Late Bloomers and the Benefits of Delayed Success

At a dinner party several years ago, a woman and I chatted about education and parenthood. I had just met her and when I told her about our unschooling approach to education that prioritizes self-directed learning, she was visibly perplexed. “Don’t you worry about outcomes?” she asked. Yes, I replied. I want my children to be highly literate and numerate, to live a meaningful life tied to their interests and talents, and to have a strong sense of personal agency. “Well,” she responded, “for my kids, it might as well be either the Ivy League or jail.” She was only half-kidding.

A Social Obsession with Early Accomplishments

The recent college admissions bribery scandal shows the lengths that some affluent parents will go to make sure their children get into elite colleges. But it’s not just wealthy parents who are worried about their child’s early success and college and career prospects. In his new book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, longtime Forbes publisher, Rich Karlgaard, writes about our societal obsession with early accomplishment and its potentially negative impact on both individuals and communities. He writes:

What I suggest is that parents, schools, employers, the media, and consumers of media are now crazily overcelebrating early achievement as the best kind of achievement or even the only kind. We do so at the cost of shaming the late bloomer and thus shortchanging people and society.

Karlgaard is clear in saying there is nothing inherently wrong with early achievement. Indeed, we are all better off thanks to the inventions of young entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who both dropped out of college years ago to pursue their revolutionary technology companies. The downside is that now we often look to early markers of a narrow definition of success as defining a person’s worth.

How children perform at school, what kind of test scores they get, what college they get into at 18 become sought-after signals of accomplishment. Karlgaard suggests several problems with this outlook, including marginalizing highly-talented young people who may not perform well in conventional schooling and grow up with a sense of being less than their peers. He writes:

When so many people believe they are inferior based on a few narrow measurements made when they were children, society as a whole suffers.

Mounting Pressure During Childhood

More troubling is the mounting pressure on parents and children to begin this trail of achievement in preschool, depriving children of freedom and play in the name of academic rigor and triggering skyrocketing rates of adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide. Karlgaard writes:

Excessively promoting the primacy of early measurable achievement—grades, test scores, glamour job, money, celebrity—conceals a dark flipside: If we or our kids don’t knock our SATs out of the park, gain admittance to a top-ten university, reinvent an industry, or land our first job at a cool company that’s changing the world, we’ve somehow failed and are destined to be also-rans for the rest of our lives.

Karlgaard explains that this “societal madness for early achievement” can be damaging to many children and young people. They may appear successful on the outside, but on the inside, many are hurting. He writes:

Early bloomers are in the headlines, but are they succeeding as much as the media lead us to believe? In fact, many early bloomers are suffering terribly. The pressure to achieve early success led to three student suicides in the 2014–15 school year at Gunn High School, a public school in Palo Alto, California, three miles from the elite Stanford University campus. All were good students striving for early achievement. By March in the same school year, forty-two Gunn students had been hospitalized or treated for suicidal thoughts.

Fortunately, Late Bloomers offers a dose of sanity for those of us who question the increasingly standardized, test-driven schooling model that can fuel a toxic early achievement culture, while also encouraging all of us that it’s never too late to pursue a passion, build a business, or change the world.

Late Bloomers

A late bloomer himself, Karlgaard had a hunch that there was great value in peaking later in life. His book is an extensively researched work that blends the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology with profiles of inspiring late bloomers to show that the push toward early achievement and career success may be unnecessary at best and harmful at worst.

While research shows that individuals on average have rapid brain functioning and memory skills in their 20s, it’s in their 30s and 40s that strong executive functioning skills, empathy, and level-headedness kick in, and wisdom really emerges after 50. These more mature qualities can be critical in helping late bloomers to launch new, successful endeavors and enterprises.

A primary characteristic of late bloomers is curiosity which, Karlgaard argues, is abundant in young children and is steadily eroded through what he calls “America’s early-blooming conveyor belt.” Late bloomers seem to hold on to their curiosity despite societal efforts to weaken it. They are seekers and explorers who aren’t afraid to experiment.

