How My Son Learned to Read When We Stopped Trying to Teach Him

We were homeschooling and our son was six years old.  He had a good vocabulary and comprehension of ideas beyond many kids his age.  We knew reading would open up the world to him, we knew he’d like it, and we knew he was very capable of doing it.  But he didn’t.

We tried flashcards.  We tried read-alongs.  We tried playing hardball and we tried being fun and exciting.  We tried restricting activities until he’d done his reading lessons, and we tried giving rewards.  All these efforts had two things in common: they didn’t help him read one bit and they made our relationship with him worse.  Being a parent and being a child cease to be fun when you’re at odds all the time.

So, at an age when we were starting to worry about his lagging behind, we simply stopped trying.  We quit the whole effort.  He was nearly seven when we gave it up in favor of more peace and harmony in the house.

Daily life was a little easier, yet we still had this nagging worry about him.  What will happen if he’s behind where he’s supposed to be for his age?  Still, everything about our efforts to make him read felt wrong, so we simply ignored the fears.

I was reading a lot of great books on how kids learn and I knew intellectually that kids need no instruction to learn to read.  They will learn when they find it valuable and if they are in an environment where it’s possible – one with books and other readers.  Still the head and the heart are very different things.  I knew kids were better at self-teaching than being taught, but I had to watch my own son, sharp as he was, remain completely outside the wonderful world of the written word.

Then it happened, just like so many of the books said it would.  You believe it in stories, but it’s still a surprise when it happens in real life.  One night I overheard my son reading aloud to himself in his bed.  And the first thing he read wasn’t Dick and Jane, but Calvin & Hobbes.  Not light fare for a brand new reader.

Let me back up a bit.  We would often read to him for a few minutes before bed, and lately he had been in love with some old Calvin & Hobbes comics I had from my adolescence.  We’d read him a few pages and say goodnight.  One night it was later than usual and he asked me if I’d read.  I was a bit grumpy and tired, and I said no, I was going to bed.  He protested a bit but could see I wasn’t up for it so he let it go, seeming defeated.  Ten minutes later I heard him reading.

He later told me that he wasn’t actually reading it that night, nor the first several nights after when he spoke the words (and often laughed) aloud.  He had heard us read it so many times he had the words memorized.  He was looking at the pictures and reciting the words like lines to a familiar song.  I didn’t know this until long after he could clearly read without first memorizing, but it really doesn’t matter.  In fact, it’s probably better that my wife and I assumed he was reading it when we first heard him, or we might have been tempted to intervene and try to cajole him into reading it without the cheat of memory and illustrations.  I know too well the kind of unhappy outcome that would have created.

For a year or more we fought with a kid who clearly had all the tools to read and we got nowhere.  He wasn’t faking his inability, he really couldn’t read.  Reading was always an activity that interrupted his day and was associated with expectant and often visibly (despite attempts to hide it) stressed parents.  It was a concept as useless as it was foreign.  But once he had a strong desire – to enjoy his favorite comic strip – and his inability to read was the barrier, he overcame it in no time and never even celebrated or announced it to us.  It was utilitarian, not some lofty thing to perform for a gold star or a pat on the back.  His ability and interest in reading, then writing and spelling, only intensified as he found it indispensable for playing games like Minecraft and Scribblenauts.

We’ve since made a full transition from the imposed curriculum of homeschooling to the kid-created structure of unschooling.  Looking back I’m a little ashamed of the silly way we approached things before, but at the time it was so hard to let go, with all that crippling fear.  There are so many “shoulds” pumped into parents brains from the moment they conceive.  There are percentiles and averages and tests and rankings galore.  But these are useful only to the statisticians and none of them have your child’s interest or happiness in mind.  Aggregates aren’t individuals.  Living your life, or attempting to shape your child’s life, to conform to the average of some population is not a recipe for success.  At best it will produce blandness.  At worst a broken spirit.

You can read any number of thinkers like John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, or Peter Gray on why our son’s experience is not exceptional, but normal.  You can look at studies that show kids who learn to read at age four and kids who learn at age nine have the same reading comprehension by age 11.  You can get story after story from places like the Sudbury Valley school about kids who taught themselves to read in a few short weeks once they got the interest, and even one girl who didn’t become interested until age 13 and then went on to win a literary prize.  But it’s all theory and myth until you experience it with your own child.

Read the books.  Look into the unschooling movement and literature.  But above all, take a step back from your own kids and realize that they are only young once and for such a short time.  Do you really want your memories with them to consist of fights and forced lessons?  Enjoy them.  Let them go their own way and navigate the world.  There are few things more exciting than when they come to you to ask for your help or insight because they really want it, or when they never do because they figure it out on their own and gain a confidence that cannot be won any other way.

The world we live in does not lack for natural incentives to learn to read.  The rewards are massive, as are the costs of illiteracy.  We don’t need to artificially incentivize reading the way a poor farmer might have a few hundred years ago.  When we do we do more harm than good, if not to our children’s ability to read then at least to our enjoyment of our time with them.  They figured out how to speak – the most difficult, nuanced, and complex skill a human can master – without any formal instruction.  They can learn to read too.

