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Pursue learning the world through exploration, not a set of rules

Founder Friday is a weekly guest post written by a founder who is based in or hails from the Silicon Prairie. Each month, a topic relevant to startups is presented and founders share lessons learned or best practices utilized on that topic. November’s topic is education.  

About the authors: Hunter Browning is CEO and co-founder of Fannect.

There are few things in the world I enjoy more than learning. This complete obsession has been one of the most influential factors in shaping my life and developing the journey I currently find myself on. 

That statement might seem odd coming from someone who dropped out of college after just three months. Allow me to backtrack and explain how the unique learning experiences I have been fortunate enough to have and the inherent curiosity I was born with brought me to the moment of leaving an educational institutiion in an attempt to truly learn.

When I was a child, my mother put a huge emphasis on exploratory learning in my life. There were weekly trips to museums, science experiments and observational hiking trips into the Rocky Mountains. I often look back on that and think how fortunate I was to have my mother’s appreciation for learning as a catalyst for my own journey. The ability I gained at a young age through explorative learning to fundamentally understand something instead of just memorize a set of rules impacted how I view the world and approach every problem.

My early schooling passed in relative normalcy until late middle school, early high school. As Mark Twain said, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” For the first time, I felt school was interfering with learning. I remember being in class, hearing the common complaint of “I will never need to know this, so why do I have to learn it?” and thinking that while I didn’t view it as irrelevant like my classmates did, I felt the material was not the main focus of why I was in that class. Instead of a focus on learning, I felt I was there to get grades that would keep my parents, teachers and school standards happy. To me this was evident in how information was often presented for memorization of a unit or chapter, pass a test and then move on without any real understanding of what you were just taught. From my experiences as a child, I knew true learning only came with a full conceptual understanding, not the ability to apply a set of rules to equations, works of literature or projects.

After seeing this happening more and more, I began to feel cheated and started losing interest. I have never been someone who is overly motivated by a stamp of approval, so grades just didn’t really do it for me. I wanted, needed, the satisfaction that came from understanding what I was studying. My grades dipped some for the first time in my life, not horribly, but not the straight As tests indicated I “should” be getting. I started studying all kinds of things on my own outside of school days to get the learning I desperately desired.

At that point in my life, I was very fortunate to get involved with the Blue Valley CAPS program. For those who are unfamiliar with CAPS (Center for Advanced Professional Studies), it’s a high school supplemental program where participating students come for part of the day to study a specific industry in a real-world setting. CAPS facilities offer a wide field of study, from bio-med and engineering to global business and entrepreneurship. My love to create and years of garage tinkering led me straight into an engineering course with CAPS my first semester of junior year. I was exposed to industry-leading engineering software, state-of-the-art machinery and projects with large engineering companies that had the foresight to see the value in CAPS. During this time, there were many occasions when professionals actually came to students seeking help finishing a design on software or calibrating a piece of machinery. This was because the students had become so skilled so quickly due to the resources, support and freedom CAPS provides young minds. 

Then my journey really started to accelerate. I had seen what I could do when given the support and resources needed to master a skill and the reasonable freedom to run with that skill. This was empowering and led me to take on one of the most challenging learning experiences of my life. I decided I was ready to start trying to make an impact in the world; I was prepared and excited to learn what it would take to do that. I spent the next two years pursuing the creation of a technology that would allow hydrogen gas to be liberated from water more efficiently and economically than had ever been done in a point-of-use generation system to bring ideal safety to the highly explosive fuel. My goal was to have hydrogen finally implemented as the perfect fuel source. A clean, powerful and abundant fuel, produced in a manner than was safe, economic and required little infrastructure adaptation for widespread adoption. This was a sizable undertaking and required I learn a lot of things I hadn’t scratched the surface of. I spent the next two years studying quantum mechanics and nuclear physics, using any resources I could get my hands on. I accessed the amazing vat of online lectures and material MIT open source provides, countless physics textbooks, wonderful teachers and professors, industry processionals and endless online scientific resources. Those two years were a whirlwind of video lectures, piles of scientific papers, hours and hours of lab time, circuit boards, whiteboard equations and way too much English tea to fight the few hours of nightly sleep. 

It was a grind, and I loved every second of it. I was completely submersed in what I was doing and it evoked a passion that completely drove my life. I was questioning. I was understanding. I was growing and truly learning. 

I entered college after this period of intense study. I had seen how fast I could learn with the proper resources and few barriers. I was really excited to attend college, ready to study engineering physics. As part of a select group of engineering students at the school, I hoped my learning would accelerate even further. It was not long before my romantic hope for higher education faded. I felt like most everyone, teachers and students alike, were there with the expectation of going through the motions for the next four years to push out another class of graduates. I wanted to learn. I wanted to be completely submersed in my studies, and I was not getting that in the classroom. I want to be clear here: It wasn’t that I felt my classes were too easy to pass or I was too smart for them. It was that I felt even when doing well in class that I was not truly learning. To me, it didn’t make sense to spend thousands of dollars and four or five years of my life under the pretense of “learning” just to get a stamp of approval and move out into my life without really feeling like I had spent that time learning as well as I could have.

Right before I left for college, I founded a technology company. In my first few months of college I was driving hours most days to get from campus to fundraising and development meetings. Jumping between the real world and my college environment was the final push I needed to leave. I had glimpsed what I could actually make happen out in the world and what I could learn in the process. I made tons of mistakes, stupid and costly mistakes, and I am thankful for each one. The small successes and mistakes provided me with an accelerated learning that can’t be purchased anywhere. I left school after three months to pursue a full-time entrepreneurial lifestyle. This was one of the greatest choices of my life. 

I gave up the safety net of a college degree for what I felt was true learning. It can be unstable and there are ups and downs, but for me, this process is real education. I wholeheartedly believe that the change needed in this world will come from those who think differently and see life through a unique perspective. It only seems logical to me that a different perspective and thinking would come from an educational experience that’s far from the norm.

College and standard education have their time and place, there is no denying that, and I by no means encourage everyone to up and leave their degree programs for what I have chosen. I simply encourage everyone to try to truly learn, whatever that may be for you. The pursuit of learning is an amazing gift that allows you to see how little you truly know about your existence, which makes life fantastically interesting. 

I’ll close this with a challenge: The next time you find yourself asking why something is the way it is or works the way it does, write it down and don’t discard it until you have come to a true understanding of your answer. You will be amazed where an education of questioning the world will take you. 


Credits: Hunter Browning photo from LinkedIn.

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