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Why School Works (Even Though It Still Totally Sucks) and How You Can Make The Magic of School Work for You Without Actually Going There

F### school (lol). School doesn’t work.

But it also kinda does work and it’s why people keep paying and going there even though it sucks Asperger’s.

Here’s why.

Recently (at the time of this writing), I broke a personal rule I made many years ago and attended not one but two seminars (a couple of weeks apart), for the purpose of learning non-physical skills. One was a one-day seminar. The other was a three-day seminar.

They were both awesome — learned a lot, loved ’em. Awesome. But also tiring and long and lame and boring for much of the time. 1

So why was I there? Why do I — we — do this to ourselves?

Here are the reasons:


Studying can be lonely and isolating — even to an introvert. It’s one thing to know you have a “tribe” of fellow learners, it’s another altogether to be in the same room with them. It feels wonderful to be surrounded by your siblings-in-arms, your intellectual kin. It is deeply freeing.


Intellectual pursuits aren’t just lonely and isolating, they’re also strangely disconcerting. To expose yourself to new knowledge is to expose yourself to your own ignorance — SRSes show you what you suck at and hide what you’re good at. And this leads to doubt. Not only do we wonder whether we’re making any progress, we also wonder whether this is the direction in which we should be going at all. A bit of doubt here and there is fine, but too much can be disorienting. School, boring as it is, gives you an anchor point, and makes you secure in what you are doing by taking your freedom to do something else off the table. Barry Schwartz’s paradox of choice never rears its ugly head: you have no choice. It’s lesson time, playa.

School gives you an unassailable sense of legitimacy; it gives you permission to do the activity at hand to the exclusion of all others. Permission to ignore everything else and focus on just this. This is powerful. It’s the power of a timebox but on a larger scale.

In other words, school gives you the security that comes from having made a…


AJATT-style autodidactic study is often characterized by an emphasis on “ながら勉強” (ながらべんきょう = nagara benkyou 2), that is, study that is performed while (nagara) doing something else. So hearing Japanese while you walk/sleep/wash dishes, or doing your SRS reps while doing something else. And this awesome. And often overlooked by most adults. For one thing, it absolutely nukes all the “but I ain’t gaht tahm ta study Japanese, Kheatz” 3 excuses at which your typical adult excels. So there ain’t nothing wrong with that nagara, bro.

But these seminars taught me something, and that is this — there is also great value in blocking out specific times and locations at which a specific subject shall be studied. A Japanese blogger and author I once read (can’t find him now but his stuff is somewhere in my SRS) said that (and I paraphrase): “Dreams only become real when they crystalize into goals. And goals only become real when they crystalize into schedule items. And schedule items only become real when they have a start time, an end time, concrete content and a location.”

School Sucks

If you think about it, that’s literally all school is: blocking out specific times and locations at which a specific subject shall be studied. School is nothing but these blocks. It’s a multi-month, multi-year sequence of these temporal-spatial-content Lego blocks (no offense to Lego; Lego rocks).

Now, these blocks are deeply flawed. Indeed, school itself is deeply flawed — for reasons that John Holt, John Taylor Gatto and many others could tell you in their books. But a lot of it comes down to this: whether it’s school or a seminar, we are all different; every single human being on Earth is literally and totally unique 4; we all move at different paces at different times. But school and its classes always move at more or less the same pace, in order to keep things running on schedule. This means that most of us, most of the time, in school, are either bored or confused. Things are either going over our heads or under them.

But School Works (Kinda)

And yet, to some extent, school works. Why?

Because school raises the baseline; it raises the average by raising the bottom (平均底上げ (へいきんそこあげ)). It takes us from “coulda/woulda/shoulda/gonna study X” to “studyING X”. It moves us from the future tense and the subjunctive mood to the present continuous tense. It takes us, in other words, from zero to one. And one is infinitely more than zero.

And that is why we continue to send ourselves and our children through the factory/gulag that is school. Because it does kinda sorta work. It is better than nothing.

How You Can Make School Work For You Without Actually Going to School

But we can and could do better. “Better than nothing” is not exactly a ringing endorsement. Humanity never got anywhere by settling for less. Bill McKibben be damned; screw him and his curmudgeonly sourpuss nonsense.

We can have our cake and eat it, too. We can steal fire from the gods and have fireplaces and space heaters.

How to steal the Promethean fire of school without actually going there and dealing with its boring, tiring, soul-crushing B.S.? Easy. Do some blocking of your own. Nothing too dramatic or extreme — don’t overload yourself or make commitments which you lack the desire, inclination or ability to keep. But say, for example: “every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 10:30am to 10:55am, I will do 2000 points’ worth of Japanese reps on Surusu 56. Simple. Easy. Put it in your calendar, badabing badaboom.

Again, don’t go crazy. We’re trying to steal the fire, not get burned by it.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have realized that having “blocked” time still lends itself to nagara studying — but instead of just saying we’re gonna nagara when we have time, we’re nagaraing with the benefit of an anchor in the form of blocked study time.

As for me, I feel that I’ve got the seminar thing figured out. The fire has been stolen and it is mine now. Going forward, I intend to use timeblocks to do things like read specific books that I bought eons ago and always “mean to but never get round to” reading, among other cool projects. 7

But more on that later. That’s about all from me for now.

What’s your experience been with this kind of thing?



  1. Like, I will literally never go to a seminar again; it took me what seemed like weeks to recover physically from the punishment of sitting in the same chair for eight to fourteen hours a day while someone else told me what to read, when to eat, where to go, etc. — not to mention the sleep deprivation
  2. Yes, romaji is still evil (lol)
  3. but I haven’t got time to study Japanese, Khatz
  4. even basic bi###es (lol)
  5. Anki’s fine, too. It’s just that Surusu has a point system, so it makes life easier.
  6. Or maybe add cards for X new words.
  7. To put this whole idea, that we’ve spent the preceding paragraphs discussing, into the simplest terms possible — probably even a little too simple — school is overscheduled; my study style was probably a teeny bit underscheduled; “moderation” can be an invitation to mediocrity, but “happy mediums” (keyword: “happy”) and equilibrium zones do sometimes exist.

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