How to Play Basketball Well

The same way you do everything else well.  Practice, then reflect, then practice some more.

The common, conveyor-belt education system has a pretty bizarre approach to learning.  It doesn’t mirror any learning pattern that high performers in any field use.  It looks something like this:

Theory–>Theory–>Theory–>Theory–>Theory–>Practice (end)

In other words, you sit in classrooms studying things and memorizing knowledge from “experts” for nearly two decades.  Then you’re supposed to take all that theory and successfully practice it in the real world and live happily ever after.  Education is done, now you just go live well.  You’re supposed to succeed in the marketplace and life after only ever thinking about it.  Unless the theory is the practice – unless you’re learning to be an academic – this is a very bad way to learn.

I’ve written before about how absurd it would be if we taught bike riding the way we teach careers.  But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about an even better comparison, and one I know more about than biking.  Basketball.

How do you learn to play basketball?

First, you practice.  Maybe on a mini hoop, maybe on a full-sized hoop.  But you just start shooting and dribbling.  After you have the basic motions and movements and muscle memory down, you start playing with other people in actual games.  You play a lot of pick-up basketball.  Maybe you play in an organized team setting.  The coach might have you focus on specific aspects of the game or skills as you drill and condition.  You’ll scrimmage, run plays, and plot your approach to offense and defense.  You play, then a new concept is introduced, and you immediately play some more and try it out.  Then you stop to reflect and get feedback, tweak your approach, and play again.

At the highest level, this pattern is even more pronounced.  Good players practice a lot.  There is no world in which merely theorizing about basketball teaches you to succeed on the court.  Practice is always the first step and vastly more important if you have to choose one.  But when you go from good to great players, something else happens.  Theory comes into play.  The learning pattern for playing most successfully looks something like this:

Practice–>Practice–>Theory–>Practice–>Practice–>Theory…(ad infinitum)

Great players spend more hours in the gym than anyone.  But after they play they also reflect on their performance.  They review film from previous games.  They study what the offense did.  They observe what happened and theorize about why they were stopped in the paint by this or that defense.  They plan for the next game.  They review film of the next opponent and plot an approach to match.  They constantly reflect on the feedback they get from the real world of practice and play.  They seek out other achievers who have struggled with mental toughness, or strength building, or recovery from injury.  They employ motivational tactics and specialized training.

Notice the pattern because it’s very important.  Hours of film study and offensive scheming are of no value to the novice.  If you’ve never hoisted a ball in the air, learning the perfect placement of your index finger or the optimal use of trash-talk to gain a mental edge isn’t going to help you.  Theory is hugely important.  But it becomes important only when it has past practice upon which to reflect and future practice for which to prepare.

Notice also that, unlike the conveyor-belt education system, the basketball model is never done.  There is no end point.  It’s an ongoing process.  There is no graduation.  Michael Jordan, at the peak of his game and dominating the greatest ballers on the planet, famously came back from every offseason with something new.  He practiced.  He reflected and theorized.  He tested it with more practice.

In this model the role of teacher fades almost entirely.  Specialists with knowledge of the history of the game or the mechanics of the human elbow can be employed in specific situations when needed, but they are in no way the key ingredient to learning the game nor are they valuably employed until a whole lot of playing has occurred.  Instead, coaches and trainers emerge.  People who don’t tell you which facts about basketball are correct and must be memorized, but people who challenge you to get off your butt when you don’t feel like practicing.  People who help you in the process of reflecting on your unique game and keep you accountable to your unique practice process.  They are observers who watch you in the actual act of playing the game and provide real-time feedback from their vantage point.  They aren’t your authority – you can find a new coach anytime – but there for motivation and insight.  Some of the greatest players are famous for ignoring their coaches as often as listening to them even though they deeply respect them, which strikes me as a pretty normal and healthy way to see the relationship.

Another important thing about learning basketball is the value of mimicry.  How did the hook shot join the common arsenal of post players?  Because someone did it well and everyone who played against them realized how effective it could be and began to copy it.  How do you learn to crossover or headfake?  By being crossedover or headfaked at the playground and determining to do the same.

Learning happens more from being around people and environments than it does from consciously thinking about them.  You have to be immersed in the actual play of the game.

My friend and colleague at PraxisTK Coleman, our Education Director – loves the game of basketball probably even more than I do.  We don’t view this analogy as just a cute comparison.  I think success in any career is far more like success in basketball than it is like success in a classroom.  The principles of learning the game are the principles of learning to perform in just about every other arena.  This is why we are so focused on apprenticing at startups and small businesses – practice – and reflecting on the experience and how new skills and mindsets can make it better – theory – and trying them out – practice – and discussing…etc.  This is why our advisers have coaching sessions with participants, rather than giving them lectures.  Philosophy is hugely important to success in any field.  But only if you’re already in the field trying things out.

Kids aren’t practicing for life or career by sitting in the classroom taking tests.  They’re theorizing about it.  They’re not observing those who are successful (except, best case, at teaching) and mimicking them.  They’re reading what other people said about the successful.  They’re being introduced to a few fragments of the history of the game or uniform design or what one conditioning coach thinks about one approach to calf muscles.  They’re not being transformed into great players, they’re simply checking the memorization of lifeless, contextless knowledge off a list of assignments.

