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?
I’ve thought about education a lot in the past couple years, especially when it comes to my own.
Most people enter college expecting the institution to hand them everything they need for their future on a silver platter. After all, college students followed all the rules in order to get into school, so the thinking is that if they continue to follow all the rules they will find themselves in a good career.
However, through my journey in learning over the past couple years, I realized I was responsible for my own learning, whether school is a part of it or not.
Strangely enough, this term used to refer to someone who is taking charge of their own learning is a “hackademic”. As if somehow learning isn’t supposed to be done apart from an institution, and you have to hack it in order to get take control of your learning. The other issue is that many hackademics think that being in college is somehow incompatible with being a self directed learner. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. In fact the whole point of this post is to show how college can be used within a self directed education.
Don’t get me wrong, college is a great experience to meet professors and peers, as well as open yourself up to a wide variety of perspectives and subjects. Being in school can be one of the best decisions you can make if you have reason to be in school. And even for me, I plan to finish up my Computer Science degree unless an opportunity of a lifetime presents itself before I finish. I am grateful that I have the means to attend a four year institution, and do not mean to belittle the privilege of being in school.
But by no means is college the end to learning.
Around the beginning of my undergraduate career, I began thinking about how I could fully take advantage of college while also fully being self directed in my learning. I wanted to figure out how to remain in the system in order to be relevant to my peers while also exemplifying how it was possible to have autonomy in education.
I had support from many mentors to bounce ideas off of as well as a few peers in the same boat to process things with along the way, and I am eternally grateful for their support.
I soon realized that the very core of being a self directed learner was having your own personal reason to learn, and things that you want to achieve.
I began pondering how to integrate college into self directed education by establishing a list of things I wanted to learn. As a list, I wanted to:
- Learn how businesses operate, how to go from an idea to a profit and value generating company.
- Learn how people operate, how to interact and network with people to add the most value to others.
- Learn as much as I can about technology, and areas that I can apply technology to industries such as agriculture and education in a significant, paradigm-shifting way.
The next thing I had to do was figure out the best sources to learn these different subjects, what college was good for that I could extract from, and what I needed to get around.
The good is that college is a great hub for networking and meeting people, especially being able to leverage my age and my status as a student to meet alumni and industry professionals. This power to network that comes with being a student is one that few people understand how to leverage, and fewer people actually do leverage.
The bad is that most classes bore me out of my mind, assignments often serve little purpose, and grades are often extremely arbitrary and not reflective of how well you actually learned, not to mention the astronomically unjustified price to attend college. Every once in a while you’ll meet a professor who truly knows how to empower their students in a way that is engaging and relevant, but in my experience, those are hard to come by. But when you do find yourself in a class with a phenomenal professor, taking advantage and putting effort into that class is totally worth your while.
Upon realizing that the value of being in school for me personally wasn’t primarily the academic material, but my ability to leverage my status as a student, I began setting up systems to implement the 80/20 rule into my academics. I began figuring out how to chunk course material in such a way that 20% of my effort would generate 80% of the academic result, while also spending time to deeply learn the things that were truly interesting to me.
One example sticks out very clear in the last quarter. I took a software engineering project project class last quarter. This class is based heavily on your team’s ability to build a software product within 10 weeks of the class. As our team was discussing and brainstorming projects to do, the natural tendency was to propose difficult projects that would require large API integrations and other complexities.
But as we thought about it more, we realized that the easiest way to get the best grade possible was to simply fulfill all the requirements. We realized that it would be better to create a simple application that works flawlessly rather than a complex application that barely functioned. At the end of the quarter, we had spent a total of 10 hours to complete our project, while some other teams were working 10 hours a day to get their project working. Our final grade? 100%.
School doesn’t reward people for taking bold risks, it actually often unconsciously penalizes the people who take bold risks. Failure is seen as a negative thing, not because it’s explicitly warned against, but because the rewards only go to the people that have followed all the rules.
Part of applying the 80/20 rule to my academics was learning how to play the game of school without being sucked into the toxic standardization and performance mentality that has been traditionally present. I had to set up the things that I did in order to maximize authentic learning and networking while being as efficient as possible in my studies.
The hardest part I found was keeping focused when my mind simply wanted to wander and not engage in any productive activities. I ran into this issue often as I was trying to be productive, only finding myself wasting hours of my day. This problem went away when I solidified my purpose and began to intentionally build routines and structures that would help me achieve my goals.
I began applying many of the principles from Tim Ferriss and other “productivity gurus” to my daily routines (Tim Ferriss has a great article on the choice minimal lifestyle). For example, my breakfast and lunch plans were a very specific handful of dishes that I would make over and over again to simplify decision making and standardize my diet. My exercise routines were very consistent from day to day. My sleep schedule looked almost identical day to day, and even the clothes I wore were chosen from a handful on a regular basis.
