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?

10 comments on “Bootcamp Model of Learning
  • I am a big fan of boot-camp style learning. It’s often how I am naturally inclined to learn as well (the way my natural learning & energy cycles go).

    That being said, I want to pipe up with another downside: the non-reality effect.

    Often boot-camp like experiences can be so far outside of the realm of our reality that it can be hard to keep a firm grasp on it. For example, if you are surrounded by people who LOVE Ruby for 10-days, it will be much harder to stop and ask yourself what challenges there might be with Ruby as a programming language or if the method that you are learning is best for you.

    Bootcamps tend to be a take it the way you are given it kind of culture and can propel some people to make decisions or take actions that might not normally align with their personality.

    That being said, I still love it!

  • Best bootcamp activities will be iterative, subjective, and progressive.

    Iterative activities allow for rapid prototyping so you have more opportunities for feedback. (Architecture bootcamp might work, Skyscraper construction bootcamp won’t work.)

    Subjective activities do better in a bootcamp because it can be difficult to get subjective feedback outside of a group like this. (Creative writing bootcamp is great, Basic Math bootcamp is less interesting because it can be done online.)

    Progressive activities are those where you can make progress in a clear line. Fitness bootcamps are great because you can see and feel your progress, creating an internal feedback loop. A philosophy bootcamp might be fun but would probably be less enjoyable because you’ll miss the legible path of progress.

    So maybe to put it more simply: bootcamps are great when the topic allows for rapid feedback, expert feedback, and internal feedback

  • Several years ago I decided to write a screenplay. Knowing nothing, I read everything I could find. Produced scripts, spec scripts, blogs, and “how-to” books by industry proclaimed gurus.

    I was in absorption mode.

    My goal was to become immersed in the craft of story; to learn from the greats, the not-so greats, and those in between.

    While this deep-dive study occasionally became a procrastination crutch, there was undeniable benefit. Specifically, by learning from a variety of sources, I gained a well-rounded education. It was certainly a more comprehensive approach than if I had enrolled in a single course, or read a single book, and the result was that it allowed me to cherry-pick those methods which I truly grasped and was most comfortable putting to use.

  • The fact that the military uses this approach gives it enormous credibility because people’s lives are on the line. No doubt bootcamps are effective but we have to make sure that genuine questioning and free thinking is included in (non-military) training so it doesn’t turn into indoctrination. If you’re doing a “self-directed” bootcamp though this probably isn’t a big issue.

    For me, law school was probably the closest thing I’ve done to a bootcamp – especially the first year. It’s amazing how effectively people can be brainwashed to start thinking and talking the same ;).

  • It might be interesting for you to further flesh out more what qualities you associate with a bootcamp learning experience. I’m not it’s meaning has been universally defined enough for us to all be talking about the same thing when we use it.

    And as with many concepts, it seems to have lost some of the meaning of the term at its roots: a bootcamp. Many seem to equate an intensive or immersive learning experience with a bootcamp. Perhaps. But maybe those are necessary qualities that alone are insufficient to design for/receive the full value of a bootcamp.

  • Ah, “California, where many an avocado tree shades its smog-bound zen master.”

    I don’t doubt that the boot camp model is an excellent way to raise an army– to mobilize hundreds of thousands of young men, and now women, to go out and kill people, but it seems a rather masochistic way to seek spiritual enlightenment. as if there were any short cuts to nirvana.

    How many Buddhist monks would recommend it?

    Not that they, as a group, are necessarily any more enlightened than regular Joe and Jane caught up in the material world.

    I don’t believe the Dalai Lama has brought as much light to the planet as Steve Jobs.

    A group of those bald-headed goofballs trekked thousands of miles in their saffron robes just to pay a visit to the high happy sand dune where I used to take LSD and meditate; they said it was a power center of the earth, and all this time I thought it was just our local special place.

    But I did wonder how they knew it.

    I took a peek at the Singularity University site, and the best thing I saw there was their Rule #1:

    “The best way to predict the future is to invent it. ”

    The problem is that humans are far too busy inventing the past.


    Ryan Holiday would be a happier person if he just came out of the closet.

  • To build on Jeff’s comment: why did the term bootcamp replace the term immersion? Is it a time-based constraint or a true difference in knowledge-gained? Ben, you went to live in South America (Chile) to become immersed in the culture, the language, etc; would you say you went to a Chile Bootcamp?

    • “Bootcamp” to me means immersion in an intense/short period of time. I was in Chile for too long to count as a bootcamp; had I gone for three weeks and studied the language all day, all night — it was have been a bootcamp.

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