PAM: Welcome. I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca. And today I’m here with Nick Bergson-Shilcock. Hi Nick!
In a nutshell, Nick grew up unschooling and now runs the Recurse Center in New York. I suspect there are a whole bunch of stories in between those two points and I’m thrilled he agreed to come on the podcast to share a few of them!
To get us started, can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
NICK: Absolutely. So, I am a lifelong unschooler. I’m also the youngest of four. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia with three older sisters. All four of us were unschooled our whole lives. In fact, two to my sisters now have, between them, six kids. I have six nieces and nephews who are all now unschooled. My parents came to unschooling pretty early on the mid to late 1970s and actually around that time also started a resource centre for home schoolers and unschoolers and their families. It continues to this day and is called Open Connections. So, that was a major part of my life. My parents did a pretty good job of really, from the earliest ages, supporting my sisters and me in our interests and getting to learn how to director our own education and explore what we really enjoyed doing in life.
PAM: That’s awesome. It’d be great to hear a little bit about what you enjoy doing.
What were some of your bigger interests growing up and how did you pursue them at the time?
NICK: So for a long early period of my life, I really just enjoyed playing outside. I built a log cabin and played in the woods with my friends and I always really enjoyed building things. Then around the age of about 10, I discover that I could also build things on computers. Initially, I was really interested in video games.
And so, the first things that I wanted to do were learning how to program and build my own computer games. That started really just playing around with an old Apple IIe that I got at a garage sale for twenty dollars or something. I started to just explore that system on my own. And then, before too long, I realized that I actually enjoyed the programming even more than just the video games. And so, my interest shifted towards programming and also a lot of digital electronics. That was an interest that stuck with me throughout my whole pre-teen years and teen years all the way up through college and now continues with my work at the Recurse Center.
PAM: You know I love hearing all sorts of stories of people who are interested in video games. What I love is the different ways they take it. So, for you, you discovered your interest in programming through the window of video games. I’ve heard other people discover an interest in travel because they wanted to travel to all these lands far away and they travelled from North America to Europe as part of that ethos that they really enjoyed in video games. My son, through video games, discovered a love of the story. So, he’s actually gone into story development and writing and that kind of stuff. And then there’s the art, there’s the music, there’s actually programming video games themselves. But that’s not just the only thing you can do through an interest in video games is it?
NICK: No, absolutely. I think it’s a good example where a genuine interest or something that you really care about and want to learn more about can really lead you almost anywhere.
PAM: I love that. It’s like a window to the whole world that just happens to be the lens through which you’re interested. The lens through which you’re seeing things at the time but it doesn’t close you down. People are so worried about an interest in video games, worried about their kids closing down but that really can be a window to exploring so much of the world. I love that.
I would also love to hear the origin story behind the Recurse Center. Why did you want to start a company that helps people learn more about programing?
NICK: Sure, to start I’ll give a quick overview of what RC looks like and is today. And then I’ll step back and kind of walk through how we got here. So RC is a self-directed, community driven retreat for programmers. So that means people come from all over the US and also all over the world to spend either 1, 6, or 12 weeks in what is both a highly self-directed but also highly collaborative environment. It is focused on open source software and becoming dramatically better programmers. People come from a really wide range of backgrounds and skill levels. So, we have people here who range from self-taught programmers who have only been programming for six or eight months to professional programmers who have been working for three decades and everywhere in between. But everyone is united by the fact that they’re all smart, friendly and intellectually curious people who are self-directed and who enjoy programming. They want to take kind of a personal professional sabbatical to get dramatically better regardless of how advanced they already are.
And so that’s kind of the first half of RC as it’s this in person or programming retreat based here in New York City. And then after people attend their retreat, our motto is “Never graduate.”
And that’s because we think learning is a lifelong process. And so, people typically remain heavily involved in our community long after their one or six or twelve weeks here at the retreat. In fact, the majority of everyone who’s ever come to RC, over the last now almost eight years, remains active and involved in the community on at least on a monthly basis. And so, people remain active and involved both online and in person in our community.
