Voice & Exit Interview

An interview I did for the Voice & Exit blog.

1. Isaac, you wrote an article on the V&E blog earlier this year about changing the world through creative entrepreneurship. Can you explain how this mindset informed your decision to start Praxis?

I was tired of talking. Don’t get me wrong, I like to talk. Probably too much. I had some big, radical ideas about the uselessness of the high school-college-career conveyor belt and what kind of alternatives could be better, faster, cheaper, and more fulfilling. Ideas are costless. Anyone can have ideas. If I really believed my theories about the huge opportunities for young people to do something different, why not put my money where my mouth is?

Who cares if professors or experts disagree with me? The market will determine if the idea is valuable. That’s the part I love the most. You don’t need to convince everyone about your theories of a better world in the realm of argument when you can create value for customers in the market. You can ignore the haters and focus on creating value for those who benefit from your idea.

I’m a happy person. I like being happy. I don’t like being grumpy. Arguing about what you want the world to look like is pretty depressing. You never win. Going out and creating it – putting those ideas into a business model – is exhilarating, informative, and has a real chance of changing things.

Entrepreneurship is philosophy in action.

2. How did you know “it was the right time” to launch Praxis? What were some of the risks and upsides involved for you?

I don’t think there’s ever a right time for any big move in life. At least not one that’s identifiable ahead of time. What made the time right for me was that I had an idea burning so intensely inside me I almost felt I didn’t have a choice.

Sure, I’d had ideas before, but none of them had the clarity or plan for execution that I had with Praxis. It was the sum of a decade of smaller ideas and observations, and it came to a head all at once. Without sounding too sensational, I just knew I had to build this thing. I needed to get my question answered by the market. Can this thing work?

I wanted to know the answer so bad that I was totally willing to fail in my effort to find it. I think the “willing to fail” test is good one. If you need some guarantee of success, it’s probably not a good time to launch a venture. It will test you, and have to accept and internalize the possibility of failure up front.

The biggest risk honestly was not the risk of failure. That didn’t scare me as much as the risk of not going after this thing. If I didn’t, I’d regret it.

The biggest upside? Keep an eye on Praxis. You’ll see soon.

3. Much of the buzz around Praxis focuses on education, but education is just a means to a certain end. What is the broader goal you’ve set for Praxis? What has Praxis “exited?”

Education is a boring and stale word. Yes, learning is crucial to any endeavor in life. But textbooks and tests and classrooms and schedules imposed by others and credentials conferred for hoop-jumping are just stupid in most cases.

What Praxis is really about is freedom on a very personal, individual level. We exist to help young people discover what makes them come alive and create a way to do it. We exist to help them find an environment, a mindset, a community, and a set of questions that will enable them to awaken their dreams. We know that for the world to be free and prosperous, individual humans must be. We want young people to take the reins of their own living, learning, working, and building. We want them to be the driving force in their own life. We want them to get a jump on the opportunities exploding around them to be entrepreneurs and innovators, and to live life on their terms.

Whether it’s freedom from the classroom, the cubicle, the expectations of others, or your own fears and doubts, we want to help you achieve it.

We weren’t content to criticize the conveyor belt of debt-fueled classroom credential chasing. We want to help people not just wake up to it, but leave. Praxis is exiting – and helping others exit – the ‘higher education’ industry and the debates about how to reform or improve it. Forget all that. Criticize by creating. And start with creating a tailor made life that you love.

4. What do you think is the single biggest force driving this awakening of thought in education?

Ideas are free. They can’t be chained up. You can’t dam up the stream of information that’s been unleashed by decentralized technology. Now that the information gatekeepers have no special power or privilege the credential gatekeepers will be the next to decline. The best ideas aren’t housed in a single place or owned by a group of elites, and next the signal to the world of an individual’s intelligence and ability won’t be conferred by some big central institution. It will be created and demonstrated by the individual him/herself.

People are realizing they now have the power to be their own credential and let their work speak for itself. That’s a power no one can stop.

