I’ve heard that talking about parenting can fetch you a bunch of caustic feedback, but I’m going to do it anyway.
My son Austin is five. The kid is brilliant. I know that all parents think their kids are smart, but this is no joke.
Austin knows how to do the basics of multiplication and division. His vocabulary rivals mine (“celtic punk” and “pneumatic tube” were probably among the first 100 phrases he learned, no joke). And for some reason, out of the aether, he’s got this fantastic artistic ability. The other day he was copying a detailed illustration out of one of his Transformers books (it was a plane air-dropping Optimus Prime into battle) and was doing it freehand, without tracing, and did a better job than when Robin tries to draw stuff at his request.
This year he’ll go off to kindergarten, and he’s going to be bored as a motherfucker. He got bored with preschool over a year ago, and the fact that he’s the oldest kid in his class isn’t helping. They have to move at the speed of the slowest kids, so as not to leave anyone behind. You get a spectrum of kids with different abilities, but it’s one class with one teacher… and so one size must fit all.
I find myself wondering about this, and other things I’ve never thought about when it comes to school, and education, and development.
All the things I’ve always taken for granted as immutable truths — school starts at five and continues for thirteen years, college follows high school, job follows college — are suddenly coming into question.
All at once, I’m no longer sure that what I learned in school is what I’d most like for my kids to learn.
This is the fault of you online weirdoes.
I’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs in this last year. And entrepreneurs are wackos. They’re not normal; they break the rules; they’re shit out of their minds. You spend enough time around people like that and suddenly it becomes really obvious that:
1. They owe their success not to their knowledge of Greek history or geometry, but to something closer to wily “street smarts” — an understanding of human nature and human motivation.
2. They’ve been able to do what they’ve done not because of their ability to memorize facts and take tests, but because of their willingness to try things that most people won’t try.
3. They achieved not because of any ingrained sense of wanting to be secure and safe, but in spite of it.
I don’t think school is bad, but I don’t think it taught me the most important things that drive me today, either. I think I spent thirteen years learning what the state wanted me to learn, and then another five learning what the previous thirteen years had led me believe the world wanted me to learn.
And then I think I set that aside, recalled a lot of good times (and some bad) from those years, and then, bit by bit, re-learned what I needed to know in order to do what I do today.
I ask myself, what has been the most important stuff I’ve learned? Was it history, math, and science? Was it home ec, or literature, or business management 101?
Or did it come from experience at the School of Hard Knocks?
And so I wonder: What would be the curriculum at Johnny’s Entrepreneurship School?
So let’s think about that. I’d offer:
1. Independence and self-confidence.
A successful entrepreneur has to be able to be able to look at his situation and his surroundings and then do what he thinks he should do in spite of the opinions of others. Nobody around you will take you seriously when you say you want to create an internet shoe empire, so you have to have the nards to do it anyway.
2. Fierce (almost stupid) determination and a willingness to make big mistakes.
Nobody gets everything right the first time. An entrepreneur has to be willing to take a leap of faith with the full knowledge that his venture may fail. Successful people have to be willfully irrational about their ideas, and have to be able to learn the tough lessons that can only be taught through failure.
In spite of failures, an entrepreneur has be willing to keep going on faith alone. And when faced with blood-chilling obstacles (like financial upsets), he needs the ability to determine if they’re actually worth detouring around, or if they’re what they are a lot of the time: phantom obstacles that don’t really exist.
Successful people need to be able to come up with a lot, lot, lot of ideas and possible courses of action. Many of these ideas will and should break existing molds.
Some of the successful folks I know have caustic exteriors, but all believe deep down that what they’re doing is right and will all work out in the end. By contrast, I’ve met people who don’t truly believe the glass is half full or that things will eventually turn around. Those people will never make it.
A successful entrepreneur has to be able to be totally packed, dressed, and ready to move in one direction, encounter a new bit of information, and go in the opposite direction instead.
