Education

In Self Development, Travel
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Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world – Nelson Mandela

Childhood

When I was younger I spent a lot of time at my Grandma’s house. My grandma’s name was Barbara, but she liked to call herself Sally – it’s a long story. Until this day, Nana Sally is the most inspiring person I’ve ever met. She was educated at the University of Oxford and pursued a career as a teacher of English & Latin at a private school for girls where we grew up in the Lake District in the beautiful north of England. But her talent didn’t stop there; she spoke 9 languages fluently, played the piano majestically, and held a deep passion and gift for hiking, writing, astronomy, and photography. 

When I was growing up my father wasn’t around that much so Nana Sally took his place. The most commendable thing about Nana Sally was her zest and passion for education and learning. She was insistent on sharing the importance of education in everything we did together as a family. The presents I received for Christmas from were always educational based and practical. She wouldn’t buy me toys, but rather books, puzzles, journals or something productive that I could use for school. 

Every other weekend she’d take my sisters and me on excursions and adventures in the Lake District. We’d visit zoos, museums, climb mountains, have picnics together and go on boat rides on Lake Windermere. I often stayed over at her place, and fortunately, she wasn’t one of those scary-annoying Grandparents that gave you sloppy kisses that you never wanted to visit.

While I was at her place she’d often help me with my homework or we’d play chess or cook together. She was a role model. I looked up to her and given the chance, I’d try my best to prove myself, nagging her to test my mental arithmetic skills. I also had a terrible lisp as a young boy, which she very patiently managed to teach me out of, and now I’m happy to say that I can finally pronounce my “S’s” and ‘Silly Sausages’ without slurring and spitting saliva from the mouth.

Nicola and I at The Zoo

Dreams

Nana Sally’s relentless passion for education rubbed off on me. Because of her influence, I loved the early days of school and I was a passionate learner, especially when it involved Maths or Geography. And like most young people, I was always dreaming. The most significant and dearest dream I had as a young boy was to create my own school. I was obsessed with this dream. I’d spend much time in school visualising the moment I cut the ribbon and opened my school for the first time. I also kept notebooks and even recruited my friends to come and help me build it. 

Primary School was quite fun. Even though I’m not religious and wasn’t back then either, my mum sent me to a wonderful Catholic School called St. Oswalds in the small village of Burneside that I lived in till about the age of 10. I loved it too. We sang funny religious songs about naked men and Jesus giving us the water of life, captured frogs from the school pond and tortured them, and from time to time ate play-dough. Jokes aside, primary school was brilliant because it emphasised play and expression, while also teaching the importance of respecting nature. 

I remember that everything seemed possible as a young boy. I was encouraged to dream big by my family, friends and teachers. There were no limits. Anything, even the most far-out ideas were doable, guided by raw curiosity and never-ending imagination. I clung on to my dream to build a school until I was about 12 years old, and then things began to change. 

Class of St. Oswalds Catholic School, Burneside – Circa late 90s.

Secondary School

Secondary school was an interesting experience. In hindsight, the focus wasn’t to promote dreaming or using my imagination like Nana Sally had advocated. Although there were pockets of magic at school, I quickly understood that the general consensus was to follow order, memorise diligently and regurgitate with precision in order to fulfil the priority of achieving the best grade possible. The purpose was conformance and compliance, rather than tapping into imagination, expression or playing. Inevitably, I stopped dreaming with fear followed by self-doubt creeping in, flinging my dream to build my own school to the very back of my mind. 

I became pragmatic, rational and practical in the mind. I obeyed my teachers and followed their instructions meticulously.  Don’t get me wrong, there were a few subjects that poked my imagination, primarily because of the teachers who were leading them. Those subjects were Design, Drama, Geography and Physical Education. I loved them all, and I flourished in all of those classes and learned a lot. Having said that, these kinds of subjects tended to be stigmatised as they were not deemed academically worthy or as challenging as a subject like Maths, English or Science. 

As each year rolled by, I became a better conformer and more compliant student. Even though I silently questioned what I was learning and its applicability to my life, I learned how to play the game and give the teachers what they wanted in exams and coursework. Nobody was fooling anyone either, because we were all participating in the same game. The game’s entire focus wasn’t to learn or educate, but rather to get the best grades at all costs in the exams, so that A) I could get my passport to university (the better my grade, the better the university I could attend) and B) The School looked good on National ranking scales and received more funding.

By the end of Secondary School I had passed my exams with flying colours finishing as one of the top performing students in my school. Through supreme compliance, I had a passport and the grades to study at any university in the UK.

I decided that I wanted to be close to home and enrolled at the University of Manchester for the BSc Business Management degree. To be honest, I chose Business Management because it was varied – I could learn about psychology, economics, human resources, law – and at that stage of life I didn’t have a clue about what I wanted to do with my life. 

