Axle Brown's Sabbatical

Axle Brown is launching into an exciting adventure: a self-designed Open Master's Sabbatical that will take him through Southeast Asia to complete apprenticeships in User Experience (UX) Design over the next 18 months.

Throughout his experience, he will be exploring the question, "how might we start to see and use design as a tool to generate happiness and reduce suffering in the world, not just make things beautiful and easy to use?”

With his Fellowship, Axle will be intentionally stepping into a new, full-time phase of his journey in the Open Masters after more than two years of focusing on his learning goals part-time.  

His Fellowship is a simple example of how a self-designed masters might very well be designed to include both part-time and full-time phases at different points throughout the process.

Read about his plan or follow him at

Axle is not asking for financial support, but if you want to support him you can help tremendously by sharing his story with others, introducing him to design professionals or organizations working in Southeast Asia, or offering words of encouragement for this very big step.

The Open Master's First Sabbatical

The structure of Axle's Sabbatical builds on the inspiration and examples of many others who have gone before him, courageously committing themselves full-time to a self-designed education for a year or more— including members of the Open Master's and other friends— such as: Mike DuranteWeezie Yancey-Siegel, Gosia Winter, and Pippa Buchanan.  Axle's experience most directly builds on the example of Victor Saad and the Experience Institute.

Though Axle is the first to name his experience a "Fellowship," we hope that this word can an invitation to step into their own Open Masters experience full-time and an open container which they fill with their own creative ideas, whether they also want to design a year full of apprenticeships like Axle, or an 18-month Action Research project, or maybe a 6-month walking and learning journey from Sweden to Greece.

Axle's Fellowship also helps address one tension that has been present in the Open Masters since we began in 2012, which is the question of whether all members of the Open Masters should be "studying" full-time.  One reason for this tension is that we have struggled to clearly define where to draw the line between "school" and everything else in our lives.  This reflects a confusion not just within the Open Masters community, but in society at large.

Up until now, there has been no way to formally distinguish between those who are studying part-time or full-time in the Open Master's— even though we have always had both in our community— or between different phases within one's own self-designed masters.

This is partially because I and others have tried to stand our ground over the last few years that there should not be such arbitrary barriers between "school" and "work" and "personal life," anyway.  I have always felt that this distinction was an imaginary one— inherited from industrial-era logic that mostly shaped schools as we know them— and that it produces unhelpful compartmentalization in our lives.

Life is a series of moments— some planned, most not— and any of them might be called a learning experience, if we want them to be.  Does a serendipitous conversation on a bus that changes my perspective on an entire issue or culture not matter just as much to my education as the anthropology course I took on Coursera?   Why should accredited schools that give tests and grades and live inside boxes— either concrete ones or browsers— have a monopoly on what may rightly be called "learning," "education," and "school?"

However, I have slowly had to realize and admit that there is actually a difference between a learning experience and any ordinary experience.  The difference between the two is best explained by an insight from our friends over at Experience Institute, where I am also a facilitator: that great learning experiences start with intention and include reflection and iteration after the experience. Having intention and reflection as you move through life is the difference between simply experiencing life versus designing your own education.

That serendipitous conversation on the bus is a lot more meaningful to my "education" if I am holding the intention to explore the intersections of race and public transportation in America.  I will be more likely to notice the opportunity when it comes up, ask more thoughtful and informed questions, and take better notes.  I will also be more likely to seek out more conversations like it in the future, and call those conversations part of my education.

And I might not notice how much that experience changed me— and what it might mean for my path forward— if I do not stop and write this blog post.

That insight might be one key to helping us break through the confusion around our expectation of whether we should all be "full-time" or "part-time" in the Open Masters.  Our current reality is that we have both in this community, and while some of us have chosen to dedicate all of our time to our self-designed education and integrate nearly all aspects of our lives into our learning plans, most of us feel that some parts of our lives are intentionally not a part of our self-designed education; maybe because our job does not feel connected to our specific learning goals right now, and we don’t have the freedom to change that at this time, or maybe because we want to have some separation between when we are "on" and when we are making space for other things.

