Applying Bruce Lee to Learning

I was listening to an interview with Bruce Lee in which he discussed his philosophies, and one part really struck me. It did so because if you took out the words “Martial Arts” and replaced them with “Education”, you get a quote which beautifully describes one of the key principles of learning and highlights just how intimately Bruce Lee understood the fundamentals of human action.

As you read through this quote and Lee talks about the flash and show, just imagine the ridiculous buildings colleges are erecting and the money they spend on marketing materials and tribal pomp and circumstance. As he talks about being “flooded with cocky” just think of the elitist attitude that the institutions of college attempt to imbue their students with: “You’re here, and that means you’re the future! You’re a which means you’re a winner!”

Here’s Lee’s quote

Man, listen to me, ok? To me, ultimately, EDUCATION means honestly expressing yourself. Now it is very difficult to do. I mean it is easy for me to put on a show and be cocky and be flooded with a cocky feeling and then feel, then, like pretty cool and all that. Or I can make all kinds of phony things, you see what I mean? And be blinded by it. Or I can show you some really fancy movement, but, to express oneself honestly, not lying to oneself….and to express myself honestly, that, my friend is very hard to do. And you have to train. You have to keep your reflexes so that when you want it…it’s there! When you want to move, you are moving and when you move you are determined to move. Not taking one inch, not anything less than that! If I want to punch, I’m going to do it man, and I’m going to do it! So that is the type of thing you gave to train yourself into it; to become one with it. You think….(snaps his fingers) ….it is.

Watch the video of the interview here.

On “Thinking about” others

There’s this idea that’s taken hold recently in a lot of the entrepreneur literature that I read that suggests that we greatly overestimate our capacity for planning and strategizing, and that the individual who executes on a bad idea learns more and progresses farther than an individual that plans the “perfect” idea and never lets the world touch it. Essentially, we’re pretty terrible at knowing the unknown, and creating an elaborate conceptual framework on top of an unknown foundation means you’ve built an imaginary conceptual framework.

I think this is very healthy mindset to adopt; especially for me as I’m a serial schemer.

However, I think this concept is pretty applicable to other spheres of life, one in particular: social interaction. I’m sure we’ve all been told to “think about others” before we act.

What the hell does that mean?

“Think about how your mother will feel if you get that tattoo.”
“Think about how your friends will react if you wear those shoes.”
“Think about how hard Suzie will slap you when you tell her that dress makes her look like a tomato.”

And, every godawful busybody’s favorite: “THINK ABOUT THE CHILDREN!”

The “Think about” command instructs us to concoct an elaborate conceptual framework on top of what we know about the group/individual in question. The thing is, like an entrepreneur analyzing market conditions, we probably don’t know jack about people’s thoughts and needs, especially whn they’re strangers. And, even if we can suppose what they might feel, we don’t know what they can tolerate or appreciate.

The “Think first” mindset asks us to operate in a world of our own imagination.

So, while I’m not advocating YOLO. I am suggesting that next time we begin to call upon the conditioned reflex to “think about” how another person/group is going to feel when we go to interact, maybe we should just “ask about” how they feel and what they’ll tolerate instead. If we don’t we could be leaving a lot of authenticity currency on the table, so to speak, leaving both parties much poorer.

The Education Stack

This is an idea I’m going to be revisiting quite often, I believe, because I think there’s a revolutionary concept waiting to be chiseled out of this rough brain nugget.

If you’re not very familiar with how software design works, then you’re going to need to try to grasp the concept of “the stack”. If you’re already familiar with this concept, feel free to skip the purple section.

To grasp the concept of “the stack” you’re going to need to understand, at least a little bit, how websites and the internet work, and as someone who barely understands it myself, obviously I’m in the perfect position to do the explaining.

At its very core, the internet is two computers sharing information between themselves. That’s the dumbest explanation of the internet you’ll find. When you go to a website, it’s essentially your computer asking another computer for the information your computer needs to build the website you’d like.

If you go one level deeper, though, you find that this process is divided up into a string of different activities that must take place to get information from this other computer to your computer. From here, the explanation can get pretty technical, so I’ll try to avoid that. The basic process that follows from you entering in and hitting enter (not that you would… would you?) is that a request is sent to a specific computer that owns the information your computer needs to make the web page. It would be like sending a letter to your Aunt Ethel to get her recipe for… cake, or whatever Ethel does. Now this computer at the other end will probably be one of those giant fancy server computers like you see on hacker shows, but really it’s just like the computer you’re reading this on now (assuming you’re using a lap/desktop). Only, rather than running on Windows or Mac it uses an OS called LINUX, which you can actually download and use on your computer right now. When this computer running LINUX at the other end receives this request, it uses a program called APACHE to figure out where your information is located within its guts and then give you access to it. Once your request has access to the information it needs, it uses language called PHP to interact with the giant data table (basically a giant Microsoft Excel spreadsheet), a program called MySQL, to find the exact information it wants. This could be your username, your password or an embarrassing yearbook photo of you. When this info is found, it’s then packaged up and delivered back to your computer where the browser you’re using (Firefox/Chrome/Safari) turns it into the web experience you see before you.

