“Learning is my shield against irrelevance”

“No one is immune,” he said. “I fear growing rigid in my thoughts and outdated in my ideas.” I was sitting in a packed stadium, listening to the dean of Northeastern University speak at my eldest daughter’s graduation. I started taking notes.

He talked about several students’ projects and start-ups, applying what they learned to address challenges like diabetes in Honduras and supporting small farms in Kenya. “Learning is a lifelong journey,” he reminded the graduates. 

I might have dismissed the speech as just encouraging words for young people, except that I had read very similar words a few months earlier, written by the CEO of a 400,000-person company.

Learning at Work

For most of my career, I invested much more into making my boss happy than into developing my skills. Though I worked in a highly technical field, almost no one around me read books or did research about what we did. We were too busy. Learning was something you did on your own time, something wholly apart from work. The unspoken assumption was that you were supposed to already know what you needed to know.

The words of Bosch’s CEO, Volkmar Denner, were a radical departure from what I was used to hearing. First, he offered some sobering statistics.

“Lifelong learning is essential… But the truth is that people aged 30 to 44 spend just nine minutes a day on average on improving their qualifications. And for people aged 45 to 64, the figure is even lower — only four minutes.”

The dean had said, “The world doesn’t stop changing, and we must continue to discover and learn,” and the Bosch CEO embraced the need for people at all levels of the company (including himself) to continue exploring and learning as an integral part of the work we do.

“It’s more than just a challenge our children have to face…In the digital world, people who have achieved success in their careers cannot afford to rest on their laurels and refuse to learn anything new. The more successful the company, the more alert its executives have to be to change, and the more they have to preserve their curiosity.

[It is] important to see working and learning as a whole, and to combine the two. This can only work if further training is no longer seen as something that is merely “nice to have” — a seminar every so often, then back to routine. We want further training to be an integral part of company strategy. It is this that is giving rise to new forms for self-organized learning [such as] “Working Out Loud.”

What’s it for?

The Bosch CEO saw learning as good for the individual (“a way of advancing our personal careers”) as well as for the company. The dean saw it as imperative for the planet.

“Inequality, injustice, and intolerance cast long shadows….Use your gifts to eliminate the dark. You are torch bearers in an age that longs for light.”

What about you? Whether you need your own “shield against irrelevance,” are looking for ways to advance your career, or want to contribute to a better world, standing still is not an option. 

What are you learning? Why?

Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University


The smartest kids in the world

My youngest daughter was doing fine in first grade. She was fluent in two languages, played piano, and seemed to enjoy school. The teachers and staff we met at our public school were dedicated and kind. Then, last summer, I got an education about what goes into making a great school and smart kids.

3 signs that something was missing

It was towards the end of the school year when we heard the second-grade student-teacher ratio would be 33:1. That seemed high, and my wife and I wondered how any adult could maintain order in such a class, never mind teach all those children.

Some friends were looking at private schools, and my wife suggested we find out more. But I resisted. I loved the sense of community at our local school. Besides, I said, “It’s only second grade.” When our daughter  seemed to struggle with math, we figured “maybe she’s just not good at math” and took solace in knowing she was good at languages and music.

We talked about this over dinner with my cousin, who founded the Milestone School in Mt. Vernon, NY. Her young students put on Shakespeare plays, learn a foreign language, and play chess. Her curriculum seemed fundamentally more rigorous. She taught me that, although our daughter was only in second grade, the skills and learning habits she acquired now were crucial for when things get more difficult in later grades.

Then in July we went to Japan and stayed with my sister-in-law’s family. Their kids attended public school but they also went to after-school sessions and did extra homework. We saw how even the younger child was doing math far beyond what our daughter was doing. She was embarrassed. So she took some of their worksheets and practiced. With a little help, she caught up in a few weeks.

If the US is 36th in math, who’s better?

The Smartest Kids in the WorldI saw that I had, in effect, completely outsourced my children’s education to a school and that was irresponsible. My wife and I started doing more research, which included reading an excellent book, The Smartest Kids in the World. It’s a book I strongly encourage every parent to read.

