Over the past couple months, I’ve had the privilege of working closely with some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. The founders of The New School SF, a charter school to open in the fall of 2015, asked me to help support their web and marketing initiatives. It’s always been a dream of mine to be a part of starting a school, an item on my bucket list that I thought I wouldn’t be able to cross off until decades later.
The New School SF is a charter school with three main distinction points. Firstly, the school will be k-12, making it a complete 13 year program from kindergarten to graduating high school. Second, the school will be mixed income, promoting diversity and openness to all of San Francisco’s children. And last (and probably the most exciting personally), the school will have an inquiry based education model.
The inquiry model is a model that is based fundamentally on student inquiry. The student takes initiative in asking the questions and figuring out how to learn. Through exploration, exposition, and expression, students are able to use the innate curiosity to fuel their passion to learn. I’ve read and written about inquiry based models for a long time, but I’ve only ever used it myself, not in an environment of a whole group of students.
Through exploration, exposition, and expression, students are able to use the innate curiosity to fuel their passion to learn.
Over the last two weeks, The New School SF put on a pop-up program in which we were able to bring together a class of students ages 5 to 10 to attempt an inquiry based learning unit. We had amazing teachers from the UCLA lab school (a school doing inquiry based learning for the last 100 years) come in to show us the ropes of inquiry based education.
The students learned about roots and wings through creating collaborative projects, learning aspects of communication along the way. Pictures can be found on our Flickr album.
Even though I was running around doing errands, taking pictures, and designing the website, I realized that even the process of what I was doing was a manifestation of experiential learning. In one of the debrief meetings after a day of the pop-up, I listened in on insights and perspectives of teaching that I’ve never heard before. Besides feeling completely unqualified to be a part of those conversations, I saw how inquiry based learning starts with building community and identity, and attempts to relate everything to empowering a child’s dream.
Throughout the whole two weeks, I couldn’t help but wish that my own education had been inquiry based. Getting to know each student individually brought a whole new depth of learning to each of the students that brought growth in a mere two weeks. I already miss the kids, but I’m excited to see how inquiry based learning scales from two week pop-up to a 13 year program.
“We all spend so much time putting up walls so that others can’t see our vulnerabilities, but those same walls often enclose us within our own insecurities” – Adam Braun
The Promise of a Pencil, a book by Adam Braun, details the journey of starting the “for-purpose” organization Pencils of Promise. Adam Braun, although coming from a upper middle class family in New York, responded to questions and challenges in a very uniquely purposeful and significant way. He recounts near death experiences, being laid off, and other big risks and realizations.
In short, Pencils of Promise is a nonprofit organization that seeks to bring education to children all over the world, mainly through fundraising and building schools in other countries. They’ve scaled to the point of opening a new school every 90 hours.
What fascinated me the most about this story was Adam’s ability to think outside the box, go against the life career path that he was set up to take, and go down his own unique path.
Let’s face it, we’ve all made excuses as to why we are not capable of taking a bold step to change the world. We’re not tall enough, fast enough, smart enough, rich enough, social enough, weird enough, knowledgeable enough, skilled enough, qualified enough, etc. Our excuses aren’t completely irrational, as much historical data points to people more or less growing up to remain in the same social position as their parents. Malcolm Gladwell even argues in Outliers that much of who we become is a function of our background and environment we grow up around.
I’ve always found this to be a tricky debate, torn between seeing people stuck with struggles similar to their parents’ and the idealistic hope of the American Dream. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that rising above the “glass ceiling” isn’t about working hard, but working smart.
Simply working harder won’t necessarily bring you to winning a Nobel Peace Prize, starting a company, or changing the world. In fact, many times hard work without proper grounding in passion and purpose leads to burn out and frustration. The question in our modern day connection economy is no longer how many units can you produce on a product line, but how can you work to be effective in the things that you produce?
Today is my birthday, and I’m giving it to help give kids an education. I’ve partnered with Pencils of Promise in an attempt to raise $1000 for kids all over the world. It would truly make my day if you could help some kids out!
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” -Robert A. Heinlein
Growing up, I was instructed to pick one career and take the path from high school to the lucrative career of my choice. Over and over again, I heard the advice to focus on one skill in order to make a career out of it.
I don’t know about you, but my natural tendencies and interests make such advice nearly impossible to follow. My interests range from technology to education to agriculture to health, making it really difficult for me to simply focus on one of the above.
Recently, I came across Tim Ferriss’s post about being a jack of all trades, and it started to get me thinking about the principles behind the well-intentioned specialization advice.
