Crazy People Work on the Most Interesting Stuff

Think of the most exciting possible inventions and discoveries you can imagine.

Deep space travel. Telepathy. Wireless electricity. Anti-gravity. Cold fusion. Terraforming. etc.

If you poke around YouTube or podcasts or badly designed websites, you’ll find people working on them. Devoting years to research and experimentation. You’ll notice their passion and conviction. But you’ll also notice something else: most of them are kinda crazy. Whether or not they are discovering anything true, you suspect they would be the last people on earth capable of bringing their idea to market or even credibly explaining it outside their niche circles.

But if you poke around places full of high achieving people with sharp minds, big vision, and lots of ability, you won’t hear them say stuff like, “I’m working on faster than light travel. I think the current model of physics is all wrong, and I suspect it’s possible so I want to prove it.”

Most of the best, most respected minds seem to be employed on the more mundane stuff. Sure, they’re doing cool valuable stuff (except when they go into politics), but how often does it question the most fundemental assumptions?

We know so very little about reality. We don’t even know what we don’t know, or whether what we know is actually true. And the most fundamental stuff – the nature and origin of the universe, our planet, our species, the basic rules of the physical strata, consciousness, death and beyond – is the stuff most of us spend the least time on.

Except the crazy people. They live there.

Part of the crazy label comes because they are working on this stuff. To examine widely accepted beliefs is often considered crazy. Part of the label is because most of the time these people are crazy. So it feeds itself. People who don’t know how to be normal are more likely to go into crazy stuff because they have less to lose. The more they do, the more the belief that “only crazy people study that” is re-enforced and better minds are repelled.

I’m not trying to place blame or cast judgement. I’m trying to understand this phenomenon. It’s the same thing that causes most conversations with neighbors and acquaintances to be so boring. Most of us – myself included – are not willing to dive into crazy stuff most of the time. If your reputation is shot, say, because you’re crazy, it’s easier.

Conformity is a powerful force. I try to do a little something every day to combat it. A world of crazy questions is much more interesting than a world of probably wrong answers no one wants to talk about.

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Going to Work on Doing What I Should

Happy new year and happy new decade. I know, it doesn’t really mean anything to say it’s a “new year” or a “new decade” since it’s arbitrary, but it feels significant — partly because it’s treated as though it is. I like excuses to celebrate so I’m fine with it.

The winter solstice is a natural time for a year to begin, as would be the other solar divisions of the year: the summer solstice or one of the equinoxes.

The winter solstice was originally celebrated as the new year’s dawn because this is when the sun stops moving farther south and the daylight hours stop getting shorter. This makes it the time of renewal and hope — as it was to our ancestors who recognized their dependence on the natural world more than we modern humans seem to.

This is why there is a cluster of happy holidays around this time of year. The winter solstice is the logical choice for a new beginning, even if we celebrate a little late. Better late than never.

The new year is simply the winter solstice wrap-up party.

Regardless of why, when, or how we celebrate a new year, this event gives just about everyone an excuse to reflect on the year past and plan for a better year to come.

This year I’m thinking about one important point I learned since the last new year: that it’s better to listen than to speak.

Over the past year, I came to realize how hungry people are to tell their stories. All you have to do is be willing to listen to them. With the rush of modern life, and with everyone’s nose seemingly stuck to their phone screen, listening to someone is one of the simplest acts of compassion you can perform.

The flip side of this observation is that it’s pointless to speak if someone doesn’t really want to listen. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. I can explain what I mean, as completely and thoroughly as humanly possible, but I can’t make others understand if they don’t really want to, nor can I make them accept what I’m saying — even if they understand — if it’s not what they want to hear.

I don’t always do what I know I should, but I’ll keep working on it. Next year at this time I’ll look back and see how I’m doing and see what new things I’ve learned.

Onward into 2020.

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The Miracle of the Market

At this time of year especially, the wide variety of individual human preferences and interests becomes abundantly clear. My children’s Christmas lists display this diversity: Molly (13) wants a doughnut pan to feed her baking passion, Jack (11) wants anything tech-related, Abby (9) wants drawing supplies, and Sam (6) wants Lego pieces and stuffed animals. How do the elves satisfy these assorted preferences? It’s the miracle of the market.

FEE’s founder, Leonard Read, wrote about this miracle in his classic 1958 essay, “I, Pencil.” Writing cleverly from the pencil’s perspective, Read explains that even something as seemingly simple as a pencil is an extraordinary human creation involving countless decentralized, spontaneous actions prompted and facilitated by a free, global marketplace. The 18th-century philosopher, Adam Smith, described this unplanned process of social cooperation as the “Invisible Hand,” leading to collective human progress and abundance when each individual pursues his or her own interests. Read writes:

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone—if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.

