What I’m Learning: Day 5/365

To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gotto.

Last night I finished this book. I’m still letting much of what I read digest, so I won’t add much personal reflection right now. There were a few passages I’d like to return to for further contemplation:

Ultimately, how we think about social problems depends on our philosophy of human nature: what we think people are, what we think they are capable of, what the purposes of human existence may be, if any. If people are machines, then school can only be a way to make these machines more reliable; the logic of machine dictates that parts be uniform and interchangeable, all operations time-constrained, predictable, economical. Does this sound to you like the schools you attended, that your children attended?

At the root {our educational problems} are based on the lie that there is “one right way” in human affairs and that experts can be awarded the permanent direction of the enterprise of education. It is a lie because the changing dynamics of time and situation and locality render expertise irrelevant and obsolete shortly after it is anointed.

Trust in families and neighborhoods and individuals to make sense of the important question, “What is education for?” If some of them answer differently from what you might prefer, that’s really not your business, and it shouldn’t be your problem…It is illegitimate to have an expert answer that question for you.

Activity VI: Grammar Lesson

Lesson 5: Verbs overview and lesson 1-5 Quiz

This week I covered the basics on the role of verbs and the distinction between linking/being verbs, action verbs, auxiliary/helping verbs, and verb phrases.

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

Bukowski’s Letter of Gratitude to the Man Who Helped Him Quit His Soul-Sucking Job and Become a Full-Time Writer

In this article, Maria Popova recounts the story of the writer, Charles Bukowski, who spent the first 50 years of his life working jobs he detested. Using the word “slave” to describe his lifestyle of low wage servitude, Bukowski saw himself as a sucker for the system. Writing about the other men he observed working around him,

And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does.

As a young man I could not believe that people could give their lives over to those conditions. As an old man, I still can’t believe it. What do they do it for? Sex? TV? An automobile on monthly payments? Or children? Children who are just going to do the same things that they did?

Bukowski’s life was turned around when a publisher offered him a stipend to write full time. This article highlights the thank you letter Bukowski wrote to his gracious patron many years later. Bukowski regarded his successful escape from an unpleasant, burdensome, and monotonous work life to be among his greatest accomplishments. Concluding his letter, he writes:

So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.

To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.

I believe that Bukowski’s feelings towards his old jobs is similar to how many people feel today about their professional lives. One of the reasons I became involved in Praxis is because I believe that work is one of the primary areas where people experience themselves as victims. My goal is to help others take charge of their professional destinies. While I consider it to be a gross exaggeration to compare working an unpleasant job to slavery, I don’t think Bukowski is too far off when he paints a picture of life without fulfilling work as a prison of sorts. People should not be condemned for lacking a career they feel proud of, but wherever it is possible, I think we should do all we can to help our fellow human beings create options for themselves beyond the familiar and often dreaded path.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalks podcast

Sam Altman on Start-ups, Venture Capital, and the Y Combinator

Sam Altman, the President of Y Combinator, talks with Russ Roberts about what he looks for in startups and discussion some of his views on a variety of potential innovations like bitcoin, the blockchain, energy technologies, the technological singularity, and the future of work.

Early in the interview, Russ Roberts repeated the advice his often gives to students when asked for guidance regarding what classes they should take: “Don’t take the course. Take the teacher.” Altman extended the application of this thought to start-up founders. According to Altman, the founders are more important than the idea. Speaking on what he looks for, he said the following:

We have something that we say after interview sometimes, which is “fun for the pivot.” {This} means, “this idea is so terrible, but this founder is so good, we’re going to give them money anyway and we know this first idea is going to fail, but we want them in the YC community. That’s how strongly we feel about it.

We look for founders that are determined and smart. In that order. It is more important to be determined than smart. Success in startups is really a game of being able to beat your head bloody against the wall for many years and things like endurance and dedication really matter.

Altman also emphasized the importance of good communication skills among the founding team:

We look for founders that can communicate well. That turns out to be incredibly correlated with success. Founders eventually become sort of the chief evangelists for the company. And if you can’t communicate with people well, with the hundreds of people every week that you have to talk to about your company—employees, press, customers, suppliers, everything—then you’re really going to struggle. And so it turns out that if you’re not a good communicator, that’s a big strike against you.

He also expressed a tendency towards caution against entrepreneurs who are a part of startup culture just for the sake of being involved in startup culture:

We like founders that are particularly set on this idea. Founders that say “I want to start a startup, what should I do?,” that’s really bad. We want founders that are like “I’m in love with this idea and a startup is the best way for me to get this done.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Martha Nussbaum on the Value of the Humanities

Martha shares her concerns about what she perceives to be a growing tendency to value education solely or primarily in terms of it’s ability to help us generate short-term profits. Unless we’re able to easily or clearly show how a particular form of knowledge will help us make more money, she fears we’ll casually dismiss the subject matter as irrelevant. When asked if she was being critical of an overemphasis on cost-benefit analysis, Nussbaum was quick to point out that cost-benefit analysis was not the issue. The issue, she argues, is our inclination to not take into account all the intangible and non-obvious benefits involved in our studies. In order to build and sustain a healthy democracy, Nussbaum contends that we need to invoke in others a passion, or at least an appreciation, for subjects like history, economics, religion, philosophy, and literature. These fields of study, although they may not makes us rich in the materialistic sense, are essential for cultivating open-mindedness, creativity, empathy, moral intelligence, emotional competence, and a sense of personal identity. She closed the episode with what I thought was a profound and inspiring claim:

Literature, in general, trains the muscles of the mind. So I think even reading T.S. Eliot expands your imaginative capacity  in a general way.

