Tribal Ways and Open Doors

 

Few of us will ever have the opportunity to spend an extended period of time on an Indian reservation. If you don’t live or work there, it’s just not something you’re likely to do. You might drive onto native lands for a festival or to buy some crafts, or you might enjoy some vacation time at an Indian casino. If you ever do have the invitation to fully immerse yourself in the culture of tribal ways, I recommend you walk through the open door.

If you embrace the opening of that door, you will be changed.

My wife and I recently spent a week volunteering at the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, a federally recognized sovereign nation that sits at the three-way intersection of California, Arizona, and Nevada. We were there for a week as part of an alumni service project from my college with a group of about 50 like-minded souls. We were divided into three groups focused on construction, education, and business projects. Our construction group built an outdoor shelter where children from the school could study outside in the shade. My wife helped teach music and art in the preschool. I helped teach basic business and entrepreneurial skills to adults.

It is difficult to bridge the gap between what one might expect signing up for a week on Native American lands and what one would actually experience. The key learning for me was getting past what I thought I might accomplish in advance of our arrival and giving myself over to the experience itself — of bonding with people who otherwise would have remained strangers in my life. What struck me as particularly resonant was how building a bridge of trust to a few people one person at a time could open all of our eyes to the language of possibility.

Let’s start with some basics. Even though few people will have the opportunity to spend a week in a place they might not have known was there, a week is a fragment of time too brief to overestimate in scope. That means that every moment shared was a moment that mattered, with an intense focus on listening and learning rather than articulating strategies and solutions. Time may be limited, even precious, but if you try to rush things in cultural immersion, the mistakes of the past can swiftly swell to unintended repetition. There is no doubt that there is a prolonged history of inexcusable abuses perpetrated against the indigenous residents of our nation, but that can’t be repaired in a lifetime of cooperation, let alone a week’s visit. We were not there for any more reason than to be good listeners, good citizens, and hopefully ongoing good friends.

We learned immediately that in the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, each individual is a part of his or her past. We introduce ourselves to each other by talking about our families, initially to see if there are points of intersection in our histories, but more to establish a common ground of respect for the elders who have taught us and the esteemed leaders who will guide us.

As we listen to each other’s lineage, the table is set for sharing what matters in our lives. We all have dreams and aspirations. We all have experienced pain. When we look into each other’s eyes with focus and listen to the authenticity in the words a new acquaintance chooses to share, human connection begins. It doesn’t fix what has come before, but it does gracefully establish a framework for what could happen next.

This is what I mean when I talk about possibility. What might be possible will only be possible if trust replaces suspicion, if curiosity replaces fear, and if hope is elevated from slogan to shared ideal.

I spent the majority of my week working with one entrepreneur. He was slightly older than me. We connected early in the week by chance almost serendipitously around a shared love of music. We both play guitar and are avid classic rock enthusiasts, but he still plays in a party band and I haven’t done that in decades. Beyond teaching himself musicianship in his high school days, he was trained long ago in a skilled trade and made his living at it, but it wasn’t taking him to the economic freedom he desired.

We wrote a brief business plan together, one bullet at a time, from creating a statement of purpose to stepping through the mechanics of daily tasks and completion milestones. We talked about always present competition, nagging administrative needs, and one-to-one marketing opportunities. He didn’t have a website, but with a bit of nagging from me he realized he had a younger relative who had learned some internet basics in school and could help him launch a single online page with his contact information that would cost him nothing. The more we brainstormed the web page, the more ideas he had for posting customer endorsements and project photos that might attract local attention. We documented everything we discussed, and as the pages began to take shape, the candor in our dialogue took on that feeling of lift you experience when the wheels leave the runway below you.

Let me return to the notion of expectation and result. As I suggested, prior to arriving at the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, I had developed a tailored curriculum of lessons I would lead on defining mission, vision, strategy, tactics, finance, and sustainable growth. It was a solid teaching plan, and I was only hopeful I could get through all of it in the short week allowed. By noon on the first day, I had abandoned it. It did not apply to the situation at hand. Had I attacked it with the same pragmatism and vigor I normally tackle goals, my week on tribal lands might have been finished by lunch.