It’s from that book I learned about PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment. It’s a test aimed at gauging critical thinking in a standardized way around the world. The results for many countries are shocking. The US ranks 36th in math, on par with Lithuania and the Slovak Republic. Countries that spend far less per student than the US, including Finland and Poland, ranked much higher. Why?

Common suggestions are that the US has more diversity, more immigrants, or more poverty. But none of these are the cause of our educational issues. What the PISA data show and The Smartest Kids in the World brings to life is that three factors make the biggest difference:

Great teachers. In the education superpowers, teaching is a respected, competitive, well-paid profession. “Getting into a teacher-training program [in Finland] is as prestigious as getting into medical school in the United States.”

Higher expectations and more effort. The school days are longer and the curriculum is more rigorous.

A culture of learning. Students, teachers, and families all take school seriously because it is serious. Your performance in school often dictates your access to a better career and a better quality of life.

In some countries, access to such an education wasn’t a privilege but a right. “In the twenty-first century, it was easier for a poor person to get a great education in Finland than in almost any country in the world including the United States.” As one UK politician put it, “If you want the American dream, go to Finland.”

The best school

After reading The Smartest Kids, my wife and I were determined to be more engaged  in our children’s education. She spent weeks investigating the complex web of public, charter, and private schools. We watched chilling documentaries like The Lottery. We attended information sessions and spoke with other parents. BASIS Independent Brooklyn

We finally decided on Basis Independent, which was mentioned in the book. “At BASIS public charter schools in Arizona and Washington, D.C., teachers train students for academic conquests the way most American high schools train fort players for Friday night games.”

They were opening up a a new school in Brooklyn, kindergarten through 12th grade. We were awed by their curriculum: Mandarin and Engineering from the beginning, Latin in 4th grade, Logic in middle school.

I was lucky to attend a high school that changed my life. It was led by smart, accomplished professionals who had high expectations for us and pushed us to meet those expectations. I loved that school. At BASIS, it seemed like my children could have that experience starting at a much younger age.

So far, after more than half a year, the academics have surpassed our expectations. We’re also seeing two things we didn’t expect. The first is that the teachers and administration are providing a caring, nurturing environment. There’s rigor, for sure, but it’s backed up by a support system that helps each child through their individual challenges.

The biggest surprise has been my daughter’s reaction. It used to be a struggle to get her out of bed at 8am to walk the 2 blocks to school. Now, she’s up and eager at 6:30am to catch the bus. She loves her teachers and they’ve instilled in her a love of learning.

The smartest kids in the world don’t get that way because they’re rich or gifted. They’re smart because they have great teachers and high expectations, because they put in more effort, and because they’re surrounded by people focused on learning.

Every kid deserves a chance to be a smart kid.

What 9 year olds do that’s worth billions to corporations

Olivia & her Rubik's CubeWork, even life, is a kind of Rubik’s cube. Allow me to explain. I’ve never solved a Rubik’s cube. I’ve tried, of course. I turned it this way and that till one side was the same color. Then, frustrated and having no idea what to do next, I tossed it aside. I didn’t know anyone who had solved it either.

So it was with pride and awe that I recently watched my 9 year old daughter, Olivia, teach herself to solve the cube. In a few weeks, she went from not knowing anything about it to solving any cube handed to her. Now she just competes with herself on time. Her personal best is 1 minute 33 seconds.

The way she learned to do that - methods that can apply to learning almost anything - are worth billions to large companies.

Where to start

When Olivia wants to learn something, she expects that someone else has already shared something related to it. Her first stop is usually YouTube and it’s there she found the Simplest Tutorial for 3x3 Rubik's Cube (Learn in 15 minutes) by TheSergsB.

She watched it and tried to follow along, making slow progress. Like any video tutorial, she’d pause it when she couldn’t keep up and would watch the tough parts over and over.

