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Hammers Make the Best Crystal Balls

Type “preparing our children for the future” into the Google, and you’ll be presented with prediction after prediction of what the future will hold and what policies and programs are needed to ensure our progeny will be able to function and survive. The intention of these writers comes from a caring place, I’m sure, and when their advice is simply placed out there for readers to adopt or discard as the reader pleases, there isn’t much harm in their predictive musing. However, when the prognosticators become educators or educational planners, discord begins to emerge. When “professionals” are tasked with designing educational frameworks based on a consensus view of future need, many young people are unknowingly pushed into a precarious position from which they may, sadly, never recover.

The costs of this kind of centralized design can long be hidden from view. For instance, it is difficult to identify and describe what industries or communities might have been naturally birthed had they not been forced to compete with well-funded universities for talent and interest. Organic and alternative business ecosystems can be fragile and have a hard time standing up to Universities which have fat marketing budgets funded through state-guaranteed loans. Would there be more entrepreneurial co-ops or collectives? More artists? More young people dreaming and tinkering and creating without the suffocating burden of ungodly amounts of debt? I can’t answer for sure. The reason I can’t answer for sure is because I understand, unlike most educational institutions and planners, that I am perfectly incapable of predicting the needs of the future with any degree of certainty.

How do I know I’m terrible at predicting the needs of the future? Well personal experience has informed me of that knowledge to some degree. After all, if the predictions I had made at 18 about my future profession had come true, I would be a clandestine spy in some dank, smoky cafe somewhere in the Middle East.

Beyond that, though, I’m aware that I’m terrible at making predictions because I belong to the same species that you do. Nostradamus and Dave Chappelle aside, even the best of us are are shooting in the dark when it comes to seeing what’s around the bend. Thomas Edison predicted that in the next millennium you would be able to fit hundreds of books in the palm of your hand, which seems like it might be analogous to a Kindle until you learn that he believed said books would be made of extremely fine pages of nickel.

Books of the coming century will all be printed leaves of nickel, so light to hold that the reader can enjoy a small library in a single volume. A book two inches thick will contain forty thousand pages, the equivalent of a hundred volumes; six inches in aggregate thickness, it would suffice for all the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica. And each volume would weigh less than a pound.

-The Miami Metropolis writing on Edison’s Predictions

Humans simply don’t have the context needed to understand, with a high degree of certainty, the needs of the future. We are consciousness moving through moments of present, and the future is just an abstraction that exists in our heads and our heads only. We can only project ideas based on our knowledge of current environments and the abstractions of the past.

It is true, though, that people, using the context of their own life, are capable of making accurate, narrow predictions of future events. However, these are usually rational individuals that have invested considerable time and resources towards the future they anticipate and are inherently forced to bear the cost of a bad prediction. Such a description may characterize a weathered venture capitalist or an decorated entrepreneur, however, I would argue it is less descriptive of most educational planners.

The artificially long timeline of most educational programs and the scarcity of valuable market feedback loops within those programs mean that enormous investments must be made by students long before they can realize the value of their investment, after which the institution bears little cost should the investment turn out to be a poor one. Typically, one would say that the cost to the university is one of bad publicity and decreasing future enrollment, and I would agree with you. That’s certainly the expected outcome. However, aggregate results are rarely very clear and it can take a long time for the law of large numbers to bear out the net value of these programs. Nassim Taleb describes a similar concept wonderfully in his observations on a concept he calls “skin in the game”:

in the “real world”, the law of large numbers works very slowly, or does not work at all in the time horizon for operators, hence statistical properties involving tail events are completely opaque to the observer.

-Nassim Taleb

When institutions or companies bear the risk of their ideas, the methods they use change. Robin Hanson, a big proponent of the concept of using markets to predict future events, has discussed how he believes the lack of ownership of outcomes on the part of academic thinkers leads to less accurate forecasting models.

I suggest prediction markets may be a better forum than academic journals for choosing forecasting methods. Maybe the world shouldn’t use a method just because academics say it’s great; maybe those impressed with a method should have to put their money where their mouth is and trade on that method’s forecasts in prediction markets.

-Prof. Robin Hanson

In such a crazy, uncertain world, who can we really trust to prepare us for what’s ahead? What if we trusted ourselves and held adaptability as a higher virtue than sterling foresight? When Robin Hanson talks about markets being better than academics at selecting forecasting methods, we have to remember that markets aren’t some monolithic “thing”. A market is the aggregate activity of thousands of individuals just like you selecting what they value and putting their blood, sweat and tears behind those values. Another way to look at it is this: With markets, action precedes prediction. With academics prediction precedes action. The former designs the future of the world in which it operates. The latter designs futures for a world in which others operate.