University

At university the game of conformance continued, but now the stakes were much larger. It was far more systemised and ruthless than the game I played at Secondary School. It was difficult to be heard and stand out at unviersity. There were 1,000s of people in my faculty, while around 40,000 students were studying in the entire university, compared to less than 1,000 students in my secondary school. With 40,000 students, order and categorisation were important and resulted in each student’s identity being stripped down to a measly 7-digit-number. My number was 2418486, and it’s imprinted in my mind for the rest of my life. 

Luckily the rules of the game remained the same: Follow order, memorise diligently and regurgitate to get the best grade possible. So even though it felt a bit phoney, I put my head down and I got on with it. I knew that if I conformed and got great grades I could get a new passport to the next stage of life and secure a position in a big corporation upon graduation.

I worked relentlessly hard at university, and by the time I got to year 3, I was one of the best students playing the game. I finished my studies as the top student with the best overall mark in the entire Faculty of Humanities and as 1 of 30 top performing students graduating from the University of Manchester in 2012.

But although it seemed liked I’d accomplished loads to the outside, I felt like I’d cheated myself on the inside. All the way through university I questioned the relevance of what I was learning to the applicability of life. The way I was being tested always felt like it was completely missing the point of education and a terrible way to judge my competence as a learner.

Although I had finished on top, I felt like a little piece of my soul had died. I felt like I’d played a game that wasn’t worth playing. Granted, my time at university had been great and asides from my studies I met some fabulous people and I learned many important skills like independence, researching, socialising and cooking – all as a byproduct of studying and living in a house with 7 best friends for 3 years.

I left university confused. I’d told myself a cunning story all the way through university that I wanted to become an investment banker, so I was contemplating a career in London, and with my grades and work ethic, it was more than doable. I was tempted by the idea of being financial prosperous because I’d grown up in a low-income family and money was always scarce.

But the reality was that I didn’t really want to do it inside, so out of a mixture of curiosity and confusion, I decided to go on a journey and take time out to travel the world to discover who I was and what I was really destined to do with my life.

Graduating from University Alongside Anna Goatman – My Dissertation Mentor and one of My Favourite Teachers At University

Travel

Travel changed everything. My plan was only to leave the UK for 1 year, but 6 years later, here I am, writing this article from Bucharest, Romania. 

Very early on in my trip I saw the incredible benefits of travel and instead of seeing travel as just a form of enjoyment and pleasure, I saw my journey as an opportunity to learn about myself and the world around me. Even though travel can be a very external adventure, I saw travel as an opportunity to look inwards, and to work on myself while building an understanding about the world through first-hand experiences. 

My journey morphed into a personal curriculum and felt like a natural way to learn. As I journeyed, I would meet people hitchhiking and couchsurfing and I’d ask them questions about their life – what they’d learned, their regrets and what their dreams were. I’d write their answers down in my journal, and then reflect on what they said for days after. My journal was my most important possession while travelling and I’ve kept one since Day 1 until today.

Slowly but surely, as I met more people and had more experiences, that inner child that I’d suppressed and locked away for so many years through school and university began to resurface. It felt like I was reborn, and most importantly, after years of conformance, I was enthusiastic about life again, tapping into my imagination & creativity, coming up with new ideas, and I could sense that something magical was about to happen.   

Full Circle

I began using the outward travel journey and my journal as my tools of regression to venture back into my childhood. I realised that everyone I met and anything I saw in them was simply a mirror of myself and therefore an opportunity to learn and challenge my current beliefs. In addition, all the traumas, pains, struggles, anxiety – it was all there and needed to be processed too. But underneath all these cobwebs (or blessings), a truth I’d spent 28 years of my life trying to find outside myself was also waiting to be (re)discovered. 

I’d gone on this big journey around the world travelling 1,000s of kilometres to try and find out who I was and what I was supposed to do in my life, but the answer was at my feet and with me all along. That inner child that I had suppressed that possessed all the wisdom of life the day he was born. It wasn’t just the curiosity, imagination and enthusiasm of that child that I’d suppressed, but that child also possessed something very important that I’d forgotten about.

My dreams.

And the most important dream of all of them. My dream to set up my own school that had consumed most of my younger days. My outward journey had led me back full circle to the point where I began and now it was clear what journey I needed to go on.

All that resistance to the last 10 years of education and questioning the relevance of what I was learning and its applicability to life made sense. Deep down I knew that I wanted to create my own school. And up until this discovery, unknowingly, my journey around the world had been facilitating this mission, helping me learn about the world and decide what values and beliefs the school would be built on.