You can’t expect to win by studying.  You’ve got to play the game.

School is a 16-Year Internship for Professors

Want to learn something?  Be around it.

The habits, ideas, processes, and perhaps most importantly, incentives of the environment you want to be a part of will teach you vastly more than consciously studied facts.

Julian Jaynes, in his seminal book on consciousness, cites a study where students were told to compliment any girl wearing read.  Within a week, red outfits were everywhere in the school.  The girls weren’t consciously responding to factual knowledge but internalizing the compliments and altering their behavior subconsciously.  Jaynes argues that learning signals, skills, and even reasoning are not, in fact, conscious processes.  In fact, after taking in the basic structure, being conscious of learning gets in the way and slows the process.

This means the subconscious queues and incentives of the environment are a more powerful force in determing what you learn than whatever conscious topic is presented.  What you pickup on and get rewarded for and see others doing to succeed or fail shapes how your brain transforms and adapts to succeed.

This has some pretty interesting implications for schooling, from kindergarten through college.

The school setting, whatever subject is being taught consciously, is a single-file line-standing, speak-when-given-permission, the “expert” knows all right answers, zero-sum, obedience training program.  The clear “winners” in the school setting are the authority figures and those who best please them.  The academics and kids who do things that academics like.

In other words, school is a 16-year internship for being a professor.

You’re immersed in the daily habits, worldviews, problems solving methods, attitudes, and incentives of professors.  What you learn from shadowing academics isn’t whatever topic they might be teaching as much as how to be like them.

This is, of course, the ideal program if you want to be an academic.  I have many wonderful professor friends and I’ve met some young people who want to be professors.  The system was built for them, and it’s a good fit.  They should stick with it happily.

The problem is that most people have no idea that they are in an extended academic internship.  Most don’t want to be professors or they simply have no idea whether they do or not because they’ve never been around anything else.

You can’t discover what you might enjoy or be good at from academic books and practictioners telling you about it.  You need to experiment and experience it.  You need to be around people doing those things.  You need to apprentice with people other than just academics to learn what people other than academics do and how to succeed in that world.

Get out of the classroom and try real world stuff to find what you enjoy and are good at and immerse yourself in the subconscious learning of how to succeed in whatever environments you explore.  A few courses or books or a major can’t give you that knowledge while your subconscious is fully occupied with learning how to be a professor.

You might not be learning much from the conscious process of schooling (hence forgetting everything after the test), but you’re definitely learning something in school.  The question is, do you want to learn that something?  Will it help you, or set you back in a dynamic marketplace that cares only for value creation, not academic process?

Yes, this realization is precisely why Praxis was created – to give you a real-world apprenticeship with top entrepreneurs in a variety of industries and dynamic businesses.  Check it out.

$48,877

That’s the average starting salary for Praxis grads.

  • The average age is 21.
  • 80% of grads were offered full-time employment at their business partner upon completion of the program.
  • All but one have jobs, and that one chose grad school instead.
  • 100% said Praxis was very helpful in their personal and professional success.

We have many more participants graduating this year, and even more starting the program.  We will have more stories and data to add every month.

Join us for the adventure of a lifetime.

The Best Life Advice I Know of…

Don’t follow your passion.  Not because it’s a bad idea, but because most of the time it’s not possible early in your life.

Instead, arrive at your passion(s) by taking the sculptor approach.  Chisel away everything that you don’t love.  In a sentence:

Don’t do stuff you hate.

Everything else is fair game.

Stop Telling Good Arguers to Become Lawyers

I’ve met a lot of bright young people planning on law school or in law school.

I’ve also met a lot of unhappy lawyers.

I suspect lots of these young people will end up unhappy lawyers too, and I’ve got a theory as to why.

Lawyers are often “successful” in terms of external indicators and cultural prestige.  They tend to make good money and are held in esteem (lawyer jokes notwithstanding).  And, of course, lawyering is a perfect fit for some people.  I know some very happy lawyers.

But it seems a large percentage of the profession consists of unhappy people.  People who don’t particularly enjoy doing divorce or merger and acquisition paperwork.  Many who wish they could escape.

How did they end up there in the first place?

Because the educational conveyor belt doesn’t know what else to do with truth-seekers.

Everyone is motivated by a lot of things.  But most of us have one core value that, when push comes to shove, trumps the rest.  For some it may be freedom, for others security, adventure, or in the case of many an unhappy lawyer, truth.

Those whose dominant core value is truth are rather relentless.  They’re smart.  They like to argue, and they tend to argue well.  They want to get to the bottom of things.  They want to find the right answers.  They want correct facts and knowledge of right and wrong.  They are willing to examine and explore multiple sides of issues and ideas in the process.

Similar to those whose highest value is independence, they’re comfortable questioning authority.  But the freedom-seekers tend to be more willing to disobey or ignore the rewards and punishments of the education system.  They might rebel against assignments or good grades.  Truth-seekers on the other hand, though happy to question the status quo, are typically comfortable following basic rules and getting good grades as well.  They see winning at the grade system as a way of finding whatever truth is to be found there.

Herein lies the problem, and the beginning of their disproportionate and often unfortunate pursuit of careers in law.  The school system doesn’t know what else to do with them.

