4 Mindfulness Practices That We Need Right Now

In the middle of the chaos of the world right now, what can we do to take care of ourselves?

Let’s talk about a handful of simple mindfulness practices that can be helpful.

  1. Breathe deeply into the belly. This is one to start with, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. We get caught up in our heads, stuck in a cycle of thoughts that are rarely very helpful. So to get out of our heads and into our bodies, we can do deep breathes, into the deepest part of our bellies. Do several breaths like this, maybe for 30-60 seconds if you have time. This not only calms you down, but helps you to be more present with your body and surroundings.
  2. Check on your feelings, give yourself compassion. Turn your attention to the sensations in your body, and notice how uncertainty and fear/anxiety might feel for you right now, as a bodily experience. This, again, helps get you out of your thoughts, but also it’s important to notice how you’re feeling. Practice giving these feelings some space, letting them be (it’s OK to feel anxiety!). Then see if you can give them some compassion, to take care of yourself when you’re feeling uncertainty or frustration.
  3. Find calm in the middle of a storm. When the world is full of chaos, can we find calm? Find your breath. Let the swirl of thoughts calm down. Notice the light around you, notice sound. Notice the beauty of the moment. Widen your awareness beyond yourself, and feel the peace of a moment of stillness. You can still take action, but from a place of calmness.
  4. Send compassion out to others. Once you’ve practiced compassion for your own uncertainty and fears … once you’ve found a moment of calm and centeredness … you can open your heart to others right now. They’re afraid, they’re feeling anxious. Open your awareness beyond your home, to the others in your neighborhood and city, to others around the world, to your loved ones and strangers. Feel the worry they’re feeling. Send them compassion, from the deepest place in your heart. Let it flow out as a healing salve to everyone. Notice how this feels. Notice how it might change how you interact with others.

Let these practices help you through this troubled time, my friends.

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Dealing with the Immense Uncertainty of the World

The world is in a state of fear and uncertainty right now, and it’s stressful and overwhelming for most of us.

This kind of fear, stress, uncertain and overwhelm can have some really strong effects on our lives:

  • Constant fear and stress can cause anxiety problems, worsening sleep and health, depression and anxiety
  • In a place of fear, we can often make bad decisions
  • People can panic, overreact because of fear, and cause widespread confusion and disruptions
  • Our relationships can deteriorate when we’re operating from a place of fear
  • We become less productive, less focused, when we’re stressed
  • It has an obvious impact on our happiness, including the impacts from all of the above

These are just some of the strong effects from a constant sense of fear, uncertainty, stress and overwhelm.

So how do we cope with this?

Obviously, there’s no easy answer. Let’s talk about what I’ve found to work, and what I recommend right now.

Dealing with the Uncertainty & Fear

The first thing is just to acknowledge that we’re feeling a lot of uncertainty and stress about the world situation. Bring awareness to the feelings you’re experiencing, and acknowledge their presence.

Often we want to ignore the feelings, or we’re just operating on autopilot and not really aware of it. But then we’re operating from that place of fear and stress, and these emotions are driving us without us being aware of it.

Next, see if you can give the fear and uncertainty some space. That means to turn your attention toward it, and let it be in your awareness … but with a sense of spaciousness, as if you’re giving it a wide open room to just be. You don’t need the feelings to go away or change, they are just going to be in your awareness with a feeling of having space around them, letting them exist as if you could even welcome them.

This is a way of taking care of yourself. When we’re feeling fear, it’s important to nurture ourselves, take care of the feeling. Give it space, and allow it to be in your awareness.

Third, see this as an opportunity to practice. We often close ourselves off to fear and uncertainty, but they can be really powerful things to practice with. They are incredible teachers! Let yourself pause for a few moments to practice with this, because uncertainty and fear and stress will always be a part of your life – you won’t ever be free of them! They show up whether you want them or not, so why not get good at being with them?

This is an opportunity to practice mindfulness with your fear and uncertainty. Open to the opportunity, instead of turning away to distraction and busyness.

Fourth, practice welcoming it and giving it unconditional friendliness. This might sound strange when it comes to fear, because for so long we’ve had an adversarial relationship to fear and uncertainty. We don’t like them, because they feel like stress and pain. But we don’t have to relate to fear this way. We can be more open toward it, even friendly.