So, in the end, your internet experience is just a whole mess of different tools connected together to take raw data and bring it to you in a useful way. So, you can imagine LINUX, APACHE, MySQL and PHP “stacked” on top of one another, filtering your digital needs into useful action. This is called a LAMP stack, and this is the stack Facebook began on.

Guess what, though. There are other kinds of stacks with other kinds of tools. Another very popular one right now is the MEAN stack, which is MongoDB, ExpressJS, AngularJS and NodeJS. How exciting is that? Despite the fact that everyone’s underlying goal is the same (I just want!), different tools can be used to create entirely different user experiences on the end and business models/value structures in the middle.

Annnnndd… Welcome back computer people.

So, if the internet is just a way to find, manipulate and transport data between two different digital parties, we could also imagine education as a way to find, manipulate and transport data between two physical parties (people).

Let’s say I want to learn about economics. One way I could do that would be to search for who has the data I need (George Mason University looks nice), find its address (4400 University Drive, Fairfax, VA), gain access to the data (“Dear Mr. Dean, I’m a very nice boy.), travel there (Roadtrip!) and absorb the data (keg stands).

While that might actually be a pretty effective way to learn economics, it’s also very time consuming because of the artificial constraints of the STACK of activities I have to perform to absorb the data. Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Education isn’t a monolithic entity. It’s nothing but a stack of protocols and processes, which means it can be broken down into smaller functional parts.

If I look at higher education from this perspective, I can quickly start to see how the functional areas can be separated and reconfigured. The ‘ole University route has been a tried and true education stack, but perhaps its time to explore some new configurations.

PS: If you understand why I chose the picture for this post, tweet me the quote and I’ll award you one internet point.

Toothless Credentialism

Let’s be clear about what a college credential is. A diploma is a symbol of the completion of a contract between a university and a student. It’s a promise on the part of the university to use its authority to assure any inquiring parties that the student has jumped through a particular set of hoops. The university says: “Do these things, and when anyone asks, I’ll tell people that you did these things. Now hand me $120k and let’s get started.”

Many other arguments may be made about what the diploma actually is. “It’s a guarantee of intelligence/work ethic/social skills/talent to prospective employers.” “It’s a guarantee of marketability/knowledge/experience to diploma holders.”

Bullshit. If someone is trying to convince you of that, tell them to eat dirt.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the song and dance you perform in the process of completing your contract with the university is useless. It may be that you pick up some really useful skills. But for the most part, such a system forces both student and employer to assume the burden of determining value.

The way this whole system is currently structured, if the song and dance the student is forced to perform turns out to be worthless, the student take a massive loss. If an employer wrongly assesses the value of the song and dance the employer could be out tens of thousands of dollars as well. The only party that doesn’t really seem to lose is the University, because they’ve worked hard to obscure the real value of their song and dance in great heaping layers of rhetoric and petty athletic tribalism. In most instances, the contract between student and university seems very unbalanced. In regards to the University, the contract is toothless.

What if the contract had teeth, though? What if there was a University that had the guts to stand up and say: “if jumping through these hoops doesn’t make you money, help you pass a test, help you reach your goals, you pay nothing?” What if they told employers: “If our students can’t punch their way out of a wet paper bag, we’ll pay for onboarding?”

What if a University cared enough to put their butt on the line rather that slapping a big ‘ole sloppy guarantee on the box? I’d imagine they wouldn’t need multi-million dollar marketing departments to peddle their programs.

“Here’s the way I see it, Ted. Guy puts a fancy guarantee on a box ’cause he wants you to feel all warm and toasty inside… Because they know all they sold ya was a guaranteed piece of shit. That’s all it is, isn’t it? Hey, if you want me to take a dump in a box and mark it guaranteed, I will. I got spare time.”
-Chris Farley, Tommy Boy

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.

On discovering the future of college.

It’s easy when thinking of what is to come to be distracted by the form of what has been. We tend to forget that the institutions and frameworks and organizations that we participate in are all designed, whether from the bottom up or from the top down, to solve certain challenges in the distribution of materials and patterns. We forget this, and, after a time, become so familiar with any given solution that we forfeit completely an intuitive understanding of the underlying problems the solution has solved, a phenomenon which leaves us with the perhaps impossible task of attempting to address the underlying challenges with the language of the solution.

This can be seen pretty clearly in the context of the modern university. Built to deliver and protect patterns of thought in a world where doing so was difficult, they are increasingly having trouble reacting to a new context in which the value of different patterns of thought change very rapidly. Built to validate and signal value, they are facing a world where value lies in unknown territories. 

So, people discuss solutions in terms of “transfer credits”, “online courses”,  “more financial aid”, “work/study”. They ask questions like: “How will college change? How can college meet new demands?” Like urban planners, they outline and plan and use new materials to make new best practices, but, like modern urban planners, they’re finding that people and property interact so damn quickly and widely, that they can’t predict the consequences of their own solutions

Elon Musk has suggested we approach our own discomforts and visions from “first principles”. Essentially, we must build solution sets from the bare bone physics of what’s possible and necessary so as not to artificially limit the scope of possibility. 

As we march forward in time, I hope to see individuals challenging the very idea of colleges using the “first principles” mindset, and I predict that the outcome won’t be a single over-arching solution, but the rediscovery of a multitude of lost and forgotten problems, problems to be solved by a panoply of elegant, local solutions.