Neither Olivia nor SergsB think of what they’re doing as working out loud, but that’s what it is. SergsB is making his work visible, framing it as a contribution, and in doing so is developing a network (now 14,000+ subscribers and 3+ million views) that gives him access to other possibilities. Olivia started by just consuming that content, but then she took it a step further.

Getting better

Even before she could complete the puzzle, Olivia started sharing her progress with family and a few friends at school. We offered encouragement which further motivated her to keep going. Since she wasn’t competing with other people, she wasn’t reluctant to share what she was learning. The goal was simply to get better.

As she started talking with people about it, she learned about a faster model of the cube and met more people at her school who were interested in Rubik's cubes. One of them was Amiri Bell, a fifth-grader who had won a local contest for solving 4 cubes in 7 minutes. Amiri also taught himself to solve the cube by watching a YouTube video.

Sharing practices

At school, Olivia’s teacher told her about the Rubik’s Cube club in fifth grade. Amiri was part of that club but so were people who were learning to solve the cube for the first time. It is, in effect, a community of practice. As the definition states, “It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.”

I knew Olivia wanted to keep improving her time, so I asked her what she would do when she got stuck. “Probably watch more videos,” she said. She also wants to learn to solve bigger cubes. The original cube is 3x3x3 and the biggest is a mind-boggling 11x11x11. That will be something she can get help with in the fifth-grade club.

Life is a Rubik’s cube

Olivia learns other things this way too. Whether it’s playing golf or playing cello, she benefits from studying the visible work of others, she shares what she learns herself, and she connects with others who are learning so they can all get better.

Now think of how people in your company learn to do anything. Is knowledge from experts freely available online or is education outsourced to a Learning & Development department? Is the opportunity to learn reserved only for those labelled top performers?Do people compete with each other based on what they know, thus suppressing sharing and learning?

If any of that is true, it’s a colossal waste of human and commercial potential.

We could learn a lot from 9 year olds. We could all work out loud, focus more on getting better than getting ahead, and connect what we all know so we can build on it.

If we did that, think of how much better things would be for both the individuals and their firms.

What 9 year olds do that’s worth billions to corporations

Olivia & her Rubik's Cube

Olivia & her Rubik's Cube

Work, even life, is a kind of Rubik’s cube. Allow me to explain. I’ve never solved a Rubik’s cube. I’ve tried, of course. I turned it this way and that till one side was the same color. Then, frustrated and having no idea what to do next, I tossed it aside. I didn’t know anyone who had solved it either.

So it was with pride and awe that I recently watched my 9 year old daughter, Olivia, teach herself to solve the cube. In a few weeks, she went from not knowing anything about it to solving any cube handed to her. Now she just competes with herself on time. Her personal best is 1 minute 33 seconds.

The way she learned to do that - methods that can apply to learning almost anything - are worth billions to large companies.

Where to start

When Olivia wants to learn something, she expects that someone else has already shared something related to it. Her first stop is usually YouTube and it’s there she found the Simplest Tutorial for 3x3 Rubik's Cube (Learn in 15 minutes) by TheSergsB.

She watched it and tried to follow along, making slow progress. Like any video tutorial, she’d pause it when she couldn’t keep up and would watch the tough parts over and over.

Neither Olivia nor SergsB think of what they’re doing as working out loud, but that’s what it is. SergsB is making his work visible, framing it as a contribution, and in doing so is developing a network (now 14,000+ subscribers and 3+ million views) that gives him access to other possibilities. Olivia started by just consuming that content, but then she took it a step further.

Getting better

Even before she could complete the puzzle, Olivia started sharing her progress with family and a few friends at school. We offered encouragement which further motivated her to keep going. Since she wasn’t competing with other people, she wasn’t reluctant to share what she was learning. The goal was simply to get better.

As she started talking with people about it, she learned about a faster model of the cube and met more people at her school who were interested in Rubik's cubes. One of them was Amiri Bell, a fifth-grader who had won a local contest for solving 4 cubes in 7 minutes. Amiri also taught himself to solve the cube by watching a YouTube video.