So start by trying to welcome it. Allow it into your experience. Even be warm towards it, as you might welcome a good friend.

Then try to give it some unconditional friendliness. It’s an amazing practice. See if you’re able to bring the kind of warmth and friendliness towards it that you do with a loved one. You don’t need the feeling to be any certain way, you can be friendly with it no matter what.

Fifth, let yourself feel the openness of the moment. This one is a little harder to explain, but bear with me. If you can relax and open your awareness wider than the narrowness of your thought patterns or narrative … you can experience the openness of this moment.

Let your awareness open wider than your body. Let it take in the room all around you — light, colors, shapes, sound, textures, sensations on your skin. Feel the relaxed, open nature of the moment — fluid, changing, not fixed, unknowable, dynamic, spacious. This is the nature of our world, the root of uncertainty. It’s actually beautiful to behold. Let yourself relax into this openness.

That can take practice, don’t worry if you don’t feel it right away. Keep practicing with it!

Sixth, open to feeling connected to others through your uncertainty and fear. As you sit in stillness, as you feel the sensations in your body, as you welcome the feelings and practice friendliness with them, as you experience the openness of the moment … you can also feel a connection to others.

Think about everyone else in the world who is experiencing similar feelings of discomfort and uncertainty. Similar levels of stress, fear, overwhelm, anxiety. You are not alone — so many others feel it right now! In this way, you are all connected. Let your heart feel this connection to others going through similar experiences. Send them compassion and love, wishing them well.

In this way, our fear and uncertainty, in these very uncertain times … become an opening for connection and compassion. This is transformative. Try it right now.

The world is in a state of intense mass uncertainty. Don’t shut yourself off to it, ignore it or try to control, distract or exit.

Open yourself to this, because it is a powerful time to practice.

Learn More with Me

If you’d like to practice with me, there are two offerings this Saturday (March 14) and one ongoing program where you can join me:

  1. Zen Dharma talk on Fearlessness with Susan O’Connell (and Leo) on Saturday: I’m joining my Zen teacher Susan in giving a free dharma talk on the idea of fear and practicing fearlessness. It’ll be my first dharma talk ever! It’s tomorrow — Saturday (March 14) at 10am Pacific / 1pm Eastern. Watch online here.
  2. Fearless Purpose Online Workshop (Saturday): A couple hours later, Susan and I will be conducting a 3-hour workshop called Fearless Purpose. The in-person event has been canceled, but you can still participate online. We’re still holding this workshop because we believe it’s so important right now. It will be from 1-4 pm Pacific / 4-7 pm Eastern. You can still sign up for online participation here.
  3. Fearless Training Program: I also offer an ongoing program called Fearless Training, where we train with uncertainty in the mindfulness methods I talk about in this article. I invite you to join us and train together! Check out Fearless Training here.
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Coronavirus Reminds Us What Education Without Schooling Can Look Like

As the global coronavirus outbreak closes more schools for weeks, and sometimes months—some 300 million children are currently missing class—parents, educators, and policymakers are panicking.

Mass compulsory schooling has become such a cornerstone of contemporary culture that we forget it’s a relatively recent social construct. Responding to the pandemic, the United Nations declared that “the global scale and speed of current educational disruption is unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education.”

We have collectively become so programmed to believe that education and schooling are synonymous that we can’t imagine learning without schooling and become frazzled and fearful when schools are shuttered. If nothing else, perhaps this worldwide health scare will remind us that schooling isn’t inevitable and education does not need to be confined to a conventional classroom.

Mass Schooling Is a New Idea

For most of human history, up until the mid-19th century, education was broadly defined, diversely offered, and not dominated by standard schooling. Homeschooling was the default, with parents assuming responsibility for their children’s education, but they were not the only ones teaching them.

Small dame schools, or nursery schools in a neighbor’s kitchen, were common throughout the American colonial and revolutionary eras; tutors were ubiquitous, apprenticeships were valued and sought-after, and literacy rates were extremely high. Public schools existed to supplement education for families that wanted them, but they did not yet wield significant power and influence.

The Puritan colonists’ passed the first compulsory education laws in Massachusetts Bay in the 1640s describing a state interest in an educated citizenry and compelling towns of a certain size to hire a teacher or to open a grammar school. But the compulsion rested with towns to provide educational resources to those families who wanted them, not with the families themselves.