There is no central planner, no mastermind, as Read says, capable of making a simple pencil. Instead, there are the loggers who harvest the cedar from the Pacific Northwest and the innumerable actions that go into the loggers’ work, including the manufacture of their saws and machinery, the growing of hemp for their ropes, and even the cups of coffee they drink. All of these spontaneous actions contribute to the production of a simple pencil—and that’s only for its wood. Read then describes the graphite from Sri Lanka, the wax from Mexico, the miners of zinc and copper to create the small metal piece that attaches the eraser, which is made with rapeseed oil from the Dutch East Indies.

Read concludes:

There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how…Their motivation is other than me. Perhaps it is something like this: Each of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants. I may or may not be among these items.

More profound than the dispersed and unplanned creation of the simple pencil is, as Read explains, the fact that it is accomplished without coercion through the uniquely human act of peaceful, voluntary exchange. Read writes:

For, if one is aware that these know-hows will naturally, yes, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand— that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive master-minding—then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free people. Freedom is impossible without this faith.

There are many miracles that get celebrated at this time of year, but one we shouldn’t forget is the miracle of the market and the power of free, voluntary exchange to unleash human creativity and inventiveness. Let’s take to heart Read’s words:

Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.

Happy Holidays!

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The Artists Who Are Challenging The Education Status Quo

On a recent weekday morning, the first floor of Tiffany Pierce’s home in Queens, New York, was abuzz with activity. Six children, ranging in age from five to 12, were making art, learning about mathematical asymmetry and digging deep into topics ranging from geography to science. Pierce runs an art-inspired, micro-learning homeschool co-op, bringing together local families who want a more personalized approach to education for their children. Together, the families hired a teacher four days a week to craft an inviting and intellectually-engaging learning environment, while Pierce volunteers her space and support.

Challenging the Status Quo

An artist with a master’s degree in teaching and prior classroom experience, Pierce was thoughtful about her son, Liam’s, education. He went to a small, private preschool nearby,Artists have historically played a crucial role in challenging dominant systems and inspiring change. but when Pierce sent Liam to a public school for kindergarten, she realized it wasn’t a good fit for him. “It was a high-performing school,” Pierce recalls, “but when I visited I saw his back turned and him just looking out the window. His affect was so low, his confidence was shot, he didn’t want to play. I knew it wasn’t just kindergarten blues. This wasn’t his fit. Then he said: ‘Mommy, will you teach me at home?’”

The timing was right, as Pierce happened to be between jobs and she and Liam’s dad thought they would give homeschooling a try. “We like the freedom of choices and options,” says Pierce. “We like to have a say in how our child operates. This person is so precious to us.” In the beginning, says Pierce, she simply replicated school at home and it became a power struggle between getting her son to do things and him resisting. She was also busy running art classes and doing graphic design work for various clients.

Pierce knew she needed a different model and began posting to neighborhood Facebook groups about launching a co-op out of her home. The response was positive, with many parents expressing interest in alternative learning options for their children. Today, eight-year-old Liam learns with other children in the co-op, along with his mother and their teacher, Mary-Lynn Galindo, who provide structure while emphasizing self-directed learning and ample outside time. According to Pierce:

Homeschooling, micro-learning and co-teaching as a small neighborhood-based co-op allows for us to be fully involved with our kids’ learning experience and we weave it through our neighborhood, community, borough and city.

Pierce sees hybrid homeschooling models and the larger micro-school movement as a harbinger of education innovation: “I see us moving towards education that is self-directed,” she says. “Education does not have to be seen as coming from four walls in a conventional, traditional way.” To that end, she launched a mobile arts studio and is working on purchasing an art bus, to help others to view art and education differently. Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, and in particular the Harlem Community Arts Center that sprouted from it and nurtured African American artistic talent during the late-1930s and early 1940s, Pierce envisions her mobile studio as a modern off-shoot of the center.

It is my mission for the mobile arts studio to serve as a 21st century version of a neighborhood-based arts studio where art is mobile and meets children and adults where they are to create, express and connect,

she says. In art, education and the intersection of the two, Pierce is looking to challenge longstanding conventional settings and practices and design something new.