Sharing practices

At school, Olivia’s teacher told her about the Rubik’s Cube club in fifth grade. Amiri was part of that club but so were people who were learning to solve the cube for the first time. It is, in effect, a community of practice. As the definition states, “It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.”

I knew Olivia wanted to keep improving her time, so I asked her what she would do when she got stuck. “Probably watch more videos,” she said. She also wants to learn to solve bigger cubes. The original cube is 3x3x3 and the biggest is a mind-boggling 11x11x11. That will be something she can get help with in the fifth-grade club.

Life is a Rubik’s cube

Olivia learns other things this way too. Whether it’s playing golf or playing cello, she benefits from studying the visible work of others, she shares what she learns herself, and she connects with others who are learning so they can all get better.

Now think of how people in your company learn to do anything. Is knowledge from experts freely available online or is education outsourced to a Learning & Development department? Is the opportunity to learn reserved only for those labelled top performers?Do people compete with each other based on what they know, thus suppressing sharing and learning?

If any of that is true, it’s a colossal waste of human and commercial potential.

We could learn a lot from 9 year olds. We could all work out loud, focus more on getting better than getting ahead, and connect what we all know so we can build on it.

If we did that, think of how much better things would be for both the individuals and their firms.

“Brooklyn Castle”

Justus Williams, chess master & one of the stars of "Brooklyn Castle" I can’t stop thinking about “Brooklyn Castle”.

It’s the story of young kids in a Brooklyn public school who’ve won more chess championships in the last decade than any school in the nation. Watch the movie on Netflix or DVD. You’ll be inspired by the kids’ spirit and accomplishment, by the teachers’ passion and commitment, and by the way they all deal with financial difficulties at home and at school.

Another reason I keep thinking about “Brooklyn Castle”  is because it highlighted how working in an open, connected way can bring about a whole new set of possibilities.

It started when...

The movie was released in 2012, but I first heard about it in last summer. Fred Wilson, my favorite venture capitalist blogger, wrote about it in June of 2013:

“So here's the deal. This chess program at IS 318 takes three big trips a year to state and national tournaments, they have a full time faculty advisor, they study at the Marshall Chess Club, and they have a bunch of training materials they use every year. It's an expensive operation but it produces results. They are the NY Yankees of middle school chess teams. They turn kids from the streets of NYC into chess masters. And I do not think you can put a price on that.

The program was at one time funded by the school system. But budget cuts in the past five years have cut away that funding and the program has been kept alive in recent years by the generosity of a few big donors.

I saw the movie and read about the cuts and thought "this is what crowdfunding was made for"...”

Connecting dots

So I watched the movie and was thrilled. Then I watched it again with friends. I tweeted about it and got this response from the Assistant Principal, John Galvin, whom I genuinely consider a hero for what he does with the kids at I.S. 318:

Fred Wilson wanted to raise $20,000 using donorschoose.org, a crowd-funding platform for public schools that “makes it easy to help classrooms in need.” Fred’s campaign  wound up raising $67,784.99. I signed up and started to contribute to a few things.

And now I could start to see some connections.

I’m using social platforms for work, so crowd-funding is interesting to me. And I’m interested in education, not only because of my 5 kids but because my cousin has long inspired me with the amazing elementary school she founded and continues to run 34 years later. One of the 25 books that changed me was “Whatever It Takes” about Geoffrey Canada's school programs in Harlem.

But so what?

Purposeful discovery & Working Out Loud

Last week, in a post about Working Out Loud, one of the comments was that “the mere notion of putting yourself on an exposed and public pedestal is not for everyone”. She was right, of course. But now, more than ever, you can read, interact, and contribute in all sorts of ways before stepping on that pedestal. And that's a simple and fundamental part of working out loud.

Reading Fred’s blog led me to watching the movie. Tweeting about it connected me to John Galvin. That sense of connection led me to care more about donorschoose.org which led to contributions and discussions with my cousin and other teachers.