There are few ways to channel their truth-seeking desires in school.  There’s little in the way of philosophy, history doesn’t do as much debating as fact-spitting, and even the sciences pre-graduate level don’t really spend time questioning anything fundamental.

What’s left?  Debate and forensics.  Truth-seekers do well here.  They love it.  Most high school debaters will tell you it was the absolute highlight of their educational experience.  They finally got to question everything, look at all sides of issues, argue without being offensive or reprimanded.  And they got to “win”.

Parents and teachers of young truth-seekers are so conditioned with the conveyor belt mindset that they struggle to see beyond an easily identifiable handful of job titles.  The work/identity trap is also strong, so whatever junior likes must immediately be mapped onto a business card.  A focus on external indicators of success furthers the tendency.  The common refrain for young debaters is, “You’re always arguing.  You should be a lawyer!”  What other possible avenues for all this truth-seeking could there be?

“I get to search for the truth?  I get to debate it?  I get to make everyone proud of a prestigious career?  I get to make good money?  Yeah, I guess I do need to go to law school!”

So lots of them do.

And lots of them end up wishing they hadn’t.  They find out too late that most lawyer jobs have little to do with truth-seeking.  The law itself isn’t primarily about truth, and most law jobs are even less so.  They’re about navigating bureaucracy and nearly impenetrable wordplay to help people do very simple tasks like buy and sell things, move money, end or begin professional or personal relationships, or draft up “just in case” language.  It’s a fundamentally conservative endeavor, concerned with protection from liability more than the caution-to-the-wind pursuit of truth that landed them there.

Law requires attention to detail, a high degree of literacy, and plenty of patience and problem solving.  Those things are perfect for some people.  But those whose core value is truth aren’t often among them.

Because their desire for truth was so quickly tracked and careerified, they never had the chance to explore.  Law school is particularly problematic then, because of its astronomical price tag.  Upon completion, more doors have been closed than opened.  There are only so many jobs that pay enough to service the debt.  And by now they’re closer to marriage, kids, and other financial obligations that make lower starting pay gigs tougher.  After law school, they kind of feel like they have to be a lawyer, even if it doesn’t scratch the itch for truth.

A decade later and the debt burden might be gone, but the golden handcuffs replace it.  Quality of life seems locked in.  Mortgages, cars, schools, and prestige can’t easily be downgraded, even if they are unhappy most of the day most days.  It’s lifestyle slavery, and it kind of sucks.

Where else might these truth-seekers have gone with their passion?  Perhaps philosophy.  Not just in the academic sense, which often comes with its own bureaucracy and BS, but more generally.  It’s true, you can be a philosopher and a lawyer or a philosopher and a great many other things.  Your source of income and who you are need not be the same.  Seeking, writing, researching, fact-finding, and questioning are such general and generally valuable traits that a true philosopher can apply them in myriad careers.  But law is a career that makes being defined by anything else particularly hard.

How many authors, podcasters, coaches, mentors, counselors, investigative reporters, or entrepreneurs are at bottom truth-seekers?  Truth as a core value is applicable in a great many areas.  Most of all, someone with the freedom to follow their passion for truth is likely to discover or create a career we can’t even yet imagine.  Sadly, the school conveyor belt tends to corral more than its fair share into law.

So here’s the takeaway: Stop telling good arguers to become lawyers.

Let them explore the world fully and freely.  Let them try a lot of stuff.  Let them follow their questions.  If after real exposure to the day to day reality a career in law appeals to them, great.  They’ll choose law school.  But don’t obsess about placing them on a list of predefined career categories and channeling their core values into it before they know what’s what.

I’m a parent.  I get it.  We worry how our kids will feed themselves and build a life.  If they love something, our mind immediately tries to formalize and monetize it.  My son loves video games and comics and superheroes, and more than once I’ve begun formulating ways to turn this interest into a career as a video game designer or illustrator and set him on that path now.

Fight that urge.  Open the world up to them, not just the few aspects of it that come with a title and salary today.  But everything that it is and could be tomorrow.

This leads to another good question…what are some other career tracks that young people with other core values get placed on too early?…

The Secret Weapon Young People Have on the Job Market…

Nothing better to do.

The only things that matter when it comes to succeeding in the marketplace are:

  1. The ability to create value for others.
  2. The ability to persuade others of your value creation potential.

It’s not your school, your grades, your network, your knowledge or anything else you may have been told.  Those things are only useful insofar as they help you do #1 or #2.

This should be an empowering revelation.  Value creation opportunities abound.  Yet it often makes young people feel intimidated.  After years in classrooms acquiring few real-world skills and gaining knowledge that is basically an inferior version of what experts possess, how are they supposed to create value for anyone?

Here’s where the secret weapon comes in.

Value creation is not about having an absolute advantage over others at some activity.  It’s about having a comparative advantage.  This concept, popularized by David Ricardo a few hundred years ago, is a powerful tool to understand and seize opportunity as a young person.  It reveals the secret weapon called ‘nothing better to do.’

To have a comparative advantage at something simply requires that your opportunity cost is lower than others.  What you have to give up to engage in that activity is less valuable than what they have to give up.

Young people with few skills and little experience don’t have a lot of high value options for how to use their time, so their opportunity cost tends to be very low.  This makes their value creation potential high.

How does it work?