Don’t abdicate the prediction of the future to institutions who don’t care how your future turns out. The best way to predict the future is to toss out your crystal ball, pick up a hammer and build it.



Educational Vaccination

The US, in an attempt to alleviate a very particular malady, is subjecting its young to a battery of inoculations. These young people are systematically exposed to a regimented schedule of vaccines designed to produce very specific antibodies. Unfortunately, due to the nature of many aspects of this program, vaccination efficacy and utility are no longer top priorities. Rather, it seems that the vaccinations have become their own priority. In other words, the measure of a healthy body isn’t its ability to cope with the challenges presented by its environment, but rather simply the presence of prescribed antibodies.

I’m talking, of course, about the efforts of institutionalized schooling to relieve young people of the “blight” of ignorance. What’s that? I’m a scoundrel who designed this post to grab clicks? Guilty. It’s crazy for me to compare our current education systems to vaccination programs? I totally agree. We’re on the same page.

It’s crazy to treat the life long process of learning and growing as if it is simply the the treatment of some inherent human disease. It’s crazy to paint reason and knowledge as a one-stop shot which, once endured, can protect individuals against some specific genre of ignorance. It’s crazy to codify and box up knowledge and reason into discrete little units and then attempt to inject them into the minds of our young in uniform doses.

It’s crazy, and yet… We’re still doing it. We’re still encouraging young people to shuffle through these educational systems where they’re asked to take their ignorance medication rather than encouraged to explore the most immediate frontiers of their curiosity. We’re still dividing and segregating new ideas and skills into old worn out boxes, even as work demands us to be more and more interdisciplinary. We’re still operating on uniform time schedules designed by people who probably had never touched a computer or imagined the internet.

And, at the end of all of this, what do our young people have to show for it? A certificate informing all who would inquire that the young person in question has received their vaccinations and booster shots or a strong, inquisitive, courageous mind that is capable of exploring and harvesting the wealth of unknown territories?

What if, instead, we trusted students to choose what they valued and assumed ourselves the responsibility of conveying value rather than mandatory information? What if we empowered and equipped and encouraged them to explore the boundaries of their own understanding? What if they were free to build and learn in groups of their choosing across time horizons that suited them?

What if we treated the process of education as the management of healthy growth and development rather than the containment of a disease? What would that world be like?

Café Academia

In 1984, Wendy’s restaurant aired a commercial which depicted an elderly lady vocally expressing her disappointment at being served a hamburger which was all bun and no beef. “Where’s the beef?”, she would cry after lifting a healthy slab of fluffy bread to expose a sad, lonely circle of meat.

Businesses today, it seems, share her sentiments. Judging by multiple surveys and reports done in both the US and the UK, it appears many businesses are finding that under fluffy, expensive credentials, many new graduates are demonstrating a decided lack of applicable work skills that have hiring managers crying, “Where’s the beef!?” Universities and the media are responding by asking themselves, “How can we produce more valuable graduates” or “How can we modify our coursework to create more applicable skills?”

I don’t blame them for asking these questions, and I appreciate the fact that they’re expressing a concern for the quality of the product they’re providing. However, as long as they search for answers within their existing institutional framework, it would seem that any solution they find is going to be another top-down guess shaped by vestigial academic functions. We’ll simply see new classes, extra terms of validation on top of diplomas and if the college is truly brave, more opportunities to substitute real outside work for credit.

We live in an incredible time, however, and I would submit that colleges have confused their role in this ecosystem. As long as these learning institutions see themselves as the producers of workers and intellectuals, I predict they’ll continue to fail at meeting the needs of a changing workplace. Students aren’t slabs of meat to be formed and spiced to perfection. They are the chefs and the chief designers of their own intellectual and professional banquets. Colleges are kitchens! Professors and programs are tools students use to pluck order out of chaos and knowledge out of the unknown.

If colleges won’t recognize this fact, it will be more and more incumbent upon the students themselves to create their own kitchens from a plethora of online resources and cook up the sizzling prime ribs that work places are so desperately craving.

Entering Edison

Thomas Edison is credited with saying: “I’ve not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” The quote is relatively well known as it’s trotted out for most blog posts that discuss being persistent and facing failure… including this one. It’s for good reason. It took Edison nearly three years of experimenting with a wide variety of materials and thousands of designs before he realized a carbonized bamboo filament fiber that could burn for over 1200 hours.