5. You’re taking on a leviathan system. What are some of the barriers you’ve had to work around and what are some ways you’ve been able to succeed?

Everything from weird laws and regulations to the obvious financial challenges of a startup from scratch. But there are always workarounds if you’re impatient and determined enough to find or create them.

The biggest barrier to any entrepreneurial endeavor are the mental and emotional challenges. It takes a toll to fight every day for the thing you’re building and pouring your life into, and sometimes it’s easy to underestimate how much stress that can bring. You’ve got to really master your inner life and summon the strength and humility to keep at it.

And you have to ignore the critics who love nothing more than to sit on the sidelines while others create and take potshots or nitpick. Just remember who your customers are and focus entirely on rocking their world. Forget about the rest.

6. How big do you see this community growing? Where is Praxis in five years and what are the opportunities for others who want to enter this space?

There is no limit to the growth of the self-directed learning and entrepreneurial self-starter community. We were all born entrepreneurs and self-directed learners. Anyone can re-awaken that if they’ve got the will. In five years? We’ll be everywhere. I envision Praxis and similar combinations of work and self-created learning structure to be everywhere and not slowing down.

7. Do you have any advice for someone in the V&E network who wants to challenge an existing community and build their own?

Three things:

1) Tighten your pitch. What problem are you solving? How? Why will it work? That should be communicated in a few sentences.
2) Know your market. Who are you solving the problem for? Where are they? Do they care?
3) Be willing to fail, but do everything you can to avoid it. The best way to succeed? Start. The longer your ideas remain ideas, the less likely you are to act.

The Cure is Not the Cause

A friend worked at a company that instituted a no cell phone policy during meetings. Apparently too many people were on their phones instead of paying attention.

If you look at it from an authoritarian standpoint as an organizer, the cause for lack of engagement was cell phone use.  But put yourself in the shoes of an attendee and you see that cell phones were not the cause of the problem, but the cure for it. The problem was boredom. The cause was too many or too long or not interesting enough meetings.

We see cures blamed as causes everywhere. Schools routinely blame whatever form of escape, entertainment, distraction, or even real learning that kids conceive to cope with the rigid soul-sucking structure of the system. From a top-down, black-and-white rulers standpoint, the answer is always more bans and more rules.

What would happen instead if we assumed rationality and no malintent on the part of the cell phone users or students?  What might their behavior reveal about the system or process?  If you run a business you can get mad at customers who don’t do what you want all you like, but attacking or placing restrictions on them is not a long term strategy for success in a competitive market. You must try to understand why they aren’t doing what you want and adapt your offerings.

When people are looking for an escape don’t block the exit.  Instead try to learn why they want out in the first place.

Why Is It So Hard to Exit a Bad Situation?

The most common thing in the world is to hear someone complain about their job, their church, their school, or their neighborhood.  It’s almost a form of casual conversation.  In many cases people don’t actually dislike these things, but they just enjoy ripping on them for fun.  In many cases though there is a deep and genuine frustration, boredom, annoyance, anger, or pain.  Why don’t people leave?  Why not exit the situation for a better one?  It turns out this is one of the most difficult things to do.

I don’t think the primary difficulty in exiting a soul-sucking situation is for fear of the unknown.  In many cases even the unknown would be better than the known frustration.  I don’t think it’s primarily because society places a (too) high level of respect on loyalty.  I don’t think it’s primarily because of the illusion that we can “change it from the inside” or play the role of reformer.  I think these are rationalizations people give for why they stay.  There is a more fundamental reason people stay in bad situations.  Staying means you get to play the role of two cheap, easy archetypes with quick rewards: the critic and the martyr.

