Fall is a really energizing time for me — people are back from vacation, the air is less oppressively hot and lazy-making, and perhaps most importantly, kids are finally going back to school. I especially love fall in Brooklyn, where I live — I like seeing all the little kids in nice new sneakers and clean new backpacks walking to school with their parents. It feels like another kind of new year, and it sort of makes me wish I was going back to school, too.
This year in particular, fall can't come fast enough. Lately, I've been feeling like I've lost a lot of inspiration for my goals and work — I keep doing it, but I feel like I'm running on empty. More than that, I feel stagnant — like my work, particularly my creative work (in addition to writing, I'm a comedian), isn't growing. Like I'm still doing the same things I always do.
I had a revelation the other day about what might be causing this — I keep putting stuff out there, but I'm not taking as much stuff in. That is, I'll see movies and meet new people and watch television and read books and go to comedy shows — but I'm not doing this in a focused way, a way concentrated on learning and pulling and honing specific skills. Basically, what I need is to go back to school. And since there's no way I can afford to do that, I decided to make my own back-to-school curriculum — but self-focused, and self-directed.
I looked around and was happy to find that I'm not the only person who has tried this — entrepreneur Jen Dziura suggested that adults pretend they're going back to school in her Bullish column. "Sometime in mid-August, buy yourself a new windbreaker and some #2 pencils," she wrote. "Write yourself a 'curriculum.' Picking your classes used to be kind of fun. Why not design your career in the same way?"
I tried this out for myself, and I'm excited to start my "homework." Here's how you can do it, too:
1. Pick Your "Classes"
Where I went to college, we took about four classes per semester. Some people took more and some less, but four classes was the mean. Of course, now you probably have a job and other responsibilities. Doesn't that mean you should do less?
Personally, I'm not so sure! It seems like four is the magic number — it allows for a couple classes devoted to your major life goals, one class devoted to a more distant type of goal, and one class that's an elective. The secret to taking all four classes is just the same as it was in college: Make some of the classes easier than others.
For me, my "classes" are as follows:
1. Introduction To Stand-Up Comedy: A major life goal class. As I said, I'm a comedian, but I do more improv and sketch than stand-up, and I want to attack in it a more significant way in order to get better at writing jokes in all aspects of comedy).
2. Developing Sketch Comedy: Again, major life goal — I want to come out of this class in that habit of writing several excellent sketches a week instead of just waiting for inspiration to strike.
3. Film Editing 101: Distant life goal — I direct comedy videos, but I want to have more control over them by also editing.
4. Mindfulness Through Meditation: My elective class, to focus on actually learning how to sit doing nothing for thirty minutes straight. Do you like how cheesy these names are, by the way?
2. Write Your Curriculum
Most American universities have two semesters: The fall semester, running from the beginning of September through about Dec. 20, and the spring semester, from late January to mid-May (with a spring break usually around March). Both semesters add up to a little less than four months each, or 16 weeks — a totally reasonable amount of time to plan lessons without going too far ahead.
For each class, schedule a time each week for a "lesson" and a time for "homework." Your lessons are for taking things in — spending an hour in the morning reading a book on the subject, following a tutorial, etc. You can and should get creative here: If you want to learn French, you might schedule a lesson where you watch a French film and make a note of every time they use the conditional tense. If you want to learn how to fix your bike, maybe you can go to a bike shop and watch how it's done. A great way to do this is supplement your own curriculum with a real class — for instance, I'm looking into a cheap editing course — and look up existing curriculums on the subject online (like this free "class" on stand-up comedy). In these classes, you can also make things, as long as you have some guidance on how it's done, whether it's from an actual teacher, the Internet walking you through something, or guided problems in a workbook. Be sure to take notes during your classes (see step three) — taking notes helps you think about what you've learned and gets it in your head.
Your homework time is for doing things independently. For instance, if you wanted to get better at writing poetry, here you'd stop reading poetry and try writing some of your own. For my stand-up comedy class, I'd go out and try material at an open mic. Don't go overboard on assigning yourself homework; you want baby steps that increase in difficulty as the class goes on.
Find an existing online curriculum if you can to help format your "class" (and, just like in real school, include vacation time!). In addition to a week-by-week layout of your classes and homework, you'll also include a list of all the books, movies, YouTube channels, etc. that you'll need over the course of 16 weeks, so you can locate them in advance.
And schedule a test for the final weeks. What's a test here? Well, see step five.
3. Buy Back-to-School Supplies
Get a new, crisp, cheap notebook for each of your classes and write the subject across the front. Doesn't that feel good and invigorating? You're going to write in those notebooks for everything to do with those subjects — for taking notes during your classes; for recording your homework; and for capturing your thoughts, feelings, and revelations about the subject along the way. If you want a few pink fluffy pens to write with, by all means, get those too. It's back-to-school season, after all!
4. Prioritize Your Schoolwork
Once you're on a roll doing things like reading and learning, you may start to feel like you're not being productive enough. After all, you're just spending time on consuming things. How is that valuable?
Reject that mindset. You're learning because that's how you change and grow and make better work. There will be a lot of people around you making work much more quickly, but they might very well be doing this without any self-reflection or meaning. As Fiona Apple sings in the song "Extraordinary Machine":
I still only travel by foot and by foot, it's a slow climb,
But I'm good at being uncomfortable, so
I can't stop changing all the time
I notice that my opponent is always on the go and
Won't go slow, so's not to focus, and I notice
He'll hitch a ride with any guide, as long as
They go fast from whence he came
- But he's no good at being uncomfortable, so
He can't stop staying exactly the same
Be like Fiona Apple and "be good at being uncomfortable" so you have the ability to adapt and grow. Don't be like her opponent.
5. Give Yourself a Test
After all, what's school without tests? Make yourself a big, achievable goal that you focus on for your homework in the last four weeks of the class. If you want to do a couch-to-5K program as one of your classes, you'll schedule your race for around this time; if you want to teach yourself piano, spend the last four weeks teaching yourself a challenging song to play at a party for your friends. Think hard about what you want to get out of the class, and then, after several months of taking things in, make that a reality.
After all, your grade depends on it!