Recurse Center

You can do more than you think: Practical principles for self-directed growth

Mai Schwartz

Our mission at the Recurse Center is to transform lives by helping people direct themselves. Becoming a better programmer is the shared purpose that structures the retreat at RC, but the idea of self-direction is broadly applicable to many pursuits in life. It’s about where your motivations come from: directing yourself means doing things that are motivated by your joy and curiosity, instead of by external pressures and fear.

It’s also really hard to do. Most of us have years of conditioning through school and work to ignore our intrinsic motivations in order to meet the expectations of others, and flipping this switch takes time and effort. A year ago, we introduced a set of guiding principles to help people with this process. They’re called the self-directives and they’re meant to help everyone who comes to RC learn a lot, build meaningful relationships, and have a transformative experience. They are:

  • Work at the edge of your abilities
  • Build your volitional muscles
  • Learn generously

This post is going to share a bit about where the self-directives came from and why, how they’ve become integrated into the retreat, their impact on RC, and some suggestions for how to put them into practice even if you’re not a programmer!

Why self-direction?

RC is built around self-direction because we believe it’s effective. When you have the freedom to explore things you’re interested in, and to explore them in the ways that make sense to you, you learn them more deeply and retain them for longer. When someone forces you to learn something that you’re not interested in, it doesn’t stick nearly as well.

More importantly, self-direction is life-affirming. When you pursue things you care about and are genuinely interested in, your work will be meaningful, fulfilling, and sometimes even transformative. And when you do meaningful work that comes from listening to and acting on your inner motivations, you start to expand your sense of possibility: of what choices are available for you to make, of what you can accomplish, and of who you can become. Often, you open up this sense of possibility for others around you too.

At RC, the shared goal of getting better at programming means that people can work together and share knowledge directly, but you could apply these principles to anything you want to do to learn and grow. Even if you’re working on your own, there are many ways for you to work at the edge of your abilities, build your volitional muscles, and learn generously.

Creating the self-directives

One of our main priorities for 2022 was to improve the quality of the retreat. Our goal was easy to state and hard in every other way: to make it so every person who comes to RC has a transformative experience.

Some percentage of people have always had life-changing experiences at RC, which we know because they tell us – either directly or in public-facing content like blogs, YouTube videos, and social media (here are just a few recent examples). We wanted to increase that percentage to 100%. Obviously, that’s ambitious. If it’s possible, it’s not exactly knowable, and certainly not on a definite time frame (for one thing, because the true value of an experience isn’t always clear until years later). But we felt confident that with some work we could dramatically increase the chances of people having transformative experiences at RC.

To do that, we looked at Recursers who by their own accounts had the most transformative experiences during their retreats. Though success at RC looks different for everyone, we looked for common threads in what those Recursers did: not the specific projects they worked on, but how they approached their batches, the challenges they confronted, and, most importantly, the strategies they used to move through those struggles. Because the retreat has always been self-directed and community driven, what we tried to do is crystallize as succinctly and evocatively as possible ideas that were already implicit at RC.

Fun fact

‘Work at the edge of your abilities’ was inspired by my experience powerlifting using RPE, or rate of perceived exertion. It’s a way of subjectively measuring the intensity of the work you’re doing (for example, a weight that felt easy last week might feel hard this week if you haven’t slept or eaten as well). Importantly, it requires you to really listen to your body and learn to accurately assess your own capacity, both when to dial back and when to reach for more. We thought this was a generative metaphor for intellectual and creative work as well: on a low day, it’s better to do what you can than to beat yourself up for failing to meet some hypothetical level of productivity that was never actually in reach, and on good days you can push yourself and really get to know the difference between what is impossible and what is just really, really hard.

We felt that we’d know the self-directives were a success if and when Recursers started reflecting them back to us. That happened almost immediately, which was surprising; people started incorporating reflections on how well they were practicing the self-directives into their check-ins, and booked office hours with us to talk about how to do them more. Today the self-directives feel like an organic and inevitable part of RC, but if they feel like they’ve always been there, it’s because they were. They resonate with Recursers because we drew them out of RC. We just named them, and have put a lot of work over the past year into weaving them into the retreat in ways that will help people put them into practice.

Fun fact

We weren’t that happy with the phrase ‘build your volitional muscles.’ We thought it was less intuitive than ‘work at the edge of your abilities’ and less evocative than ‘learn generously.’ We wanted to capture something like Marie Kondo’s ‘spark joy,’ but after trying on a bunch of alternatives (‘swol mind,’ anyone?), we decided to put a pin in it while we kept thinking. We’re still thinking but it seems to have stuck! The original inspiration for the phrase ‘build your volitional muscles’ was a post by RC alum Michael Nielsen, where he describes this as a process of ‘growing one’s sense of choice, and of responsibility for choice.’

