A 7 Step Guide to Creating Happy Learning Communities

Since launching The Happy Startup School more than 2 years ago we’ve put on a variety of programs, events and experiences for budding entrepreneurs as well as more established startup founders, students and even corporates.

From small beginnings hosting meetups and workshops, we gradually made the step up to our annual 3 day Summercamp — where 120 changemakers gather in 300 acres to learn and get inspired.

Last year we put on the first of a series of overseas events — Alptitude — a week-long retreat where innovation met utopia (no, really) and we’re doing it all again in June. We also ran a similar event – Ashram – in India earlier this year. No mountains, but similar outcomes.

Even though each of these events come under the umbrella of the happy startup community, they are an experience in their own right and need to develop their own sense of community to work.

As well as these we’re now onto the 11th Tribe of our flagship online startup program Home School — our first step on the road to an online learning community. And although we could be considered digital aficionados, we’re battling with the challenge of creating an online learning experience that comes close to the real thing.

So whilst not everything has gone swimmingly from day one with these projects, we’ve got pretty good at creating happy learning environments over the last couple of years.

On leaving Alptitude, one of the group said:

“It’s like magic. Seriously. I don’t know what you do, but it works.”

Bringing it all together

I’ve distilled our learnings into 7 principles I believe are desirable to create atruly memorable learning experience.

These are based on ‘real world’ experiences but you can still apply many of these online too. Consider these principles when building your own programs to foster connections, accelerate learning and tighten your tribe.

1. Voluntary participation

This may sound obvious but that’s not how formal education tends to work. Most people’s experience of the learning environment is being forced or cajoled into going to school/college/university — or even worse a corporate training program.

Some people are pure academics and thrive in that environment. For the rest of us, we discover learning again later in later life when we find something we’re passionate about and want to know more.

“When there’s interest, education happens.” Arthur C. Clarke

I never used to read books.

By the age of 30 I could probably count on my hand the amount of books I’d read from cover to cover.

I got bored way too quick. My attention wavered.

I particularly hated fiction, partly because I just didn’t see the point. Why would you want to read something made up when there’s so many incredible true stories out there?

Forward to today. Over the last 5 years I’ve probably read close to 150 books.

None of them fiction.

Most of them related to either personal growth or entrepreneurship in some way.

I read to learn about things I care about.

By learning I’m growing. I’m improving daily thorugh the wisdom of others and firming up my view of how the world works.

No-one has made me do it. I’ve just found something I’m passionate about.

So anything I do now is voluntary.

When it’s not, there won’t be learning just boredom.

2. An environment that inspires

We’re mammals. We’re made to be outdoors.

When we’re in nature ideas flow, we breathe more freely, drop our shoulders and open up in ways we can’t when we’re sat at a desk.

Many educational institutions don’t inspire creativity and certainly don’t encourage us to be physically active often enough.

We need to get the blood moving.

We need space to think, breathe and create without pressure.

“Innovation doesn’t happen around a flipchart” Mark Sears

Thankfully this is changing. There are forest schoolswalkshops and secret adventuressailing retreats with no doubt more creative, innovative learning environments to come.

And this is just the start. The future is free-range.

3. Engineered serendipity

Nothing happens by chance.

You can’t always be lucky, but you can increase your chances of getting lucky.

At Alptitude and on our Home School tribe we curate who’s there through an application process. It’s painstaking at times and not always that pleasant (particularly when you have to turn good people down), but creating the right mix of people, perspectives, cultures, sexes and strengths means the chance of some sparks happening increases.

Even if people are willing to pay to join your community, if you’re not 100% sure whether someone is the right fit for your group then go with your gut. You’re probably right.

“Don’t chase the dollar, chase the dream.” Biggie Smalls

4. A culture that nourishes

The culture you create is how you are.

Whilst it’s important that people join the community with either a shared purpose, set of beliefs or goal, you as a leader will dictate what happens when you’re in the midst of it all.

For instance myself and Carlos sometimes bring our kids to work and to our retreats. My dog can often be found wandering around too.

Why? Because they’re part of our lives. But there are other benefits.

It’s hard to fly off the handle at a meeting when you’ve just played fetch.

If you want a community feel to whatever you do bring your whole self to it.

“Live your values, don’t laminate them.”

Don’t save the ‘real you’ for the margins of life. Embrace who you are and do let your guard down. Be vulnerable, stupid, make mistakes. Lead with a heart and show people the way.

Give them permission to f**k up. And don’t take yourself too seriously.

We set the tone for our experiences by how we show up, how we treat people and the choices we make. The food, music and ambience all play a part in this. And meaningful connections, ideas and collaborations then flow.

5. It doesn’t feel like work

Think of your best day at work. Did it feel like work? Or were you lost in time, feeling creative with ideas and energy flowing?

Chances are there was some element of play in action. With play there are usually few rules. Anything is possbile. There is no right or wrong.

Without the fear of failure or looking stupid, we get better outcomes.

At Alptitude we put on an unconference.

The venues? A hot tub, a trampoline, a ski lift, a 6 seat cinema and some picnic tables.

The outcomes? Better than any ‘real’ conference I’ve been to.

If you’re giving a talk on a trampoline you can’t feel anything other than a big kid. Which frees everyone else up to feel the same.

The key to creativity is unlocked.

6. Stories are at the heart

One day we’ll look back at the teacher-pupil model and realise how far we got it wrong. Gone are the days of hero teachers and know-it-all experts.

In his book Learning 3.0 (which he finished at Alptitude), Alexandre Magno shines a light on outdated educational models and provides a clear path to a more enriching future. He puts forward a new model of learning fit for the 21st century — one that is more emergent and ultimately effective.

Self-directed learning will become the norm in a few years. But what brings out the best learning, the most inquisitive minds, is stories.

Stories and conversations.

Not lectures and lessons.

So start with a question. Be curious.

When we started the Happy Startup School we asked a simple question:

“What if we could bring more happiness to business?”

Little were we to know where this would lead us.

7. Unique experiences are shared

At Alptitude 16 of us (voluntarily of course…) went on a 10 hour hike into the mountains. It was an incredible day where we challenged ourselves, got too hot, then too cold, had meaningful conversations with each and everyone and drank the local liquor of choice (involuntarily).

The previous night we walked into the forest and the whole group of 25 broke bread together in a yurt, had (too much) fondue, listened to local music, sang songs and walked home.

Other people climbed sheer cliff faces, threw themselves off mountains and rafted down rapids.

These experiences are now memories firmly implanted in our minds, never to be forgotten. We now have a bond with our fellow Alptituders that we would never have got without these.

Comfort zone firmly stretched. New stories created.

Now that’s magic

These are far from exhaustive ideas of what makes a meaningful learning experience and there are no silver bullets.

But experience tells us that learning environments that incorporate many of these elements have a better chance of something truly transformational, a strong bond between members and real long-term value.

  1. Voluntary participation
  2. An environment that inspires
  3. Engineered serendipity
  4. A culture that nourishes
  5. Playful work
  6. Great stories and conversations
  7. Unique, shared experiences

I can see the way we learn in the future looking very different when we bring more of these principles into our schools, colleges and organisations.

But try not to force outcomes. Just remember:

You can’t create magic, but you can create the conditions for magic to happen.

Now go make learning fun again.

Go build your tribe.