One thing I would point out here is that much of the emphasis on pragmatism and profit-seeking that Nussbaum feels concerned about is due to the high costs associated with schooling. For many people, education is a very expensive commodity. People are told about the intangible value of education over and over again, but the resources required to obtain such an education are very tangible. While education may not be easily quantifiable, the tuition costs of a good education are much more easily calculated. One way forward, in my opinion, is to promote and popularize the very real, but often neglected, distinction between education and schooling. Many forms of schooling, especially the higher quality forms, are very costly. Education, on the other hand, and writers like John Taylor Gotto argue this point very well, is much more affordable. I think the real tragedy of our lack of appreciation for the humanities lies in the fact that we look to schooling as the end-all-be-all of our educational needs. We make the assumption that if something is essential for a good life, we ought to look for schools to teach it. This not only places inflated expectations on schools to achieve results that they’re often not optimized to achieve, but it also has the negative externality of conditioning students and their families to overlook the value of information that’s not taught in schools.

All in all, I share Nussbaum’s passion for the humanities. In the Praxis program, which is an apprenticeship for aspiring young professionals and entrepreneurs, we not only emphasize the importance of practical experience but also the value of a solid liberal arts education. We believe that the best entrepreneurs are are also philosophers.  Knowledge of history is essential for those who wish to create the future. Understanding economic thinking is critical for those who wish to create value in the marketplace. Grasping the art of philosophical thinking is vital for innovators who wish to meet the needs of an ever-changing world through unconventional thinking. I may have less hope in traditional approaches to education than Nussbaum (and to be fair, I can’t say how much hope she actually has in these approaches), but I emphatically endorse her call to reclaim, celebrate, spread the value of the humanities.

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

Economics in One Lesson: Part 4 | Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

Jeffrey Tucker and Thomas Woods discuss the commonly held notion that the private market cannot resolve the sorts of problems we often look to the government to handle. Woods points out that part of the problem is the ease with which we believe in the government’s ability to create wealth or do good without inflicting further damage than it seeks to eliminate. He also points out our failure to be realistic and rational when we make assumptions about the ability of politicians to make better decisions about the use of people’s resources than the people themselves.

Thomas Woods argues that even though people tend to see governments as more honest and trustworthy than the profit-seekers in a free market, he makes note that it’s really the presence of competition that keeps political and economic actors honest. In a free market, Woods claims, businesses would have to be honest even if they didn’t want to be because of their competitors. Governments, on the other hand, through a monopoly on violence, are less subject to the quick and unforgiving corrections of the marketplace.

Activity XI: One episode from my favorite podcasts list

Accidental Creative Podcast: Gretchen Rubin on Better Than Before

Gretchen Rubin discusses the frustrating patterns of self-defeating decisions that stand between our pursuit of happiness and health. She believes the key to a happy and healthy life is not merely a matter of positive thinking, but is more a matter of building constructive habits. One problem that keeps us from doing this, according to Rubin, is our insistence on trying to develop habits that we think are “right” or “good,” rather than focusing more on what works for us. She encourages those who desire to create lasting change to be honest with themselves about their already existing habits and to try creating new habits that are consistent with the established ebbs and flows of their life. If you are a person who hates, or struggles with, getting up early in the morning, for instance, she says it might not be wise to all of sudden say “I’m going to wake up everyday at 6am and go for a run.” These are the sort of overzealous decisions that set us up for failure at the very outset. Moreover, they tend to destroy our confidence over the long-term making it hard for us to try again in the future.

Todd Henry , “Instead of focusing on the discipline part of it, focus on the desire part of it. “What am I really trying to do?” Sometimes that makes all the difference in my life.

Don’t rely on self-discipline….Some people want to fight their way though the day. People often say to me “Well, I want to learn to make healthy choices.” Don’t make healthy choices. Make one healthy choice. Then stop choosing. Don’t everyday decide whether to go to the gem….that’s going to exhaust you and drain you. You want to say “Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 8pm, I’m going to go to the gym.” And there’s no more decision-making. There’s no more thinking that over. There’s no self-control. There’s no willpower. It just happens. And with a lot of behavior, that’s what you want to do. You want to put it on automatic, so you don’t have to use a lot of self-control.

Her two top practices for maintaining a healthy and creative mind is 1) get enough sleep and 2) write everyday. Sleep, she says, is the key to having access to your intelligence and good judgement and daily writing helps her sustain a steady flow of creative energy. She’s quick to say, however, that nothing is more important than experimenting with your own rhythms and sticking with what works for you. Rubin references the fact that different artists, creators, and entrepreneurs have all sorts of seemingly idiosyncratic routines. Rather than trying to imitate the daily rituals of Steve Jobs, she says, figure out your way to be a better self.

Activity XII: Read one Blog Post from Favorites List

The hard part about surfing -Seth Godin’s Blog

Seth’s post was very brief, yet poignant. I’ll quote it in its entirety

Surfing, the conceptual kind, is more essential than ever, it’s not optional. And the hardest part of surfing, by far, is paddling out, not surfing in. Carrying the board, getting back into the water, paddling through the waves, waiting for the next set…it’s exhausting, and surfers spend far more time doing this than they do on the other part. Having the guts to surf is what change demands. And finding the stamina to paddle back out is a key part of surfing.

Passion and perseverance. Courage and persistence. Guts and determination. It’s never the one without the other. The ability to have an impact always requires the willingness to venture out into unknown territory combined with the resilience necessary to endure the parts that are boring, uncomfortable, uninspiring, and flat out painful.

Per my PDP, I’ll be taking Saturday & Sunday off to focus on family life, personal time, and creative work. I’ll resume my scheduled activities on Monday.