Self-Directed Learning: Passion, Skill, Market


illustrator: Shona Warwick-Smith

(An excerpt from the new book, The Art of Self-Directed Learning, by Blake Boles)

Carsie Blanton grew up in rural Virginia where she played on the rolling grassy hills, hunted salamanders, read books, and fiddled around with musical instruments. Seeing a happy and engaged child, Carsie’s parents decided to simply never send her to school. They supported Carsie’s interests, made her part of adult discussions at the house, and gave her large blocks of undisturbed personal time.

At 13, Carsie discovered a deep love for guitar and songwriting. At 16, she moved to Oregon to join a group house with other artists, where she met a funk band who invited her to sing backup and tour the United States. As she traveled, she began building her own body of musical work.

In her twenties, Carsie independently recorded and released a few albums, leading to new gigs and a few big breaks (like opening for Paul Simon). She worked in coffee shops to pay the bills before her shows and CD sales became profitable.

Instead of going to college, she trained with top musicians, struck up friendships with interesting people she met on the road, and continued her lifelong habit of reading lots of hard books. She fell in love with swing dancing, started taking swing classes whenever possible, and eventually began teaching her own classes.

Then, at age 28, Carsie mobilized her fans on Kickstarter with the goal of raising $29,000 to produce a new jazz album, offering preorders of the album, personalized songwriting, and other interesting rewards in exchange for donations.

She hit her target and then kept going, all the way to $60,000, enough to produce her album, pay a few big-name jazz musicians to contribute, hire a publicity team, and take her entire band on tour across the United States.

* * *

Running a Kickstarter campaign is essentially like starting a business in an incredibly short time span: you’ve got to develop a product, create a compelling story, attract an audience, and then deliver. Like most business startups, most online fundraising campaigns fail. But Carsie, an unschooled young woman with no formal training, nailed it on the first try. How?

Having traveled, performed, and danced all across the United States, Carsie had built one heck of a social network, an important element for fundraising success. But I don’t think that was the main thing.

Carsie carefully planned her fundraising campaign, studied other musicians’ campaigns, and asked for lots of feedback before going live. Those actions certainly helped, but I still don’t think they explain everything.

Instead, I believe that Carsie received an early and powerful education in applying her self-directed learning to the needs of others.


With all of our talk about self-directed learning, it’s easy to assume that our educations should focus only on ourselves. But people who, like Carsie, want their hobbies to fund their lives know that focusing only on yourself is the fast path to going broke. Instead, we must take what we love and figure out how to use it to inform, entertain, educate, or help other people.

Tina Seelig of the Stanford Design School masterfully explains the idea with the threefold concept of passion, skill, and market.

  • If you’re passionate about something, but you’re not skilled in it, then you’re a fan. (Think, for example, of a beginning guitar enthusiast.)
  • If you’re passionate about something and skilled in it, then you’ve got a hobby. (Think of a guitarist with some training and experience.)
  • If you’re skilled in something, there’s a market for it, but you don’t have any passion for it, then you have a job. (Think of a guitarist who is good enough to play gigs, but he lost his love for guitar long ago.)

Combine all three elements—passion, skills, and a market—and you arrive at Mecca: meaningful work that also pays the bills. (Think of a musician, like Carsie, who loves playing gigs and can make a living doing it.)

Self-directed learners are typically very good at identifying their passions. They build skills when necessary. But finding (or creating) a market? That’s the hard part, because it means they must stop thinking only about themselves and start trying to understand other people.

Understanding the needs of other people, I propose, is exactly what Carsie was doing in her adventure-filled youth.

Playing music shows? An exercise in discovering other people’s tastes.

Working in coffee shops? An exercise in providing value to an employer.

Teaching swing dance lessons? An exercise in helping people learn something complex.

By paying close attention to the needs of others while also building her skills and deepening her passions, Carsie created a self-directed education that wasn’t just about herself. So when it came time to launch her Kickstarter campaign, she didn’t make the rookie mistake of focusing on me, me, me. Instead, she created something that other people actually wanted.

Do what you love, but also keep an eye on the needs of others—that’s how self-directed learning can turn into self-directed earning.

Blake Boles ( builds exciting alternatives to traditional school for self-directed young people. He directs the company Unschool Adventures and is the author of The Art of Self-Directed LearningBetter Than College, and College Without High School.