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Here are a few other examples of learning by doing from my own life:

Why LEGO is more valuable than algebra

Why Mario Maker is better than a marketing major

Episode 19: Michael Malice on Writing, Batman, and North Korea

Author, TV personality, and rabble-rouser Michael Malice joins me to discuss what it was like to have award winning graphic novelist Harvey Pekar write a book about him, why he quit a lucrative career to be a writer (even though he doesn’t love writing), the experience of self-publishing a “true” unauthorized autobiography of Kim Jong Il, and why he’s like Batman.

You can find Michael’s work at michaelmalice.com.

All episodes are available on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Stitcher.

On Dismissing Ideas Out of Hand

I fully believe some ideas, arguments, and propositions are not worth spending time on.  I don’t think it makes a person more noble or a better intellect to entertain all ideas with equal weight and never dismiss any.  Primarily because it’s not possible.  We all have limited time and mental resources, and we must choose where to apply it.  Equal seriousness on every idea is not an option.  If we pretend it is we are lying to ourselves and everyone else.

The way in which the decision gets made to not give further consideration to an argument is more important than whether or not it gets made.  There is no shame in simply acknowledging the limited resources at our disposal and being honest about which ideas simply do not intrigue us enough to investigate, or areas on which we are content to let our assumptions remain largely untested, or trust in someone else we respect.  There is shame in lying about what we’re doing.  Refusing to investigate an idea for any reason other than an honest acknowledgement that we do not believe it ranks high enough to bump other things down is a bad habit, and does not breed intellectual integrity.

I suspect we’ve all done it.  For some reason we feel embarrassed to simply say, “I’m not going to take the time to look into your argument because I just don’t care that much”.  So we invent other reasons.  We appeal to authority, or lack authority on the part of the person proposing the idea.  We say vague condescending things like, “They need to engage the literature”, without ever risking anything to explain exactly where we think they’re wrong or what “literature” they need to engage.  We want to ignore the idea without admitting that’s what we’re doing.  We need to pretend we never write off anything.  That would be closed minded!  Instead we do worse than ignore it.  We pretend we’ve refuted it while ignoring it.

There are a great many topics we are ignorant on.  Many of those we’ll never take the time to investigate.  That’s a reality we can’t escape, and we don’t need to.  It’s refreshing when someone forcefully presents an argument to be able to say, “I don’t find that credible, but to be honest I’ve never really investigated it and I probably never will.”  We’re better off acknowledging our areas of ignorance and apathy then pretending we have some other reason besides lack of interest to dismiss an idea.

Writing and I Might Need to Get Counseling

I’ve developed a complicated relationship with writing.

I’ve been blogging every day since February, and prior to that had been blogging anywhere from 2-7 times per week over the past three years.  The surprising thing about writing regularly as a discipline is how much my relationship to the practice has changed.  It’s like a marriage, with honeymoons, dips, plateaus, and every other vicissitude imaginable.

So where do things stand now?

I like writing.  In fact, I love writing.  I need it.  It’s still hard, but I have this unshakable faith that I never had before.  I know when I sit down and start typing, something will come.  I never fear for lack of content.  The knowledge that as long as I sit down, face the page, and hit that first keystroke I will get something written is wonderful.  So as an inward-focused self-development project, writing and I have a good thing going.  It’s when third parties get involved that things get complicated.

I’ve posted before and I still maintain that I write primarily for myself.  Still, I love it when my stuff gets a lot of traction, shares, and views.  I’m a slow learner, but I’ve recently hit on a few elements that dramatically increase the level of attention a piece can get.  That’s the source of the complication between writing and me.  Do I just sit down, hammer away at the keys, and wait for the Muses to reward my discipline with inspiration, or do I deliberately construct content to include elements that will gain wider reach?

I have no ethical worries about “selling out” and don’t look down on marketing or even those who’ve mastered the art of click-baiting.  I don’t think there’s anything more or less pure about writing to get read, as long as you’re honest with yourself about your intentions and don’t feel shame over it.  I love the constant give-and-take game that creators and consumers of content play, trying to understand and anticipate each other.  I think good marketing does not harm a product, but actually creates value.  I am impressed by those who really grasp that the game is less about creating content than it is about structuring it.

Still, writing for reach doesn’t come as naturally to me and I only occasionally enjoy it.  I hate posts that have images attached to them for no reason.  Why does a stock photo of people on an escalator make the ideas better?  Most people prefer images with everything, and I don’t look down on that.  I like titles that are a bit ambiguous, but most people want a big, clear “pop” up top.  I vaguely understand it and oscillate between stubbornly refusing to try and happily playing around with small tweaks that appeal to would-be readers.