No, there was no way I was going to get through that lesson plan, no way I was going to cover all the things that would surely make businesses better for all in attendance. Something else happened, something much better, something that mattered. On the final day of working with my partner, he offered to share the financials of his business. He trusted me enough to show me the material trends in his business — the actual numbers with dollar signs — and we incorporated a sliding scale forecast into our business plan. Together we found the leverage in his operating plan that actually could take him to economic independence in the years ahead.

He didn’t have to change what he was doing. He knew what he was doing. He had to make a few changes in how he was doing it. He saw that tangible possibility for the first time in the words and numbers we wrote together.

It was a true aha moment. It was a breakthrough. It was everything I could have hoped for as a result of a week’s dedication, and not a moment of it was anything I had planned. The only thing that could have been harder for me than jettisoning my syllabus and going with the flow was my partner’s unhindered willingness to improvise with a stranger.

We pulled it off together. There was no other way it was going to happen. First the bridge, then the embrace, then the hard work, then the roadmap. We had to do it in that order, and we had to do it together.

The Fort Mojave Indian Tribe lives on the banks of the Colorado River. They live by the words of their ancestors: “Water is life.” They teach that core principle of sustenance to their children and they taught that to us. The water flows with divine intention and with it comes possibility. The water sustains our bodies. The water lets crops grow from the desert floor. The water is a transit mechanism that carries the adventurous from their river home to faraway places of promise. The water is shared with strangers who can become friends if the possibility is identified. That possibility has everything to do with mutual empathy and only becomes activated when a door is opened. Doors open when listening is pure.

If a tribal door is opened to you, walk through it. Leave your plans on the other side of the door. Open your heart to tribal ways, and in a single week you might change a single life. It likely will be yours.

______________________

Photo: Yale Alumni Service Corps

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Legacies Matter

We’ve just finished producing a new short video for the Hathaway-Sycamores Child & Family Services Legacy Society. I’d like to share it with you and then I’ll briefly tell you why. You can view it here:

I write from time to time about the work we do at Hathaway-Sycamores and the 7000 lives we touch each year in the greater Los Angeles area. The work we do with families in communities throughout southern California is complex, demanding, dynamic, and unending. Our program staff offers selfless expertise in residential treatment, foster care, adoption, transitional independent living, mental health counseling, and educational enrichment readying youth to lead forever productive lives.

I have been involved with this vibrant organization for more than 15 years, and my volunteer work in supporting children’s services has paralleled my business and creative work all the way back to my school years. There’s a reason. This work matters. This work is important. The impact we have on bringing hope to young lives is as vital a part of my life as anything else I do.

If you find yourself with the opportunity to make lives better — lives they may not have had the kindness, nurturing, or healthy upbringing many of us take for granted — then you may at some point feel the way I do. We have a precious, brief amount of time to spend wandering the earth. What we choose to do in the course of our journey ultimately becomes our legacy.

A legacy is not something we can entirely control, because people will remember us in different ways for different reasons regardless of what we accomplish or how we go about accomplishing it. The part of our legacy that we can control revolves around the wishes of others we choose to help realize while we have the opportunity, and the carrying out of our own wishes after we are gone.

HS LegacyTo say that it all boils down to money is only the tiniest part of the picture. Money is a commodity. It only has value if we ascribe value to it. We can gain it, lose it, make it work harder through better decision-making, waste it on the frivolous, or share it with those who matter to us. We can save it or spend it, invest it or stockpile it, struggle when we are without it, or earn the ability to direct its impact. I think when we care enough about those who have less than we do, our lives begin to matter more, if only in the briefest of moments. Intentions are important. Good works that arise from positive intentions can outlast those brief moments for generations, possibly forever when the proceeds of our gifts compound and carry forward our intentions way beyond the scope we could ever imagine.

