Designing Your Practical Masters Degree: 12 Apprenticeships with 12 Businesses in 12 Months

Designing Your Practical Masters Degree: 12 Apprenticeships with 12 Businesses in 12 Months

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

― Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked a lot about hacking the education system.

We’re taking learning into our own hands to create our own real-world, self-guided, practical education.

We’ve talked about the death of job security, how to raise yourself to be an entrepreneur, making extreme career transitions and how formal education killed the passionate career.

Today We’re Taking Practical Education to a Whole New Level…

Because the reality is that no one is responsible for providing you the skills, experience and self-understanding required to find and do work you love.

No one other than you. 

And nobody has taken that more to heart in the last few years than Victor Saad.

Victor is a long-time member of our community here at Live Your Legend, and what he’s done in the past few years has been nothing short of spectacular. Not just for himself, but for the world of education.

In 2011 Victor was living in Chicago, and started to feel the urge to take his career a little more seriously.

An entrepreneur at heart, he naturally figured an MBA was the next step.

But as he explored his business school options, he noticed a few unsettling things. First, it was going to cost him upwards of $150,000 – a sum he didn’t happen to have in his back pocket. And second, he noticed that most MBA graduates he’d met had wanted something more out of their degree. But the MBA seemed like the only credible place to further one’s learning objectives.

Something seemed fishy…

Not willing to risk the two years and enough money for a down payment on a nice Chicago home, he opted for a different route.

He created The Leap Year Project and proceeded to set up 12 apprenticeships with 12 businesses around the world over 12 months.

His theory was simple: Learning by doing would beat learning about doing. 

His Leap Year was so successful that he wrote a book about the experience, and then went on to create a totally new form of school based on the path he’d taken. His school is called Experience Institute, and its first class of students started last month.

The work Victor is doing is the perfect example of what it means to Live Your Legend. Do the work you can’t not do, and leverage your talents and passions to make a unique and positive impact on the world.

I’m honored to call Victor a friend, and excited to share the below article, written by him and his Ei students, on how to create the kind of education that makes for a life and career worth living.

And for those interested, he’s offering our community 30% off his book, The Leap Year Project. Just enter coupon code LIVEYOURLEGEND upon checkout.

Enter Victor…

Making the Leap: 9 Steps to Creating Your Practical Masters Degree

Victor Saad and The Leap Year Project

I sat nervously in front of a sheet of paper.

What was I supposed to do? I spent a mere thirty minutes scribbling a few notes. It was too early and I was too rushed. There was no way I should take these ideas seriously. If I did, they would change everything.

First, let me back up.

After I graduated from college, I took a job working with middle school and high school students. For the next five years, I served on a team focused on supporting families, creating after-school programs, and building a 40,000 square foot student community center, complete with a theater, cafe, and hangout space.

My work made me curious about further education in business, design, and simply learning how I could make a difference. Over time, the idea of earning an MBA surfaced. But the more I studied for the GMAT and researched programs, the more I wondered if the options and price tags fit.

In the spring of 2011, I took my students on a volunteer trip to a camp in Northern Wisconsin. The time working, reflecting, and conversing gave me just enough room to sit back and see the past several years with fresh eyes.

The following day, I went to the dining room table and wrote “The Leap Year Project” at the top of a piece of paper. I laid out a crazy plan in a mere thirty minutes.

The project had two main parts:

1. Education: 12 experiences around social change in 12 months and

2. Inspiration: Ask others to solve problems in their world and share stories.

My final project would be to compile a book of short stories submitted by people taking risks to create change. I shared these ideas with my closest friends and each conversation was affirming and exciting.

The following months were some of the most difficult. I spoke with my (amazing) bosses and they gave me the summer of 2011 to phase out of my position. I started a blog and a newsletter and built a small community of people who were interested in following the journey and learning with me.

By late fall of 2011, I was jobless, but I was well on my way to an incredible year.

My journey started in January at a design agency in Chicago and then led me around the world, from Atlanta to Cairo, Costa Rica to Boulder, Seattle to San Diego, and so on.

At the end, the folks behind TEDxWindy City worked with me to stage my ‘graduation,’ an amazing artist/friend designed my ‘diploma’ that was signed by my community, and a group of incredible friends and designers worked to produce our final book project — a sort of modern day dissertation about the value of taking risks to learn how to change our world.

Here’s a short trailer to give you a feel…

Don’t see a video? Click here.

In one short year, I had learned a great deal about business development, design, and the tools necessary to build and manage teams, I had built relationships with incredible people, and I had developed a meaningful story that inspired conversation with leaders that I respected. These are the things I hoped to gain through an MBA, and I had done it completely differently — and without any financial debt.

There was so much buzz and interest in the story that some friends and I decided to start a new type of school called Experience Institute. Currently, there are six founding students that are creating their own graduate level programs by completing three core apprenticeships around their field of study, supplemented by 3 two-week meetups in Chicago. Together, we’re studying community building, self-awareness, storytelling, operations, and design thinking.

