Self correcting vessel

The work is finding the spark and layering on education.

No matter who you are, something gets you excited. If we could find that passion, amplify it, then develop learning opportunities to further that passion, then we win. We empower students to be curious, self-directed and authentic.

First, we need to give educators the space they deserve to make student work possible.

If we can do both those things, we’ll end up with school environments that are self-correcting. Students will be actively problem solving around issues they see. Not because it’s their job, but because it’s their community, they feel ownership and when given the opportunity, they want to make their community better!

Right now they just don’t have the chance.

Self correcting students and educators empowered to make decisions and take creative risks is our only hope. What better vessel is there for activating human potential at scale?

The long view

Taking a longer term perspective on your work almost always makes it better.

Since most of the great benefits in life come from compounding interest, you often won’t see the biggest returns on your investment until far in the future.

Life is a long term game. But unfortunately we’re constantly pushed to think in shorter increments and measure outcomes as fast as possible. Whether it’s the quarterly earnings report or the 3 month data summary, neither will show the true results of your work.

It’s not about the outcome right now. It’s about the trust you build, the growth you experience and the constant process of improvement. Take the long view and invest in yourself as a valuable asset for decades to come.

A mini case study on disruption theory

Back in my college years when I was just another Silicon-Valley-obsessed kid dreaming of startup success, I read Clayton Christensen’s, The Innovator’s Dilemma.

“Disruption” is a term that gets tossed around technology constantly and it was coined by Christensen many years ago. I wanted to go back to the source to understand what the hype around “disruption” was really about.

It turns out, disruption isn’t just the term to describe a new company stealing market share from an existing company. That’s part of it. But that’s not step one. Disruption is a process in which small companies exploit market opportunities that are too small for big companies to care about them.

If you’re a large organization doing billions in revenue, pursuing a new market worth $2o million is not worth your time. It’s not worth the strategic energy to hire, and target such a tiny opportunity. It’s a perfectly rational decision for any big company to keep plugging along, business as usual. The problem is that over time that $20 million market grows to $100 million, then to $1 billion, then to $10 billion. Then, suddenly that new innovation renders your product obsolete.

Christensen shows this time and time again for disk drives in the 1970’s and 1980’s. A company would seize a large market with their disk drive. Then, a startup would invent a smaller drive. When the smaller drive was invented, the total potential market was so insignificant that the incumbent wouldn’t bother competing with it. But, over time, people would find new uses for the smaller, cheaper disk drive. Then, the total market would grow to be 10x bigger than the market the incumbent was addressing.

Interestingly, I was listening to a podcast yesterday with the founders of Stripe, a payments technology company, and they made a comment that reminded me of this phenomena. Guy Raz, the host of How I Built This, asked the founders if other companies tried to copy their idea. They said “the opportunity didn’t look big enough to matter.” And it continued not to look big enough until suddenly it was too big and all the incumbents had missed the boat.

Disruptive innovation doesn’t start with a burning certainty that the world will change. It starts with a great product, addressing a small market that happens to grow over time.

Sometimes you have to take your chance before the world is ready.

The desire to tell a story

Before kids talk, they want to say something. It’s the desire to talk that is encouragement to do so.

Before students learn about characters and plots and foreshadowing, they have to want to tell a story. I remember learning the terms and definitions about how writing works, but at the time it meant nothing to me. I had no stories I wanted to tell.

Well times have changed. Now I do have stories to tell and I wish I were better versed in the different elements of storytelling.

There are two possible conclusions:

1. I should have paid more attention in class. That’s the obvious conclusion that most adults would insist is the rational choice.

2. Someone should have helped me discover what story I wanted to tell. This is the conclusion that most people wouldn’t know to look for. Helping students connect with a meaningful story isn’t part of english class. But imagine a more powerful motivator to become a better writer than to desperately want to share an idea.

Before we insist that students pay more attention, let’s first think how to spark that desire to learn. If you have that, you’ll learn 10x faster than others doing it just for the assignment.

Human systems

We engineer physical systems to be flawless. No leaks. Six sigma perfect.