We have that chance in life, to leave a legacy. That’s why I committed to help in building the Hathaway-Sycamores Legacy Society, and why I produced this video. I want you to feel what I feel about the pure joy of giving, of having an impact on the world that outlasts our own days, and turning ideas into actions that improve the lives of those around us whether we know the recipients or not. You many not have a fortune to give, but that doesn’t matter at all. Give what you can, do what you can, and you can leave a legacy that is yours alone. Your reward will be beyond anything my words can describe. It will be pure, authentic, and real. It will be yours.

Every single one of us will leave a legacy of some kind or other. What’s yours? What do you want it to be? What are you doing right now to make that happen? Time escapes us every day, but our legacy is forever. You can’t craft it in its entirety, but you can shape it to be a reflection of the values you cherish.

I’d love to see you join us this year at Celebrating Children. I’d love to see you join our Legacy Society. Most of all I’d like you to think about what your legacy will be, and how you can have an impact on the lives of those in need well beyond the years it took you to get where you are.

It’s not an easy choice. It’s not an easy subject. Nothing that really matters is ever easy. You matter. Your intentions matter. Your actions matter.

Every legacy matters.

An Idea Changes a Neighborhood

HS FRC

Last fall I wrote about the fundraising event I chaired to raise money for the Hathaway-Sycamores Learning Lab. Today I am pleased to share with you a short video celebrating the dedication of this site, which you can watch here.

If you listen carefully to the story told by Henry Matson, you’ll hear not only how a simple yet visionary afterschool program is changing the lives of countless at-risk youth, but how it has transformed an entire Los Angeles county neighborhood.

Just a decade ago, our Family Resource Center in Highland Park was a much-loved landmark, but a bit of an island on a street ripe for reinvention. That transformation has now occurred. The doors of our beautiful, historic building are wide open to the community. The building has been restored to its full glory, and our Learning Lab is filled with eager minds.

Anytime you get the idea in your head that an individual can’t make a difference, I invite you to visit our Learning Lab. Look at the joy in the students’ faces. Look at the spectrum of college logos on their t-shirts. Listen to them talking about the futures they are pursuing.

They are engaged in the mission of learning. They are engaged in the mission of personal change. They aren’t waiting for the future to come to them. They aren’t letting circumstance take its toll. They are inventing their own future through math, science, language arts, and learning to work in teams.

They inspire each other and they will inspire you. They inspire me, and nothing gives me greater pleasure than to welcome your participation in our work.

Young people on our community who never thought they had the chance are going to college, many on full scholarships they win competitively on their own merits!

Paulette and Henry Matson anchored this campaign because it mattered to them. They made a choice to make a difference, and that difference is now more than an idea. It is a place, a comfort zone, a tangible path to endless possibility. Those aren’t just words. Those are a conduit to bright futures that begin with a spark, the access to a mentor, the bright light of a teacher. Once we help ignite that spark, the kids take it the rest of the way. They are virtually unstoppable.

A small amount of caring always matters. A small amount of money can go a long way.

Education opens minds and changes lives.

Come see just how powerful a living dream can be. Join us this year at Celebrating Children. One night could change your life. Then you can help change a neighborhood.

It all begins with an idea and a commitment.

We can do this. We are doing this!

What Should You Study to Be More Valuable in the Workforce?

webucatorWith so much recent talk and public debate about education as our path to prosperity, I was asked recently by a career training program what I believed were some key areas of focus students should pursue to assure job readiness. While I hardly consider myself a subject matter expert in this complex arena, the question certainly got me thinking about what I am looking for when I hire or when I recommend people for open positions. Here are three items I hope are obvious, but unfortunately may not be obvious enough.