Historians Kaestle and Vinovskis explain that the Puritans “saw these schools as supplements to education within the family, and they made no effort to require parents actually to send their children to school rather than train them at home.” This all changed in 1852 when Massachusetts passed the nation’s first compulsory schooling statute, mandating school attendance under a legal threat of force. Writing in his book, Pillars of the Republic, Kaestle reminds us: “Society educates in many ways. The state educates through schools.”

Society Without Schooling

We already have glimpses of what education without schooling can look like. When the Chicago teachers’ strike shut down public schools for 11 days last October, civil society stepped up to fill in the gaps.

Community organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club opened their doors during the daytime to local youth, the aquarium and local museums offered special programming, church and religious organizations welcomed young people with tutoring and enrichment activities, public libraries and parks were populated with families, and the federal school lunch program continued to nourish children in need.

This same pattern repeats itself during summer school vacation each year, with various community organizations, local businesses, and public spaces such as libraries and parks offering educational and recreational experiences for young people.

The idea that children and adolescents need to be enclosed within a conventional school classroom in order to learn is a myth. Humans are hard-wired to learn. Young children are exuberant, creative, curious learners who are passionate about exploration and discovery. These qualities do not magically disappear with age. They are routinely smothered by standardized schooling.

As Boston College psychology professor and unschooling advocate, Peter Gray, writes in his book, Free To Learn:

Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning. They are little learning machines. Within their first four years or so they absorb an unfathomable amount of information and skills without any instruction. . . Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling.

As humans increasingly coexist with robots, it’s crucial that young people retain and cultivate the imagination, ingenuity, and desire for learning that separate human intelligence from its artificial antipode. These qualities can be ideally nurtured outside of a standardized, one-size-fits-all school classroom where children and adolescents are free to pursue their interests and develop important skills and knowledge, while being mentored by talented adults in their communities.

An example of this type of learning is a series of spring daytime classes for homeschoolers at a makerspace in Boston offering up to nine hours of content each week in topics ranging from architecture and design to STEM science and art, taught by trained engineers, scientists, and artists. These are the types of high-quality educators and learning experiences that can and do flourish when we seek and support education without schooling.

In addition to its health scare, coronavirus has triggered widespread fear about how children can be educated when they can’t go to school. Despite the fact that mass compulsory schooling is a relic of the industrial age, its power and influence continue to expand. Perhaps some families will now discover that education outside of standard schooling is not only nothing to fear but may actually be the best way to learn in the innovation era.

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American Fictionalists

It is both fun and informative to consider lists.  To debate the list is a sign that you have engaged with someone who knows what she is talking about.  This morning, I asked Google to find web pages that opined as to whom might be included on a list of the greatest American fictionalists (novelists, short story writers, poets, and playwrights).  Google and I found a page at NoSweatShakespeare.com, which contained a list, 20 Best American Writers. I’ll not quibble with the score of authors enumerated, but I might have substituted others (Jack London, Robert A. Heinlein, Ayn Rand, Robert Penn Warren, Dashiell Hammett, Robert Frost, for instances).

At any rate, these scriveners became famous because they could voice the sentiment of a people at their best. My goal is to present each of the 20, along with a quote that typifies this:

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne 1804 – 1864
    Nathaniel Hawthorne was a novelist and short story writer. Hawthorne’s works have been labelled ‘dark romanticism,’ dominated as they are by cautionary tales that suggest that guilt, sin, and evil are the most inherent natural qualities of humankind. His novels and stories, set in a past New England, are versions of historical fiction used as a vehicle to express themes of ancestral sin, guilt and retribution…

    No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.

  • Edgar Allan Poe 1809 – 1849
    Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer, editor, and literary critic. He is best known for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and suspense. He is generally considered the inventor of detective ficiton. Poe’s work as an editor, a poet, and a critic had a profound impact on American and international literature. In addition to his detective stories he is one of the originators of horror and science fiction. He is often credited as the architect of the modern short story…

    All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.

  • Herman Melville 1819 – 1891
    Herman Melville was an American writer of novels, short stories and poems. He is best known for the novel Moby-Dick and a romantic account of his experiences in Polynesian life, Typee. His whaling novel, Moby-Dick is often spoken of as ‘the great American novel’ ’vying with Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for that title…

    It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.