And what’s tied into that is how we actually have this be sustainable which is RC is free for everyone to participate in. So, we don’t charge any tuition or fees or anything else. Instead we’re funded exclusively through recruiting. So, if anyone in our community ever wants a new programming job either right after attending the retreat or two, three, five years down the line, we work closely with them to understand their background, their skills, their interests, what they want, and the next step of their career. Then we try to match them with a good recruiting partner.
So, we work with a set of tech companies who basically pay RC to hire our alumni. And that’s what funds all of our operations at the retreat. And it also allows us to provide need based living expense grants to people from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in programming. So, in addition to providing the program for free for everyone, we also offer grants up to seven thousand dollars to people to pay for everything from living expenses, like child care or food or transportation or lodging during their time here in New York. RC is free to attend but living in New York is obviously very expensive.
So, that’s a high-level overview of what RC looks like today. What’s interesting is that when we started in 2010, we set out to build a very different type of company. Our initial idea was to build “OK Cupid” for jobs. We were actually trying to build a recruiting software business to do algorithmic matching of people with programming jobs. And we spent about a year on that and related ideas trying to build software to help companies hire really great programmers. And again and again we ran into the problem that really the challenge was not as much the matching as it was with, it’s just really hard to find great programmers in the world.
And at the same time my co-founders and I had been discussing how we’d like to start a new type of programming education and community that we’d wish that we’d had for ourselves. And then it dawned on us, this was about a year into the company, that we could combine these things and we didn’t have to wait to do the latter. And so, we ran an experiment where we invited just a half a dozen people basically to sit in a room that we got donated by NYU and we all worked in open source software together. We collaborated. Everyone explored what they were interested in and at the end of that summer everyone felt like they had really grown a lot and gotten a lot out of the experience. We realized that it was of the first thing that we had built that people really loved. And so even though it wasn’t a piece of software, we decided it was the thing that we should focus on building. And then for the last eight years we’ve just continued expanding that, building RC from that initial half a dozen people sitting in a room to our current space here in Brooklyn which spans across two floors and we have now about fourteen hundred alums from more than 80 countries around the world.
PAM: Wow. I love this story of how you came to it. You guys started with what you thought would be helpful and discovered what the real underlying issue or challenge was. So, you dug deeper into those roots and started playing to find a way to addressing that and found that people were really receptive to that. So, that’s really cool.
I really love the description of what you guys are doing and how you set it up. It sounds really inviting and what a great way for people to connect who are interested in learning and interested in programming.
I love how RC is steeped in unschooling and self-directed learning. When I was checking out your website, I laughed when you had a John Holt quote on your about page. I thought that was awesome. So, just to share the quote with people: “Learning is not the product of teaching, learning is a product of the activity of learners.”
So, what inspired you to choose that self-directed environment? Because when you realize the issue is really finding really good programmers, most people out there would be expecting a teaching environment. I was interested in how you were inspired to or decided to go in this direction?
NICK: I think fundamentally it comes back to wanting to build the thing that we wanted for ourselves and so that just makes it, well—it would almost be unconscionable for me to imagine building a different type of environment. I consider myself a lifelong unschooler. I don’t feel like something changed when I turned 18 and the ideas that make self-directed education better, I don’t think that this would stop being true at any given point in life.
I think it’s interesting. There are, I think, a lot of the core beliefs of the traditional school system, when you when you look at them really directly, they don’t make any sense. The idea that there’s a set of things that everyone should know or that there is a date by which people ought to learn them or that there are specific times either of the day or the year or in your life that you must learn a specific topic or that somebody can measure the contents of somebody else’s to three decimal points in an GPA. They’re all kind of absurd ideas and yet almost universally subscribe to. And I think they’re just as absurd in the rest of our lives as they are in our youth. And in fact, I think it’s another kind of absurd idea from the public school system or just the school system in general to even split those things up to suggest that there needs to be some hard line between childhood and the rest of life as though childhood is not part of life.
NICK:And so those things remain just as true for fully grown adults who continue to need to learn and evolve and develop themselves. If you want to be a successful person in the business world, there’s not some limited, specific set of things everyone must know. In fact, if you want to do something novel or new or important ,almost certainly you’ll need to know or figure out some things that perhaps few or nobody else knows. That’s really the important thing.