Critical Thinking: These two words are so overused and misunderstood they are becoming clichés even before they are broadly adopted in practice. When I advocate critical thinking, I am talking about the ability to apply abstraction to a real-world problem, wrestle with the alternatives and implications in abstraction, and then synthesize the relevant tangents to a firm set of hypotheses that can be tested against the original problem. Here’s an example: Suppose the sales on your company’s website are trending poorly after a period of hyper growth and you are tasked with attacking the problem. The first thing I want you to do is abstract the problem, noting all the possible reasons sales could be down from seasonality to price to competition to product selection—you name it, the variables are endless. Now I want you to challenge your own reasoning against every one of those possibilities as they might apply in other real-word scenarios that are similar to yet somewhat different from your own business, whether it’s storefront sales or online sales in a different industry segment. Next I want you to narrow the possibilities to a set of concepts you can test so you are not boiling the ocean for an answer. Then of course I want you to act, where acting means collecting data that proves or disproves your hypotheses so you can make a recommendation. Studying math, science, philosophy, or the arts can help you learn critical thinking, but I promise you when you enter the workplace, the number of people you find who are really good at this will always be too few. That’s an opportunity for you to shine!

Fast Iteration: Coming directly down the path from critical thinking is fast iteration. What this means is that after you abstract a problem, you don’t have an endless amount of time to serve up your practical solution—competition is always coming at you without pause. You may have heard the phrase, “fail fast, fail often.” This is a mantra of Silicon Valley culture, where failure is often encouraged if it results in learning that can be applied. Fast iteration means framing a rough solution for a problem, testing it in application, reading the data and interpreting it quickly, and then putting a new version of your solution to test that incorporates the results of your prior test. Sometimes you’ll hear this referred to as A/B testing or multivariate testing. This is a fancy way of saying take something that sort of works, make a change of one kind or another, send some of your customers to the original version and others to the new version and see which one performs better. Then take the knowledge of what performs better and repeat the cycle, with a champion version of the work being the best one you have and the challenger being one where changes are being made. This cycle continues endlessly, and the faster you can make changes and test new assumptions, the faster you will make continual progress. Want to know what you should learn from science labs like chemistry and physics? Learn this method of inquiry. It can help you sell shoes, put rockets into outer space, cure disease, or make better ice cream.

Results-Driven Teamwork: This one flows nicely from fast iteration. I don’t care if you are the smartest person in the room if you can’t work well with others. Even if you are the smartest person in the room, you still can’t get things done as quickly as a small team of people who are all reasonably smart. We used to time people playing a really difficult computer game that would take the average person about 40 hours to solve alone. Two people could solve it together in about 25 hours. Three people could solve it in about 10 hours. Four people could solve it in about 3 hours. Funny enough, adding more than four people created diminishing returns, which also brings its own learning. The point is there is exponential leverage in putting teams against projects to work together by exchanging ideas and challenging each other’s thinking to move at lightning speed past dead ends and serve up new ideas that can be vetted and recalculated with extraordinary results. Most complicated challenges in the workplace today are broken down and resolved by individuals sharing ideas and refining plans, not so much resolving design by committee as building consensus through collaboration. Software engineering is a good example of this, as libraries can be compiled from contributors all over the world, many of whom you might never meet in person. You can learn this skill participating in team sports, playing in an orchestra, performing in a play, or being on the debate team—anywhere you have to be great at what you are doing, but the whole result is beyond what you could do on your own. That’s today’s workplace, a collection of specialized talents interacting as an empowered collective.

Obviously this is not meant to be a comprehensive framework for anyone’s curriculum, but I think if you embrace concepts like these, you will put yourself on a path to being a lifelong learner. Make no mistake: If you want to be successful, learning only begins in school. What you most need to learn from formal instruction is how to continue your learning on the job and off the job. If you learn how to learn again and again, your core skills will never become obsolete because you will be continually replenishing them year after year. Remember also the intangible values and qualities you bring into the workforce are as or more important than your learned skills. Think resilience, perseverance, integrity, flexibility, openness, honesty, and a positive attitude. More than a prestigious diploma, what you need to take from school is the ability to think on your feet, work well with others, embrace nonstop change, and never consider your learning mission complete.