Quitting Your Way to Success

They also aren’t afraid to quit. Late bloomers tend to reject the myth that “winners never quit and quitters never win,” recognizing the opportunity lost when we spend our time in a job or activity that isn’t serving us well and that may distract us from pursuing our true talents. Karlgaard explains the importance of quitting to success:

As part of our obsession with early achievement, we’ve turned quitting into a pejorative, an insult that cuts straight to our sense of self-worth. And that’s not just unfair, it’s destructive. In a drive to suppress individuality and reinforce cultural norms, society has turned one of the most effective tools for self-discovery into a proverbial four-letter word.

Ultimately, Karlgaard’s Late Bloomers book is a refreshing reminder that it’s okay to slow down and move through life at our own pace, following our own pathway. Don’t let the societal conveyor belt of preschool-to-college-to-career achievement drown out your talents or derail your potential. Know that it’s never too late to begin or to peak, and that there is often great value that comes with time. Karlgaard concludes:

If we’re not forced to conform to standard timetables for success, we can—and will—bloom on our own schedules. And we can do it with a deeper sense of mission and a greater feeling of contentment.

This is sage advice, both for us to take and to give to our children.

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Riding the Turbulence of Life Like a Wave

We’re in the middle of a big move back to California from Guam, and things are in great flux. Saying goodby to everyone, packing and shipping stuff, not having a home yet, traveling with kids on a couple long flights, moving our old stuff from storage in a U-Haul, finding our way in a new city.

Life is turbulent right now — though if we think about it, it almost always is.

I’m not a surfer, but I imagine that I can let myself be overwhelmed and crushed by the turbulence … or I can ride it like a surfer might ride a wave. You don’t control the wave or know how it will turn out, you just have to navigate it moment to moment.

If we can learn to ride the rolling uncertainty of our lives like a wave, staying open each moment to what unfolds, we can live without as much stress and anxiety, and just be present to what is happening. Maybe even enjoy ourselves in the middle of it.

So what would that be like?

For me, it seems to be staying present with the feelings of uncertainty that come up for me, instead of trying to ignore them or get away from them. That means allowing myself to feel the turbulence, not constantly staying distracted.

It seems to be trying to be curious about what is unfolding, about what this particular moment is like, without needing to know what comes next exactly. Without needing it to be any certain way. And if I do expect it to be a certain way, being present with my feelings of frustration or stress when it doesn’t turn out to be that way.

It seems to be about surrendering, a bit, as I relax my constant need for control. I don’t have all the information I need to perfectly plan out my life — there’s so much uncertainty about everything, that I can’t possibly know how things should go, what I should do exactly, what will come next. So should I try to plan for every possible outcome, be incredibly prepared for any possible scenario, when I can’t know what might happen? Or can I relax and surrender, trusting that I can deal with whatever does come up. So far, that’s always been true.

It seems to be about dealing with what’s right in front of me, in the moment. I can’t deal with every possible scenario that might come in the future, but I can be fully open to what’s happening right now. I can be as present as I can with this situation, and figure out what needs to be done right now.

It also seems to be about learning to love this moment, as it unfolds, as it is. I don’t know what will come next, but what’s happening now is completely new, a beautiful surprise. Instead of worrying so much about what is still to come, I can open my eyes to what’s right here.

And then fall in love with it.

Walking into the unknown can be scary … but at the same time, it can also be a time of discovering love for a fresh experience. It can be a time of walking into pure joy at the miracle of life that’s just emerging in this moment.

It is breathtaking and lovely.

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Education Entrepreneurs Are the Only Ones Who Can Disrupt the Status Quo

Transforming entrenched systems and industries comes through disruptive innovation and entrepreneurship. Coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, disruptive innovation is the process by which new ideas and inventions create value and ultimately topple existing competitors. A visionary individual or group spots opportunity and develops new solutions that meet consumer demand faster, better, and more cheaply. This innovation improves our lives through efficiency and cost-effectiveness, allowing us to keep more of our hard-earned money with better service and satisfaction.

Independent and Innovative Education

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of the organizations I highlight in Unschooled are independently run. Disruptive innovation may originate with individual ingenuity, but it is fueled by consumer demand and value creation within the private sector. Not that the public sector hasn’t tried. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, there was a surge of interest in reforming mass schooling from within. The Open Classroom movement emerged, encouraging less restrictive classrooms and more choice and freedom for students.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1967, the city’s public school system launched its Parkway Program, sometimes known as the “school without walls,” in which young people were able to select their own classes and learn throughout various spots across the city, including private businesses, museums, local universities, and public spaces. In 1970, the New York Times called the Parkway Program “one of the nation’s boldest experiments in public education,” noting that over ten thousand students applied for only five hundred available slots.