And so, in setting up the basic premise and structure of RC, it just felt very natural that, of course, people ought to be in charge of their own education. I think that’s actually one of the most important things that people get from their time at RC is having experience in a genuinely self-directed environment.
We’ve had a handful of folks come to RC who had been unschooled for some or all of their lives. Most people who come to RC are coming from working. Working day jobs that aren’t fully self-directed and almost always they have somewhere between 12 and 20 years of not very self-directed schooling. Be it their primary or undergraduate or graduate degrees.
So, for almost everyone that comes to RC, this is a real struggle. RC is for many people the first time in their lives when they really are in control of deciding what they’re going to learn, how they’re going to learn it, why they want to learn it, why it’s important to them, and how they’re going to assess their own progress. All without somebody else telling them, “Oh, this is the thing that’s important.” or “Oh, you’re failing.” or “Oh, you’re succeeding.” They have to figure that out for themselves.
I think for a lot of people that’s a big challenge. But working through that struggle and actually there is a term that a former colleague, Michael Nielsen, coined of developing your volitional muscles. The idea that the struggle, the floundering, the trying to figure out your path, is actually a valuable activity because you’re developing your volitional muscles. You’re developing that capacity. And so obviously, you don’t want to leave people to just flounder endlessly but also some of that is super important and valuable. People can work through that and figure out how to actually direct themselves.
PAM: And that’s really fascinating to me because when you think about how adults learn, when we’re following our interests as adults—this is how we learn. We dive in. We try things out. It’s almost, it’s unschooling per say. Because that’s how humans learn best. And so that path for someone who’s grown up unschooling just continues. There’s no change all of a sudden once you turn 18. This is lifelong learning. This is the way humans learn.
But to so many of the people who come to the retreat they will have grown up in in the school system. And then maybe they have gone on to a work environment that uses that same ethos. Where you have the job description and you do it. You know, you do that programming and then you go home. Where you can then pursue your interests.
I would be really interested to hear how you guys give them that space for the floundering but also help them get used to and participate in and get something of value out of this new kind of environment for them.
NICK: Yeah. So, I think that process starts even before people get to RC. It starts in our admissions process and in what we write publicly to attract people to apply to our retreat. We want people coming here because they are making an explicit choice to be here. So, for instance we don’t grant degrees or certificates because we don’t want people coming here to put something impressive on their resumé or because of some sort of proxy like that.
We want them coming here because they genuinely want to be here and grow as programmers. Similarly, through our admissions process we look for signs that people can operate in self-directed environments and that they have specific ways in which they want to learn, things that they want to explore or improve about their programming interests or abilities. And that people have gotten up to a point in their programming where RC can be a really valuable asset to them.
Then once people are here, right at the start, the priority for the first day and for some of the first week at RC is in welcoming people to RC and helping them get acclimated to the physical and kind of intellectual and social environment here. Getting to know people, feel secure in their position and in the community so that people can be more confident in that struggle of figuring out what they’re trying to do and why they’re trying to do it. RC is also, I said at the start, both self-directed and community driven.
For the community driven aspect, what that means is that RC is fundamentally peer to peer in that everyone coming to RC comes from a really diverse range of backgrounds. I mentioned a huge range of skill levels, many different countries. There’s a lot of gender diversity, some racial diversity, a lot of diversity in viewpoints and interests and perspectives and in people’s past work experiences.
What that leads to is that everyone has both different things that they’re trying to get out of the experience and also different things that they can bring to the experience. It also means that one of the biggest assets that the people get from joining RC both at the retreat and by being part of the community for years afterwards, is the network. Because you have people who are on the one hand all very different from each other in a whole diversity of ways, and on the other hand, have the shared experience and some shared struggles and that everyone is struggling in different ways with that challenge of directing themselves.
Everyone is interested in their own unique situation based on their own unique circumstances. How to become better programmers and their own personal growth. And so I think those two things play well together which is, people have a lot that they can get in terms of support and expertise and knowledge and insight from their fellow recursers. And being in a place where the norm is people who are struggling with the challenges of self-direction and working through that floundering together. I think that helps people a lot.