When Reunions Work

High school and college reunions can be terrifying. When former classmates tell you that “you look the same,” how can that be? It might be a nice way of saying you look marvelous now, but does it also mean you looked 30 years older than you were back then? Does anyone really want to hear this? Does anyone really want to be in a conversation where looks come up at all? Or lifetime accomplishments? Or lack of lifetime accomplishments? Or thinly veiled comparisons of someone else’s bragging rights to your own?Paul Simon Art Garfunkel

Suppose it didn’t have to be that way. Suppose there was another way to do a reunion that was enlightening, uplifting, and actually fun. I’ve recently returned from one of those, and I wanted to share what I thought made it a success, along with the last few I attended.

Don’t focus on the then, focus on the next-to-be.

Reminiscing is not that interesting. If you’re like most people, it gets old quickly. At the college reunion I just attended, I found myself spending almost no time talking about the good ol’ days (or the not-so-good ol’ days). I spent most of my time talking about the future, what dreams and plans people currently have and how they are setting out to realize them. It was almost uncanny how little we talked about ourselves as 20-year-old people decades ago and how much we talked about ourselves as 80-year-old people decades from now. My sense is we all got the same memo: You can’t change the past, but you can invent the future. Hmm, which is more interesting, something you can still do something about, or something that is etched in stone? No question, hearing what people still wanted to do with their lives was a rallying cry for engagement, something we could share and something we looked forward to discussing again in five years when we next gathered.

Don’t just talk to people you knewmeet people you could have known and can still get to know now.

Unless you went to a very small school, it’s unlikely you knew everyone in your class. No doubt there is easy measure in finding a familiar face at a crowded party, but maybe that’s only half the story. Or less than half the story. We all had personal interests back then, took specific classes, might have lived in assigned dorms that kept our circle of encounters more contained than it could have been. Here you are now, surrounded by people with whom you might have only a timeline in common, but they have the same number of decades of learning that you do. Can you make new friends later in life? You can if you try. So try. Doors open when people connect, opportunities are unlocked, ideas are shaped and molded. You might even get to hear some new jokes, since you already know the ones your old friends keep telling.

Don’t worry about your perceived shortcomings; see if you can help someone.

We all have dreams. Something many of us have in common is that as we get older our dreams are less grand in perceived scope than they might have been when we were earlier on the path. That doesn’t mean they are less profound. Presume everyone around you has met challenges, overcome some, might be stuck by others. There, you have something else in common. As you network around the floor, think in terms of how perhaps you can offer a tiny bit of assistance to someone else, rather than what they could do for you. Can you listen to one of their eerie stories without judgment and lend a caring ear? Can you introduce someone looking for a job to a friend in your outside network? Do you know a decent insurance broker, honest painting contractor, in-network doctor, or responsible dog sitter who might help someone out of jam? Some of the reunion takes place at the reunion, but it doesn’t have to end there. We have email, texting, Facebook, LinkedIn, and an ancient contraption called the telephone for staying in touch and helping a classmate move forward. All you have to do is put up your hand and offer.

Don’t bring a resume, bring an appetite for good conversation.

One of the things I have enjoyed most about my reunions has been the opportunity to re-engage in abundant dialogue. I’m not talking about chit-chat or exchange of war story credentials or detailed itemizing of the Bluetooth extensions in your low-interest leased car. I’m talking about give-and-take discussion noting how the world has changed in the decades since we left campus. I’m talking about spirited but cordial debate of leaders in public office and business who impact our decision making. I’m talking about a deep verbal dive into a historical biography you and someone else read, a poem that caused you to rethink your values, a comedian who changed your point of view on a political topic through laughter, a social cause that changed the fairness in your community. If you’re at all like me, what you miss most about your school days was the absurd appropriateness of philosophical meandering, the complete normalcy of spending endless hours talking about which artist did or didn’t change the landscape of a craft, the actual line items in a Congressional bill that contradict each other because they are only meant to sound good. When you have financial obligations and work obligations and family obligations and almost no discretionary time in your daily routine, where do you get the refreshing power of pure intellectual exercise? If you haven’t had a good long non-consequential talk in a while, try it at the reunion. You may find it is a bucket or two more consequential than you otherwise believed.