Imagine a CEO who is incredibly organized, detail-oriented, and something of a wizard at scheduling, logistics, travel planning, and utilizing all the best productivity apps and tools.  She’s many times better at this than an aspiring 18-year-old.  Yet for every hour she spends planning her travel and meetings, she gives up the ability to spend that hour selling a new client or planning the marketing expansion.  Those are high-value activities, say with the potential to bring in another $30,000 in revenue.  How much is excellent travel planning worth?  Something, but less than that.  Her opportunity cost is very high.

That 18-year-old, on the other hand, has nothing better to do.  Even if it took him three hours to do the travel planning she could do in one, he would be giving up a lot less.  He could no longer browse Facebook, read a textbook, watch Netflix, or play basketball.  There is nothing bad about those activities, but none of them likely have the potential to create $30,000 worth of value for him.

If our 18-year-old realizes this, he has a powerful weapon.  He can offer to take over scheduling for the CEO and free her up to do more valuable work.  She might be reticent because it’s possible that he could actually create more work if he’s really bad.  To reduce risk further, he can go all in and offer to do it for free and demonstrate his ability by planning one mock trip to show her.

This requires no special skills, just a touch of creativity, persistence, and Googling.  Yet if he lands the gig, even unpaid, he will be exposed to the world of a CEO and probably learn more in a month than he could in a year sitting in classrooms.  He can observe the company and identify other areas to create value – other areas where his opportunity cost is lower than others – and potentiall parlay this into a really cool role there or at another company.  Maybe he can even learn how to start his own.

So few young people try anything like this.  They’re stuck spending endless hours and countless dollars getting a piece of paper that makes them identical to every other young person.  They accumulate debt and expectations that make them feel the need to enter the professional world at a level of pay that, frankly, they can’t yet justify with their limited skill and experience.  They feel it would be beneath them, after getting an expensive degree, to work for free or low pay to get a foot in the door.  They are completely nuetralizing their greatest asset, their low opportunity cost.

If you’re young and have little in the way of monthly expenses or valuable opportunities in front of you, rejoice.  This means you can explore and test and try a great many things.  Your ability to create value is tremendous if you look for places where others have a high opportunity cost and you do not.

Get off the conveyor belt.  Break the mold.  Go do some cool stuff.

If you want a paid apprenticeship with an amazing entrepreneur + rigorous personal and professional development and coaching, check out discoverpraxis.com.

Being Me or Being Lazy?

So many days I don’t have it in me to write a really thorough post.

It’s not that I don’t have ideas. I’ve got drafts that could be really fleshed out almost always on hand.  It’s that doing more than a few paragraphs that quickly describe the core idea in those drafts is really hard work sometimes. 

I tell myself I’m just being true to my style.  I write about broad principles and simple observations in a single quick take.  I’m not Mr. Investigative Reporter or lengthy describer. I write every day so I can’t labor over every idea with thousands of words. 

Part of that is absolutely true. I’m just not sure how much.

The days I really push to add more meat to the bones of an idea are harder, but more rewarding. The content is better and I feel pretty damn good about it.

Still, I’m not a writer first and foremost. I write as therapy and a tool to enhance productivity, creativity, and happiness.  So why do I need to always go big?

I’m normally at peace with this tension, but sometimes I wonder. How often am I just being lazy when I think I’m being me?

It’s Much Easier Than You Think to Live the Life You Want

Maybe not “easy”, but entirely possible.

I recently listened to an episode of The World Wanderers Podcast where the host discussed working at a Cafe in a great city that a lot of people would love to live in.  She mentioned how, had she not moved to this cool, exciting city, the job she had would have made her feel like a loser.  In your hometown working retail after getting an expensive degree seems pretty lame.  Up and moving to a destination city and working retail to support the lifestyle seems kind of adventurous.

Back home, she would have dreaded seeing an old friend come in.  “Oh, so you’re working here?”  In the new city when someone she knew came in the question was more like, “Wow, so you’re living here?”

Just a few days ago I talked to a guy who’s biking across the country and loving it.  He spent several months in beautiful Missoula, Montana waiting for the weather to improve so he could continue his journey.  He worked at a grocery store while there and it provided everything he needed to live the lifestyle he wanted and get back on the road in time.  What would his resume look like when, several years out of college, he had “Grocery bagger” listed?  Not great, except when put in the context of, “Spent two years biking across the U.S., paying my way through with odd jobs and blogging about the adventure.”

I thought about this phenomenon more in Mompiche, Ecuador a few weeks ago.  We found a little place with a sign for American-style pancakes.  A welcome breakfast after days of fruit and cereal.  The breakfast nook was run by a twentysomething woman from the Ukraine.  She fried up pancakes on a small griddle and served them with coffee for breakfast and lunch in the tiny Bohemian surfing village.  She lived in a neat little house right above the pancake joint and spent the rest of the day as she pleased.

Imagine this ambitious young woman back home responding to the common, “So, what do you do?” with, “I make pancakes for a living.”  Likely her friends and family would be a little worried and ashamed and think something wrong with her.

Contrast that with the same answer to the same question but with a change in geography.  “I moved across the world to a tropical surfing village in Ecuador where I opened my own business.”  Wow.  What an enviable life, right?