Additionally, I think a lot of what we try to do to help you with this is in setting up a positive and supportive and productive educational and social environment. So, part of how we do that is we have four lightweight social rules. So, one of those is no feigning surprise which is that you shouldn’t act surprised when somebody says that they don’t understand or they don’t know something.
And this is something that I think is common in a lot of parts of the world but especially true in a lot of technical and programming communities. Somebody will say, “Oh, who’s John Holt.” and will here “OH MY GOSH, I can’t believe you don’t even know John Holt!” right? “He coined the term unschooling. How can you not know who John Holt is?” Feigning surprise has no education or social benefit.
It’s mostly one person trying to make themselves feel better
by putting somebody else down. The results of that is that the person who asked
the question is probably going to be less likely to acknowledge they don’t know
something in the future or to admit their ignorance. Or to ask a question. And
same thing. Who else saw that interaction? How does it impact them?
And so we think acknowledging that you don’t understand something, you don’t know something, or you’re not sure about something is a positive, not a negative thing, particularly in an educational environment. Not because it’s good not to know things but because the first step to learning something is acknowledging to yourself and to others that you don’t yet understand it or you don’t yet know it. Other than just kind of muddling along and acting as though you do understand it. And so, there are social rules and the kind of general social setup that we have. I think we build an environment that makes it easier, not easy, but easier for people to work through those challenges of directing themselves.
PAM: It sounds like you guys have thought a lot about creating that community. Over the years I imagine you’ve found the things that you notice are interfering. I mean, who would think of that, not feigning, don’t feign surprise as a rule? But what an easy way to say something that can really trip somebody up when you’re on the end of that. That’s why when we talk about unschooling, we talk so much about creating that environment at home with you with your kids. Where you want them to feel comfortable asking questions, any questions being. And to be Ok with not knowing something. This is not related to age, related curriculum or anything like that but just to be curious about something and it’s OK to not know it. Whatever your age, it’s ok to ask questions and engage and learn about it. So yeah, I can see how that little thing would make such a big difference in helping people start to engage and learn the way you’re hoping to help them.
NICK: Also, I don’t think you can overemphasize how much you get almost just for free by actually just giving people the space and the time to follow their own curiosity. Now, I don’t think you get everything, but just people getting to come to RC and having time in their lives set aside where they can say, “OK, well what am I interested in?”
That can be uncomfortable at first. One of the things that we’ve heard, a piece of feedback we’ve heard from a number of people, is that on the very first day we run RC sessions that we call batches, so on the first day of a batch we have some welcome talks. We have some meet and greets and a breakfast for everyone. After everyone comes back from lunch, it’s basically like every other day of RC which is they get to decide what they’re going to do with their time. And so, people have told us that the moment when they come back from lunch and they sit down and they open up their laptop and start thinking, there’s a moment there where they realize, “Oh my gosh, now I have to decide what to do. I have to decide what to do for the rest of the afternoon and the rest of my batch.”.
That moment is uncomfortable but ultimately super important. I think then once people have that, like going back to the video game example—you can start with almost any thread of any interest and pull on that and that can unravel into any number of other things.
In fact, usually the more common problem that people have at RC is that there is that kind of fractal expansion. You can start following something and you get interested and you realize that there are four more things about that you find interesting and those things lead to four more things each. And at the same time, you’re surrounded by 50 or 60 other people doing that same process. And the real challenge then is there are so many things to be interested in. There are so many things to explore. How do you stay focused enough to really go in-depth on things? How do you choose among that kind of countless possibilities of things you can do? And so, much to the opposite of the kind of traditional approach in schooling. I think one of the most damning and terrible things that I think a lot of people take from school—somebody told me this after I share that I was unschooled—is people really take the lesson from school or believe they can’t really learn anything unless somebody makes them. And people internalize that idea that somehow that was what makes them do things.
And I just don’t actually think that’s true for almost everyone or possibly everyone and certainly if you’re in an environment that supports you in exploring interests. I just think that’s not true for people.
PAM: I know, that’s spectacular! It’s so true. I know it comes up quite often on the podcast when we’re talking about unschooling, it was something that surprised me. My kids came home in the early grades and just how much space and time to get to know yourself and let things bubble up so that you knew what you were interested in. Like you’re talking about, when they show up and it’s like, “OK what. Now nobody’s telling me what to do. It’s like, what do I want to do?” And it’s amazing how much space and time that can take. Not in a negative way but like you said the thread leads here and there, that fractal expansion and just all of a sudden, given permission to do this one little thing on your own time and the world opens up!