What's next? Maybe one day I’ll visit I.S. 318 with my cousin who, it turns out, has just started a chess program at her school.

Or maybe I’ll teach kids how to work out loud and have more control of their careers.

Or maybe all the proceeds from the book I’m writing will go to donorschoose.org so every reader can be a part of making a difference in our public schools.

What's interesting to me is that all of these possibilities are brand new. I'm seeing how, for myself and for the people I coach in a 12-week program, working out loud extends beyond the workplace and careers. It leads to looking at the world in a more open, connected way. It leads to finding miracles like the people and the story in “Brooklyn Castle” and to possibilities that make life richer and more wondrous.

Stop stealing dreams at work

In “Stop Stealing Dreams,” Seth Godin asks “What is school for?”

He describes why school is the way it is and what it should be instead. And he dedicates the book “to every teacher who cares enough to change the system, and to every student brave enough to stand up and speak up.”

As I read his book and watched his talk, I noticed how his arguments about school also applied to large firms. And I found myself asking “What is management for?”

At school

Seth’s main argument (one also made in the excellent documentary, “Waiting for Superman”) is that schools were designed for creating workers in the factories. That we are all products of the industrial age.

School was built "to train people to behave, to comply, to fit in.”

“We sit you in straight rows, just like they organize things in the factory. We build a system all about interchangeable people. Because factories are based on interchangeable parts. If this piece is no good, put another piece in. And org charts, those little boxes, are all designed to say ‘Oh, we can fit Bob in there because Rachel didn’t show up to work today.’"

He tells a poignant story about a teacher at his son’s public school who’s working with the class on a crafts project involving putting nails in a board in a certain pattern. When one boy doesn’t do it correctly, the teacher sternly tells him “I told you not to do it this way” and, one-by-one, she removes the nails and throws them on the floor.

“And that’s what she believed school was for. School was about teaching obedience.” She showed him who was boss. Next time, he’ll just do what he was told.

Work

And that is what we teach at work. The very phrase “Stealing Dreams” can apply to what we do to the bright young people we bring into large firms. The same approach we use at school carries over into work:

You will listen to your manager.

You will adhere to this code of conduct.

You will observe this dress code.

You will follow these policies.

You will be graded on a curve.

Management, as it is today, is not about getting the most from each unique individual. Rather, it’s about mapping each individual to their slot in processes and org charts, making sure they fit in, and making sure there’s another person to take their place when they go.

Interchangeable people, interchangeable parts. No wonder even the brightest can succumb to learned helplessness.

The consequences

When both school and work produce sameness, people produce less value than they could. And both the individual and the firm lose.

Midway through his talk, Seth asks everyone in the audience to raise their hand as high as they can. They raise their hands. Then he asks them to raise their hand a bit more. They raise them higher.

“Hmmm. What’s that about?”  You’ve been trained to hold back. To meet the objective but no more. To optimize on the test or the rating and not on the work.

“What people do quite naturally is if it’s work, they try to figure out how to do less. If it’s art, they try to figure out how to do more. And when we put kids in the factory we call school, the thing we built to indoctrinate them into compliance, why are we surprised that the question is 'will this be on the test?'"

Our focus on improving productivity through sameness and repeatability has produced tremendous results for certain kinds of work. But more and more of that work is now controlled by machines. And what we need now is something very different.

What we need and want is not passing the test but more innovation, adaptation, and agility. Our schools and management systems are simply not designed for that.

What you should do, every day, at your firm

The main contribution of “Stop Stealing Dreams” is to inspire us to question our institutions, why we do what we do.

If you have kids, think about what and how you want them to really learn. And when they go to work - when you go to work - think about the kind of system that will help you realize your potential.

“Are we asking our kids to collect dots or connect dots? Because we’re really good at measuring how many dots they collect, how many facts they have memorized, how many boxes they have filled in. But we teach nothing about how to connect those dots...

Persistence in the face of a skeptical authority figure is priceless. And yet we undermine it. Fitting in is a short-term strategy that gets you nowhere. Standing out is a long-term strategy that takes guts and produces results.”