If for nothing else than for the sake of everyone who doesn't have enough economic agency in their lives to be able to quit their unsatisfying jobs and risk everything to pursue a self-designed masters full-time— either through lots of money in savings or parents who can help them out— I believe that keeping the distinction between "part-time" and "full-time" around in the Open Masters seems worthwhile.  For many people, learning goals related to their future goals and dreams are still on the side of existing commitments to work, hobbies, or people, by necessity.

We should honor that reality and continue to make sure pursuing a self-designed masters degree part-time is seen as just as ambitious and credible as going all in, and that both always have a home in the Open Masters, I believe.  There are plenty of institutional graduate programs that allow their students to complete their studies full-time, part-time, or "low residency," after all. The only difference is how long it might take you to get to your goals.

Up until now, though, there have not been very many clear ways to know who was doing their Open Masters full-time or part-time and to each in different ways according to their needs.

Axle Brown

Recently, however, the example of Axle Brown, who has been both full-time and part-time at different times in his journey, will embark on the first-ever Open Master’s Fellowship at the beginning of 2015.  His example is helpful in understanding what it means to be a full-time versus part-time self-directed student, and may help us better imagine what things we might need to create in order to best support learners at different points in their journey.

Over the last two years, Axle, who was a founding member of this community, has been pursuing his learning goals around UX Design mostly on the side of his day job at the Department of Energy.  The products of Axle’s learning have been put to use by startups like Purpose List and large government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Energy and the White House.  He has taken UX courses at General Assembly, and taken himself on personal reflection retreats, too.

His learning wasn't entirely on the side of his work.  He did manage to blur the lines between work and school by getting permission from his employer to do a 20% time learning project on the job, with mentorship, which allowed him to bring some of his personal goals into his work.

Eventually, though, Axle reached a point where his intentions became clearer and his questions more focused, and he started to feel the urge to take a bigger leap. He wanted a way to intentionally shift his focus to spending all of his time becoming a UX designer. He also wanted to prepare for the shift as intentionally as one might leave a job to go to grad school, and to mark the transition intentionally too.

The "Fellowship" is a fitting name to give what Axle will be, because he will be intentionally stepping from a part-time learning experience into a risky, full-time season of learning with a bold mission.  By giving his experience a name and by carefully documenting his process, he also hopes to make it easier for others to design their own Fellowship later— especially if they, like him, started off doing their Open Masters part-time and want to transition into a new, full-time phase, too.

In other words, having the concept of a Fellowship as a full-time, intentionally-designed period of learning— either as part of or the entirety of your Open Masters journey— might give all of us part-timers something to aspire to do in our own journey, without devaluing any of our current paths, either.

Just like everything else in the Open Masters, Axle’s Fellowship is self-named. Given the amount of work, preparation, and intention that this effort will require, and has already required (Axle has already invested more than 100 hours in preparation), it is more than fair to call it a Fellowship. In providing an example to follow, he hopes that you might join him in your own Fellowship one day too.

What we have learned

Axle's experience has helped us learn and experiment with what is needed to support members of our community who want to go full-time, whether they are flying halfway around the world or locking themselves into their parent's attic to read the entire Western Cannon (true story).

For example, just to get Axle's Fellowship started, we will help by providing:

  • One-on-one coaching for six months prior to departure and during.
  • Support producing videos telling his story before the Fellowship, during, and after.
  • Organizing a threshold-crossing ceremony in DC before his departure, and when returning.

That list may grow or get more refined in the future when others choose to do what Axle is doing.  But one thing is clear; it takes more work and more support to do what he is doing, or what Mike did, than it does to study on the side of other commitments, and we need to be mindful of that in this community.

Because of him, and because of what we have learned from others, like Experience Institute, we have a lot better idea of what kind of specific coaching, resources, and structures are needed to make something like this happen.

But you should also know that we're not quite sure what future Fellowships could look like, and we're not that interested in controlling what they should look like or systematizing that through a one-size-fits-all program to support future Fellowships, either.  It is way more fun to leave that part up to your imagination.

So if Axle's example is inspiring to you, consider yourself formally invited to organize your own fellowship, too.

Talk to Alan (alan [at] or Axle (axle [at] if you have any questions.