in that direction. The thirst for knowledge hasn’t gone away, and every day I come to the realization of how much I don’t know and how much I want to learn.

  35. Funny, a friend of mine just moved out of town to do his Master’s degree the other day and he brought up this very same point at his going-away party.

    I have to say I hadn’t thought about it much, but ever since he brought it up that’s all i can think about. Can’t say I’ve done any sort of quantitative study or anything, but I think it’s safe to say I might actually sleep less now then I did when I was still at University….

    kinda makes me wish I’d started on my To-Do list back then: I’d most likely be reaping the benefits of it now in Zzzz.

  36. I miss school too 🙁 Life has become overly complex… thank goodness we still have our books and our minds to find ourselves in.

  37. I love your writing Matt. I think this is the first time I am commenting…

    This post got something which has shaken my feelings. and I felt my school days. I miss those days. Classes, lost of fun. and after coming home, I used to read books.

    The novels, the travelogue, stories…. were the feed of my heart… I miss those days!

    Nice writing! 🙂

  38. Hi Matt,

    Your essay expresses my sentiments spot on. I’m hitting 30 soon. I’ve seen the web and “instant information” explode over the years and yet, it occurred to me that I’m actually missing the days at school.

    So, now, little over 5 years out of college, I find myself too going back to books and taking time off the web.

    While it’s great to have instant information at your fingertips, it’s much more fun to explore it for yourself. Having to take the extra effort to learn just makes it stick longer to you. That moment where information becomes knowledge, that’s what we’re after.

  39. This great quote sums up so much for me:
    “When I had it all I wanted to do was hack around on the web. Now that the vast majority of my hours are hacking around on the web, it‘s a huge luxury to just sit and read for a bit.”

    I really appreciate your writing. And you are right about that empty feeling with google reader and the good feeling with a book. I have found the audio books on audible have helped me a lot because I can exercise, or clean house, and still be reading. That service has enhanced my life so much it is not even funny.

    Kind of like the quote on the GE building in NYC Rockefeller Center: “Wisdom and Knowledge shall be the stability of thy times”

    except it should be more like

    “Widsom and Knowledge shall be the prosperity of thy life”

  40. When I was at school, I wasn’t really interested in it. But once I was out of it, I read (and keep reading) a lot of history. Sounds like a paradox, actually! School might be a good place for time-pass but a hopeless place to actually learn anything useful.

    Someone told me that on the Internet, the key is to avoid most of the run-of-the-mill-no-value-adding content. Because that takes up a lot of time! I think that is as important as identifying good content.

    BTW, I have uploaded my image in Gravatar. Let’s see if it comes along with this comment 😉

    Destination Infinity

  41. really missed that “like” button.. would you please put it for somebody who has nothing constructive to add in comment but want to express her appreciation, like me? 😀

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