There’s something weird about staying in your hometown.  It severely limits the definitions you accept for what makes you successful.  Oddly, most of the hometown definitions of success have nothing to do with happiness.  They have to do with becoming what everyone in your past expects or desires given who you used to be.  It’s a sort of tether to a past self that no longer exists.

When the expectations of back home no longer apply you can ask better questions and make clearer connections.  What kind of person do you want to be (vs. what job title do you want)?  What kind of people and surroundings do you want to be immersed in (vs. where do you want to work or live)?

Many people would probably love to be the master of their own schedule, be in a beautiful outdoor setting with interesting people from around the world, seriously pursue a hobby with lots of their time, and be challenged in new ways daily.  Yet most of those same people would be horrified at the idea of playing guitar on the street for money, flipping pancakes, or doing freelance odd-jobs online, any of which might be the very means to achieve the life described.

Most people have this idea that you have to work a boring job in a boring house in a boring city for a few decades, and then if you play your cards right and all kinds of things totally out of your control (like the stock market or real estate prices) do the right thing, you can have some kind of two week vacation cruise or retire in a place where you enjoy good weather and leisure.  The weird thing is, all those “someday” goals are available right now with relatively little difficulty.  You can afford to live in a cool bamboo house in a beach town just by making pancakes for lunch and breakfast.  You can (as was one guy I met) travel the length of South America living entirely off the cash you make playing guitar outside of restaurants.

I’m not claiming this kind of life is for everyone.  Not at all.  There is nothing wrong with a 9-5 job and life in the suburbs if that’s what really resonates with you.  There’s nothing inherently noble about traveling or working some low wage odd job.  The point is that it’s too easy to choose things based on an artificially limited option set.  It’s too easy to define your life by stupid things like college majors or giant industry labels or titles that will make Aunt Bessie proud at the family reunion or salary levels.

The last one is especially dangerous.

It’s a weird habit to measure your success in life only by the revenue side of the equation.  Who cares if you bring in $100k a year if it only buys you a crappy apartment that you hate in a city that stresses you out with friends that don’t inspire you and a daily existence you mostly daydream about escaping from?  Your costs exceed your revenues and you’re actually going backward.  You very well could get twice the lifestyle you desire at half the annual income.  Like any business, the health of your personal life should be measured using both revenues and costs.  On the personal level, neither are not just monetary.

Only you can know what kind of life you want.  But getting off the conveyor belt of the education system, getting out of the home town expectations trap, and opening your mind to measures of progress beyond salary will give you a much better chance of crafting a life you love.

Here are a few articles to chew on:

Why You Should Move Away from Your Home Town

Why You Should Get Off the Conveyor Belt

Why “Escapism” Isn’t a Bad Thing

Why It’s So Hard to Exit a Bad Situation

Do You Need to Do Work You Love to Be Happy?

Stop Doing Stuff You Hate

Focus on What You Don’t Want

Do What You Love, or Have it Easy?

 

The Two Great Secrets of Higher Education

  1. Tuition is paid for one reason: to buy a signal.
  2. That signal is not worth the investment compared to what you can create elsewhere.

These two great secrets are known to almost nobody.  A few people know secret number one, but falsely conclude that the signal is still the best option.

A small but growing number of people partially understand what’s behind secret number two, but because they do not grasp that the product universities sell is a signal, they compare only alternative social and learning experiences to universities, not alternative ways of creating a signal.

The combined understanding of both of these secrets will completely revolutionize the way people think about and engage in education, career preparation, work, and life.

The Signal Secret

  1. Tuition is paid for one reason: to buy a signal.

A small number of economists and thinkers have identified that higher education is valued because of its signalling power.  That is, the college experience does not form people into more valuable or learned individuals capable of doing good work, but it sorts people into groups and attaches degrees to those who were already capable.

Signals are not bad things.  They are very valuable.  Employers need a way to narrow the pool of applicants and weed out the least likely to succeed.  There is a correlation between completing college and being a better worker on average.  But there is no causation.

Harvard doesn’t make you more likely to succeed.  The type of person who gets accepted into Harvard is already more likely to succeed.

Almost everyone objects to calling the product universities sell a signal.  They claim it’s a big bundle of goods.  It’s a social experience.  It’s a network.  It’s knowledge.

It is indeed a bundle of these things and many more, but these are all fringe benefits.  None of them are the core product being purchased.  When you pay to get your oil changed and the waiting room has coffee and magazines it’s a nice perk, but it’s clearly not the service you are purchasing.  If the auto garage didn’t have these comforts you might still go, but if they only sold coffee and magazines without oil changes, you wouldn’t.

College is the same.  Whatever other activities and benefits students may derive from their experience, none of them are the reason they are paying to be there.  They are paying for the signal, period.

It’s easy to prove this point.  List every other element of the higher education bundle.  Sports, parties, talks with professors, lectures, books, living with other young people, etc.  Now ask which of these would be possible if you never paid tuition?  All of them.  Move to a college town, sit in on classes, join clubs, go to events, read books, and live the college life to your heart’s content.

When you take away the credential at the end, it becomes clear how easy it is to get all the other aspects of college for free or very low cost, and often better.

This is also evidenced by the fact that everyone is happy when class is cancelled.  What other good do people pay for upfront and then cheer when it’s not delivered?  It’s because the classroom lectures and tests are not the good being purchased.  They are an additional cost that must be borne in order to get the real product, which is the piece of official paper.  The signal.