By freeing up my academic as well as streamlining my life errands, I suddenly found myself with more free time to learn, explore, network, and do the things that I knew I wanted to learn. Note that this is different than “following your dream” because I set up a way to systematically take steps toward achieving the things I knew I needed to learn instead of merely being driven by how I feel on a day to day basis.
That being said, this last quarter I was able to accomplish the following:
- 4 CS classes (101, 110, 130, and 140)
- Part time internship (8 hours a week)
- Kept my blog regularly updated (once a week)
- Worked closely with Student Voice
- Did freelance web design work
- Cooked nearly every meal
- Exercised 2-3 times a week
- Had a social life to the extent that I wanted
- Read one book every two weeks
- 7-8 hours of sleep per night
- Had time to spare for spontaneous fun activities
I’m not saying this to brag, but to provide an insight into what is possible with a little bit of structure and motivation. If I can do it, anyone else can.
I’ve found that the core to being able to “self hack” your education isn’t about whether you are a part of a system or not, but it’s about the mindset that you have when it comes to being able to critically consider the strengths, weaknesses, and value of the opportunities around you, and taking the best of what is around.
An illustration that can be used is imagine shopping for a set of wrenches. Not every repair project that you take on will require every single size of wrenches, but most people would rather get a whole set of wrenches rather than just one or two. And sometimes you’ll encounter projects where none of the tools in the set are adequate for what you are working on, and you’ll need to go out of your way to get a specialized tool for that specific scenario.
School, while providing access to a great deal of connections. knowledge, and experience, is much like a standardized set of tools that a person can draw upon when faced with different projects. It isn’t sufficient for solving every problem, and many of the tools acquired in school you will never actually find a use for. Thus, the mindset when it comes to self directed learning is your ability to combine the tools that you personally need, whether it be knowledge, experience, or connections.
The reason why most college students are simply satisfied with the tools that colleges give and rarely go out of their way to learn is because they have no idea why or what they need the tools for. And as I mentioned, the most important aspect of self directing your education is knowing what you want to achieve, and having a purpose for learning.
Self hacking your education in general isn’t simply doing whatever you want, but it’s about having systems that facilitate learning through understanding the value of the opportunities that are around you.
In Daniel Pink’s book Drive, Pink talks extensively about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.
An extrinsically motivated person is someone who is motivated by an external factor, usually money or some other form of good that isn’t necessarily related to a person’s occupation. For example, a doctor who is in it for the money is extrinsically motivated by the prospect of making money, not necessarily caring for people’s well being, or a student who is in it for the grade doesn’t necessarily learn, but does what is necessary for a grade.
An intrinsically motivated person is someone who is motivated by an internal factor, usually some sort of satisfaction or passion of what they get to do for themselves. For example, a programmer that works on an open source program that is freely distributed online is in it because of their love for the technology or the enjoyment of programming, not necessarily to make a name for themselves or earn great sums of money.
What’s interesting is that the book points to research that shows over and over that intrinsically motivated people always win out over extrinsically motivated people. Pink suggests that the ways that businesses and schools have been motivating employees and students are far from optimal, and by switching things around to encourage intrinsic motivators, we can take our economies and future to a whole new level.
“The problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road. Indeed, most of the scandals and misbehavior that have seemed endemic to modern life involve shortcuts.” – Drive, Daniel Pink
What’s This Got To Do with Academic Integrity?
A problem that many schools face on a regular basis is academic integrity. Plagiarism and cheating not only causes harm to students, but the reputation of an institution as a whole. And as you probably know, the nearly unanimous and almost logical solution to academic dishonesty in schools is some form of punishment, whether it be detention, being dropped from a class, or expulsion.
But let me propose that by placing a punishment doesn’t actually make students less inclined to cheat, it probably causes more problems. Furthermore, along the same lines of Pink’s philosophy, I believe there is a much simpler and easier method to reduce academic dishonesty that would also positively impact learning and the education environment overall.
Let’s start by considering the very issue of academic dishonesty. Instead of dealing with the issue through reprimands, let’s consider what actually causes students to be academically dishonest in the first place, and maybe by dealing with those issues, academic dishonesty will be a thing of the past.
A student is academically dishonest when he or she chooses to take a shortcut and cheat off of somebody or something else over doing the work him or herself.
Why would a student make that decision?
That decision ultimately points to the fact that the student is more motivated by the prospect of getting a good grade than the prospect of learning the material. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the student is not interested in the material, it just means that the student is more interested in the grade than they are in the material. It may be that a student’s financial aid is dependent on their grades, or their college prospects are dependent on their grades, or even that their reputation is dependent on the grades they get.
Applying some principles from Drive, we find that academic dishonesty shows that a student is motivated extrinsically by the hope of getting a good grade more so than the hope of learning something they are passionate about.
Punishing students for being academically dishonest is placing cookies and vegetables in front of a child and punishing them severely for reaching for the cookies first.