It’s like, “Oh, I could go here and here and here!” And that process of seeing all the possibilities and then deciding on that next step. That takes time and it takes starting to learn about yourself. Not only what you’re interested in but how you work, how you like to learn things, how you like to pursue things. it’s just sounds like such an amazing twelve weeks of self-discovery really. Alongside the actual programming learning.
I found that so much with unschooling. That’s a big piece because once you are starting to unschool your kids you realize it’s not really about the learning. At first, certainly when you’re bringing your kids home from school, as you’re first learning about it it’s like, “OK I’m replacing school. We’re going to learn but we’re going to learn differently. Not like that.” But all of a sudden it becomes so much more than that. And that self-discovery and understanding yourself and figuring out ways to choose. And the whole figuring out is this something I’m interested ine enough to dedicate my time to and the discipline for following it.
I mean that is all learning about yourself and figuring out how you want to engage with things isn’t it?
NICK: I think you know it seems like it takes a lot of time when you think about it in that kind of narrow scope of figuring out what to do. But when you step back and think about what that really means—figuring out the purpose of your life. It’s not a lot of time and it’s just kind of bonkers that the standard approach as well. Wait a couple of decades and then start working on that problem.
PAM: So you mentioned your first batch of participants and it was back it was 2011, when you had your first batch right?
PAM: Yep. And then you moved into your bigger space there last fall. So, you’ve shared a couple of things that participants say about their time there. I just wanted to touch base a little bit more and see if you had some other experiences that you’d like to share and the feedback that you get. Obviously, you said they stay engaged with the community after they leave.
I’d be interested to hear a little bit more about how your participants are seeing it.
NICK: Yeah. So, I think one of the most gratifying things to me personally is hearing the feedback from people who have come to RC and we hear a lot of really great superlatives of people saying this was the most educational period of my life or this was one of the most meaningful or valuable three months of my life or simply this was the best three months of my life. We’ve had a lot of people tell us that. And they thought they grew a lot as programmers but also back to your point that there are just a lot of things that people take away from it in terms of how they think about themselves, how they treat other people, how they think about their learning and their own growth.
And really, I think that ties into the other part of your question of people remaining involved in the community. But I think the people who really internalize and benefit from that experience at RC of internalizing a lot of our educational ideas and pedagogy, that approach to lifelong learning and continuous growth folds back into remaining involved in the community and in our motto of “Never graduate.”
Because you know, 3 months is on the one hand a long time, it’s quite a privilege to get to take a three month kind of pause just to focus on your own personal growth and programming but it’s also a relatively short period of time. So, it’s really gratifying and great to see people remain involved in our community.
What that looks like is a number of different ways people do that. We have an internal private chat system which gets at this point I think 30 to 40 thousand messages a month among people in our community. And that’s everything from people supporting each other through challenges of the workplace or advancing in their careers, to people answering programming questions, viewing each other’s code, to just organizing social events. You know there’s obviously a major hub of alums in New York but also in a lot of other major metro areas around the world. The biggest ones with clusters of recursers now are San Francisco and Boston and Seattle and Toronto and Montreal and Berlin and London all have good numbers of recursers who meet up and work on their programs together or just go out for food and drinks and hang out. You can continue being active and involved the community that way.
PAM: I love that. It’s amazing to see. It’s like you bring them in and you plant a little seed with them right. And now you’re seeing that grow all across the world as you’re starting to see different centers and then taking that on and taking that out into the world. That’s awesome. Congratulations.
NICK: And it’s interesting you use the metaphor of a seed because we actually think about RC as more like a biological system or an ecosystem. In contrast to thinking of schools as more like a machine or a factory where the aim is to produce an educated person and where the focus there is on kind of uniformity and consistency. RC is instead kind of the opposite in that we really rely on diversity. If everyone who came to RC were clones of each other in exactly the same, it wouldn’t be a very rich or valuable or fruitful place.