Young people may or may not enjoy some or all elements of the college experience.  But the reason they go and pay is because, in their minds, they have to.  They have to to get the signal, because without the signal you can’t get a decent job or be seen as a decent human being, so the prevailing narrative goes.

The signal is the product.  Until that is understood, no amount of tweaking or reforming or innovating any of the other parts of the higher education bundle will matter.

And it turns out, you don’t need the signal college sells after all.

The Alternatives Secret

  1. That signal is not worth the investment compared to what you can create elsewhere.

Everyone is thrilled to show you charts and graphs and statistics about the correlation between degrees and earnings.  None of that matters.

It doesn’t matter because aggregates are not individuals and because data can never show causation.

What happens to the average of some aggregate does not determine what course of action is most beneficial for an individual.  The average Ferrari owner earns a lot more than the average Honda owner.  No one assumes this means buying a Ferrari is a great way to improve your earning potential.

To the individual, the question is not whether college is a good investment for all young people on average.  The question is whether you can build a better signal with less than four plus years and five plus figures.  Turns out, that’s a pretty low bar.

The degree signals that you are probably a little above average for someone your age.  Maybe not even that as degrees proliferate.  This means if you are average or below average in ability, creativity, or work ethic, the degree signal may help you get a better job than you could without it.  (Though it won’t help you keep it.)

If you are above average in ability, creativity, or work ethic the degree signal sells you short.  It makes you blend in with all the lower quality people coming out of the same institution.  (Not only that, the college experience itself tends to foster habits that make you less able, creative, and hardworking.)

Young people today have at their fingertips tools to create signals far more powerful than generic institutional credentials.  Consider the impact of a tailored website that demonstrates the value you have created?  Better yet, a website or product that demonstrates to a company the value you will create for them?

Consider the value of working alongside a successful entrepreneur or industry leader for free or low pay for a year or two and parlaying that into a full-time gig?  Companies hate the searching and hiring process.  They’d always rather promote someone within who has a proven track record of value creation.  Compare the cost of low wages for a year or two to the cost of no wages and huge debt for four.

Businesses need value-creating employees.  They use degrees as an early proxy to eliminate some chunk of applicants (though even this practice is declining for big and small companies alike), but they only use them in absence of a better, clearer, more powerful signal.  When one exists, it trumps the academic credential.  When you realize all they want is proof of ability to create value, the world begins to open up.  How many ways are there to prove that you can?

It’s not only about getting hired.  Professors are quick to tell you that wages are not the only thing that matters when it comes to happiness and success in life.  They are correct.  Yet chasing the degree as the only signal often leaves people with debt that requires a relatively high wage to service, thus cutting off options and opportunities to explore and experiment.

Not least of these explorations is the wonderful and growing world of entrepreneurship.  It’s easier and cheaper than ever to create your own product or launch your own venture.  It’s also more and more valuable.  Machines and software can do rote tasks.  Humans’ greatest value add is creative problem solving and innovation.

The ability to freelance for a living, launch a micro business, or create a major enterprise is expanding every day.  There is no benefit to the degree signal in the world of entrepreneurship.  There are no HR departments wading through resumes looking for checklists.  Here, in fact, the college experience can be more of a detriment than a benefit.  It tends to restrict the imagination to known methods, restrict your network to same-aged people, restrict your financial flexibility and risk-taking, and cut into many of the easiest years for trying something bold when the cost of failure is lowest.

A 20-year-old who launched a KickStarter campaign, built an app, created a website, apprenticed for a small business owner, read 50 books, or even just has an amazing online presence signals more value creation potential than a 22-year-old with a BA and a 3.7 GPA.  Yes, you can supplement the college experience with these other things, but classes and obligations (not only time but financial and parental) get in the way of fully unleashing your independent signal-creating potential.

The Real Revolution

The real revolution in higher education will not come from better delivery mechanisms for lectures, or new platforms to sell the same signal.  It won’t be disrupted by online versions of the brick and mortar establishment.

The real revolution will look as varied as the people participating in it.  It will begin when people understand the two secrets of higher education.  When it is realized that college is selling a signal and that signalling your ability to create value can be done far better in myriad other ways, the world will bloom with alternative methods of getting young people from where they are to where they want to be.

Instead of 16, 17, and 18-year-olds stressing about how to get into colleges, they should focus their energy on how to begin building a better signal.  Instead of 19, 20, and 21-year-olds stressing about majors and minors and GPA’s, they should focus their energy on creating value and building a way to prove it.

What are you signalling?

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Want more?  Check out Praxis, a one-year apprenticeship + professional development + coaching educational experience for young people who want more than college.

Remember to Slam the Door Behind You

Don't do stuff you hate

Stop leaving doors open.  Start burning bridges.

There’s an idea that keeping doors open is inherently good.  I’ve written before about how obsession with options can blind you to opportunities.  I’m going to make an even stronger claim: Not only do you need to stop looking for so many options, you should begin actively slamming doors to ensure you can never again walk through them.

If you know a door leads you to a life that would make you unhappy shut it.

If you’ve peeked through a particular portal and seen something that makes you a little dead inside slam the door and burn it behind you.  Otherwise you might be tempted to go through it later if someone dangles the right price in front of you.  You might be tempted to say yes to something you hate, which might be the saddest of all fates.