When I first began blogging no one read any of my stuff.  That was the second hurdle to overcome.  Before I started writing I had to overcome the fear of being misunderstood or disliked for my sometimes radical views, but I quickly learned the more common and more difficult reality is that no one is offended because no one is reading.  I came to terms with a small audience and writing and I really focused on our relationship in private.  I do not pretend to have a massive audience today, but readership has steadily grown and with increasing frequency I write a piece that gets widely shared.  The thing that makes this hard on my relationship with writing is that the most popular pieces are rarely the ones I care most about or think are my best stuff.

I’m beginning to be able to penetrate the mystery a bit and see what makes some pieces more popular than others, but most of those characteristics aren’t elements of my writing that I find most fundamental or unique to me.  If I allowed myself to indulge in artistic self-pity it would feel like the world is telling me, “Just be less like yourself and you’re work will get more attention”.  It’s not nearly that simple, nor do I think that I could magically master massive reach by “selling out” or any such nonsense.  It ain’t easy to get traction even if you’re trying.  There is just a tiny tug-of-war going on between me and writing about how to proceed in our partnership.

Do I continue to use our encounters in co-creation as a form of therapy and self-reflection, or do we agree to turn toward the wider world and produce things that connect?  Not that I can flip a switch and do the latter easily.  But how much should I try?

For now I’m going to try to have my cake and eat it.  I’ll write for myself every day.  But I’ll also try once or twice a week to let audience-consciousness guide a few of my choices.  Call it an experiment.  I need to know if I’m avoiding writing with the audience in mind because it’s really not me, or if I’m avoiding it for the same reason I used to avoid writing altogether, because it’s hard and scary.

Time for Entrepreneurship to Replace Schooling

Software is eating the world.

Those words, popularized by the creator of the first web browser and now venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, describe the present and foretell the future. First it was industry and ever more advanced machines. Once machines became programmable, software became the most powerful force for progress.

This scares a lot of people. It shouldn’t. Shovels are an improvement over human hands for digging a ditch. Software is an improvement over human minds for solving equations and handling transactions. The future belongs to those who master the uniquely human, not those who fight with software and hardware over rote tasks.

What is the uniquely human?  Creativity. Machines can perform but humans are relentlessly creative. We adapt, mimic, adjust, experiment, fail, try again, and reshape our conceptions of the world without any external programmer making it happen. We are the most complex combo of hardware and software on the planet and we can program and reprogram ourselves.

Embracing the future without fear means becoming more human than ever before. It means leaving the grunt work to the tools we make. It means coordinating those tools like a conductor does a symphony. It means, in a word, entrepreneurship.

No longer relegated to those who start a business, entrepreneurship is becoming a necessary way of life. It’s an outlook. You must be the President and CEO of your own firm. You must be the creative force in your world and coordinate with the resources around you.

It’s easier than ever before. The tools are there. All that stops you is an outdated mindset. The key is to break free from old modes of thought and realize the beauty, power, and boundlessness of technology-plus-human enabled progress. What is software but the expression of human ideas in digital form?  If we open our minds and engage reality as possibility and play the fear dissipates.

The opening sentence could be restated: Imagination is eating the world. The problem is that few have learned to dream. Or it might be more accurate to say that the natural human propensity to dream has been suppressed. It’s time to unlock it. It’s time for an un-education.

The role of education in society

Prior to the mass schooling movement education was used broadly to describe the acquisition of knowledge and skill useful in achieving goals. Education is a highly cooperative endeavor and critical to the life of any community. We learn how to navigate the world from observing those around us, copying them, getting results and feedback, adjusting, and trying again. In isolation humans are mediocre learners at best. In a vibrant community humans can master almost anything if given the freedom to try.

Observe the first few years of life and it’s easy to see a natural thirst for learning and an entrepreneurial approach to self-education. Babies are wide eyed. They take in everything. Then they test. They try to crawl and talk and play. They repeat over and over. They adapt and try again. They watch those around them and model their successful actions. This process can be called education, but note that no one needs to deliberately plan or structure it. No external incentive or impetus is required for children to acquire the most fundamental and important skills. They want to and they won’t stop trying.

A vibrant community is rich with examples of what to do and what not to do across a variety of ages and levels of expertise. Learners are constantly bumping into new ideas and methods. Ideas are non-scarce goods that fly freely, articulated and unarticulated. Patterns and norms emerge not from the minds of elites but from constant trial and error and observation by each member of the community. What works for one is repeated by another. Paths are worn by walking.

This is not to say no deliberate or planned education takes place. When someone discovers something they love it’s natural to want to learn everything possible about it. Those with particular skill and knowledge and the ability to impart it specialize and exchange what they know for something they value. Teachers and institutions for learning play a role. In a vibrant community they are part of the same trial and error marketplace as everything else. That means no one is forced to engage in any particular form of education, and educators aren’t guaranteed pupils or funding for their efforts.