Still not convinced? No worries, the Wayback Machine is not for everyone, but let me leave you with this: When I mention vacationing on a cruise ship or allocating PTO for a class reunion, the reaction is often a visceral: “That’s not for me.” I used to feel that way. Then I actually went on a cruise and had the time of my life, because I did it my way, with lots of daily shore activities and very few trips to the buffet. I had little desire for many years to go to a reunion and reminisce, so when I finally did go, I did anything but reminisce. If you haven’t actually done something, you may not know what it is, so don’t rule it out just because you think you know what it is. You can make any event into the adventure you want if you approach it with an open mind and a reasonable amount of humor.

Connecting with others is a gift that in many ways is without equal. Give that naysayer in you another try. I hope like me you have a blast.

Reading to Kids

Reading to KidsLast weekend my wife and I had the inspiring opportunity to spend the morning with five energetic first graders through a Los Angeles non-profit program called Reading to Kids.  As it is said about so many volunteer opportunities, I am sure we got way more out of it than the children.  It was an eye-opener on any number of levels.

Reading to Kids follows a simple but profound philosophy, that “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children,” cited in the 1985 report of the Commission on Reading.  On the second Saturday of each month, volunteer recruits gather at one of seven underserved elementary schools near downtown Los Angeles, and are assigned in pairs to read an age appropriate book to small groups of kids beginning in Kindergarten and advancing to Grade 5.  The books are selected by the regular curriculum teachers at each of the seven schools, and are all award winners by well-known authors for children.

Training is provided on arrival, and new volunteers are paired with experienced participants, some of whom have shown up more than 50 times for the three-hour block!  After training and a chance to review the book, readers meet their groups on the playground, where parents are waiting with their eager kids to line up and walk the volunteer pairs to an assigned classroom.  Everyone is there because they want to be, even the school principal who walks around to make sure everything is going well.  The children are happy, exceptionally well-behaved, curious, excited, thankful, warm, all of that, well beyond expectations, even the shy ones.

We started as instructed with a thematic overview and picture tour of our assigned book — A Sick Day for Amos McGee — then read the book and acted out the characters, many of whom were animals from the zoo (I won’t spoil the ending).  We asked tons of questions of the children before turning each page, which they more than answered.  After we finished the book and discussion, we did an arts and crafts project about the book’s theme of friendship, making Valentine cards which the kids took home (some gave their artwork to the volunteer adult readers to say thank you).  At the end of the morning, every child is awarded a prize book to take home with them after a brief farewell ceremony.  A copy of each read-aloud book is then donated to the school’s library.

It’s that simple.  It’s beautifully organized, and we even went to lunch afterward with many of the other readers at a nearby restaurant that offered free snack trays.

Why in the world am I writing about this on my business blog?

It’s no secret that I have spent a reasonable amount of my career around children’s media, and that I have some deep convictions about the necessary link in learning between education and entertainment.  This experience was different.  What I saw before me at this Los Angeles Unified School District facility — surely in need of financial investment — were five young people as motivated about learning as any I have encountered in all my travels and focus tests.  There was one minor difference, English was their second language, even though they were growing up here in Southern California.  For my thinking, that actually put them at the head of the class — how many six-year olds do you know already equally fluent in two languages?  These children knew most of the words on the pages of our book, they had opinions about all the characters, they were willing to go out on a limb and predict how the story would twist and turn, and they were clearly able to interpret the moral of the story, that when we are at our weakest, we most depend on our friends.

These kids were amazing.  They have all the potential in the world.  They are ready to dream and learn and help each other and work hard.  As we drove home and I looked around at parts of Los Angeles where many of us don’t spend enough time, I wondered, where will these kids be in five years when they hit middle school?  In ten years when they are in high school?  Will they go to college?  Will they have the kinds of opportunities that will let their dreams come true?  I couldn’t know, but that’s what I wanted to happen.