I’ve met a number of young people who spent a summer interning in Washington, DC and told me after the experience that they hate the entire political scene and would never want to become one of those people.  Many of these same young people, when the fantasyland of subsidized education comes to a close and the need for a steady job begins to weigh on them, confide things like, “I can’t publish that blog post or I would never get hired by policy group X in DC!”  They are careful not to burn bridges, “just in case”.

But if the bridge takes you someplace you know you don’t want to go burning it should be a top priority!  There’s a reason Odysseus had himself tied to the mast.

How many people live lives they hate because they couldn’t say no to the salary?  How many wallow in misery because they left the door open too long?  How many knew a particular path wouldn’t make them happy but they failed to cut off the option and when push came to shove they couldn’t say no to the status or short-term gains in the moment of weakness?

Go try things.  Lots of things.  Be open minded before you try something.  The minute you stumble on something you hate, slam the door.  Cut off your return route.

Realistically you’re not likely to arrive at a life you love by picking the one thing that’s perfect for you and going at it.  Instead, try stuff and shut down everything that’s not it.  Arrive at the good life by eliminating the bad.  I’ve written about this frequently and it’s something of a life motto for me.  Just don’t do stuff you hate and the rest is fair game.

I have a friend who says the only reason he does what he does is because there is nothing else in the world he can stand or is good at.  It might not sound noble to you, but I think this is one of the best reasons to do something that I can think of!  Some of the best entrepreneurs admit they have to keep starting companies if for no other reason than that they hate being an employee so much.  Find what you love by getting to the point where there’s nothing else left.  If you keep slamming doors behind you it will be easier to narrow your field of options.  Eventually, all that’s left will be perfect for you.

As soon as you realize something makes you dead inside, saps your energy, or kills your joy make an escape plan and get out of there ASAP.  It doesn’t matter to where, just anywhere but the bad place.  As soon as you realize it again move on again.  It might take two days it might take five years.  It can be hard to exit a bad situation.  But when you know it’s not working blaze a trail and don’t leave breadcrumbs.

Maybe you’ll die with an incredibly wide range of things still on your list of potentially good ways to spend your life.  Maybe by age 20 they’ll be almost nothing left.  It’s different for everyone.  But if you’re like most, you never could have found your “bliss” or “passion” if you set out to or treated everything as perpetually possible.  You only find it by slamming doors on what it’s not.

This is going to sound repetitive but it bears repetition.  Don’t do stuff you don’t like doing.  Not only don’t do it, don’t even leave yourself in a position where you’re tempted to.

If you discover you hate law one month into an internship or three years into law school, stop right there.  Leaving the door open, finishing “just in case”, is the surest way to end up with a life that bores you.  “Yeah, I realized I don’t like law, but I can always fall back on a life I’m guaranteed to dislike if nothing else works out.”  If you leave yourself the option you’ll take it.

Close the door and burn it.  You know what’s behind it.  There’s no question.  Everything else may or may not lead you to happiness, but not this.  You know it sucks.  Leave the other doors open until you peek through, but not the one you know is wrong.  Knowledge of what you dislike is profoundly valuable, but only if you act on it.  Inaction – not doing those things – is often not enough.  You need to prevent yourself from ever doing them.

This is not about being closed minded or rushing to judgment.  Be open minded about what may or may not make you happy.  You might be surprised.  Take the time to try things out, don’t just look at some stupid career guide or list of college majors and claim you know what’s a good fit.  But once you’ve tested something and you really know you hate it, slam the door.

The more possibilities you can eliminate quickly the faster you’ll get to a life you love.

My Ceaseless Quest to Make Myself Useless

I’m on a ceaseless quest.  This quest it based on a belief about myself and the world:

For everything that I do there is someone somewhere who can do it better.

When I start doing something new my quest is always to find the person who can do it better and hand over the reins as soon as possible.

Where and when I’ve succeeded at that, I’ve succeeded.

I fully believe the maxim that you’ll be most successful when you find and do the things that no one else can do as well – the things that are uniquely you.  But if I always believe there is someone who can do everything I do better, and I’m always trying to find them and hand it off, what does that make me uniquely good at?

I don’t really know.  Here are two possible answers.  One is that at any given time I might be the best person for something.  So that’s what I’ll be doing.  But that time is limited.  In the long run, even though I might be uniquely perfect for something at first, someone else might be better.

The other possible answer is that my most unique and valuable skill is replacing myself.

Maybe I’m best at breaking new ground, getting the basics figured out, identifying nascent talent in someone else, and transitioning things to them so they can blossom in a way no one else – including me – ever could.

Whatever the answer I am totally confident that, given enough time, I can find someone who can do everything I do better.  This doesn’t threaten or bother me.  It fills me with excitement!  Where are they?  How can I find them?  How soon can I get them catapulted to heights I could never reach?  When can I replace myself with someone better?

If you share a similar disposition know you’re not alone.  If you know you’re a jack of many trades but master of none don’t fear.  That’s its own kind of mastery.  At least I hope so.  It’s worked pretty well for me so far and I’m having fun.

How to Get Ahead

Want to get ahead in your life and career?  Here’s a really simple way to think about and approach it:

Find something someone is currently doing that you can do better.  Convince them to hire you to do it for them.

