How Shane Parrish Scaled the Farnam Street Learning Community to 300K

Team Disco
8 min read

When we think of virtual bootcamps and academies, we think of them as teaching particular skills. But in Shane Parrish’s case with Farnam Street, he’s giving his 300,000+ following the tools to be better learners, decision makers, and leaders.

Shane Parrish began working at an intelligence agency two weeks before 9/11. After the attacks, he and his colleagues were operating in chaos mode. The goal? Do anything you can to move forward, even if you’re not qualified for it.

Through that method of learning — the “jump off the deep end and swim” style of learning, Shane realized that there was something to it. He began chronicling and tracking what he learned on a personal blog, the URL a string of numbers so random it would be nearly impossible for anyone to find organically.

His learning community, Farnam Street, is the summation of those experiences — and the continual learnings Shane and those in the community are accumulating along the way.

Farnam Street isn’t the typical virtual academy we tend to spotlight at Disco. Instead, Farnam Street has set itself up as a genuine forum for idea exchange, article sharing, and late-night thought dumps. Members also get a weekly newsletter with exclusive content, stories, and lessons, access to a community book club, access to Shane’s Knowledge Library, transcripts of Shane’s podcast, monthly AMAs, and early access to events.

But what can other learning community founders learn from Shane, the eternal student?And what has made him and his Farnam Street peers so successful?

What emerging virtual bootcamp, academy, and micro-school founders can learn from Shane’s unique approach to both learning & teaching

Having an experience doesn't always result in learning

So much of what academies, bootcamps, and other learning communities try to push and create is this idea of experience. That is to say: have an experience, learn something.

Shane warns this isn’t always the case — and encourages people to look at the act of learning a little differently:

“I think that a lot of people think about learning as experience. And we think that if we have an experience, then we've learned something. I don't think that adequately represents how we go about learning. So to learn something, you not only need to have an experience, which can be something vicarious through other people, or whether you're reading or through a conversation or hands-on, which is an experience with yourself.

But then you need to reflect on that experience and you need to reflect on that conversation and respect or reflect on all the variables in the situation. And then you come to an abstraction and that abstraction is basically what you'll do the next time. You're in this situation. And that's the beginning of learning.

Abstraction leads to action. Action leads to an experience. And so you have this loop of learning where you have experience at the top, you have reflection, then you have abstraction and then you have action. When you think about that, it's really interesting because how we consume content mostly on the internet these days is all geared towards abstractions.”

Shane goes on to say that for a lot of us, the things we learn online — and this includes in virtual live learning courses — we’re stuck in the abstraction phase. We know what the variables are and we understand how they should be applied, but the action piece is missing.

“The difference between a chef and a line cook, right? They can both follow a recipe and if everything goes well it'll taste very similar,” Shane says. “But if something goes wrong, the chef can immediately diagnose why it went wrong. The line cook might have a little bit of a problem with that because they don't have the same experience.”

This all comes into play when designing a course or curriculum or lesson plans: the experience is just the very start of the loop. You have to let people reflect on that experience and understand acutely how to apply it to real-life situations. All learning communities should equip their learners with the ability to do that.

Read about On Deck’s philosophy where everyone’s a learner and everyone’s a teacher.

Strive for competence over expertise

As the creator of learning experiences and community, you may want everyone who joins to walk away with a newfound expertise in the skill you're focused on. But rather than striving for expertise—which is something that’s learned over many loops around the educational track and through real life experience—help learners develop necessary competence to know how to react in particular a situation.

“We all have blind spots, especially in the way our education system works when you start specializing, often in high school and continue in university. The reason you do that is to make yourself employable. Employers want you to be able to contribute right away, so you need the vocabulary and you need to learn all the basics before you start at work.

Reality is, we're never going to eliminate our blind spots, but we can definitely start learning about timeless principles that apply across broader situations. A basic knowledge of psychology helps you be a better leader. A basic knowledge of accounting helps you be a better leader. And so when you start taking these different disciplines, not only can you communicate better with other people, you understand how they learned and what they consider as important, which helps you as a leader.”

That’s the difference between expertise — those hard skills you’ve developed year over year in your career and in school — and the competence to learn skills along the way that help you reach a more holistic understanding of people.

There's power in being a better decision maker

As we get older, the amount of decisions we have to make increases. The difficulty of making those decisions increases, too. These decisions greatly affect our trajectory in life and definitely in business, which is why Shane has studied how we make those decisions, trying — as is his method for most things — to boil it down to a science.

“So with decision-making we look at it as there's repeatable behaviors that go into making good decisions, and then there's active reflection with your decisions. So often we make decisions, but we don't get better. We have experience, but we're not learning. We all know somebody at work. Who's had 20 years of experience and they've repeated the same year of experience 20 years in a row,” Shane says

In true Farnam Street fashion, learners are encouraged to give themselves feedback and document the decision-making process to have that record of what they were considering and what went wrong.

“The idea of a decision journal is, before you make a decision, you can write down certain things that’ll help you look back in the future. So before you've made the decision, you have a sort of check-in. In reality. Six months later, you can go back and look at ‘what did I know at the time I made the decision?’ And if you do this in your own handwriting, it really works wonders because then you can't convince yourself that somebody else typed that or that wasn't really you.”

Rally people around abundance

“School tends to be transactional, right? So I think that's a really hard place to develop friendships during school, whether you're doing your master's or your undergrad. Then you go to work and you have a community at work.

A lot of organizations organize communities around certain topics, but it's really hard to organize abundance: An abundance of information and sharing and hopefulness is really hard in organizations because we've also slightly pitted these people against each other.”

As Shane recalls from his own experience, the institutions we have in place, like schools and workplaces, allow for limited abundance. “I hope you thrive! But only in relation to how well I’m doing” is the common mantra when you’re up against your peers constantly.

In live learning communities  — in particular at Farnam Street — abundance is, well, abundant. Because there’s no shortage of information or wealth of knowledge to go around. Nobody’s limited by that abundance because what a learner gains from a course isn’t relative to what anyone else gains.

When you rally people around this idea of abundance and that everyone can share a piece of the pie, you’ve laid the foundation to a supportive learning community that fosters a great situation for everyone involved.

Learn how Seth Godin applies this idea of community-centric learning rather than education to the AltMBA and Akimbo learning communities.

How different mental models breed innovation

Founders, CEOs, entrepreneurs, creators — we’re all focused on the next “thing”. The next business model, the next financial model, the next educational model. Those that are successful have not only identified those aforementioned blind spots — they’ve innovated around them.

How?

“I think that there's a difference between changing it from the inside and changing it from the outside,” Shane confesses. “They're saying here's a better way to do it. We're going to prove it with results and they're rapidly achieving that. But what's not happening is the insides changing. You're not seeing that model be copied by the very people who have the incentive to keep the system the way it is, because that would be admitting that their way is the best way. Then, you have these two competing models and eventually just one of them collapses.”

Spoiler alert: it’s really, really hard to make incremental change from the inside out.

“If you have a better way of doing things or you think that you can contribute, then you have to put those ideas to the test. The way to put them to the test is you have to go out in the real world and you have to be willing to be wrong and be embarrassed by the fact that you're wrong because you strongly believe in these ideas so much.

We have these competing things and they compete for scarce resources. In this case, it’s students and jobs and all of these things, and the better solution tends to win over time. It doesn't mean that both solutions don't exist, but over time, one of them becomes less and less important, and then it just becomes irrelevant. But that's how progress is made.”
Published
June 2, 2022
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