What is commonly considered education today is really just one very narrow delivery mechanism for learning. This mechanism, called school, has so dominated the education landscape that many have come to completely conflate the two terms. If we are to boldly seize the opportunities of the future, we’ve got to start by rethinking our forms of education. We need to allow for the cultivation of entrepreneurs, not the mechanization we ask of machines.

How school kills entrepreneurship

The dominance of school as education is dangerous. It’s not only that the method of conveying skills and ideas is itself ineffective and inflexible. It’s the effectiveness of school at generating a particular mindset that’s cause for greatest concern. I call it the conveyor belt mindset.

You are plopped onto a production line at whatever stage you’re supposed to be based on arbitrary things like your age, class, and gender. Then you let the belt do the work. By essentially doing nothing but what you’re told, you get handed certificates at each next stage. 18? Unless you did something truly outrageous, here’s your diploma. 22? Here’s your degree. Degree? Here’s your job.

Most people believe this and live it. It’s revealed in the kinds of questions we ask strangers. “What grade are you in?” “What’s your major?” “What kind of job do you have?” If your answer is not the appropriate one for your age and assumed station in life, people worry. “I dropped out of school to do X” is cause for concern to almost everybody, no matter what X is. “I’m a sophomore at university Y” is cause for comfort to almost everybody, no matter what you’re actually doing with your time at Y. So long as you’re at your station, no one much cares if you’re productive, happy, successful, fulfilled, or free.

Parents obsessively check their child against a list of averages on everything from height to reading ability and stress if junior is not “on track.” No one really ever asks who built the track, where it’s going, or whether junior has any interest in arriving there.

Schools are the factories within which the conveyor belt mindset operates. They are structured to breed conformity and obedience. Students don’t even have control over their own schedules or basic necessities like bathroom and meal times. Schools were intended to be and still operate as places that restrict rather than expand the quantity of education in the community. Too many diverse ideas are a threat to efficiency obsessed do-gooders and social planners. Schools produce a more uniform product that can be plugged in like a machine to any part of the stagnant world once imagined by its creators. The conveyor belt produces the very thing that humans can’t compete with machines and software on: rule-following. If your primary skill is repeating known processes and adhering to protocols, you’ll lose to technology every time. Why are we educating humans out of their greatest strength?

The conveyor belt saps creativity and freedom. It is anti-entrepreneurial in every way. It’s not taking you where you want to go. Aggregates are not individuals and your goals and abilities are not definable by summing the abilities and behaviors of everyone your age and dividing by the population size. It’s time to get off.

The way forward

How to create an entrepreneurial education?  It’s actually a lot easier than it may seem. Start by quitting. Opt out of the activities and mindsets that are killing you. Take yourself or your kids out of school and let them do and learn whatever they want to in a safe environment. You don’t need anyone’s permission.

Step up and out into the world in which you want to live. Work with interesting people, read interesting books, do interesting things. No need to pay for someone else’s stamp on someone else’s set of activities just because everyone else does. You don’t need a external validation to do what you want. You may choose to get degrees and certificates. You may decide it’s worth the trade-offs. You may enjoy it. Do it if you do, but don’t ever do it, “because you have to.” You don’t have to. Create a way to do what you want without it. It’s harder, but freedom is always harder than the comfort of captivity.

The reason many people fear opting out is because of that paradigm of linear, externally-defined progress. It’s the conveyor belt. It’s time to jump off.

Yes, you want an entire community of free-thinking unschooling entrepreneurs. But you don’t need to wait for society to get there. You can jump off the conveyor belt immediately and create a better way for yourself. Not only do you immediately gain more freedom, doing so is the most likely way for a broader social movement to follow.

It’s scary at first, because your mind is trained to think that progress is defined by moving on the conveyor belt in the only direction it goes. Maybe really special or hard working people go faster, like the people who run up an escalator instead of letting the machine do all the work, but everyone is channeled in the same narrow corral moving in the same direction. That’s not progress.

Progress is moving towards your own goals and desires and becoming more fulfilled as you grow and overcome challenges. There are as many directions as there are people. Once you jump off the conveyor belt, the hardest part is actually discovering what makes you come alive, then being honest and unashamed of what you discover. It’s worth it. You can never start too soon.

The thing is, the mold-breakers who jump the belt don’t struggle any more or less than those who stay on. They have a hard time too. But it’s a different kind of pain. It’s the pain of working to achieve a goal they’re passionate about that has huge rewards when won, not the pain of subjugation to a monotony that brings you nothing in return.

Once you’re off the conveyor belt and seeing a world of possibility you can begin to create the kind of education you want. Education, like entrepreneurship, is not a stage in life but a way of living. You’ve got to become a lifelong learner. Cultivate questions and curiosity. Get comfortable with failure and restarting. Think big thoughts but don’t relegate your creativity to the realm of ideas alone. Test them. Thought experiments are great, but the best philosophers engage in field experiments. Those are the entrepreneurs. The only thing keeping you from joining them is an outdated mindset someone sold you. It works to suffocate the entrepreneurial embers deep within your nature. Fan them back into flame. You’ll light your own way and maybe start a brush fire that spreads to your community and beyond.