That’s it.  That’s pretty much how every job and customer has ever been won.

So how do you do it?  First you need to observe.  Look around and see what people are doing.  Look within and discover what you do well.  Look for places where the quality gap between what you can do and how most people are doing it is large.

Then you need to convince.  This part seems pretty hard.  It’s actually fairly straightforward, though it takes a lot of grit and determination.  There are really only two ways to convince someone to give you a chance to do something for them:

  1. Demonstrate beyond a doubt that you can create value for them.
  2. Be so cheap they’re willing to take a chance on minimal evidence.

Many people get stuck on number one.  They think it’s a catch 22.  How can you prove your ability to create value if you need proven ability to get the chance?  That’s where number two comes in.  Make yourself so cheap – minimal to no money, minimal instruction and maintenance – that it’s hard to say no.

Once you get the chance to create value for someone for free, you’ve got a calling card.  You’ve got proven value creation.  Now you can go to the next opportunity and prove that you can do whatever they’re doing (or paying someone else to do) better.

Every one of the best people I’ve worked with began working for free.  I had a hunch they could create value for me, but it was a risk.  They mitigated the risk by offering to work free until they demonstrated how valuable they were.

This advice, if you take it to heart and really apply it, will get you further than any degree or credential you can buy.

What the Heck Are ‘PDP’s’ and Why Are They So Awesome?

I’ve written before about the power of daily challenges, about how simply eliminating unwanted elements from your life is often better than trying to achieve some lofty goal, and about how identifying and overcoming obstacles one at a time can be better than plotting a perfect long-term path.

All of this, as well as concepts like deschooling yourself and creating your own structure are wrapped into a very tangible tool we at Praxis call a Personal (or Professional) Development Project (PDP).

My colleague Cameron Sorsby writes about PDP’s:

“A Praxis Personal Development Project (PDP) is a short-term set of challenges with the goal of gaining self-knowledge, overcoming obstacles to success, and gaining mastery in areas of value to the individual and the marketplace.

For the majority of a young person’s life they are told where to be, what knowledge they need to gain, and what skills they need to develop in order to be successful. Their day-to-day structure is designed for them, which makes it an incredible challenge to transition to professional life successfully.

Creating and completing a PDP helps you instill creativity as an everyday habit, develop marketable skills, and provide tangible evidence that you can create value for others. It helps you overcome those unproductive habits you developed in over-structured institutions like school and start deciding for yourself what knowledge and skills you value.  Ultimately, the purpose of a PDP is to become a superior version of yourself within a short-time frame.

Praxis participants complete a series of 12 PDP’s throughout their program experience. With the help of their program advisor and access to resources like the Praxis Curriculum Library, each month they create a PDP and follow through with completing it.”

Check out a few recent Praxis participant PDP’s here.

Check out the Praxis Teen Entrepreneurship Course, which includes a 30-day PDP built into the program.  If you can successfully complete it (harder than it sounds), you get a free coaching session with Education Director T.K. Coleman.

As Long As It’s Interesting, It’s Good

I wrote on the Praxis blog about how silly it is for young people to worry and stress about working in or studying a specific industry:

“Many young people think they know what industry or category of job they want.  They’re mostly wrong.

We’re trained by the school and university process to think in terms of big career categories and majors.  Marketing.  Hospitality.  Management.  Financial Services.  But these categories are so generic and ill-defined that they offer almost no value for an individual trying to forge a path to life and career success.

The truth is, you have no idea what industry or job will make you happy.  How could you?  You’ve barely seen any of them up close.  The roles within these industry labels can be more diverse than you can imagine.  Many jobs and entire industries have no label.  Many more will emerge that don’t yet exist.

The good news is that this is good news.  Opportunity abounds, and what major you pick or what label you spit out when someone asks what you want to do are of little importance.  You have massive flexibility and a chance to explore and experiment.  You can even create new roles that no one ever thought of.

Stop stressing about it.  Don’t fret over getting an internship that perfectly aligns with your imagined industry of choice.  As long as you’re not doing something you hate, you’re heading in the right direction.  You don’t know what you’ll discover.  You can’t learn it from a course catalog or guidance counselor.  You’ve got to engage the world and see what you respond to and what responds to you.

Not only that, but it is well documented that ‘outsiders’ are most likely to innovate.  If you go directly from a finance major to an investment banking internship and then job, you’ll have experiences and knowledge identical to nearly everyone you work with.  If you first spend a few years working at a software startup, building a network of owners of financial service businesses, then transition into investment banking, you’ll have a persepctive and paradigm that makes you truly unique.  You’ll have a network that most of your peers lack.  You’ll be able to do that thing which is the holy grail of the creative process, and create a new instersection of separate matrices of thought.

Your theories about what industry or job fits you are like all theories.  They need to be tested.  Go try some stuff.  Anything you don’t dislike is fair game.  You might discover new roles you never thought of.  You might invent and new industry or join it as it emerges.  You might gain a distinct advantage and a unique outlook, network, and experience set by working somewhere unlikely first.

Don’t try to pick your industry yet.  In fact, don’t ever pick one.  Just do interesting stuff.”

I stand by this advice.  If you want to get started doing interesting stuff, apply to Praxis!

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