Alternative Grad School fails and successes: A year in review

Last June, after finishing undergrad, I decided to embark on a new big-ish goal that would keep me learning, making things, and getting stronger.

Based on an idea from The Art of Nonconformity by Chris Guillebeau, I started Alternative Grad School. You can view Chris Guillebeau’s suggested goals here. My goals were based on his original suggestions. I simplified many and completely created some new ones according to my interests.

1. [x] Memorize the name and location of every country in the world.
I completed this goal using the paid version of the Seterra app on my phone. It’s a super productive way to spend car rides and other spaces of boredom. Plus, knowing where all the countries are has already turned out to be so valuable. It’s hard to know what’s going on in the world when you don’t know the locations of the countries you hear on the news.
Also, actually knowing where all the countries are makes you seem super smart and knowledgeable (not that that’s the point).


2. [ ] Travel to a new continent.
I didn’t travel to a new continent (I’ve been to North America and Europe). But I did travel Europe for the second time, visiting two new countries: The Netherlands and Germany.


I plan to travel (I hope) to South America in 2018 or 2019.


3. [ ] Listen to Coffee Break Spanish sections 1 and 2 and retain the language. 
[x]    Sec. 1
[ ]    Sec. 2
Since I knew I would be traveling to Germany, I decided to brush up my German instead of pursuing Spanish. I took German all four years of high school and had never used it with a real German speaker, so this was really exciting to me and was a really awesome incentive to spend some time each day deepening my understanding. German is a very difficult language with lots of exceptions to its own rules, but it was rewarding to finally work through some of the grammar I couldn’t wrap my mind around when I was a teenager.


(I’ve been learning both German and Spanish with Mark from Coffee Break German via podcast on my walk to work and would highly recommend trying it out!)
4. [ ] Read the basic texts of the major world religions: the Torah, New Testament, Koran, and teachings of Buddha.
[ ]    Torah
[ ]    New Testament
[ ]    Koran

[x]    Buddha


I wish I’d gotten further with this, but it was way too much with a full-time job and all the other goals I wanted to accomplish. I hope to get to this one day.


5. [ ] Show Once Familiar publicly.
I did not get to show my work publicly, but I did apply at the local arts space and at coffee shops around town. At first, I felt disappointed. But I took that energy and started volunteering at the local arts space, working on some of their programming and joining their gallery team. There’s a lot more I’d like to learn and make before doing my first solo show anyway.


6. [x] Compile a graphic design post-grad creative portfolio by completing 15 projects. 
Most of my graphic design projects were work-related (our annual report, website graphics, etc.) but I also spent time designing the old-school camera stickers I sell on this site. I learned a lot, but I also learned that graphic design, though an extremely valuable skill, is not my favorite. I am glad to know the basics and turn to the pros for help when I need it.


7. [ ] Read 30 nonfiction books and 20 novels.
I’m not sure what to say about this one. If anyone else has tried this challenge, then they probably know that reading this many books in a year is the hardest goal of all. I started strong, reading 30 books by the end of 2017. I only read 11 books so far in 2018.


Interestingly, I ended up reading very few novels. With a background in journalism, I’m just more interested in nonfiction (though I believe reading fiction is very important). Eventually, though, I got very burned out and couldn’t bring myself to read at all anymore. My eyes were just skipping across the page and I’ve been on an extended break since.
I’m sure the lust for books will come back to me. It’s just a matter of time.


8. [ ] Run a 10K (6.2 mi.) in 60:00 or less.
My fastest 10K time was 1:09:10. Just getting up to running a 10K without stopping to walk was a challenge enough. I did surprise myself, though, by running in an actual 10K race.


9. [ ] Start/maintain a blog and post bi-weekly
Here I am. During the very last couple months of the Alt Grad School challenge, I got around to this goal. Aside from posting, I added a store to my site, sold some stickers, and created a MailChimp email list. I do a lot of blog work at my day job as well, so by now these skills come to me fairly naturally, but it was rewarding using them for my personal work and getting my site fully customized to my vision.