We allow the subject of education to be politicized, but it’s not really a political topic in my mind.  Year after year, I fill out the surveys sent to me by government leaders, local and national, whichever party is in power, always asking for my priorities.  My priority for tax dollars never changes, I believe the priority has to be education.  If we want these kids to have good lives, they need education.  If we want our economy to thrive, we need an educated population.  If we want a new generation of businesses to be born and staffed, education is the proven route to success.  The thing is, at six years old on a Saturday morning, the kids are showing up, their parents are bringing them, so what they need they already want.  How can we not see that of every possible investment we could make with a taxpayer dollar, this is the one that will pay off?

Is there inefficiency in school districts and administration?  Of course.  Will these bright young kids soon enough become less exuberant adolescents?  History would seem to confirm that.  Do we have competing priorities for underserved community needs?  Without a doubt.  All of those are realities, which simply makes them challenges.  What I want to see are those first graders I met last weekend on a path to realize the same kinds of dreams we all share.  I think in a nation as great as ours we have a moral responsibility to make that happen, broadly for the greater good.

What can we all do to think globally and act locally?  First off, try a little volunteering.  Reading to Kids is one fine program among many, find one that makes a difference in your home town and sign up.  You will do good, and it will do your soul good.  Second, as the national debate on budget control escalates to hyperbole, think hard about where money should be saved and invested, with an emphasis on the notion of capital that can provide a return on investment, where human capital is the most precious resource we can nurture.  Third, if you are investing in your own future, consider investing in the future of our communities with whatever dollars you can afford, in the form of a donation, directed to a program you find of value.

Reading will always be one of the most magical experiences we enjoy as human beings.  A love of reading brings a love of learning, and that is a gift of boundless reward.  Spend three hours reading a children’s storybook to some kids you’ve never met and you might just learn more than they do.  I did.

Edutainment No More

About a year ago I wrote the following article at the request of ACM Computers in Entertainment for the debut of their redesigned site, which launched last week.  It is a bit longer than my usual posts, but for those interested in the topic, hopefully it will inspire good thoughts and discussion.  Here is a link to that article on the ACM site, which can also be found in the CIR Library, with the full text below:

“Why Did Edutainment Become a Bad Word?” by Ken Goldstein (ACM Computers in Entertainment: May 1, 2012)

“What have we here, laddie?  Mysterious scribblings?  A secret code?  No!  Poems, no less!  Poems, everybody!  The laddie reckons himself a poet… Absolute rubbish, laddie.”
— Pink Floyd – The Wall

Last year Amy Chua caused quite a stir with her polemic, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  The excerpt, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” published in the Wall Street Journal is said to have drawn the most individual responses to any article published to date on WSJ.com. The fact that a number of teens and tweens actually read and responded to a genuine WSJ article speaks to the silver lining in all free speech—that an idea expressed however outrageous is better than an idea suppressed for the very argument it inspires. John Stuart Mill was right, the marketplace of ideas only works when it is fully open for business; we rely on these sorts of diatribes as poorly considered advice that can be danced upon.

Here in my mind is the problem—we continue for some reason to want to draw a line between education and entertainment, between learning and playing, between rote study and inspired imagination. I don’t get it. We worry that the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the modern planet in math and science, we have a national epidemic on our hand with high school drop out rates, we live and work in a society where basic labor continues to be automated and the post industrial information economy is increasingly preeminent, and we are coming to accept the notion expressed by Thomas Friedman that The World is Flat. Largely for electorate exploitation, we continue to tout an ordained notion of exceptionalism, yet with refrains of “We’re No. 1” more often appropriate at football halftime shows than college commencement exercises. We have come to understand such grandeur is more a political mantra than shared aspiration. Budgets are under pressure at the state and federal levels, teachers are underpaid and exhausted, the Internet allows more information than ever to be readily available, yet we elect our candidates based on name recognition and image. What does all this mean? We are not as smart as we should be.

If we don’t think we are doing something wrong, perhaps we deserve what we get. That would be fatalistic, so maybe we should try it a different way. We know change occurs when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same. If we aren’t in enough pain now, then change is quite unlikely ever to be an option. We need to “Think Different” about education, and we need to do it now.

