Bootcamp Model of Learning

The “bootcamp” model of learning is on the rise–learning via a focused, intensive period of time dedicated to learning one thing.

I did a 10 day intensive meditation bootcamp. All meditation, all the time.

A friend recently completed a four day rationality bootcamp — where you learn and think about the meaning of rationality and how to become more rational yourself.

Another friend recently completed a 10 week Ruby on Rails bootcamp — where you intensively study the Ruby programming language and by the end are employable as a web developer.

Another friend recently completed the 10 week Singularity University at the NASA Ames campus — where you think deeply about how to change the world and network with the likeminded.

In all cases, you stop what you’re doing, travel to a place, surround yourself with teachers and students, and go deep on the topic. The upside to learning this way is obvious. It takes hours to get into creative flow. Deliberate practice — which is a structured way to learn something — requires sustained attention. In an always-on and distractible culture, the rare act of deep immersion can produce differentiated insights. At my meditation retreat, the deep, sustained focus mattered because it was only after 80 hours of continuous meditating where I was able to achieve some of the more profound insights. Had we done two hours a day over many weeks, I don’t think I would have ever reached the heights I did.

The downsides to the bootcamp approach are perhaps less obvious. One downside for me is what you might call “social marination.” I rely on my network to teach me things via ongoing conversation about an idea bouncing around in my head. I might read a book about something, blog about it, then talk to someone in my network, get emails from readers on the topic, then read another book, then perhaps listen to a speaker at a conference, etc. Over a multi-month period of time, consciously and unconsciously, I begin to crystalize lessons or insights. (Is another downside the idea of spaced repetition memorization?)

Formal schooling is the anti-bootcamp model. You study many different topics at once–it’s a constant balancing act. As David Brooks once noted, to be an excellent student you have to train yourself to not let yourself become too interested or immersed in any one thing. I should note that the liberal arts school Colorado College is an exception. There, you study one class per semester. It’s interesting more schools haven’t tried that model.

Finally, the bootcamp model of learning doesn’t have to be a formal class at a campus. Ryan Holiday suggests a bootcamp model to reading books. Interested in the civil war? Read 10 books on the topic in a row. Then pick a new topic. One topic at a time.

My questions in close: What are the skills that lend themselves particularly well to learning-via-bootcamp? Should a model for investing in yourself include attending bootcamps of this sort?

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