If you do, we’ll soon be saying that entrepreneurship is eating the world.

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*If you are a teen or you have a teen that’s interested in entrepreneurship, creative thinking, and out of the box living, check out the Praxis Teen Entrepreneurship Course!

Praxis Teen Entrepreneurship Course

5 Reasons to Take a Crappy Job

If you want to be really good at whatever you do I recommend getting some crappy* work experience while you are young.  Mop floors, work a cash register, haul junk, install drywall, dig ditches, clean bathrooms, or some kind of job that has no pre-existing skill requirement.

Let’s not get too romantic.  I don’t look down on people who haven’t ever had a crappy job, nor do I look up to people who don’t like it but have never moved on from one.  Still, there are some take-aways a crappy job provides that are just hard to get any other way.  Here are a few things you’ll gain.

You’ll learn that attitude is everything

Benefits of Bad Jobs
These guys were onto something

There literally is nothing else.  When you’re working a crappy job you can’t expect things to suddenly get more exciting or rewarding on their own.  Without the faintest hope of a fortunate change in external circumstances, you are forced to come to terms with what’s true for every job: attitude trumps everything.  The difference in a good day cutting 2×4 studs and a bad day cutting 2×4 studs is whether or not you begin with a smile and a whistle.  I’m not kidding.  Try not being happy while whistling!  Customers will be rude, things you just swept will get dirty again, it will rain while you’re trying to read the smudged instructions on the rented Ditch-Witch.  Your laughter might be the only thing that saves you.  This lesson will serve you well when you’re doing work that’s not crappy, because then the stakes only get higher and bad days can seem catastrophic if you don’t know how to deal.

You’ll learn to focus on product

Titles and family income and educational attainment and physical beauty don’t mean much on the clean-up crew.  When you’re bagging groceries nobody gives a hoot how good you are at tennis or how many extracurriculars you have.  There is little scope for unearned favor and politicking in a crappy job.  You shut up and produce.  Want a raise?  Get more done.  Make more customers happy.  Be faster than your coworkers.  Never show up late or miss a day.  Work overtime.  It’s too easy in some of the more complex and interesting jobs, many of which are several steps removed from the end customer, to forget what it is that actually generates the money to make the place go.  You can slip into a mindset that overvalues cleverness and social gamesmanship and overlooks value creation.  That won’t happen when you’re stocking shelves or emptying sticky beer bottles into the dump truck.  You want to move up, you’d better create more value.

You’ll learn that you can be great

There are a lot of people who have mastered the techniques of crappy jobs and can really fly through.  There are even some who genuinely love the jobs.  But let’s be honest, most of the people you’ll work with at the landscaping company aren’t the type you’d want to work with later in life.  In crappy jobs the majority of people you’re surrounded by are always looking for the path of least resistance, being sneaky about hours, indulging in fruitless gossip, pilfering snacks from the break room, and sometimes worse.  When the skill bar is low, you get some unsavory characters who come in and out.  The best part about this is that it won’t take you long to realize that, with a little effort, dedication, and basic people skills and integrity, you can rise to the top and be one of the best employees.  This is a good feeling.  I’m convinced that the path to greatness for most people comes not when they suddenly realize how much potential they have, but when they realize how little everyone else seems to try.  Here’s the secret: this doesn’t change when you move from the grocery store to the Fortune 500 company.

You’ll learn what you want to avoid

The Benefits of Crappy Jobs
If only your work days were this glorious

If you’ve always been in the officer’s quarters and never with the enlisted men and women, you won’t know exactly what you’ve got.  In fact, you may even long for the romantic ideal of menial work in your weaker, more stressed out moments.  “If only my biggest concern was the blister on my heel”, you’ll think to yourself, imagining working the chain gang with Cool Hand Luke.  Everyone who has ever worked a crappy job and moved on will laugh at you.  Sure, they can reminisce about it, but they would never trade intellectually engaging, creative work for it.  They see it as what it is, the first rung on a ladder of personal development.  Working a crappy job helps you realize that you’ve got bigger dreams than just earning enough money to live.  It will motivate you to do more, to build your skill, knowledge, and network outside of work so you can jump into something better.

You’ll learn that the worst case isn’t so bad

Yes, this post is about crappy jobs.  Yes, I just said there’s nothing romantic about it and if you work one you’ll probably want out.  All true.  But it’s also true that these jobs aren’t so bad.  You can only really know this if you’ve had one.  This knowledge will come in handy when you are about to launch your startup and you have no idea if it will fail.  Failure will loom as a haunting spectre, crippling you with indecision.  What will happen if I’m wrong and this thing fails?  That’s when the memory of your crappy job will be like a warm blanket.  You’ll smile and realize that the worst case isn’t so bad.  So what if your business fails?  So what if no one will hire you afterwards?  The worst that can happen is you’ll downgrade to a small apartment and mow lawns or ring up customers.  You’ve been there.  It’s not death.  That’s as far as the fall can go.  There’s comfort and courage in that.

