Recurse Center

What we mean by self-directed and community-driven

We describe RC as being self-directed and community-driven, but what do these terms actually mean?

When we say that RC is self-directed, we mean that people have both the opportunity and the responsibility to direct themselves here. Recursers decide what their goals are, why they have them, how they want to work towards them, and how to assess whether they’re succeeding or failing.

Few if any of these things are true in the places where we spend most of our lives: school and work. In most schools, none of these things are true. Teachers and administrators decide what people should learn (the curriculum), how they will learn it (listening to lectures and doing homework), and how to assess progress (tests and grades).1 Sometimes schools tell people why the school thinks things are important to learn, but that may have little or no bearing on why those things are important (or not) to a student.

Universities say they teach critical thinking or “how to learn” but the general idea remains the same. They tell you the skills you need to learn, how to learn them, and the courses to pass to prove you have. Universities are self-directed in the same way choose your own adventure books are: You’re free to follow any path you like so long as it’s one they’ve laid out for you.2

Many jobs are more self-directed than school, but only in limited ways. For instance, in white collar jobs, employees commonly have the freedom to decide how they do their work, and sometimes even what they work on. But even great jobs can’t be truly self-directed because companies have goals, employees have responsibilities, and managers quite reasonably have expectations for their reports. You can’t be fully self-directed in a typical job because you have a job, and that job probably isn’t one you get to define.

At RC, your “job” is to grow as a programmer — and to define what that means to you, given your own goals and unique circumstances.

This is hard for nearly all Recursers, in part because it’s so different from their past experiences, and in part because it’s a fundamentally uncomfortable thing to grapple with. Recursers have shared that a defining moment for them was on the first day of their batch, after our welcome breakfast and talks concluded, when they sat down and realized that they had to decide for themselves what to do for the rest of the afternoon and the rest of their batch.

When we say that RC is community-driven, we mean that the core educational and business value of RC is the community.3 We as RC faculty do many things, from bringing people together and establishing a healthy environment to providing physical space, advice, and useful resources. But we don’t make RC, Recursers do. In a real way, RC is the sum of all the projects, pairing sessions, code reviews, expertise, questions, answers, presentations, events, and everything else people decide to do here that shapes their and others’ experiences. RC only works because Recursers aren’t all the same — everyone brings a unique perspective and contributes different things to the group. This is one of the two major reasons diversity is essential to the success of RC.4

That’s why the vessel-filling5 model of education taken by nearly every school, university, and bootcamp is in conflict with diversity. That model starts with the assumption that education boils down to a transfer of knowledge from teachers to students. Improving education is thus a matter of figuring out the right set of facts and skills to teach and the most efficient way to get them into students’ heads. The closer students are to clones of each other, the easier this process is.

Harvard and other top universities are community-driven in the sense that the greatest value they provide students is surrounding them with peers. But universities’ explicitly stated educational model (teaching courses by expert faculty) doesn’t allow them to fully embrace or acknowledge this, and their founding assumptions don’t take advantage of it.

In contrast, we try to continuously make RC more community-driven and self-directed, from how we use our internal chat system to our move to overlapping batches to our decision to end our residents program.

Developing your volitional muscles

While RC can provide many things, we can’t provide motivation. Nor can we tell people what they want, how they should work towards it, or why they are here. These questions are present for all of us all of the time, but they are more evident at RC because we refuse to provide the easy but meaningless answers schools are so eager to offer. Everyone at RC must ultimately struggle with these questions for themselves, though they need not struggle alone.

Thankfully, this struggle gets easier with time and practice as you strengthen your volitional muscles, and surrounding yourself with others who are also committed to self-directed growth gives you a support system to draw upon when you need it. Learning to acknowledge and then work through the challenges of directing your own time is one of the most important things many people take from their time at RC.

  1. K-12 schools in the US go much further. They decide not just that students should learn history but that they should learn specific facts about American History, in 60-minute periods on weekdays between September and May when they are 17-years old. They measure how well students “learn” these facts quite precisely — typically using GPAs with three significant figures!

  2. Of course, many people do find a way to chart their own course in college, but the institutional headwinds are against them. I went to college after 18-years of self-directed learning. I was determined to learn on my own terms and not let grades influence my decision-making. I got a lot out of the experience and I don’t regret going to college. Even so, the institutional forces got to me, and after some time I found myself thinking, “Oh, this doesn’t matter, it probably won’t be on the exam.”

    The major advantage universities (and bootcamps, MOOCs, and others) have over K-12 schooling is that they’re not compulsory, and so participants choose to attend them, at least in theory. In practice, many people go because of societal or familial expectations, or because getting a four-year degree or learning Rails in 12-weeks is a default or well-trodden path. Here again RC has an unfair advantage: We are both non-compulsory and still odd enough that we’re not yet anyone’s default option.

  3. Our sole source of revenue is recruiting: companies pay us to help them hire our alums. As such, it’s not hard to see why RC becomes more valuable as our community grows in size, strength, and diversity.

  4. The other reason is that we cannot achieve our mission of building the best place to grow as a programmer without making RC a genuinely diverse and inclusive place. We will not and cannot be the best place to grow as a programmer if only people from some demographic groups thrive at our retreats and in our community.

  5. This name is inspired by quotations that likely date back to Plutarch.