One of Ei’s mantras is to “Be helpful.” So, the six students and I have written the following steps and lessons below for the Live Your Legend community, so that you all can take a crack at pursuing education in this new fashion.

The rest of this article is a combination of what I learned during Leap Year Project and what our students are learning as we begin to organize this idea of higher education based on apprenticeship and real world experience. This is not a perfect, or exhaustive to-do list, but it’s a good starting point. Our hope is that you would take these steps and apply them in your own context. And if you need some more inspiration, pick up the Leap Year Book (proceeds go to further our program) or follow the development of Experience Institute through our Newsletter.

Whatever you do and wherever you go after this post, know that you’re not alone. The six of us students and the Ei team are right there with you.

The Experience Institute Founding Class

How to Draft Your Own MBA…

1. Ask The Right Questions

Start by taking a look inward:

What do I need to learn?

Why do I need to learn it?

Am I aiming for a specific vocation, or am I exploring where I best fit into the world?

Do I need certain credentials/certificates? How can I receive those?

Remember, you’ll learn about who you are as you work towards something you care about.

I began stumbling onto these questions (and answers) during my first job with students. When I began talking to others about ways I could learn more, MBA programs were a major part of our conversation, but several people also told me that another degree might be a waste. I spent a lot of time listening to their feedback and paying close attention to how I was responding. Which leads me to the next point:

2. Choose Your Classmates/Peers

Invite others to speak into your world and join you on the journey. Keep your friends and family especially close. They’ll think you’re crazy, but they’ll appreciate knowing where you are and what you’re doing. More importantly, you’ll need them. This type of thing can get lonely. Trust me.

Start by giving people specific places to speak into your world and begin positioning them as confidants on your journey. Here are some questions we each asked close friends in our lives:

– Where have you seen me succeed?

– When have I been the most challenged? What was I doing?

– Is there one company, individual, or organization that comes to mind when you think of my skills?

Also, invite experts. Find your heroes, ask them what steps they took to get to their current position. Doing so will create a sample roadmap for what your next steps will be.

People are capable of greatness when something is demanded of them and they are supported and encouraged to see it through.

3. Define Your Major

What’s your vision of a better world?

What topic(s) will you focus on? Why/how does that fit with the way you’ll impact the world?

What is the start and end date of your program?

What types of projects will you complete and share?

At first, people may not understand what you’re doing. But, these tangible goals, milestones, and topics of study will paint the picture for others. For me, 12 apprenticeships/experiences in 12 months became a palatable structure. I even came up with a “dissertation” — a community book project about the value of taking risks to learn how to change our world.

As we start Experience Institute, we’ve decided on three apprenticeships that are supplemented by three meetups. During our time together, we’ve chosen five core competencies to study: community building, self-awareness, storytelling, operations, design thinking.

Defining the direction and topics will give you a filter by which you vet opportunities to learn.

4. Apply to Classes

Where do you want to apprentice? Who do you want to learn from?

Begin approaching a lot of people in your industry of study. Cold calls can be uncomfortable, but you’ll be more confident if you’ve first done your research on the person/company you’re reaching out to. Investigate and know as much as you can about the person you’re connecting with. Think about how you can add value to their existing projects.

If you genuinely help a company/team, it improves their team, shows that you care about more than just your own goals, and it gives you confidence as you approach your next project.

This first requires that you know what projects are going on. Clearly state your goals and make connections to how your educational aspirations could be mutually beneficial to the company you’re contacting. Be authentic. Don’t exaggerate your skill sets, but don’t underestimate the value you could bring either.

Be ready for rejection. A lot of people won’t know what to do with this idea or request. That’s okay. Have a bias toward action. As soon as you see an open door, even if it’s not spectacular, go for it. With the world seemingly at your fingertips, you’ll have high hopes for working with prominent people. Worry less about where you are and more about opportunities to really add value. (i.e. : an apprenticeship at a prominent company where no one cares to know your name or invest time in you is less valuable than a company or organization who entrusts you with a project.)

Don’t only touch on what you want to do…but be AN EXPERT on what THEY are doing. This educational journey isn’t about how much you want to learn, it’s about the value of the topics/work that are changing your world and exploring how you can be helpful.

Immerse yourself in the environments where they speak the language you want to learn.

The New Classroom

5. Go to School

Showing up at someone’s company, studio, or workspace may seem daunting, or awkward at first. That’s okay. It is.

There should be some clear expectations before you begin, but in any case, your first step is to learn everything you can. Interview everyone on staff. Understand the values, hopes, and dreams within the space and identify the hurdles to realizing them. In The Leap Year Project Book, Victor defined this as “spotting the villain.”