*I’m painting with a broad brush here.  I realize that these jobs are not crappy at all to some people.  I do not mean to insult.  I quite enjoyed most of my crappy jobs while they lasted.  My goal is for you to imagine a job that you think would be crappy.  Something you know you don’t want to do for the rest of your life, something that doesn’t require much skill to start with, and something that no one will be impressed by at cocktail hour.

The Two Things That Trump Talent

One of the big secrets in the professional world is that talent is not the most valuable thing to clients, employers, coworkers, and investors.  I’ve written before about a skill that beats talent every time.  I’m going to expand on that a little bit today.  A combination of two traits will win out over a lot of talent.

Hard work and self-esteem.

Hard work is the ability and willingness to do whatever it takes to get things done.  Be the person who never misses a deadline, never drops the ball, never requires additional prompting, never needs to be checked-in on, never induces worry.  It doesn’t mean someone who just  generates a lot of meaningless activity and sweat, and brags about the all-nighters or the amount of effort.  The key here is the word “work”.  The kind of hard work that will beat talent is really hard-won results.  Work needs to mean valuable outcomes, not inputs.  Tangible value created.

Self-esteem is a deep connection with ones own value and meaning, derived from something other than external circumstances or the approval of others.  Those who can win over a room and keep it aren’t the ones who crave attention or approval for their self-worth, or those who naturally have people skills, but those who don’t fear looking foolish or failing because their self-esteem is much deeper than the opinion of others.  They don’t need to win to feel valuable, they want to win and believe they will because they already feel valuable.

These two traits are very connected.  People are a lot less willing to work their butts off if their identity is wrapped up in external validation.  Working hard – really hard – means being vulnerable.  Being a little too cool to break a sweat shields you from potential embarrassment, but rolling up your sleeves and diving in ratchets up the risk of failing, because people may really pity you or think less if you fail when you were trying your hardest.  Those with low self-esteem experience failure as catastrophic, so they rarely work at 100%.

The good news is, unlike some talents or personality traits, hard work and self-esteem can be built.  You can deliberately cultivate and improve on both of them.  The sooner you stop looking at external measures for your sense of worth, the easier it will be to throw yourself into something the results of which may be judged by others.  The sooner you dive in to your work and resolve to consistently produce, the more you’ll gain a sense of worth from your effort and the less you’ll care what others say.  They feed each other.

Stop worrying about how you stack up talent-wise and become unshakable in your self-esteem and unequaled in your hard work.  These two things supersede all the rest, and will result in the rapid accumulation of opportunity, experience, and yes, even other highly valuable talents and skills.

The Advantages of Having a Family While Running a Business

The Advantages of Having a Family and Running a Business at the Same Time
What better motivation is there to succeed, use time wisely, and not feel defeated?

It’s no secret that being an entrepreneur is stressful and time consuming.  It requires not just physical but immense mental energy and brings pretty severe emotional swings.  Sometimes it involves emails or phone calls or travel at all hours of the day all days of the week all year long.  It’s also financially unpredictable.

All of these things suggest that having a family while starting or running a company is a bad idea.  I often tell young people that if they have a startup idea they should pursue it sooner than later, because the risk, stress, cost of failure, and available time will only get worse over time and after a spouse and kids.  Still, lots of people do it.  I’m doing it now.  Despite the very real ways in which a family makes entrepreneurship harder, there are some powerful advantages too.

Time

I’d rather be with my family than doing just about anything else.  This is a huge advantage.  When you’re starting a company and seeking funding, partners, employees, customers, and allies there are an infinite number of things you could do at any time.  Networking event downtown tonight?  Maybe you’ll meet someone there and make a decent connection.  The thing is, 80% of the events, calls, emails, and activities won’t be that valuable.  When you are a time billionaire (as my friend TK calls it), the opportunity cost is low.  You might as well go to the happy hour.  Something might come out of it.  So single entrepreneurs do it.  Over and over again.  They hit so many conferences and meetings that the line between what’s valuable and what’s a waste begins to blur.  They can get distracted and burned out on things that don’t really enhance their core value proposition or product.

When you would rather be with your family anyway, you develop a very high bar for any reason to do otherwise.  I’m not going to drive downtown and spend three hours sipping cocktails for a 30% chance of meeting a person with a 20% chance of introducing me to someone with a 10% chance of investing 5% of what I need to raise if it means not getting to watch Finding Nemo with my kids and tuck them in bed.  It raises the cost of wasted time and sharpens your ability to distinguish what’s really worth it.  You’ve heard of the 80/20 rule.  Being an entrepreneur with a family dramatically raises the stakes and makes you a lot better and quicker at identifying your 20% activities and ignoring the rest.  Saying ‘no’ is one of the most important skills an entrepreneur can learn, and having a family makes you a little better at it.