An Art Apprenticeship Model

Designing something new is also what drives Gabriel Valles, a professional artist and entrepreneur in Austin, Texas who runs an art apprenticeship studio. Like Pierce, Valles homeschools his children and works closely with other local homeschoolers, while building an innovative art education model. He also began his homeschooling journey by trying to replicate school-at-home and witnessing how coercion had a detrimental effect on his children’s learning and their family relationships. By granting his children more autonomy and opportunity for self-direction, their learning flourished. His older son, now 15, has a passion for stop motion animation and has a successful YouTube channel with over 50,000 subscribers and almost 32 million views.

As Valles observed how his children’s creativity and competence grew when they were allowed to drive their own learning while being supported by adults, he decided to launch an art studio, MentorWings, that would run on a self-directed apprenticeship model for aspiring young artists. “Our program is principle-based and self-directed,” says Valles.

Students come in with their particular interest, such as superheroes, anime, fantasy art or cartooning, and we meet them where they are. There is no curriculum. Instead we focus on building upon foundational art principles, such as shape, form, design and color.

Valles sees how young people quickly build their skills, and become highly competent, doing college or professional-level work as teenagers. “We need to give kids more credit than we’re giving them and acknowledge that they can be doing real-world work before or instead of college,” says Valles. He says that art school is too expensive and often doesn’t lead to the kind of career in-roads that can result in fulfilling work.

This work is increasingly in-demand, says Valles, as digital content development and marketing become ubiquitous and new mediums emerge. “I am trying to make it less expensive to attain professional-level competence and also build bridges into the industry,” says Valles. He has established an endorsement system for young artists based on their portfolios that can provide an alternative signaling mechanism for employers.

That endorsement versus a general degree really means a lot. It doesn’t guarantee a job, but it shows confidence in a particular student and becomes a much more powerful signal to the people who are hiring,

he says.

Artists have historically played a crucial role in challenging dominant systems and inspiring change. It’s not surprising that today some of them are building unconventional education models and imagining new possibilities for learning. As Valles says:

My passion is experimenting and inventing things. Art is just the medium that I do that through. Creating educational structures that are a little more just for kids is the problem I am really trying to address.

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Outschool.com Takes Education Out Of Schooling

Supporting education beyond schooling is a key feature of many educational technology platforms. While some may be integrated into conventional classrooms, complementing a traditional curriculum, emerging technology is increasingly helping to separate education from schooling and catalyze new models of K-12 learning. As its name implies, Outschool.com is focused on out-of-school learning that helps families and organizations to access high-quality content in an array of subjects. Its flexibility and variety engage learners around the world and facilitate the expansion of new learning communities outside of standard schooling.

Instructors choose to share their knowledge and passions, and they are publicly rated by participants, offering transparency and accountability.

Founded by Amir Nathoo in 2015, Outschool now offers over 10,000 live, video-enabled classes for young people ages three to 18. Connecting online in small groups with dynamic instructors, learners select content ranging from typical academic subjects to more adventurous classes such as pet trick training, forensic science, engineering with Minecraft, and wilderness survival skills.

Prices vary by topic and course length, but the introductory wilderness survival class, for example, costs $45 for a total of three, 45-minute classes. Instructors choose to join Outschool to share their knowledge and passions, and they are publicly rated by participants, offering transparency and accountability. They undergo background checks and are then free to offer whatever courses interest them while catering to learner, and parent, demand. Teachers set their own prices and Outschool takes 30 percent of the enrollment fee.

Supporting Passion-Driven Learning

Trained as an engineer, Nathoo’s inspiration for launching Outschool was tied to his own childhood experiences.

My parents were both teachers and although I had an amazing standard education in the U.K., my most impactful learning happened outside of school,

he says. In the early 1980s, Nathoo’s parents bought him a computer, a BBC Micro, and he spent hours tinkering with it. “They gave me unlimited screen time,” recalls Nathoo. “I loved playing computer games and I became inspired to try creating games myself.”

Spotting their son’s burgeoning passion for computers, Nathoo’s parents found a retired economics professor who liked computer science and offered to mentor Nathoo. “That learning experience based on my interests has turned into a career in technology,” he says.

When I think of the skills and learning that I use today, so much of that happens outside of school. Being a technologist and an entrepreneur, it’s always been my idea to apply technology to enable more of the out-of-school learning that has been so valuable to me.

Prior to starting San Francisco-based Outschool, Nathoo worked as a project lead for Square, the payment processing company. He was intrigued by how technology-driven marketplace models such as Airbnb, Lyft, and Etsy revolutionized entire industries, and he was dissatisfied that the same level of transformation was not occurring in education.

