The Alternative Graduate Experience

In Chris Guillebeau’s book, The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World, he lays out an alternative graduate program as described in his words here:


  • Subscribe to the Economist and read every issue religiously.  Cost $97 + 60 minutes each week.
  • Memorize the names of every country, world capital, and current president or prime minister in the world.  Cost:  $0 + 3-4 hours once.
  • Buy a round-the-world plane ticket or use frequent flyer miles to travel to several major world regions, including somewhere in Africa and somewhere in Asia.  Cost: variable, but plan on $4,000.
  • Read the basic texts of the major world religions:  The Torah, the New Testament, the Koran, and the teachings of Buddha.  Visit a church, a mosque, a synagogue, and a temple.  Cost: materials can be obtained free online or in the mail (or for less than $50) + 20 hours.
  • Subscribe to a language-learning podcast and listen to each 20-minute episode, five times a week, for the entire year.  Attend a local language club once a week to practice.  Cost:  $0 + 87 hours.
  • Loan money to an entrepreneur through and arrange to visit him or her while you’re abroad on your big trip.  Cost: likely $0 in the end, since 98% of loans are repaid.
  • Acquire at least three new skills during your year.  Suggestions: photography, skydiving, computer programming, martial arts.  The key is not to become an expert in any of them, but to become functionally proficient.  Cost: variable, but each skill is probably less than three credits of tuition would be at a university.
  • Read at least 30 nonfiction books and 20 classic novels.  Cost:  approximately $750 (can be reduced or eliminated by using the library).
  • Join a gym or health club to keep fit during your rigorous independent studies.  (Most universities include access to their fitness centers with the purchase of $32,000 in tuition, so you’ll need to pay for this on your own otherwise.)  Cost:  $25-$75 a month.
  • Become comfortable with basic presentation and public speaking skills.  Join your local Toastmasters club to get constructive, structured help that is beginner-friendly.  Cost:  $25 once + 2 hours a week for 10 weeks.
  • Start a blog, create a basic posting schedule, and stick with it for the entire year.  You can get a free blog at  One tip:  don’t try to write everyday.  Set a weekly or biweekly schedule for a while, and if you’re still enjoying it after three months, pick up the pace.  Cost: $0.
  • Learn to write by listening to the Grammar Girl podcast on iTunes and buying Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  Cost: $0 for Grammar Girl, $14 for Anne Lamott.
  • Instead of reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, read The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs, a good summary.  Cost:  $15.

Total Cost:  $10,000 or less

Upon reading his bulleted highlights of the program for the first time, I was immediately intrigued to do it, but knew it was most likely that I would never complete it.  The biggest hurdle in my mind: the program has an estimated price tag of $10,000.  How could you complete a program estimated at $10,000 if you didn’t have $10,000?

I’ve attempted a few blogs in the past and I don’t think I have made it past more than two posts before they were abandoned.  Starting a blog and writing one or two times a week for a year would be near impossible for me.   I’ve failed miserably several times already.   I could just see the first entry now, “I’m going to do this life-changing project, build an active community, become friends with Chris (Tim Ferris too) and encourage others to go and do alternative graduate programs or other self-directed learning projects, produce a New York Times Best Seller based on the content and my life is going to be forever turned around.”  Sounds great, but that would be the one and only post as I would never return to the blog again, letting it get lost in internet space with all my other half-assed blog and business attempts.

Logically, it is probably stupid to start given my past tendency.   I don’t currently have the money and I am unsure whether I’d even have the time necessary to complete such an undertaking, but I can’t resist the idea of how I would be more of the person I want to be in a year if by some under-dog miracle I actually pulled this off.  What could happen if I wrote two days a week for year?  Would I become a better writer?  Probably.  Would I have the necessary skills to then write a book?  Possibly.  (Writing and publishing a best-selling book is on my bucket list mostly because it sounds cool)  What would happen if I read over fifty books in a year?  I’ve only completed three in the past year one of which was Chris’ book.  All three contributed to small shifts in thinking.  What if I could somehow get myself to somewhere in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America within the next year despite being financial challenged at the moment?  I have only been out of the country a whopping six times.

I know you aren’t “supposed” to think like this, but I seriously start this project thinking I can’t pull it off.   I have no past success of being able to conquer things like this, but acknowledge that if living an alternative, fulfilling life designed by my rules is what I want, I realize I must learn to become the one who calls the shots and more importantly sticks to them.  It’s amazing how accountable I’ll be to complying with other’s rules.  I can make it to classes, work and activities that others created on time and consistently, but when it comes time to creating activities for my own projects, goals and businesses that people are not yet relying on, they are easily dismissed for alternatives like watching T.V.   I’m 30 and most likely more than a third of the way through my life.  I’m not happy where I am and I annoyed at the slow pace I move to create what I want.  Am I just unclear with what I want and unable to stick to a plan of attack?  Most likely.

I view this project as a way to commit to something that I am the boss on.  Yes, the initial design is Chris Guillebeau’s, but I think it ends there.   There will be no grade from him or anyone else.  There will be no certificate.  Perhaps there could be acknowledgement from others within the community of people daring to create a life they love, but this is dream-thinking and unguaranteed, especially if I don’t succeed; however, if completed, I foresee the benefits would be much more than I could ever imagine.  So with zero followers, no money, and expected failure, I begin this blog and a year of self-directed learning.

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