Sean Cheng

Learning After College

March 21, 2021

Education Outside of School

Last week, I expressed frustration to a friend about college academics and how I finally understood why some students choose to drop out of school. My gap year sparked this epiphany when I experienced a complete decoupling of my learning from external pressures.

I’m a pragmatic person. I want to learn about topics addressing questions impacting my daily life. This becomes easier when I am in control of what I read, not the course syllabus. If I have a subject I am curious about, I search up what readings are highly rated in the particular field and read them. If it turns out the material I start reading isn’t relevant, I throw it aside.

Swarthmore is notorious for its immense reading workload. On more than one occasion, I’ve skimmed articles for their main points without diving deeper into the nuances and examples presented. I still did well in school, but it came at the expense of true learning.

While on leave, I’ve had the luxury of slowly absorbing what I consume. I re-read passages multiple times and even conduct outside research on books for context. I’ll watch YouTube videos of the authors discussing their ideas and pick up on the small details they only bring up in interviews. All of this has made for a greatly enhanced learning experience.

The lack of grades and tests has also resulted in more mental clarity and academic exploration. Only when you’re out of school do you realize the amount of mental real estate the stress of exams takes up. I’ve experienced a noticeable relief from the persistent low-level anxiety plaguing many students.

I’ve also learned skills like data analytics and web-development, interests I never would’ve explored had I been evaluated for a grade. To its credit, Swarthmore does acknowledge how grades can stunt intellectual curiosity. The school gifts freshmen a first-semester of pass-fail to fully pursue their interests.

I brought up all these points to my friend but he still felt like college provided the structured learning environment he needed. College forced him to constantly read and the professors there served as guides to the most important and foundational literature in each field.

These counterpoints all made sense. Despite the recent advancements in education technology and the rise of platforms like Udemy, Coursera, and edX, college, it appears, still has three advantages when it comes to learning: Accountability, Direction, and Community.

Tests and grades hold you accountable for understanding the material. Professors identify the foundational texts and concepts of the field for you and answer any questions you may have. Meanwhile, a community of peers in your classes forces you to wrestle with and articulate your ideas to others, aiding in understanding. There’s also something undoubtedly special about learning together with other individuals.

I don’t plan on revolutionizing college education when I return. But after graduation, I’m going to chart a better path forward for my learning, incorporating the freedom I experienced during my gap year along with the community and accountability of school. Here are a few ideas on how I plan to do this.

Create My Own Dorm

Recreating community could be achieved by renting an entire house after graduation and seeking out roommates to live with me. The process of roommate selection would be primarily focused on identifying their career, intellectual, and spiritual goals, then analyzing if we might be a good personality match for each other.

I would bias towards individuals with a track record of taking initiative for their learning and projects, as well as people with wide-ranging intellectual curiosity.

Here’s a list of other traits I would look for:

  • Discipline —> They’ve established systems allowing them to consistently be productive even when they don’t feel like it. This is important because a community without disciplined people means no accountability.
  • Self-Denying —> A willingness to “die to self” and serve others. Communities don’t work if everyone is solely looking out for themselves.
  • Persistent —> Won’t take no for an answer. They have the grit to see things through. I’m looking for persistence because people who put in the work to find solutions tend to be good collaboration partners.
  • Low-tolerance for BS —> They see through the niceties of human interaction and cut through it to figure out what’s important. Part of the environment I want to cultivate is one of honest feedback and improvement. If each member of our dorm trusts each other and believes we all have each others’ best interests at heart, there’s no reason to not be fully honest.

This isn’t an original idea. During COVID, numerous creative houses have popped up like Edify, School 2.0, and LaunchHouse. They gather students, entrepreneurs, scientists, and more together to create a collaborative working environment. Group cooking, hiking, and reading activities are common. In my community, I would do the same to encourage communal activities, whether it be group exercise, game nights, or day trips.

Hire A Tutor

Self-learning can be challenging when you’re tackling a difficult subject. In college, you have professors and TAs to guide you but once you’re out of school, you need to find an alternative.

An ideal scenario would be if my roommates and I could pool our money together to hire a Ph.D. student or local professor willing to tutor us for 1-2 hours each week on a topic of our choice.

We could discuss topics like philosophy, psychology, and economics while following along with a course plan devised by the instructor. Our learnings also wouldn’t be restricted to the academic world. I would find it interesting to cold contact local professional chefs or writers to see if they might instruct us in their respective disciplines.

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Schedule Monthly Coffee Chats

It’s common to get stuck within the same social circles post-college. No longer do you regularly meet new people and it’s easy to let your social interactions cycle between old friends, co-workers, and family.

This can create intellectual stagnation because you gain less exposure to novel ideas and personalities. My proposed strategy for combatting this involves intentionally taking the time to schedule a call or coffee chat with a new person each month. I could start by asking friends to introduce me to people they know or by sending cold messages to interesting people I find through social media.

Ideally, these people have posted their writing online so I can learn more about their values and the way they think before meeting them. After getting the usual pleasantries out of the way, I would probably want to focus the conversation on ideas, values, life advice, and their long-term hobbies.

From my experience, you can get quite deep on the first meeting if you connect well with the other person. Other times, it’ll take several points of contact before the other person feels comfortable to share more. Regardless, consistent networking will supplement my self-education, and make me aware of ideas I’ve never thought about before. I’ve gotten terrific book recommendations, career advice, and perspectives on life philosophy in my past calls.

One example comes from a call I scheduled with a FAANG Product Manager. I reached out to her because I came across a book review she wrote online about the drawbacks of elite educations. Her writing resonated with me and we had a wonderful discussion on the meaning of the liberal arts. We also covered frameworks on managing risk. I found her insight on brainstorming worst-case scenarios before making decisions particularly insightful. Her advice was, “If you can escape or mitigate a high payoff decision’s worst-case scenario, it’s worth moving forward even if it’s high risk.”

These are the types of conversations I want to have more often moving forward. They’re meaningful, cover interesting topics, and give me a window into how someone else perceives the world.

Join Cohort Based Courses

There’s a revolution in online learning happening with programs like Write of Passage and OnDeck. Rather than the impersonal learning of MOOCs or the unscalable model of one on one tutoring, cohort-based courses blend the best of both worlds.

They create more personalized learning environments through live online lectures where you can ask questions and build community by splitting students into small groups to discuss amongst themselves. It’s still the early days for programs like these but I hope to take part in one in the future.


Enriching learning experiences don’t need to end after college. Those who preserve their intellectual curiosity quickly outpace individuals who stagnate and stop learning in all facets of life. Strive to continue learning and you’ll see how it accelerates your growth both personally and professionally.

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