Once I’d seen that dream again, it consumed my mind and thinking. I couldn’t stop thinking about the school. I started to imagine what the school would be like and I kept coming back to the idea of creating a holistic school of life. Like how to deal with emotions, depression, anxiety. Looking after the environment and understanding our connection with nature. How to build meaningful relationships. How to look after the body. How to cook. How to start a business. How to look after finances. How to lead. How to empathise. How to debate… the list goes on and on.

Above all, I wanted to create a school where students could learn about the world and its people through experiential learning – a place where people from all over the world could come together to share, learn and belong – something that I now know I would’ve dearly appreciated for my own learning and development when I was growing up. 

One of my idols – Alan Watts

Podstel

Upon the realisation that I wanted to dedicate my life to the manifestation of my childhood dream to set up a school, I began the journey. The journey first led me to the domain of hostels and hospitality. Very early on in my travels, I saw that hostels provided a beautiful space to bring people from all over the world together. However, hostels, from how I perceived them back then seemed like just a place to socialise, get drunk and party.

But I saw that a hostel could be much more than that; a place for travellers (and locals) to share their skills, stories, and talents with each other. A place where people from all over the world could learn, belong and grow together.

As a result, Podstel was born, and this project would end up captivating my mind for the pretty much the entirety of my 6 year travel journey. I was obsessed with understanding why travellers were staying at hostels and what they really wanted to get from their experience. I ended up visiting 100s of hostels on my journey, while also learning a lot from other forms of hospitality and communities like Airbnb, Couchsurfing, hotels, and most importantly, hospitality on the Camino de Santiago. While I was researching, I was also building the Podstel concept, and in 2016, together with my best mates Sam and Jason, we secured finance and serendipity led us to Bucharest, Romania to start the first Podstel

From the very beginning we wanted to create a place that would bring locals and travellers together from all over the world together to share and learn from each other. That was in 2016, and for the last 2 years we’ve been experimenting with this idea, and with loads of tweaks and changes, we are confident that we’ve found something beautiful and unique that works. Our conclusion from the Podstel experiment, testing many events, workshops and seminars, as well as interviewing loads of our guests, and observing their experiences is that people are looking for two things in particular:

1) Belonging – the feeling of being at home in a place or community of people that share similar values and beliefs.

2) Growth – a chance to learn, share and ultimately become a better version of themselves. 

We now have set up two Podstels in Bucharest and both are going well. Its been an incredible journey, and although we are living in a world that’s now dominated by social media and online connections, we believe that the most meaningful connections will always be made in person. Giants like Facebook are realising this too, and are shifting their mission towards helping people transition their online communities to more meaningful offline encounters.

Ultimately, human beings are tribal-focused. It’s embedded in our DNA and we need affection, belonging and physical support that online connections simply cannot provide. That means that there’s a huge space for projects like Podstel to help humans belong and create meaningful connections again.

I’ve learned so much running Podstel. But I see life as a larger journey than Podstel, and I understand that although we’ve done some fantastic things with Podstel and that it’s been a crucial phase of my journey, it won’t ever be the school that I imagined as a child, and that’s ok, because even though there’s some overlap, Podstel serves other beautiful purposes.

Podstel Annual Gathering 2018

Going Forward

My dream and life mission is to create a school that empowers humanity to learn and grow. My journey so far has contributed significantly to this mission, but I still have a long way to go, and I am willing to work on this mission for the rest of my life. This mission is much bigger than my life, and I want to find a group of ambitious and passionate individuals who share a similar dream to come together to make something magical happen.

However, much of what I’ve learned at Podstel and curriculum of entrepreneurship and learning to become a better leader is highly relevant, and first, I still have a lot to learn by continuing to walk this journey and working on Podstel.  

Also, towards the end of last year I started to miss the UK. I’ve travelled around the world, lived in 3 countries and been away from the UK for 6 years now and I want to move back in the next couple of years to scale Podstel, and to begin conceptualising and manifesting the school. But first, there’s several important journeys that precede the school’s manifestation. Firstly, I want to go on a world pilgrimage to learn more about community, and to be build a more holistic perspective of the world. Secondly, I need to raise the finance to make the school happen and I am confident I can make that happen. Finally, I want to form a team to help create the school, and I know that this will be the most challenging part of the equation.

The School 

In brief, the school’s focus will be to help nurture the leaders of the future. I imagine the school to be rooted in experiential learning, teaching a curriculum focused on holistic living. Students will live on site for an extended period of time, and the school will be located remotely in secluded nature. There would be a huge emphasis on community, teamwork and creating a sense of belonging. Students will come from all different fields and countries, and teaching will take shape in a student/mentor format. The curriculum itself will cover important topics like environmentalism, health, psychology, relationships, philosophy, emotional intelligence, sustainability, spirituality, therapy as well as elements from the more pragmatic side of the world including managing finances, cooking, social-conscious entrepreneurship, leadership, public speaking. Above all there will be a big focus on our interconnectedness with nature. We will invite politicians, changemakers, artists, authors, creatives, musicians and other notable figures to come and share their stories and experiences with the students. 