However, I worry that when most people read this fact about Edison’s life, they externalize it and wrap it up as a cool fact that they can put on their mental shelf. Maybe I’m just projecting here, but until recently every time I heard this quote I basically saw a ten second montage in my head of Edison bopping around his laboratory to some dramatic music as if he were a teen from a terrible 1980s movie cramming for the big test that will let him play in the championship football game.

It’s tempting to try to stylize and synthesize someone else’s life experience down to some truth that we can use as sort of “lifehack”. We like to package their struggle into a discrete unit of truth that can be used like a key to unlock the doors of opportunity. Unfortunately, it never works that way. Life isn’t a movie where challenges disappear in a handful of frames to the sound of a synthy power ballad. We have to endure the solutions to our problems agonizing minute by agonizing minute.

And so did Edison. Place yourself in his body, assume his perspective and feel the building frustration with every failed prototype. Feel his exhaustion as you rest your dirty hands next to the tools on your work bench. Notice the creeping fear that enters your mind that another inventor is going to beat you to the punch, or, better yet, place yourself in the body of one of those other innovators fighting a doomed battle against Thomas Edison. Understand and feel the fact that these histories,  cemented into reality by the passage of time, were once a scary, unknown frontier. Inhabit that frontier.  Compare it to your own life and realize that other than a goofy outfit, there’s really very little difference between the substance of Thomas Edison’s experiences and yours.

Innovation and personal growth isn’t a puzzle that can be effortlessly solved with the just the right answer key. There isn’t going to be some point where you gather just the right set of hacks and perspectives and you’re instantly teleported to the solution. It’s a damn difficult path, and the only guarantee is that it’s probably going to hurt.

So the next time you hear a parable about Edison or Rockefeller or even modern day giants like Zuckerberg or Cuban, don’t externalize them. Don’t place their stories or their tips on a shelf and plan to take them down and use them when the opportunity presents itself. Internalize their perspectives and challenges. Compare them to your own. Tactics and tools can certainly speed progress down the path of your own personal growth, but perhaps the most valuable insights the successful can bring us are the emotional affirmation that the pain we face isn’t ours alone to bear and the knowledge that success is a destination we must travel to not some train we’re waiting to board.

University as Technology

Technology is the organization of matter, motion, techniques, processes, ideas and relationships to produce an end of some specific value. We use technology everyday for tasks that, at this point, we might not even realize we’re using technology to perform. Take a blanket for instance. It’s not valuable because it’s a sheet of fabric. Rather, it’s valuable because it preserves escaping body heat allowing you to control your immediate environment. How valuable would a luxurious 500 thread count, Egyptian cotton blanket with a beach ball sized hole in the middle of it be? Not very.

Technology itself isn’t valuable, rather its value derives from the objects or states of being you hope to obtain by using it. Your car is valuable because it takes you from point A to point B and carries your stuff, not because it’s a carefully constructed metal shell that uses dead dinosaur juice to rotate rubber balloons, although that’s pretty cool. A calendar isn’t valuable because it’s squares on a piece of paper. Nope, it’s valuable because it allows you to predict and plan for the movement of time without complicated calculations and astrological equipment.

This perspective on technology can, and should, be applied to almost everything we use in our day to day life. We should constantly be evaluating the value of the ends we are hoping to achieve and analyzing whether the technologies we are using are the most efficient, effective ways to achieve them.

One technology that desperately needs to be re-evaluated is the University. With a truly terrifying student debt bubble growing and growing unemployment, it’s not hard to realize that something isn’t operating quite right. It’s increasingly imperative that prospective students take a very careful self-survey about the states of being that they hope college will bring them and then very honestly consider whether college is the most effective or fulfilling way in which to achieve those states of being. To understand the University as a technology, one must first identify the ends they seek and then analyze the capacity of the different aspects of college to deliver those ends. Are you looking for more money? A jumpstart in an industry? The opportunity to find a little bit of direction in your life? Do you really think that lectures, tests, expensive textbooks and cafeteria food are the quickest and most cost-effective way to achieve that goal?

In the end, asking the right questions and finding the right answers is a job that only you can perform. However, I will tell you that no matter what conclusion you come to there is one thing that University Technology won’t be able to give you, and that’s the permission to be the amazing, self-actualized superstar you’re capable of being.