Therefore, by putting grades, tests, and standardization around a subject, schools can actually turn something that a student is passionate about into something that a student dreads because their initial passion and intrinsic motivation for a subject quickly gets overtaken by the extrinsic motivation that schools place upon the student. (this happens far more often than you would think)
And if that isn’t bad enough already, enforcing rules against academic dishonesty is pretty much punishing students for a problem that the school caused, making it nearly a self fulfilling prophecy that people will almost naturally want to cheat and plagiarize. Punishing students for being academically dishonest is placing cookies and vegetables in front of a child and punishing them severely for reaching for the cookies first.
It simply doesn’t make sense.
That’s why I always roll my eyes and let out a sigh when I have to sit through yet another academic integrity presentation.
Instead of punishing the student for a natural result of extrinsic motivation, why don’t we place more emphasis on students being intrinsically motivated, and set up a grading system that doesn’t interfere with a student’s intrinsic motivation?
Ever since my shenanigan in kindergarten, I thought that I didn’t enjoy reading. In fact, most of my elementary school years I would stay as far away from books as I possibly could. I would only read when I was forced to for my English classes, because something in my mind told me that I wasn’t good at reading and that I didn’t enjoy it.
One day in high school, I picked up a self-help book, started reading the opinions and thoughts of authors on life, and I haven’t stopped reading since. Now, I read voraciously. I’ve been devouring whatever books I can get my hands on to try to see and be aware of as many perspectives as I possibly can. I can hardly read fast enough to keep up with the rate that I find new books to read.
What happened? You could argue that it was merely a point in my life that I found what I truly was passionate about, but a lot of my hesitation in reading stems deeper than merely not knowing what I wanted to learn.
Schools are set up to reward people who get good grades, and patronize people who get poor grades. People who do well in a certain subject gain the recognition and praise for doing well, therefore boosting their confidence in their ability to perform in the subject area. But people who do poorly in a certain subject often adapt a negative feeling toward the subject, simply because they didn’t receive a good grade in the subject.
How many times have you heard a student say “I hate math”?
Have you ever wondered if that student actually hates the subject of math, or if what they actually hate is that they received a poor grade in math?
By learning in a system that gives grades and places such a high value on the grade, the system teaches students to hate certain subjects as a defense mechanism to make them feel better for not doing so well.
I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a grading system. I believe that being able to chart and measure a student’s progress is a good thing. But the way that the current system of grades is set up can instill some pretty negative side effects into the very people that we’re trying to teach.
What if we were able to promote a system that inspires children to learn and explore the areas that they don’t score well in?
I’ve grown up with you, you have often the first person I see in the mornings, and on some days I’ve spent more time with you in your classrooms than with my family in my own home. Thank you for the sacrifices you’ve made to teach me to the best of your ability. Each one of you has had an impact on the way that I see life, and contributed to the person I am today.
I thank you for being so consistent in the classroom, even on days when you weren’t in high spirits but still spent the effort and time to teach class. Thank you for taking the time to review our work, and for the times that you gave real and honest feedback to us.
I thank you for being so motivated, even when we have shown little or no interest in lectures by sleeping, texting, or talking, or even speaking slanderous words behind your back. It takes guts to do that, and I’m sure we don’t realize or acknowledge how much you have to sacrifice of yourself in order to teach us.
I appreciate you for all that you’ve sacrificed and who you are, and my interactions with you in the classroom have been the inspiration for my dream to come around and empower you to connect and teach your students on a whole new level. You’ve instilled in me a great value for education, and a real heart to believe in younger generations and inspire them to truly become themselves.
My dream is to bring a revolution to the way that you relate to and teach your students, not because I am angry or bitter, but because of a genuine desire to improve education to be more relevant to students, teachers, industries, and families. I dream of making your jobs even more fulfilling by building a system that encourages human connection and feedback, where trust becomes a path for you to have even greater impacts on the lives of your students.
My dream is to bring genuine trust and respect to parent-student-teacher relationships, so that teaching and tutoring fosters a human connection that extends deeper than simply the subject material. Because as I’ve realized in the last eighteen years, learning is just as much of an emotional process as a mental process if not more.
I know that it hurts you at times to give your students low grades because you believe in their potential to truly learn, but many times that has been lost in communication. I want to create a system where you are free to express that in order to inspire students, and make them look deeper than the letter grade on the surface.
But I can’t do this alone. I need your help. Just as I needed your help to understand academic concepts in your classes, I need your support at a time like this in order to bring a true revolution to the way schools are run.
This is dedicated to you.
I recently got together with an high school friend to put together a short article on college.
Even though more people than ever are receiving a higher education, there still hasn’t been a true democratization of college. This is ironic, because we have all the tools to make such a change. The biggest difference between the past and the present is how drastically communication has improved.
At this point, there are two visions of the future. One would continue down the path of escalation and hyper-individualism, where human beings steadily become more machinelike, starting from taking college prep courses in elementary school and ending with being hooked up to an IV at work, continually ingesting a cocktail of Adderall and Ritalin and other cognitive enhancers just to be able to hold onto your job. When everyone is struggling to place themselves above the rest, every man is an island, with no opportunity for collaboration.