Of course, I realise that this is a brief and somewhat vague description of what I imagine. And I will write more extensively going forward about the philosophy of the school. In addition, none of these ideas are fixed – I’m simply putting my thoughts out there and if any of what i’ve written resonates with you, then please get in touch.

Dad, Laura, Nicola & Me Hiking in the Lake District

Notes on Dreams

Before I leave, I want to spend a few moments talking about dreams. In my teens and up until my early 20s I suppressed my dreams and never spoke about them publicly. I thought people would laugh and ridicule them, but I think about it differently now. Having a dream is unique and something to be proud of, not to be embarrassed about. All the wonderful products, art, music, culture and creativity that we get to enjoy and use daily was once a dream held in someone’s mind. We must protect our dreams and we need to celebrate them, giving them the time and space they need to manifest and come to life.

And if you do decide to pursue your dream… people are going to put you down, it’s inevitable. And it’s hard not to listen when 50 people are chirping in your ear that you are stupid and you need to be following a more secure path. Those people will also tell you that you need to be realistic. But remember, being realistic is only ever concerned with the status quo and what currently exists. So to do something different in the world we need to do the opposite; we need to be unrealistic. 

I really believe that our inner child holds the secrets to much of our destiny in life, but only if we are willing to regain our awareness and reconnect with our child-self. So in an age of digital distraction, and doing anything but to face ourselves, I want to encourage you to go on a journey to get to know yourself. It doesn’t need to be a journey to the other side of the planet, but rather just to take time to sit with yourself and reconnect with that child who was born complete with all the purity and wisdom of life, because no matter what has happened in your life until this point in time, we all had dreams as a kid and they are one of the greatest gifts of life waiting to be rekindled – don’t be ashamed of them.

Young Nicola & Daniel

Conclusion

Ever since I was a young boy my dream was to build a school, and it’s my mission to achieve that dream. Once you’ve convinced yourself something’s possible, the hardest part is done, and the rest is simply manifesting your vision in the physical world.

Nana Sally would be proud of this dream, and now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that she was trying to instil the importance of education in my mind. She succeeded and I’m forever grateful for that and now I feel as if it’s my mission to pass on the same message to the world.

It took going on a big journey around the world to realise that one of the secrets to my own destiny was there from the very start, within me, in my childhood, patiently waiting to come out to play again.

Ironically, we spend so much time escaping ourselves, seeking the answers to life in the external world, when most of the answers to a healthy, fulfilling and meaningful life are already inside of us, waiting to be (re)discovered.

So I want to finish with one question: 

What were your childhood dreams?  

Nana Sally & The Rest of the Fam

About the Author

Hello everyone, I’m Dan – a 28-year-old social entrepreneur and writer from the north of England, living in Bucharest, Romania. I’m currently writing my first book about my 4-year journey around the world seeking wisdom and life-lessons from everyday people I met hitchhiking and Couchsurfing.

I discovered that travel, if approached with the right mindset, can be life-changing, and a trip combining travel, purpose and introspection is a great way to learn, challenge oneself and change for the better. Now my mission in life is to share what I’ve learned to inspire others to embark on their own journey of self-discovery and use travel, entrepreneurship and technology as a means to make the world a better place.

I’m also the founder of Podstel – a vision to help humanity belong and grow by creating a worldwide network of ‘homes’ that bring locals and travellers together to share their stories, passions and skills. The first two Podstels are open and thriving in Bucharest, so if you’re passing through, be sure to come and say hi, or stay the night with us.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi Daniel,
    yesterday I met your girlfriend in Leipzig. In a wider meaning: We study together. We had a little talk about school, education and the sense of life 🙂 She invited me to read your blog. So I started.

    I like your idea of traveling for self-discovering (instead of fleeing from the inner world into outside’s distractions) and your interests on education. I’m already a teacher and I tried to found a school… When I read your lines, I often thought to journeys I did or ways I actually walk.

    I like to come in closer contact with you, if you like. Just send me an Email. All others we will see.

    Have a good day and senseful steps on your way.
    Alexander

    • Hey Alexander,

      Thanks for the kind message. I am glad you resonate with what is written here, and i’d be more than glad to exchange ideas. I am in Leipzig in April, otherwise my email address is dan@thezennomad.com

      Thanks for the kind words, and speak soon!

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