It’s incredibly easy to be a critic.  Hardly any effort is required to sit at the back of the room, arms crossed, and look indifferent while making an occasional sarcastic comment to the person next to you.  Critics get friends.  They get quick points and rally a small band around them in every setting.  Every company has the critic and his cadre of cronies who circle around to hear his latest jab.  Every church has the member who has meetings and conversations to discuss their concerns and troubles.  Critics enjoy a weak form of respect and they are never alone.  Even in a happy crowd as soon as one critic peels off and stands apart, too good for the activity, he attracts others who don’t want to be duped or fooled.

Being too cool is easy.  Actually making good on your critiques and leaving that which you claim to be above is hard.  The role of critic is not a bad one, but it’s dangerous.  It’s dangerous because it’s so easy.  The way caffeine is easier than getting more sleep.  Both have valuable and enjoyable uses in the short run or in certain situations as a kind of jolt into reality.  But in both cases the long run effect is incredibly deleterious to your health.  If you only ever play the role of the critic you lose the capacity to exit or create.  You are no longer the one in control of your life.  You are a victim of and a slave to that which you critique.  You need it because without it you have nothing.

It’s a little harder to be a martyr, but not much.  To play the martyr is to stay in a painful situation, which may sound hard but is much easier than doing things you love.  Unpleasant things naturally find their way to you upon waking in the morning.  Most disciplines are unpleasant at the outset.  Most jobs are.  Most new people are a lot of work to befriend at first.  The easy route is to give just enough of an effort to stay in a situation, but never fully engage and never simply exit.  Complaining about your boss or professor and how mind-numbing your day was is an easy way to get the attention of others.  If the critic gets cheap popularity, the martyr gets cheap sympathy.  Everyone feels bad for the sufferer.  When you feed off of that sympathy and choose it over the much more challenging work of finding situations that don’t make you suffer, you seek the same caffeine-like quick fix as the critic, and with equal danger.

I’ll use an example I’m very familiar with.  I’ve met many young people who hate college.  They’re bored, the classes are useless, the tuition is costly, the experience as a whole makes them feel dull and depressed if not openly angry.  Calculated as a purely economic decision it makes no sense for them to stay.  Four years, tens of thousands of dollars, and a very weak network and set of skills and knowledge gained at the end.  They can think of myriad ways to get more with less.  But that’s not the only cost.  To exit means to quit playing the role of critic and martyr.  Those come with a lot of easy points.

Worse still, once you exit you forgo the chance to play those roles again.  When you complain about your job or rip on your boss you won’t get laughs or sympathy.  You’ll get condemnation.  “Well it’s your own fault.  I told you not to drop out of school!”  It’s the same with churches, cities, and any other situation you can exit.  Exit means giving up the cheap benefits of the critic and the martyr and adding the cost of social approbation.

It’s easy to see why so many people stay in crappy situations they clearly hate.  It’s easier.  No one gets mad at you for staying.  You get cheap popularity and/or sympathy.  You are not accountable for your feelings.  It’s always the fault of the bad situation you’re in.  This is one of the most tragic traps a human can trip.

The power of exit is at the core of human freedom.  It is the first step on the road to genuine fulfillment and self-actualization.  Once you embrace it – and the only way to embrace it is to exercise it – you begin to find, paradoxically, that it needn’t be used as often as you thought.  Sometimes just knowing that you are in a situation by choice and could leave at any time is enough to re-orient your outlook to a more productive, positive one.

If you want to live a great life you have to create it.  Creating is learned.  It’s not free.  To become a creator you have to first let go of the critic and the martyr.  Yes, critique can be the eye-opener that leads to exit and creativity.  Yes, martyrdom can bring the pain that leads to the same.  It’s not that you’ll never play those roles, it’s just that you can’t live in them.

If you want to create a good life you have to first exit the bad one.  Exit alone is not sufficient.  Indeed some people get addicted to exit much the same way they can to critic or martyr.  Always leaving what’s not working but never building what will.  Still, exit is indispensable and far more powerful than attempts at reforming bad situations.  Reform is fundamentally submissive and reactive while exit is empowering and leads to the creative and proactive.

The martyr, the critic, and the coward belong together.  Leave them behind.

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