  • Walt Whitman 1819 – 1892
    Walt Whitman was a poet, essayist, and journalist who transformed poetry around the world with his disregard for traditional rhyme and meter and his celebration of democracy and sensual pleasure. His masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems, is widely studied by poets, students and academics, set to music, translated into numerous languages, and is widely quoted. His influence can be found everywhere – in contemporary best seller lists to feature films and musical works, both “serious” and popular…

 … re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul …

  • Emily Dickinson 1830 – 1886
    Unknown as a poet during her lifetime, Emily Dickinson is now regarded by many as one of the most powerful voices of American culture. Her poetry has inspired many other writers, including the Brontes. In 1994 the critic, Harold Bloom, listed her among the twenty-six central writers of Western civilisation. After she died her sister found the almost two thousand poems the poet had written…

We turn not older with years but newer every day.

  • Mark Twain 1835 – 1910
    Samuel Langhorne Clemens , far better known as Mark Twain, was an American writer, businessman, publisher and lecturer. He progressed from his day job as pilot of a Mississippi riverboat to legend of American literature. His work shows a deep seriousness and at the same time, it is hilariously satirical, as seen in his many quotes on all aspects of life. His masterpiece is the novel, Huckleberry Finn, which is regularly referred to as ‘the great American novel.’…

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

  • Henry James 1843 – 1916
    Henry James is regarded as one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism. He is noted for writing from a character’s point of view’ which allowed him to explore consciousness and perception. His imaginative use of point of view, interior monologue and unreliable narrators brought a new depth to narrative fiction, all of which were influential on the writing of the novelists who followed him. He was nominated for the Nobel prize for literature three times….

Cats and monkeys — monkeys and cats — all human life is there!

  • T.S. Eliot 1888 – 1965
    Thomas Stearns Eliot was an American-born, British, poet, essayist, playwright, critic, now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s major poets. He received more rewards than almost any other writer of the past two centuries, including the Nobel prize, the Dante Gold Medal, the Goethe prize, the US Medal of Freedom and the British Order of Merit…

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald 1896 – 1940
    Francis Scott Fitzgerald was an American novelist, widely regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American writers of the 20th century. He is best known for his novel, The Great Gatsby, which vies for the title ‘Great American Novel’ with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Fitzgerald’s place on this list is justified by the fact that his great novel is actually about America…

Either you think — or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize, and sterilize you.

  • William Faulkner 1897 – 1962
    William Cuthbert Faulkner was a Nobel Prize laureate, awarded the literature prize in 1949. He wrote novels, short stories, poetry, and screenplays. He is known mainly for his novels and short stories set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha Country, Mississippi. Faulkner is one of the most celebrated American writers, regarded, generally as the great writer of the American South…

Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.

  • Tennessee Williams 1911 – 1983
    Thomas Lanier Williams III, known as Tennessee Williams is one of America’s most popular playwrights and now regarded as one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. He wrote more than thirty plays, some of which have become classics of Western drama. He also wrote novels and short stories but is known almost exclusively for his plays. His genius was in the honesty with which he represented society and the art of presenting that in the form of absorbing drama…

I think that hate is a thing, a feeling, that can only exist where there is no understanding.

  • Arthur Miller 1915 – 2005
    Arthur Miller was a playwright and ‘great man’ of American theatre, which he championed throughout his long life. His many dramas were among the most popular by American authors and several are considered to be among the best American plays, among them the classics, The Crucible, All My Sons, A View from the Bridge and, above all, the iconic American drama, Death of a Salesman. He also wrote film scripts, notably the classic, The Misfits…

 … life is God’s most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it.

  • Joseph Heller 1923 – 1999
    Joseph Heller was an American writer of satirical novels, short stories and plays. Although he wrote several acclaimed novels, his reputation rests firmly on his masterpiece, the great American anti-war satire, Catch 22. Because of the quality of the novel and the impact it has made on American culture it has catapulted Heller into the ranks of the great American writers…

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

  • Ernest Hemingway 1899 – 1961
    Ernest Hemingway was a novelist, short story writer, and journalist. He published seven novels, six short story collections, and two non-fiction works, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. More works, including three novels, four short story collections, and three non-fiction works, were published posthumously…

Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.