Perspective

When you’re running a venture, it’s all you think about.  As it should be.  Entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham says, “It’s hard to do a good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower”, and he’s right.  But things don’t always go well.  Sometimes they downright suck.  You lose a client, a deal falls through, your website launch is months late, you face legal battles, you can’t get a meeting with an investor, or any number of other hurdles real or imagined.  If you’ve got nothing but your business, these can destroy you.  If your venture is failing you feel like you are failing.  Someone who feels like a failure in life is not going to create a winner in business.

Having a Business and a Family at the Same Time
What were you saying about not having a good life?

It’s times like these when a family is the most amazing psychological strength I’ve found.  Crumpled in a real or metaphorical heap on the floor feeling like you just got your ass kicked by the world and all is lost, you look up at two cute little girls having a tea party and asking you if some imaginary tea will make you feel better.  How can you not smile?  The number of times I’ve laughed at myself for feeling like I just can’t win is countless.  Every time it’s because I consider my family and wonder how I could ever feel desperate.  Who cares if the businesses struggles or fails or I have to go work another job to make ends meet?  If I accomplish nothing else in my life besides raising these kids and spending time with my wonderful wife, who could ever call that a waste?

This perspective is healthy and needed.  Yeah, you want to be your work and throw yourself 100% into it.  But you also want to be more than your work.  Families have an amazing way of helping you see that you are.

Motivation

No matter how type-A you are and how many sleepless nights you’re willing to put in, you’re still human, and humans are lazy.  We prefer lounging to working.  Sometimes we disguise lounging as working and fill our time with activities that don’t add real value because the valuable stuff is hard or boring.  Especially after the early build and launch phase, the dip comes and it’s really hard to push yourself to do a bunch of crappy tasks to keep things moving forward.  If you have no family, and therefore very little time or financial obligation, you can easily pivot to a new job, pick up some side work, or sleep on a friend’s couch if your lack of effort should result in lack of income or delayed success.  You can wait to work hard until the moment of inspiration comes, no matter what day or hour it strikes.  When you have a family, these are all much harder to do.  If it’s 2:00 PM on a Friday and you agreed to hang with the kids for the evening beginning at 6:00, and then a long-promised family camping trip will consume the weekend, you have no choice.  You’ve got to make the next several hours count.  You’ve got to do the hard work no matter how little you want to.

It’s not only the financial incentive and desire to provide stable quality of life and time availability to your family, but also the desire to provide an example.  You want your kids to be excited by the opportunities life provides.  You want them to work hard.  You want them to see that you never gave up on your vision and you always buckled down and made things happen.  Especially if you work from home as I often do, you want your kids to get a feel for what it’s like and see your relentless focus and drive.  Alone in an apartment, it’s easier to justify a break for binge-watching your favorite show (I sneak that in after the kids are in bed.  What? I’m not a machine!).  Worst case, your venture fails and everyone still thinks you’re cool for trying it.  With a family failure is more costly, and that can be a great motivator.

Don’t Fear

While being entrepreneurial as a mindset and way of life is open and available to everyone, starting a business of your own is definitely not for everyone.  But if you feel that fire burning within and think it’s too late for you because you have a family and can never compete with single and childless founders out there, you’re wrong.  There are a great many entrepreneurial wives, husbands, fathers, and mothers, and we’ve got some advantages that those without a family don’t.

Episode 18: Peter Leeson on the Economic Explanation of Everything

Economist Pete Leeson believes everything can be explained using the economic assumption of rational behavior. He is a prolific academic and his work covers a wide variety of fascinating and sometimes bizarre phenomena – from insect trials to witch burning, piracy, and everything in between – and provides rational explanations for seemingly irrational behavior.

We discuss what inspired him to become an economist, the major themes of his work, whether everything can be explained with economic analysis, and what he thinks of different economic schools of thought.

You can find him online at peterleeson.com.  I highly recommend his books, The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, and, Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think.

This and all episodes are available on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Stitcher.

Father’s Day is a Little Weird for Me

I’m sitting alone in a bar in Austin at 10:30 AM on a rainy Sunday. Waiting for a little bit of bacon, waffles, and diced red potatoes. It’s Father’s Day. I’ve already had more than enough coffee, so water is my sole companion as I wait.

I’m tired. I just finished a day of being “on”, participating in a debate followed by a panel at a high energy conference with broken air conditioning and not enough food and water. I talked to people all day, often near shouting over loud, energetic music. It was good. I’m doing what I care about and talking about things that matter deeply to me. How to be free. How to create your own path. How to live fully alive. How to rebel against stagnant mindsets and institutions.

I’m not big on Father’s Day and other Hallmark holidays, but this calm, humid Sunday morning it got to me. My dad. How am I supposed to feel? Thankful to him for being there? He’s always been there, but in a wheelchair with a closed head-injury and needing more care than he could give. All things considered, he’s a great dad. It’s one of the things that sometimes makes it hard.