As Nathoo began to create the Outschool digital platform, he was intentionally looking for models outside of the existing education system. “The real lightbulb moment came when I learned more about homeschooling,” says Nathoo. He was introduced to this type of education from a San Francisco friend who was homeschooling her children. “There are a bunch of presumptions about homeschooling that I really didn’t see among the homeschoolers in the Bay Area,” says Nathoo.

I found that there was this group of people customizing and curating their kids’ learning and giving them a lot more freedom than they would typically have. And they were doing it socially, hiring teachers, forming groups and creating a much more dynamic style of learner-directed education. To me, this looked like the future.

Nathoo realized that this was the learner-directed education model outside of schooling that he was seeking to support and scale. The path forward became clear: create a product that served this existing audience, build a business around it and then use this business to make the ideas of learner-directed education mainstream.

I had the belief that once other parents had seen the power of this model, at first after school and on weekends, we could cause a big change in how people saw kids learning,

he says.

Global Reach, Local Impact

With a product plan, bold vision and seed capital from Y Combinator and others in 2016, Nathoo and his team built the Outschool platform and launched the first Outschool class in 2017. Since then, more than 60,000 learners worldwide have attended Outschool classes.

During his initial days incubating the Outschool idea within California homeschooling networks, Nathoo contacted Julie Schiffman who had been actively homeschooling her children for years and was very involved in the local homeschooling community. A former public school special education teacher, Schiffman left teaching because she was distraught by what she saw as a widespread practice of over-labeling and over-medicating many children with disabilities while offering limited support to children with serious emotional and behavioral disorders.

Nathoo’s vision is to make interest-based, learner-directed education a mainstream option for many more young people.

“It was insanely depressing and I had to leave the profession altogether in order to preserve my health,” says Schiffman. She began wondering how she could help to fix the problems of conventional schooling. At first, she believed that change could come from within the system, but after she started researching alternative education models, like homeschooling, she became convinced that lasting change would need to come from outside the system, by embracing and helping to expand new and better models of education.

When Nathoo called Schiffman on the phone one day in 2015 to tell her about his Outschool idea, she was spellbound. “I had to literally sit down and stable myself,” Schiffman recalls. “I fully recognized from the moment he told me what he was working on that this was the education revolution.” Schiffman’s children have used Outschool for some of their interest-based learning, including classes on building their own YouTube channels and video-editing. The relevant content and global reach mean that learners frequently take classes with peers and instructors all over the world, often retaining connections long after a class ends.

Outschool continues to expand, raising $8.5 million in Series A funding from Union Square Ventures and Reach Capital earlier this year. Nathoo expects Outschool’s digital platform to grow quickly, but he is also focused on helping to support co-learning communities, micro-schools, and other experimental education models.

Our goal is to provide a service to these types of in-person learning centers so that the kids there can get access to teachers and content to pursue their interests and to fulfill their learning goals.

Schiffman is in the process of opening one of these in-person community centers in Marin County, California, where she plans to rent out space to various instructors and vendors offering a host of different classes. She has been getting advice from Nathoo on how to make her community learning model, known as Home Base, scalable and replicable, with the aim of growing to multiple locations within the next two years. Nathoo explains how Outschool can help:

Local learning centers can focus on providing a great, local, social environment while not worrying about content, and kids can access far more teachers and content globally through this combination of online and in-person learning.

Ultimately, Nathoo’s vision is to make interest-based, learner-directed education a mainstream option for many more young people. He wants more children to have the opportunity he did to pursue passions outside of a conventional classroom that can ultimately lead to fulfilling lives and livelihoods. Now as a parent himself, Nathoo can relate even more personally to what parents want for their children’s education and well-being. He says:

When parents realize that letting kids pursue their interests is a way to get them excited about learning and is a better way to help their kids thrive in the world, that’s really powerful to see.

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Clashing Values

Different people have different values. It’s not that anyone’s values are necessarily wrong for them, it’s that when you impose a “win/lose” system someone is going to be on the losing side.

Just a couple of examples–

Compassion for refugees vs defense of “your culture”.

Compassion for LGBTQ vs respecting the rights of those who aren’t.

Compassion for rape victims vs compassion for the falsely accused.

Values clash. Or they can seem to if you think it has to be either/or.

But anytime they appear to clash, liberty is the solution. Respect for everyone’s life, liberty, rights, and property. It’s where the balance lies; how you respect both sides without enslaving either one to the other. Anything less is uncivilized.

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