Slacker or Hacker?

I’ve always thought of myself as a non-conformist, even though I have a strong inkling that others view me very much as a conformist. Perhaps this is why I feel so at home in Switzerland – I’m a non-conformist committed to following the rules. I’m willing to put up with a fair number of constraints if the train comes on time, the mountain roads are meticulously maintained, and things just plain work.

Outside Embers in Summer 1988, before moving to
Regensburg, Germany, to start slacking … or hacking?

So I’ve read with interest over the years the stories of those who have succeeded because they bucked the trend. I like reading about people who quit school to build famous businesses, who were fiercely independent and are now successful because of it. Of course, I enjoy reading about them after coming home from my comfortable middle class job with a dental plan and a pension.

I realized one day that I didn’t have to just admire the folks I knew that were hacking their own education. (Besart, you know I’m thinking about you here, the Meister of moving from one opportunity to another by working your network.) I don’t need to admire from afar and lament that I don’t have the same spirit. I actually have hacked some of my education, back in the day. I just hadn’t thought of it like that.

After a short stint as a short order cook following graduation (Remember the Embers?), I moved to Germany, enrolled in the university in order to get a work permit, and did enough odd jobs to support two hobbies: writing poetry and traveling. The experience created a second rate but well traveled poet who fell in love with a third hobby, languages.

I sort of thought I was just being a slacker for those four years between undergraduate and graduate school, but I think I can reasonably reframe that time as hacking my own education. I was, after all, a student at the university (who didn’t attend the classes in my declared major, but I did join the theater troupe, learn some Swedish, read for hours in the library, and write for many more in the computer lab). I learned German through those activities and odd jobs, and with my collection of Donald Duck comic books from every country I visited, I learned to marvel at how languages work.

The hacker mentality that I learned during those years has stayed with me. It has been second nature to me for a long time to supplement any on the job training with additional opportunities, whether related to the job or not. I almost always jump at the chance to join a professional development opportunity, even when the connection to my responsibilities is a bit tenuous. I’ve regularly taken extra computer classes, went with the yearbook crew on a weekend retreat, attended conference sessions on a whim, signed up for MOOCS ranging from chicken care (University of Edinburgh) to studying complexity (Santa Fe Institute). A professor of mine once said “You read the strangest things,” which I took as a compliment. I think I’ve also been rather adept at constantly redefining my role in my current position so that work stays both relevant and interesting.

Those hacker years, even though I was worried at the time that they were slacker years, contributed greatly to my personal drive for lifelong learning. I’m not only curious, something I may have been lucky to have been born with and to grow up with in my family, I’m also willing to find a way to learn more, in my free time or combined with my job, and to make connections between seemingly unrelated pursuits.

Now I find myself quite committed to helping students learn to self-regulate, to make their education their own, to learn when it is worthwhile to follow a pursuit that others may not be so readily supporting. In short, I’m all about helping students learn to hack their education more and follow the prescribed route less. But in a measured, polite, Swiss way.

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