A lot of people grew up without fathers. Tragedy, abandonment, death, and divorce have thrown many a kid gut-wrenching curveballs I can’t imagine. They’ve got to learn to cope, but also to grieve. To feel the anger, resentment, or deep sadness of the hole in their life. But what am I supposed to do? My dad was always there, kind, impossible not to love, and also unable to walk, remember anything of consequence, or be independent at all.

I can’t grieve his absence. That would be an affront to his unmistakable and warm presence. Still, those few memories I retain from before his accident – rushing upstairs to play “Jumping on the Bed Fred” when he got home from work, him lying on the couch in sweatpants watching football or Star Trek, him helping me in to the hot vinyl seats of our old car – give me glassy eyes.

My waffles are here. Give me a minute.

OK, I’m back.

Several years ago I was lying awake in bed and it came to me. A fictionalized account of what happened with my dad after his car accident all those years ago. A few years later I put it up as one of the first posts on this blog. I’m glad it was so early on, when I had no readers. Fiction is a format I’m really unfamiliar with as a writer, and it feels a little bit awkward. Still, it was the first time I had ever written anything besides a vague adolescent poem or two about the subject of my dad. It was the only form that allowed me to. I guess today I’m taking a more direct approach, which feels equally odd.

I like to write about my ideas, not my feelings. Yet on the topic of my dad, his accident, and my life growing up with and without him, I don’t really have any ideas. I only have feelings, and even those aren’t that well-processed.

One of the strangest things, which I imagine must be far stranger for my mother, is that I actually have two dads. I have the one who gave me his genetic material, who set the foundation for our family, and who held me and played with me those first three years. He’s still alive in my memory, and mostly in romanticized legends I’ve pieced together from stories about him. Then there’s my dad who’s with us today. By all accounts a funny (in an ironic, playful sort of way), kind, caring, compassionate guy who never says a negative word about anyone, and whose occasional agitation has an endearing quality. He’s not one of those people I’ve met in some nursing homes who, when faced with physical or mental disabilities vent nothing but pent-up anger (perhaps partially because they’re in nursing homes). He’s the farthest thing from that you can imagine. He requires 24 hour care, but even though it can take a toll physically, he’s not someone you can get mad at. Well, sometimes you can, when he keeps asking the same question every five minutes due to short term memory loss, but even then, it’s my lack of patience and not any intended malice on his part.

I love both of my dads. My relationship with my head-injured dad is actually great, and makes me smile just to think about it. I miss that old pup (his term, not mine). I called him today. It’s not a complicated relationship. In fact, it’s probably easier than any other relationship in my life. He loves me unconditionally and is always proud of me, even though he usually forgets what I’m up to, how old I am, whether I live at home, and whether or not he really owes me a million dollars (I have fun with that one). He’s easy for me to love as well. His soul shines through and reveals my own flimsy attempts at compassion and joy in contrast to his.

It’s my other dad that makes things complicated. I didn’t have time to get to know him. I never had the joy of being coached by him in baseball, or beating him on the basketball court, or arguing over things that dads and sons argue about. It’s really hard to miss him and feel ripped off because of his absence. That feels like it would be a slight to the dad that’s still here. But I do miss him.

It’s hard to build an accurate picture of who he was, and sometimes I’m not even sure I want to.

He was probably a lot less amazing than I imagine he was or would have been had the accident never happened. Who knows? Maybe I’d think he was a big stick-in-the-mud. Maybe we’d fight about everything. I’ll never know. I know he wasn’t perfect, and I even believe that I’ve gained a great many good qualities due to the unique way my siblings and I were raised, with lots of independence by necessity. Still, I wonder a lot. I know his financial decisions allowed us to live a safe, comfortable life even after he could no longer work. I know his decision with my mom to homeschool us changed my life in ways I’m more thankful for every day. I know his beliefs, regardless of how well his actions did or did not mirror them, created a sound foundation that I value and that has served me well.

My waffles are almost done. The bacon is gone, and most of the potatoes. It feels like time to wrap this up. I’m not really sure what else to say. I don’t feel bad for myself. I grieve sometimes. I started crying a little bit at the table here while writing this, which mercifully warded off the waitress and bought me a little more time. One day it really hit me hard, when I was first trying to get Praxis off the ground and getting thrashed by roadblock after roadblock, I just broke down in an airport and asked God why in hell I didn’t have a dad to bounce things off of.

Yet, my dad is here. I look at my wife, whose father died two years ago, far too young, and I cannot deny she is experiencing a deeper loss than I know. I’m still trying to figure out the best way to process this complex situation.

For anyone else out there who grew up with a dad who was present, but handicapped in some way, I know it’s a little weird. I know my dad loved me, loves me, and I’m so glad for his presence in my life. I guess this is my card this year. Happy Father’s Day dad. Thank you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go smoke a cigar to pay homage to the time before I was born when you snuck outside of church for a cigarillo, you rebel you.

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