Any meaningful and lasting transformation in American education must come from the private sector.

Within a decade, though, momentum for programs like Parkway waned. New public education fads appeared and old ones faded. Ultimately, Parkway was reabsorbed into the larger school district, becoming indistinguishable from Philadelphia’s other public schools.

More recently, a fully self-directed district high school that I also write about in Unschooled was set to open this fall in Somerville, Massachusetts, a city just outside of Boston. Powderhouse Studios had everything going for it, including relief from onerous public schooling requirements under the state’s Innovative Schools legislation and a $10 million grant from XQ Super School, an organization co-founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the late Steve Jobs of Apple, Inc. After seven years of concessions and compromise by the school’s leaders, the city’s school committee ultimately voted unanimously this spring not to approve Powderhouse’s opening.

Private Sector Reforms

As much as many parents and educators would like to believe that meaningful reforms can occur within the mass compulsory schooling model, real education innovation occurs most successfully and enduringly through the private sector. Free from state curriculum requirements, standardized testing mandates, and restrictions on hiring and firing, private educational organizations are able to experiment and innovate, with parents as the key stakeholders to ensure accountability.

Many of these schools and organizations are tiny non-profit enterprises that serve a small group of children and are often financially inaccessible to many families. But disruptive innovation in education has the capacity to bring real change to the masses—if educators embrace an entrepreneurial, free-market mindset.

In his book, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey writes about his early days immersed in the left countercultural movement of the late-1960s and 1970s. He lived on a commune in Texas for two years and became active in the local food co-op movement.

Entrepreneurship and Capitalism

Mackey writes in the book’s introduction:

Politically, I drifted into progressivism (or liberalism or social democracy) and embraced the ideology that business and corporations were essentially evil because they selfishly sought only profits. In contrast to evil corporations, I believed that nonprofit organizations and government were “good,” because they altruistically worked for the public interest, not for profit.

The longer Mackey was part of the non-profit food co-op movement, the more disenchanted he became with its ideology. He writes:

I ultimately became disillusioned with the co-op movement because there seemed to be little room for entrepreneurial creativity; virtually every decision was politicized.

Discovering the power of free-market capitalism, Mackey was able to scale his vision for healthy food and a healthier planet in ways that small, local, non-profit food co-ops were unable to, leading many more people to have access to organic food and many more jobs created to provide that food.

Mackey writes about his path from progressive anti-capitalist to proud entrepreneur:

I learned that free enterprise, when combined with property rights, innovation, the rule of law, and constitutionally limited democratic government, results in societies that maximize social prosperity and establish conditions that promote human happiness and well-being—not just for the rich, but for the larger society, including the poor. I had become a businessperson and a capitalist, and I had discovered that business and capitalism, while not perfect, were both fundamentally good and ethical.

Education needs its own Whole Foods moment. It needs entrepreneurial innovators to move small, non-profit organizations into larger-scale, profitable enterprises that serve more families and students with better outcomes and lower costs. Now with Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, the potential for greater accessibility at lower costs increases.

Seeds of an enterprising moment in education are beginning to sprout. Acton Academy is a low-cost, self-directed network of private schools, often operating on a hybrid homeschool model, that is expanding across the country by educators committed to entrepreneurship and educational creativity. In an article for Forbes, Bill Frezza describes Acton Academy’s potential to remake the educational landscape. He writes:

With the right program as a model, anyone who home schools his kids can operate an Acton Academy. And not just for his or her own children, but for a schoolhouse full of them. Run the numbers and you can even make a lucrative living while charging tuition well below than that of most conventional private schools.

Standardized Equals Restrictive

Similarly, the Academy of Thought and Industry is a for-profit network of schools that could trigger necessary disruption in education. Founder Michael Strong acknowledges the power of profit-driven free enterprise to create lasting educational change that is higher-quality, lower-cost, and ultimately scalable. He says:

Any time something is profitable, that is what makes it able to go to scale. The reason we have low-cost groceries now (compared to 100 years ago) is because it’s profitable to bring food to millions and millions of people.

