Recurse Center

Developing the self-directives

Rachel Petacat

We’re introducing the self-directives, a set of three principles meant to increase the likelihood that people will have transformative experiences at RC. You can read more about each of them on our self-directives page; read on to learn about how we developed them and why we think they’re a great foundation for lifelong self-directed learning.

In the decade we’ve been in business, RC has changed in some ways (our name, our location, our schedule, to name a few). But the core of what we do and why we do it remains the same: we run a free self-directed retreat that supports people in becoming dramatically better programmers, with an integrated recruiting agency that helps Recursers get jobs and supports our operations.

What makes RC special?

Over the years, attending RC has been a transformative experience for many people: Recursers learn a lot, build lifelong friendships, and discover what makes programming meaningful to them. This year we’re focusing on enabling even more people to do those things and to do them earlier. To do that, we reflected on what Recursers who have had really successful batches did, and then considered how to make RC a place where more of that happens.

Entirely self-directed environments are uncommon, and doing a retreat at RC might be your first experience with self-directed education. During a retreat you choose what to work on and learn based on your intrinsic interests. That’s no small thing if you’ve been told what to learn and how to learn it for most of your life. Because everyone is able to follow their curiosity, there are also strong currents of excitement and ambition at RC. But unlike many rigorous environments, RC isn’t competitive; you have the support of a large community of kind, curious, intelligent programmers.

The self-directives

The self-directives are the three concepts we distilled from our reflections on RC at its best:

  • Work at the edge of your abilities. Choose work that challenges you but isn’t discouragingly difficult. By focusing on incremental, consistent improvement, you’ll make lots of progress by the end of your retreat.
  • Build your volitional muscles. Make your own decisions — that is to say, exercise your volition1 — about the work you do and how you do it. No one will tell you what to do at RC; you’ll do things because they bring you joy and satisfaction. Ask yourself: what do I really want to do? And then do it.
  • Learn generously. Joining a community is the main reason to do RC rather than work alone for six or 12 weeks. We celebrate each other’s successes, support each other when we struggle, and benefit from each other’s knowledge. If everyone draws from and contributes to2 the community, everyone thrives.

We hope the self-directives will work like RC’s social rules3 to produce an educational environment supportive of deep work, collaboration, and growth for everyone at RC.

Working at the edge of your abilities, building your volitional muscles, and learning generously are things you have to experience for yourself and understand on your own terms: there are as many ways to put the self-directives into practice as there are Recursers. If you attend RC, you’ll generally wind up doing these things by the end of your retreat. Over the next few weeks we’ll be incorporating the self-directives into our website, admissions process, onboarding, and day-to-day batch experience. We hope that from day one they help you have a better and more productive batch, with less of the uncertainty inherent in learning how to direct yourself.

If these ideas resonate with you and you’re interested in joining a community of programmers where you can expand the edge of your abilities and exercise your volitional muscles, apply to RC!

  1. Michael Nielsen, a former Recurser and RC research fellow, described this as the process of “growing ones’ sense of choice, and of responsibility for choice” in this essay about volitional philanthropy. The idea is that your volition is like a muscle you can strengthen: every choice you make at RC will teach you something about yourself and further improve your ability to reflect and decide on what you work on and learn. And just as no one can lift weights, run a mile, or practice speaking a new language for you, you can only build your volitional muscles by actively making decisions about what you do.

  2. To borrow Robin Sloan’s phrase, practicing learning generously means working with the garage door up: it is a willingness to share the (messy! incomplete!) process of learning and growth as well as an invitation to discussion and collaboration.

  3. In addition to looking to the experiences of Recursers, we looked to the social rules when developing the self-directives. They’re a wonderful example of simple principles which, when taken as a set, produce an environment that is friendly and supportive of taking risks, asking questions, and learning. They’ve also got a great collective name, which makes them easy to refer to and recall.