Integrating the self-directives into the retreat

Once we settled on those three self-directives, we had to figure out how to integrate them into the day-to-day experience of RC. We wanted to avoid falling into the trap of trying to codify culture, where principles – no matter how genuinely held – in practice end up as little more than posters on the wall.

The first changes we made were to admissions and on-boarding, because those are unique opportunities we have to prime people’s expectations before they even come through the door (or Zoom room). We changed one of our admissions criteria from ’wants to get dramatically better’ to ‘ready to work at the edge of their abilities’ and had generative feedback sessions with our alumni interviewers about what that means and how to evaluate it in interviews.

We rewrote our welcome talks for the first day of the batch to focus on the self-directives, and then redesigned the whole on-boarding process to help Recursers start putting them into practice right away. We now host events in each of the first three weeks of the batch to support this goal: a pairing workshop, a building your volitional muscles reflection event aimed at prioritizing projects based on your intrinsic motivations, and an Impossible Stuff Day, where the idea is to find the edge of your abilities by grossly overshooting it.

But we also wanted to help people with the challenges that come up later in the retreat, when the first week shine has worn off and they’re facing deeper challenges in their work. Over the summer, one of our goals was to come up with a list of concrete practices we could recommend to any Recurser to help them do the self-directives. At that point, one could still reasonably read our material about the self-directives and think, yes, I’d like to do that, but how? We wanted to identify things people could decide to do on any given day at RC that would move them in that direction.

We’ve always strongly recommended pair programming, and we wanted other concrete activities we could recommend with the level of confidence we’ve gained from a decade of witnessing the impact of pairing. To do that, we looked at data we already had (for example, time spent in the RC Zoom rooms that are dedicated to pairing) and interviewed Recursers about what did and didn’t work for them in their batches. The recommendations we came up with were:

  • Choose a public accountability mechanism and commit to it.
  • Do one challenging thing, then do another.
  • Create the context you need to do good work.
  • Say no to something.

As you can tell, none of these is specific to programming. If the self-directives are a distillation of the educational philosophy of RC, these recommendations are more concrete but they still require self-direction to work. They’re ‘universal’ in the sense that each person has to figure out how to practice them in their own way, in service of their particular goals, at whatever level of experience they currently have.

Your public accountability mechanism could be a blog, a group you check in with IRL or online, or just regularly talking to a friend about what you’re working on. The context you need to do good work could be a dedicated workspace, a more comfortable chair, one extra afternoon of childcare per week. Reflect on what’s been instrumental to your growth in the past and what you need right now, and then experiment with different approaches. This will naturally shift over time, so it’s helpful to check in with yourself regularly as your goals and needs change.

Fun fact

Another thing we did over the summer is give ourselves a taste of our own medicine by each doing a retreat week and trying a couple of the recommendations we came up with to see how they impacted our experiences. Every RC faculty working on the retreat at that time participated: Rachel practiced oil painting, James composed electronic music, Dave made programming sketches, and I made a pair of shorts, my first time sewing a real garment.

I was so anxious to finish the shorts during that week that I found myself getting to work early and staying late, even though I kept reminding myself that the point was to learn and I could always complete them after the retreat week was over. This is something I often say to Recursers who are stressing about getting their projects to some final, presentable state. While I stand by the value of not holding yourself to arbitrary deadlines, I felt that I learned something new about the emotional experience of really wanting to do a specific thing and struggling to catch your abilities up to your vision.

oil painting of clouds by Rachel Petacat paginated UI with color gradient by Dave Albert turquoise linen shorts by Mai Schwartz

We later discovered that the three self-directives align with the three basic psychological needs described by self-determination theory: autonomy (build your volitional muscles), competence (work at the edge of your abilities), and relatedness (learn generously). These principles help us have deeper conversations with Recursers from the very beginning of their time in batch, because we now have a shared vocabulary for the bigger questions and struggles that people confront at RC.

These are questions and struggles that people face in many areas of their lives, and there’s something powerful about naming that explicitly, in a space where everyone is actively working to do this and to support each other in it as well. There’s a momentum that’s created by people trusting their own ideas enough to give them the time and energy they need to develop, being vulnerable and taking risks in their work without the expectation of being ‘productive’ in the traditional sense.

It can also be incredibly challenging, and the self-directives are meant to help you face these challenges with a little more depth than an injunction to knuckle down and write more lines of code. They’re not a rubric or a checklist, and no one can do them for you. We’re still learning about how to put these principles into practice, as an institution and as individuals, and the past year has been a rich one for experimenting together. We hope these reflections can be useful to you in the areas of your life where you feel that desire to learn and grow!