What about human systems though? Like education? Healthcare? Social services?

There are constantly people slipping through the cracks. Obviously it’s hard to design for a human being whose actions are not predictably defined by physical laws. But what would it look like to shoot for the ideal state?

It would be resource intensive to actually create, but as a thought experiment, what would need to be true in our world? Forget about the constraints of cost, and implementation. Once we know what needs to be true, then we can problem-solve from that ground and ask “How do we create optimal conditions for human thriving without using an unreasonable amount of resources?”

I posit there are ways to shift around surpluses and scarcities in the system. Opportunities to create habit, ritual and community for cheap, but in ways that will have rich impact on the world around us.

We can’t find those solutions and see those opportunities until we ask the question. Until we imagine the ideal state.

What is the perfect human system?


Today I learned about ethnography.

I was invited to speak to a public policy class at University of Delaware and to give feedback on student projects. The other speaker and feedback-giver was an ethnographer by trade and talked about the fascinating nature of qualitative research.

Ethnographers don’t start with hypotheses and collect survey data to verify or falsify them. Ethnographers talk to humans, learn about their stories, their internal narratives, then draw conclusions and big ideas from there. She called it the difference between deductive (top down) and inductive (bottom up) reasoning. Ethnographers don’t have the data to prove causation, but they have powerful stories from which inferences can be made. This idea has fascinating implications for the design process. Empathy is a the first phase of design, and ethnography holds many clues to how to approach this part of the process. Ethnographers are open-minded. They’re cognizant of their biases, and aware of how their presence may affect a subjects’ behavior. Overall, they view people not as objects to be quantified, but as humans to be understood. Imagine if you started with people. Not with ideas, and hypotheses. But you simply started by learning and understanding as much as possible about humans. I’m sure there would be no shortage of ideas if that’s where you began.

The dinosaur kind

The other day I was in the grocery store and I heard the effects of mass marketing.

A little kid, maybe 4 or 5 years old, was walking down the freezer aisle with his Dad. They stopped at the waffle section where the father asked what kind of breakfast treat the son wanted. The father grabbed the most generic, plain looking Eggo waffles.

He almost got away with it, until the kid said, “Daddy, I want these kind. They’re dinosaur waffles! Pointing to another kind of Eggo waffle.

As I walked further down the aisle, I heard one last plea, “Wait no! I want these kind, Spider Man waffles! Spider Man waffles!”

Who knows, maybe they bought both. All I know is that day, I heard marketing at work.

Little row boats

Imagine, every child, in their own little row boat, staying in a preset lane. Moving gently down a river. Some learned how to paddle from a young age. Others didn’t, and they’ve lost interest. They might be good swimmers, or great at building jet skis, but only row boats are allowed in these lanes. They never make it down the river.

Those that do make it further are faced with a new set of lanes. With little idea of what’s ahead, they choose their next direction. 2, 4, 6 or maybe 10 years later, the lanes end and suddenly everyone is an the open ocean. There are no more guideposts.

They’re forced to wrestle with uncertainty that is so foreign compared to life in the boundaries. Some just keep rowing and end up in terrible storms that could have been predicted from afar. But they never learned how to read the weather. They always just kept paddling.

While end up in infinite loops of joyless paddling, they occasionally encounter people who hopped out and swam around to explore the world. Or someone who built a jet ski and is having lots of fun. Or even someone who fell in love with a new form of paddling.

What’s the point of the lanes? What’s the point of the row boats and the paddling? There’s a storm coming, and hand-powered, one-person boats don’t often perform well in bad weather.

Mindset first

Most meaningful education is much more about developing mindset than it is about content.

Oftentimes the biggest barrier to success is not lack of knowledge, but lack of creative confidence. We need to first break down the barriers of self judgment before we can build up the skills needed to launch great work.

Many think this happens in reverse. Launch great work, then feel confident. It would be nice if it worked that way. But you will never make something great without making something mediocre first. And if you don’t have the courage to make something that’s just average, you’ll never unlock your potential greatness.

Before we think about the content and skills, let’s make sure we’ve developed the mindsets for success. Mindset is the foundation.