At work, every day, ask the question “Is this what management is for?” Whether it’s the next re-org or HR process or training program, don’t just accept what management is and does. Much of it was designed for another time and another set of problems.

Unless we question what we’re doing and understand why we’re doing it, we’re not going to get what we need.

Stop stealing dreams at work

In “Stop Stealing Dreams,” Seth Godin asks “What is school for?”

He describes why school is the way it is and what it should be instead. And he dedicates the book “to every teacher who cares enough to change the system, and to every student brave enough to stand up and speak up.”

As I read his book and watched his talk, I noticed how his arguments about school also applied to large firms. And I found myself asking “What is management for?”

At school

Seth’s main argument (one also made in the excellent documentary, “Waiting for Superman”) is that schools were designed for creating workers in the factories. That we are all products of the industrial age.

School was built "to train people to behave, to comply, to fit in.”

“We sit you in straight rows, just like they organize things in the factory. We build a system all about interchangeable people. Because factories are based on interchangeable parts. If this piece is no good, put another piece in. And org charts, those little boxes, are all designed to say ‘Oh, we can fit Bob in there because Rachel didn’t show up to work today.’"

He tells a poignant story about a teacher at his son’s public school who’s working with the class on a crafts project involving putting nails in a board in a certain pattern. When one boy doesn’t do it correctly, the teacher sternly tells him “I told you not to do it this way” and, one-by-one, she removes the nails and throws them on the floor.

“And that’s what she believed school was for. School was about teaching obedience.” She showed him who was boss. Next time, he’ll just do what he was told.

Work

And that is what we teach at work. The very phrase “Stealing Dreams” can apply to what we do to the bright young people we bring into large firms. The same approach we use at school carries over into work:

You will listen to your manager.

You will adhere to this code of conduct.

You will observe this dress code.

You will follow these policies.

You will be graded on a curve.

Management, as it is today, is not about getting the most from each unique individual. Rather, it’s about mapping each individual to their slot in processes and org charts, making sure they fit in, and making sure there’s another person to take their place when they go.

Interchangeable people, interchangeable parts. No wonder even the brightest can succumb to learned helplessness.

The consequences

When both school and work produce sameness, people produce less value than they could. And both the individual and the firm lose.

Midway through his talk, Seth asks everyone in the audience to raise their hand as high as they can. They raise their hands. Then he asks them to raise their hand a bit more. They raise them higher.

“Hmmm. What’s that about?”  You’ve been trained to hold back. To meet the objective but no more. To optimize on the test or the rating and not on the work.

“What people do quite naturally is if it’s work, they try to figure out how to do less. If it’s art, they try to figure out how to do more. And when we put kids in the factory we call school, the thing we built to indoctrinate them into compliance, why are we surprised that the question is 'will this be on the test?'"

Our focus on improving productivity through sameness and repeatability has produced tremendous results for certain kinds of work. But more and more of that work is now controlled by machines. And what we need now is something very different.

What we need and want is not passing the test but more innovation, adaptation, and agility. Our schools and management systems are simply not designed for that.

What you should do, every day, at your firm

The main contribution of “Stop Stealing Dreams” is to inspire us to question our institutions, why we do what we do.

If you have kids, think about what and how you want them to really learn. And when they go to work - when you go to work - think about the kind of system that will help you realize your potential.

“Are we asking our kids to collect dots or connect dots? Because we’re really good at measuring how many dots they collect, how many facts they have memorized, how many boxes they have filled in. But we teach nothing about how to connect those dots...

Persistence in the face of a skeptical authority figure is priceless. And yet we undermine it. Fitting in is a short-term strategy that gets you nowhere. Standing out is a long-term strategy that takes guts and produces results.”

At work, every day, ask the question “Is this what management is for?” Whether it’s the next re-org or HR process or training program, don’t just accept what management is and does. Much of it was designed for another time and another set of problems.

Unless we question what we’re doing and understand why we’re doing it, we’re not going to get what we need.