Then, the learning begins. How can you be helpful? List a series of projects and objectives that can be completed. Doing so will further define your role and give you a reason to dive deep into certain topics you want to explore. As soon as everyone agrees what projects need to be completed, you’re in school. It’s go time.

6. Take Creative Notes

Now it’s time to document everything! Write, blog, photograph, video post, etc.

Once you’ve researched, planned, prepared, and engaged a company/individual, it’s time to begin archiving your learnings. Find an online space to document your progress; start a blog, video posts, podcasts, etc. Whatever you do, be consistent, and set a realistic time frame for this documentation process.

The world won’t bow to your beginnings, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a clear stake in the ground of your start date. For me, on September 1, 2011, I received my last paycheck, hired a friend to develop a blog, and wrote a newsletter that thanked everyone who I had worked with on staff at my previous job.

My goals were made public, and there was no turning back. (Take a peek at Scott’s post on How to Start a Blog in 20 Minutes with Zero Tech Experience, and get started ASAP!)

Learn how you process information and do it regularly.

7. Publish Papers

Spend time teaching others and you will be taught in the process.

Set a regular time for sharing your lessons: Weekly? Monthly? Use the medium that allows you to clearly communicate the ideas and skills that you want others to understand.

These lessons may be in the form of both hard and soft skills you’re acquiring as you work alongside experts in your chosen field of study. Your learnings will be reinforced as you require yourself to demonstrate mastery of new information by taking on the teacher role.

Share your work–good, bad, ugly–it shows you’re alive and it helps others live.

8. Define Your Grades

In most cases, grading within this model is pass/fail. The point isn’t that you earned a certain GPA, it’s that you completed what you set out to do.

Still, it’s helpful to break down your year(s) of learning into milestones. For the Ei students, Victor created a special diploma with world-renowned artist Matthew Hoffman and presented it at the first meetup. After each meetup, we receive another piece of the diploma. At graduation, it’ll be complete.

Does this mean anything in the world of accreditation? No. It means a lot more. It symbolizes the progress being made and reminds us that we’re on a defined journey with others, working toward a shared goal.

Break down your projects into specific deadlines and have others hold you accountable. It’ll make all the difference.

9. Have a Real-World Graduation

This is it. The grand finale. What will you do to signal your completion, synthesize your learnings, and celebrate the progress with your “classmates?” For Victor, this was a combination of a Kickstarter campaign, book project and a TEDx talk. For the rest of the Ei students, we’re preparing for a graduation and possible art show with our art student, Jessica Wachter.

Summarize your year into a bite-sized and engaging digital format (video or website) and a physical format (portfolio or book). Find a way to include and thank as many people as possible along the way. This isn’t just a celebration of what you’ve learned and who you’ve become, it’s a celebration of the people who got you there.

As valuable as this was for me personally and professionally, the event was more about the amazing community who joined the adventure. I wanted them to see that their investment was worthwhile. They took a huge risk on me. HUGE…and it meant more than they’ll ever know. I couldn’t have done it without them, and that day was a creative way to say, “Together we did something great. And, it was just the beginning.”

Here’s my graduation on the TEDx stage…

Don’t see a video? Click here.

All of us know that our ideas around experiential education are unconventional.

But we’re inspired by Victor’s journey, and we’ve seen an incredible community come around these ideas. Our hope is that more and more people would begin pursuing this type of learning, and if they do, that experiences can become a credible form of education.

“The central task of education is to implant a will and a facility for learning; it should produce not learned, but learning people. In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future.”  – Eric Hoffer

Those words may have been written nearly 40 years ago, but they couldn’t be truer today. We believe that Victor’s small project and the generosity of several bright, caring individuals have not only surfaced a new type of education, but more importantly, a new space to equip people to engage today’s world and learn ways to make it better.

Now, it’s your turn.

We want Experience Institute to grow in the coming years, but more importantly, we want you to begin today.

Pick one of the steps and get started.

Go ahead. Take the Leap.

– Dane, Carisa, Jessica, April, Joe, Muff, Victor, & The EI Team

Follow the journey of Experience Institute’s Founding Class here. (Applications will reopen in 2014)

Right now, we’re in the process of establishing our first apprenticeships with companies and individuals who have partnered with Experience Institute. Also, later this fall, Victor will work with Stanford University to start an Ei project within their Institute of Design to explore if/how this model can impact traditional universities.

The Leap Year Project BookIn the meantime, you can follow our journey here, or you can gain an extra dose of inspiration through The Leap Year Project Book through PaperbackiPadKindle.

*Make sure to use the coupon code: LIVEYOURLEGEND for $10 off the paperback version.

Special thanks to Scott Dinsmore for letting us write on his blog. We are big fans of him and his work through the LYL community. The fact that he would let a group of students write on his site says a lot about him. Stay tuned for more goodness from this guy!

And for those of you who have questions for Victor, his team or his students, please leave them in the comments!