  • Raymond Chandler 1888 – 1959
    Raymond Chandler was a British-American novelist who wrote several screenplays and short stories. He published seven novels during his lifetime. The first, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. An eighth, Poodle Springs, unfinished at his death, was completed by another great crime writer, Robert B Parker. Six of Chandler’s novels have been made into films, some more than once…

I knew one thing: as soon as anyone said you didn’t need a gun, you’d better take one along that worked.

  • Toni Morrison 1931 – 2019
    Toni Morrison’s novels are known for their vivid dialogue, their detailed characters and epic themes. Her most famous novel is the 1987 novel, Beloved. She was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993…

Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.

  • Vladimir Nabokov 1899 – 1977
    Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was a Russian-American novelist, and also a famous entomologist, specialising in butterflies, a topic on which he wrote several academic books. He wrote nine novels in Russian, but it was when he began writing in English that he achieved international recognition…

I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more.

  • Flannery O’Connor 1925 – 1964
    Mary Flannery O’Connor wrote two novels and thirty-two short stories, and also several reviews and commentaries. Her reputation is based mainly on her short stories. She was a Southern writer and relied heavily on regional settings and typically southern characters. She was strongly Roman Catholic, which informed her exploration of ethics and morality…

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.

  • John Steinbeck 1902 – 1968
    John Ernst Steinbeck was the author of 16 novels and various other works, including five short story collections. He is widely known for the novels, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, and particularly, the Puliter Prize winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, his masterpiece, which is one of the great American novels: it has sold more than 15 million copies so far…

All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.

  • John Updike 1923 – 2009
    John Updike was a novelist, short story writer and poet. He was also a literary and art critic. He published more than twenty novels, numerous short-story collections, eight volumes of poetry and many children’s books. He is most famous for his ‘Rabbit‘ series – novels that chronicle the life of his protagonist, Harry Angstrom – in which Updike presented his progress over the course of several decades…

They can be wonderful bastards because they have nothing to lose. The only people who can be themselves are babies and old bastards.

  • Kurt Vonnegut 1922 – 2007
    Kurt Vonnegut was an American writer who published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction. He is most famous for his novel ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ (1969) which has become an American classic. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel based on his experience as a prisoner of war who survived the allies’ bombing of Dresden…

So it goes.

 

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Yale Study: Vast Majority of High Schoolers Unhappy at School

Most high school students are not happy at school. A new study by Yale researchers finds that nearly three-quarters of high schoolers report negative feelings toward school. The study surveyed more than 20,000 high school students in all 50 US states and found widespread dissatisfaction at school across all demographic groups, with girls reporting slightly more negative emotions than boys. According to Yale co-author Zorana Ivcevic,

It was higher than we expected. We know from talking to students that they are feeling tired, stressed, and bored, but were surprised by how overwhelming it was.

The Yale findings, which were published in the most recent edition of the academic journal Learning and Instruction, echo previous conclusions about young people’s attitudes toward school. According to a 2016 Gallup student poll of nearly one million children from approximately three thousand different schools, enthusiasm for school dropped dramatically between fifth grade and twelfth grade.

In another large-scale 2003 study, psychologists tracked several hundred elementary and secondary school students over the course of a week. The students wore watches that signaled them several times a day to record, at that moment, what the students were doing and how they were feeling. The results revealed that children were unhappiest while they were at school, and happiest when out of school.

Is There a Better Way?

Perhaps these results are not surprising. School isn’t supposed to be fun, right? Kids have to deal with the drudgery of school, buckle down, and do the work because that’s life. Or so the thinking goes. What a horrible message to send to children, and to internalize ourselves: Life is drudgery, work is drudgery, and the sooner people learn this in school, the better off they will be.

It doesn’t have to be this way. For young people who are educated outside of forced schooling environments, learning can be engaging, rewarding, and yes, fun. Free to pursue passions, explore talents, and set individual goals, young people who learn without schooling or who are educated in other non-coercive learning environments, retain and expand their curiosity and autonomy.

It’s the lack of freedom and personal agency that leads to negative emotions toward school or life. When individuals are empowered to take charge of their living and learning, negativity diminishes.

Parents should take seriously these negative emotions in their adolescents, particularly as youth anxiety, depression, and suicide continue to soar. Researchers at Vanderbilt University found a correlation between adolescent suicidal thoughts and actions and school attendance, reporting that these tendencies decline during the summer months and spike at back-to-school time. This is an opposite pattern to that of adults, who experience the highest rates of suicide during the summertime.