6. Problem-solving ability.
Problems are everywhere when you work on your own, and because you’re forging a new path, there’s usually nobody to ask how to solve them. Entrepreneurs need to be able to develop solutions to problems, no matter how varied and wacky those solutions may seem.
7. An enterprising and capitalistic spirit.
All of the successful people I know have something good to offer the world and have the balls to ask people to pay for it.
8. An ability to follow your instincts and live by your wits.
An entrepreneur has to learn to trust his gut, and then keep trusting it on the fly. Many of the things I’ve done — including some of the best things, yielding the best results — have been done on a whim. I do most things for no other reason than that they feel right to do.
I could go on and on. But succinctly, if someone is really good at the above skills, I’d wager that they’d do fairly well as an entrepreneur, or as a trailblazer in any field.
The problem I have is that I don’t know how well schools teach those things.
Enter the ridiculous concept of unschooling
Those wacky online weirdoes I mentioned? A lot of them do what’s called “unschooling.” I thought it was just a clever word and only recently learned from Lee Stranahan what it actually means.
Unschooling is not formally teaching your kids. It’s guiding and supporting them, but letting them find their own path, and largely letting them do what they want to do with their time each day.
I don’t know if I like this idea.
And I don’t know if I don’t like it, either.
It intrigues me, though, and I want to learn more.
It makes me wonder if a kid who had no interest in trigonometry or symbolism in literature could grow up without ever learning those things and be okay.
It makes me wonder if an artistic kid who found ways to get people to pay a pittance for his sketches at a very young age would eventually find a way to turn that ability into a thriving creative business.
And it makes me wonder if you took a kid with a desire to do something outside of the box and put him in school — where he was instructed to sit still, be quiet, and study the lesson of the day so that he could pass a test — if he’d lose that desire to do something outside of the box.
It makes me realize that a traditional education prepares you for a job, and that it seems like so many people want to get out of their jobs and do their own thing.
It makes me wonder if the most important things I ever learned in my life, for my life, were learned in a classroom or outside of one.
If my kids learned the entrepreneurial skill set I outlined above, and then only the book learning they chose to pursue, would that be enough?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, yet they just keep coming to me.
How much conformity is good? I think there’s value in learning how to sit still and be quiet, how to take direction, how to subordinate your id’s desires occasionally to the needs of others. I think there’s value in not always being the leader. But how much is enough? And more importantly, how much is too much?
What it really boils down to is, could I trust the base human instincts of my kids, with guidance from us as parents, to figure things out? Because that’s what it ultimately comes down to: deciding whether or not “what they are inclined to learn” will lead to a good place.
And having faith along the way, I suppose. Lee told me that his kids, who are unschooled, sometimes play video games all day. And that would be hard for me to sit quietly through.
But then he says that they’ll noodle with the Rock Band guitar and decide to pick up the real guitar. They’ll run across something here or there and start reading philosophy. They’ll see how Dad makes a living by working at home and doing what he loves, and become interested in (and inspired by) doing the same.
Ditto the experiences of Pace & Kyeli and their son.
And ditto the mindset of Naomi, who I know is all geeked up over this issue and wondering what to do with her own kid.
Ditto others. And others. And others. Rule-breakers all.
I don’t know where this will lead for our family.
But I do know that I’m not where I am because of what my schooling prepared me for. I’m here because in many ways, I did the opposite.
Your turn. Discuss.
My partner in crime Lee Stranahan and I will be launching our new course, Question the Rules: The nonconformist’s punk rock, DIY, nuts-and-bolts guide to creating the business and life you really want, starting with what you already have, on Wednesday, April 28.
It’s ridiculously jam-packed: 5 course modules on how to rock your business and life as an entrepreneur who colors outside the lines, and over a dozen interviews with successful rule-breakers whose names you’ll recognize.
If you’re a punk rock entrepreneur (and I know you are), you’ll want to check it out here because we’re offering an immediate free bonus prior to launch day.