The value of RC comes, as I was saying, from it being peer to peer but everyone coming in with different perspectives different learning goals and different ways that they want to grow as programmers. And so, it actually becomes stronger and more diverse in the same way as a biological or ecosystem becomes stronger as it becomes more diverse. And so, we like to think of RC as maintaining and growing, more of an ecosystem than a factory that is trying to rigidly produce some specific outcome.
PAM: I love that. Yeah that’s such a great way to explore the difference between them because those are images that we can pick up really easily. And I must say I do love your “Never graduate” motto. And that’s it in two words, boom! You know that really implies what you’re trying to achieve with that. It’s lifelong learning right there in a nutshell, it’s just you never graduate. It’s like you were talking about how people come with such different backgrounds, maybe many years of programming experience and somebody with a few months of programming experience, it helps remind us that we’re all learning. We’re all continuously learning.
PAM: We’re all peers versus somebody who’s higher up. It gets rid of that hierarchy.
NICK: Yeah, the way we think about it is that you know everyone is very advanced and well-developed in some areas and still a beginner in other areas. And so we frequently see that people form collaborations where maybe somebody is only six or eight months into learning to program but is a very accomplished musician and they’re working closely with somebody else who’s been programming for 20 years and they’re collaborating on a project to build electronic musical instrument or something like that. They can both bring a lot to that and also both benefit a lot from each other.
PAM: That’s a great example.
So looking back now, I was just curious what you found or what you appreciate most about having grown up unschooling and what you brought forward into your life with you?
Yeah. The concrete answer is what we discussed earlier about having the time and space to develop your interest and follow your natural curiosity. But I think there’s actually a kind of underlying assumption that comes before that which is really important.
The idea of respecting young people and I think that is really the underlying assumption or first important thing about unschooling that leads to so much of the rest of it. Which is if you start with the belief that young people are people too and humans are deserving of respect then it makes sense of course to provide them space to explore what they’re interested in, to not coerce or force them into doing things that they don’t want to do.
And I think both of those things are things that my parents did very well. They definitely had the respect of young people, first and foremost in their mind and as a result gave my sisters and me a lot of room and flexibility to explore what we’re interested in. That then led to my getting to develop my interests in programming and computers which of course has now led to the last decade of my life’s work and hopefully the next decade.
PAM: So you’re enjoying it.
NICK: I am. Yes, my goal is to continue running RC for as long as I possibly can.
PAM: I wish you all the best with that because it sounds like a wonderful place and just the epitome of what you said. Lifelong learners, lifelong learning and it feels like you brought your whole life with you and plopped it here and just invited other people to come and join. That’s awesome.
So, I would very much like to thank you for taking the time to speak to me today. I really appreciate it. It was so interesting to learn more about RC. I didn’t know much until I found your website and was reading through it. I was like, ‘Wow, what an amazing way to be out in the world and helping people learn.” What a fun way to be able to take a sabbatical, a break and just engage with other people around a shared interest. I mean that is where we find so much enjoyment, so much learning. It’s where the learning happens. As a by-product of just this engagement and focus on your interest. It doesn’t really feel like learning it feels like I’m doing and I’m just playing with what I enjoy.
So, I think it’s awesome what you’ve set up there and how you’ve managed to maintain it as free for the participants and you found funding through the recruiting. You brought all those threads together and have made a wonderful RC. So, thanks very much for sharing that with us. And before we go.
Where’s the best place for people to connect with you online and to find out about RC?
NICK: So the best place to check out RC is at our website. You can learn all about what we do there and if any of your viewers are programmers and whether they’ve been programming for 4 or 6 months they’re self-taught or they have PhDs in computer science and have been programming professionally for many years. If they’re looking for an opportunity to kind of take a break, explore the areas of programming they really interested in and want to learn more about. I encourage them to check out RC and consider applying. We have, as I mentioned, earlier need-based grants for women and people from other groups traditionally underrepresented in programming to help make RC more accessible.
PAM: That’s awesome.
NICK: Thank you so much for your time today. It’s really been my pleasure. I appreciate all of your thoughtful questions.
PAM: Oh, thank you so much. And I really enjoyed our conversation. Have a wonderful day Nick.
NICK: Thank you. You too. Take care.