Any meaningful and lasting transformation in American education must come from the private sector. Public schools have tried to innovate; yet compulsory mass schooling has become more restrictive, standardized, and all-consuming of American childhood than at any other time in our history. To enact real, scalable change in education—just as Whole Foods did with the organic food movement—entrepreneurial parents and educators will need to imagine and implement new models of learning. These models must be rooted in the time-tested principles of free-market capitalism, or what Mackey describes as

the heroic nature of business, its essential virtues, and its extraordinary potential to do more good for more people in a sustained manner than any other social or economic system ever invented by humankind.

Entrepreneurs can help to replace an obsolete schooling model of education with a new learning one fit for the innovation era. In fact, they may be the only ones who can move us from where we are to where we could be.

Listen to Kerry McDonald discuss unschooling with FEE president emeritus Lawrence Reed (12:00 mark):

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Sundowner

Nobody asked but …

When I was below the age of five, I was not expected to do physically demanding things, such as hod carrying or bicycle riding.  I was not required to do things that required experience or problem solving skills.  I was not held responsible for things that were assigned competence levels.  Some of these institutional hold harmless agreements stayed in place until my voice changed, or I reached 16 years of age, then 18, then 21.  I had to reach 35 to be held out of selective service eligibility, or to serve as POTUS.  Lastly, I ran into a smattering of bedraggled annualizations which marked my being eligible for lifelong learning, senior discounts, early retirement, regular retirement, extended retirement, and various age-related, statist benefit programs.

Maybe when we become superannuated, we should have reversed our trajectory a la Benjamin Button.  Our competencies are not so easily misperceived when we are wet behind the ears.  Although the spirit is still willing, the body becomes weaker everyday … and the spirit begins to follow.  I am getting smaller.  I am getting weaker.  I am more susceptible to adversity.  I am more weary of the constraints that other generations impose — see TSA, the cartelization of education, and air travel in general.

Why is there not a lessening of responsibility as we re-approach infantility?  Why?  The arrow of time has not been reversed.  Consequences at time B must be arising from human action at time A.

— Kilgore Forelle

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The 11 Life Lessons It Turns Out I’ve Taught My Six Kids

On my 46th birthday recently, my (mostly adult) kids wrote out a list of lessons I’d taught each of them in their lives so far. Each wrote their own list, and my wife Eva sweetly put them together in a notebook.

As I read through them, I felt like crying. It’s so incredibly touching that they appreciate what I’ve been trying to pass on to them, things I’ve been learning and want them to understand.

As a father, there are few things more meaningful than to see how you’ve helped your kids through your example and talks over the years. We have a mixed family of 6 kids, aging from 13 years old to 26 years, and all of them are wonderful human beings.

It turns out, there were some lessons that all or most of the kids put on their list, which I’m going to share with you here. These lessons they had in common made me wonder if these were the more powerful lessons, or if they were simply the ones I talked about the most. 🙂

So here they are, roughly ordered in how frequently they showed up on my kids’ lists:

  1. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and it’s okay to fail. This was tied (with the next one) as the most common lesson on their lists — it made all their lists, I think. I really love that this lesson hit home with them.
  2. Have empathy & try to see things from others’ perspectives. This was the other lesson on all their lists, and again, it’s beautiful that they all took this to heart. I’ve tried to show them this through my actions, though of course I’m not at all perfect.
  3. Push out of your comfort zone. This is another one I’ve tried to teach by example, from running several marathons and an ultramarathon to doing things that scare me, like speaking on stage or writing books. This lesson is so important to me that
  4. Don’t spend more than you have. This is such a simple idea, but one that is rarely followed. I’m glad my kids are starting out with this mindset — live within your means, save as much as you can.
  5. Appreciate what you have & enjoy where you are right now. I love this one. It’s something that I try to embody, but also remind them when they are thinking about what they don’t have. Each time we’re stuck in complaint, it’s an opportunity to wake up to the beauty that’s in front of us.
  6. Sadness is a part of life, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling it. Despite what I said in the previous item, it’s OK to feel sadness, pain, grief, frustration, anxiety, anger. In fact, most of us never want to feel those things, so we’ll do whatever we can to ignore them or get away from the feelings. Instead, I try to actually feel those things, as an experience. It teaches me about struggle — if we’re not willing to face our own struggles, how can we be there for others when they struggle?
  7. Don’t give up just because something gets hard. As new adults, our four oldest kids are facing various struggles in new ways. This is part of growth, of course, but struggles never feel good. My job as dad has been to encourage them not to give up just because it’s hard — to keep going, and to use the struggle to grow.
  8. But don’t overwork yourself. That said, I’m not a fan of overwork. I believe the brain doesn’t function well if you keep studying or working past the point of exhaustion, so I try to teach them about taking breaks, resting, going outside and moving.
  9. It’s okay to be weird in public. Have fun. I’m not sure why several of them had this on the list — they must have learned to be weird from someone else? OK, in truth, they might have gotten it from my tendency to dance and skip with them while we’re out walking around in a city, or to encourage us all to do weird things as a group, no matter what other people might think.
  10. Your reality is a reflection of the narrative you tell yourself.
  11. Make people laugh. It makes their day brighter.