10. [x] Learn to write by listening to the Grammar Girl podcast and reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
I didn’t love these as much as a lot of people seem to, but they got me writing which says a lot.


11. [ ] Read Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs.
This was one of Chris Guillebeau’s suggestions but it was just not my style.


12. [x] Publish 3 freelance stories.
I was a little surprised by so proud I met this goal. My writing had only been published in my college newspaper before, and so every time I wrote something new for Little Village, it felt amazing. I wrote three stories: one about women getting IUDs (multi-year birth control) out of concern about changes to women’s healthcare, one about a college student who started a farm while still in school, and one profile on Jane Elliot (blue eyes/brown eyes). There is nothing quite like seeing your work out in the world, in print.


13. [1/2] Complete a new photo series by 12/31/17 and a second by 6/1/18.
I didn’t complete a photo project during the first 6 months of the challenge, but I traveled to the American South and took a bunch of photos that I would consider a series in February 2018. View them here and here. I hope I can go on a few more adventures like this over the summer, at least of the weekend. I’m getting a little antsy photographing in Iowa.



Alternative Grad School

Alternative Grad School

On June 1, I started working on my personal version of Alternative Grad School, an idea borrowed from Chris Guillebeau’s book The Art of Non-Conformity. I was someone who really loved college because I was constantly learning new skills and information. Unfortunately, the world lacks structure for lifelong learners. While I am glad for the limitless opportunity I now have in lieu of arbitrary classes, required assignments, etc., structure helps me work, so I needed a framework in order to continue educating myself. I bought a new notebook and created a list of things I would like to learn, do, memorize, experience, and so on over the next year before June 1, 2018.

You can find Guillebeau’s list here.

My list is very similar with a few adjustments to make the program feasible for me while working full-time. I’ve also added a few of my own, completely original requirements.

  • Memorize every country, world capital, and leader of every country in the world

  • Travel to a new continent

  • Read the basic texts of the major world religions: the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran, and the teachings of Buddha

  • Listen to a Spanish language-learning podcast 5X/week for a year and practice with Ethan

  • Loan money to an entrepreneur through 

  • Train to run a 10K in 60 minutes

  • Show Once Familiar in an Iowa City coffee shop or other public venues

  • Compile a graphic design portfolio by completing 15 Briefbox projects

  • Read 30 non-fiction books and 20 novels

  • Start a blog and post bi-weekly

  • Listen to Grammar Girl and read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

  • Read Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs

  • Publish three freelance stories

  • Complete a photography series by 12/31/17 and another by 6/1/18

In my three weeks of Alternative Grad School, since June 1, I’ve focused on several requirements more than others. I tried tackling the biggest, most time-consuming requirements right away, the most daunting being reading 50 books in one year.

So far I read:

  • Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland
  • Tell Me If You’re Lying by Sarah Sweeney
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  • Utopia for Realists: The Case for Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and 15-Hour Workweek by Rutger Bregman
  • Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America by Stephen G. Bloom

Books June 2017 copy.jpg

I also started learning about Buddhism by reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Meditation and Practice. It isn’t exactly a Buddhist “text” like my Alt Grad School goals outlined, but it’s a compilation of talks given by Shunryu Suzuki at the Zen Center in Los Altos, California.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
—Shunryu Suzuki

I also started learning Spanish via the podcast Coffee Break Spanish, which I discovered on Spotify but is also available on iTunes. I used it to refresh my German studies in the past. Once you get used to the teacher’s Scottish accent, it’s a really great podcast for picking up the basics of a language. So far I don’t know much (Me llama Carly. Vivo en Iowa en Los Estados Unidos.) but I’m getting there.

Goals in which I’ve been behind are my 10K run training (I was truly sick over the past few weeks, I swear), my photography projects, and graphic design. Hopefully, I’ll be able to share some progress in those areas in July.

Wish me luck. Comment with any other important life skills you feel should be on one’s Alternative Grad School list.