The argument for becoming a specialist rather than a generalist is that specialists have depth in one field, making it easier to leverage that one skill in order to make money and be effective in his or her career. I find the reasoning behind this argument extremely sound, and agree that everyone should aim to for depth in fields that their interested in.
But what I’ve begun to realize is that people generally overestimate how much time it takes to becoming world class at a skill. With the level of resources we have available to us in our modern day, becoming an expert at certain skills has never been easier.
In fact, I’ve found that people who are constantly learning new things beyond the scope of their comfort zone have an even easier time becoming world class at new skills.
The specialist who spends their entire life learning one skill may make more money doing what they do best, but the generalist who intentionally, systematically, and purposefully learns and explores are much more fulfilled with a vast variety of experiences, can make internal interdisciplinary connections, and are all around much more interesting people to be around.
The key to being successful as a generalist is to be constantly mindful of the story you are creating. The worst generalist, the person which the conventional wisdom warns not to be, is the one who can’t make up their mind about what they want to do, switching focuses whenever something becomes too challenging or emotionally distressing. To be a successful generalist means being very focused on a day to day basis, specializing on a daily basis so that they can generalize on a yearly basis.
The point is, specialization is for insects. Humans have such great capacities to learn and explore a whole breadth of topics as well as take the time to explore the depth, so long as one is intentional about it.
Competition is a good thing. It pushes people to perform better, companies to make better products, and prices to drop.
So I was taught.
But reading Peter Thiel’s Zero to One brought a new perspective that I wasn’t expecting.
Competition, while being very helpful for companies to make progress, serves very much as a negative reinforcement rather than a positive one. The mindset is, “If we don’t make progress, we’ll be put out of business.” What results is a race to the bottom, bidding for the lowest price in an attempt to retain the control over the market.
The race to the bottom is nothing more than who can cut the most costs, production time, and other factors of business. This leads companies to borderline unethical if not unethical practices to minimize operating costs so that they can further lower their prices in order to beat competition.
The parallels between competition in education and competition in business is strikingly similar. When a student isn’t focused on performing better than their classmates, they are able to focus on being creative and unique. Students are then able to define what it means to win in their own game, rather than how not to lose at someone else’s.
The mark of a truly effective and powerful education system is one in which cheating isn’t even a temptation for students, because the desire for learning and creativity become so much more powerful than the desire to merely obtain an external result.
What does the opposite of competition look like?
Everything in life whether it be business or family or otherwise, all boils down to interactions and relationships with people.
Everyone knows the story of Rosa Parks, A black woman who refused to give up her seat on the bus during the era of racial segregation. But the reason Parks was able to spark such a movement was not because of her brave act. Many blacks during that time were also standing up for themselves when whites mistreated them.
But why was Rosa Parks so successful?
Simply put, Rosa Parks was extremely well connected. She was known by government officials for her work in the NAACP and known by communities for being extremely supportive in schools and churches. She had a way of building rapport with everyone around her.
Then, when the famous event happened on the bus on that historical day, it united everyone who knew her and stirred up a reaction big enough to put the event into history.
The same goes for countless of other instances in history.
It’s easy as a creative or an entrepreneur to think that as long as I build something of quality, people will come. It’s easy to just focus on our craft and not get to know the people and the markets around us. Especially with the internet it’s easy to assume that posting on facebook or tweeting a message will get engagement, but that has no comparison to truly getting to know and building a relationship with someone else.
If you just know how to connect people and don’t have anything of quality, people won’t stay. But when you are both connected and have something incomparable to anything else out there, you can start a movement.
Many of us have dreams.
Whether it be solving a global problem, amassing a large fortune, growing a family, or climbing Mount Everest, all of these tasks are much easier discussed than accomplished.
Because even the grandest dreams are built of seemingly mundane and boring tasks. Becoming a billionaire starts with earning one dollar. Painting a masterpiece starts with one stroke. Climbing a mountain starts with one step.
But others of us just collect tools.
Not everyone has a grand dream for their life. Some people go through the system and conquer the mundane because they are told that having tools will lead to success. They never take the time to find the unique value proposition they bring to the world, because they don’t believe they have any great ideas inside of them. Some people collect multiple degrees, hoping that someday somewhere a company will be kind enough to support the lifestyle they want to lead.
But just as a house won’t build itself by having all the right tools lying around, neither will it get built if there is only a blueprint. Sometimes, the process bears little resemblance to the finished product, but it’s through a combination of vision and execution that a house gets built.
The people who are able to think big, but also persevere and show up regularly are the ones who truly accomplish anything they set their mind to.