I love my kids with all my heart, and it has been a privilege to be their dad. I take 10% of the credit and give the rest to their moms, grandparents, and themselves.

Btw, you can read Chloe’s full list in her blog post.

Also … from them, I’ve learned some lessons that are just as important:

  • Kids deserve to be heard, to be listened to, to be respected. I started out as a dad with the idea that what I say goes, and they just need to listen to me! But over the years, I’ve learned to listen to them, and treat them as I’d want to be treated.
  • Kids have tender hearts that hurt when you aren’t kind to them. As a young dad, my frustrations and insecurities led me to angry bursts of scolding, yelling, spanking. I’ve grown since then, but more importantly, I’ve learned to see the tenderness of their hearts, and how it hurts to be yelled at by someone they trust and love so much. I am much more gentle with those hearts these days.
  • I should relax and not take myself so seriously. Whenever I think too much of myself, my kids humble me. Whenever I get too serious, my kids laugh at me. I love that playful reminder to loosen up.
  • Dads are goofy, dorky, uncool. And that’s how we should be. I sometimes harbor the notion that I can be a “cool” dad. When I try to break out newish slang or reference a meme, my kids will tease me about it. When I break out a joke or pun that I think is hilarious, they’ll laugh while rolling my eyes and calling it a “dad joke.” So I’ve learned just to embrace my uncoolness, and be myself with them.
  • All they need is love. There are lots of things to stress out about as parents, and nowadays we tend to obsess about getting everything right with our kids. But really, we’re stressing about it too much. All the details are just details — there’s only one thing that really matters. They want you to love them. And to receive their love. That’s all. Feed them, clothe them, shelter them, educate them, sure … but beyond that, they just want you to love them. Drop everything that gets in the way of that and let it come out as simply and clearly as you can.

Thank you, my loves.

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Electrocuting Dogs

Nobody asked but …

“If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell,” wrote Carl Sandburg.  Although this is specific advice for lawyers, it can be general advice for us all.  Unfortunately, the less beneficial aspects of this advice are often explored.

I am in the middle of a good book right now.  The novel is The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore.  It is about the competition between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison, with the involvement of Nicola Tesla, for the electrification of America.  I am fascinated by this kind of stuff, as I come from a line of engineers, started college as an electrical engineering student, and have stayed in college, learning and teaching, as a software engineer for the rest of my life, so far.  As a voluntaryist, I am even more fascinated by the human dynamic of the open market which resulted in the current (no pun intended) worldwide dependence on the infrastructure of electricity.

The time period in question, the mid-19th century, was an early beneficiary of the scientific method, propounded by giants like Newton and DesCartes.  But many of the people involved were not Newton or DesCartes.  Like the first attempts at illumination, the era often generated more heat than light.  Charlatanism had also been handed down by phrenologists and alchemists.  Getting something for nothing proved to be the same siren song for humans as it always had.  Wishful thinking, magical thinking, and confirmation bias abounded.

Insincere spokespersons advocated making the architectural choice between AC or DC by making theatrical presentations involving first shocking then electrocuting dogs and horses.  Eventually the stakes were raised to Edison’s film about the electrocution of an elephant, and further a doctored film of human electrocution (where the state intervened in the argument).  None of these shows were dispositive of careful scientific principle, but the presenters made sure that lots of reporters were there.

How many humans and other animals have died since, based on the choice?  One would hope, when decisions with such a long tail are made, it is done with less show biz but more careful consideration of principle.

— Kilgore Forelle

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