In sharing the results of their latest survey on high schoolers’ negative feelings toward school, the Yale researchers suggest that later school start times might help by allowing young people more time for sleep; but this merely puts a Band-Aid on a much deeper wound. Teenagers don’t like school because their freedom is tightly controlled, they are micro-managed by adults, and they have no or little input in what, how, where, or with whom they learn. On the brink of adulthood, teenagers are increasingly treated like toddlers.

Not only is it dangerous to dismiss adolescents’ antipathy toward school as normal and expected, it avoids an honest look at the impact of coercion on human flourishing. When people are free, they thrive; with force, they flounder.

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Elon Musk Wants Talent, Not Diplomas

Elon Musk says skills matter more than diplomas. The founder and CEO of corporate innovation giants Tesla and SpaceX tweeted on February 2 that he is hiring for his artificial intelligence group at Tesla and wants to recruit the most talented people he can find. Talent, to Musk, means “deep understanding” of artificial intelligence and the ability to >pass a “hardcore coding test,” but it doesn’t necessarily include degrees and diplomas.

“A PhD is definitely not required,” Musk wrote. “I don’t care if you even graduated high school.”

Musk went on to say on Sunday that “educational background is irrelevant”:

Musk Didn’t Like School

It’s not surprising that Musk would emphasize ability and knowledge over institutional credentials. Other Silicon Valley technology companies, like Google and Apple, no longer require employees to have a college degree. But Musk also had a personal dissatisfaction with his schooling, saying in a 2015 interview: “I hated going to school when I was a kid. It was torture.”

A billionaire inventor, Musk decided to build a better educational program for his own children and opened his experimental school, Ad Astra, on SpaceX’s Los Angeles campus. He was dissatisfied with the elite private schools they were attending and thought education, even at purportedly “good” schools, could be much improved.

In an interview about Ad Astra, Musk said: “The regular schools weren’t doing the things that I thought should be done. So I thought, well, let’s see what we can do.”

Ad Astra, which means “to the stars,” offers a hands-on, passion-driven learning environment that defies the coercion inherent in most conventional schooling, public or private. It has no grade levels, an emergent, technology-focused curriculum, and no mandatory classes. As Fortune reports, “There are no grades given to students at the school and if the children don’t like a particular class they’re taking, they can simply opt out.”

Schooling as Signaling

Despite a culture and economy now focused around technology and innovation, most conventional schooling is widely incapable of helping young people develop the knowledge and skills they need to do essential 21st-century work. Stuck in a 19th-century curriculum and instruction model, today’s schools are anything but modern.

The trouble is that schooling is more about signaling than learning, so the catalysts to change its basic structure and approach are lacking. It might not matter in the real world that you mastered middle school French, but moving successfully along the schooling conveyor belt offers a signal to potential employers. Economist Bryan Caplan writes about this signaling effect in his book The Case Against Education. He also explains how the quest for more signals, regardless of how hollow they may be, is leading to “credential inflation,” or the pursuit of more diplomas for occupations that really don’t require them.

Writing in The Atlantic, Caplan says:

From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

More Signal Options Beyond Schooling

Fortunately, there are now many other ways beyond conventional schooling to gain skills and knowledge and signal your value to potential employers like Musk. More than 400 “coding bootcamps” are reported to exist around the world, helping people to master in-demand programming and software development skills. The online coding school, Lambda School, which has raised nearly $50 million in venture capital funding since its launch in 2017, has a fascinating business model focused on income share agreements. It is free to attend Lambda, but the company takes a percentage of its graduates’ earnings once they land a high-tech job. If the student doesn’t land a job, she doesn’t pay. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is estimated that Lambda is receiving over 1,000 applications a week from interested students. Other alternatives to college are sprouting, and apprenticeship programs like Praxis continue to be sought-after.

Entrepreneurs like Musk recognize what it takes to succeed in the innovation era, and it has little to do with conventional schooling. Discovering passions, pursuing personal goals, and developing essential skills to build on those passions and achieve those goals has never been easier than it is today with abundant resources and tools literally at our fingertips.

Musk and Tesla may be known for their visionary work in creating autonomous vehicles, but it’s autonomous humans with the agency, creativity, and opportunity to achieve their full potential that are the real breakthroughs.

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