Professor Chua may have come to the conclusion that the elimination of play dates, disallowing her children to have a role in school theatrical productions, and psychological downgrading when a wrong note escapes the piano are the correct paths to discipline. Were we to take that path to its logical conclusion, what kind of society might we have? Certainly we might experience a landscape of accomplishment, complete with bragging rights, but would it be a place our children would want to live, either as kids or adults? It would likely lack rebellion, imagination, and most of all, fun. As I look around at kids on the playground, kids in the computer lab, kids on their iPhones, kids in garage bands, I don’t think those kids would call it fun. When the fun stops, the learning stops.

Tooling around Facebook recently I bumped into an old friend, Carmen Sandiego. I will tell you upfront, I have a deep and profound connection with the master thief; she and I shared a good many hours for a good many years. She also once pervaded just about every young classroom in this nation, and a fair number of households in the way back days before we all took connectivity for granted. I played a round of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” on Facebook and easily won my first case, the gimme we always intended it to be for encouragement and engagement, and then got blasted on my second case. Seems I could not quite remember my cities and landmarks as encoded memory was supposed to ensure, so I did the only thing any logical Aeron potato would do—I searched the locales on Wikipedia to get back on track. In the old days we used an almanac to do this, now that same almanac is about as relevant as the Yellow Pages we use as a booster seat for visiting nieces. The point is, the game was still fun, and it got me thinking. It did not replace the study of geography, nor was it a waste of time. It was a catalyst to make me want to do something—reinforce my weakened memory, by running some queries in a public database—that I am reasonably sure I would not have done otherwise. The game also made me chuckle, the puns were still clever and the animation cheerful, however dated. Years ago we built a business around this called “edutainment,” and while controversial at times with some leading academics, it was a good business that we enjoyed. When we sat with kids in the classroom and tested new versions, they seemed to enjoy the games as well; the games they didn’t enjoy, we mostly cancelled.

Did their test scores go up? I doubt it. Did a lot of them grow up to be detectives or geographers? Statistically speaking, I am guessing not more than usual. Was the introduction of computers to them at a young age a path to wanting to understand how the program code worked and how they could rip it apart? That I can promise you was my experience. A lot of those young folks grew up to be programmers and worked for me. Did we tell them anywhere, anyway, anyhow that we expected them to take apart the computer code? No, actually we begged them not to do this for copyright reasons. Yet here is a secret: When kids enjoy something, they often take it apart all on their own. I did it as a kid with music, poetry, written fiction, theatrical performance, cardboard models, solid fuel rockets, even my first bank account. Inquiry is natural when it is interesting, that’s how a lot of us are wired. Think about your work—when you are engaged, the time flies by and you complain a lot less about how terribly busy you are. When you are performing rote tasks for financial reward, the clock ticks by slowly…oh, so slowly.

My definition of fun is engagement. My definition of entertainment is engagement. My definition of learning is engagement. You don’t need a Ph.D. in advanced mathematics to see the transitive nature of the implied equation.

There needs to be more fun in learning, not less. There needs to be more entertainment in education, not less. If we want kids to stop dropping out of school, they need to want to be in school. If we want kids to do their homework, we have to make their homework worth doing. Somewhere along the way, a vast conspiracy of otherworldly forces decided that school was about getting a job to make money. Suppose it is. Is that fun, getting a job so you can make money, so kids can look into our eyes and say, yeah, I am gonna play by the rules so I can have what you have? And we wonder why kids are having a hard time with this?

Cut back to when you were toddler, where every day was a miracle, where the distinction between learning and playing did not exist. When you explored the world as your own adventure, every living second was learning, and the last thing you wanted to do was crawl back into the crib. Kids practically beg us to go to preschool, then kindergarten, even first and second and maybe third grade. Why? Because it is fun. It is social. Learning and playing are one and the same. The magic of math is one big puzzle to unravel. The cipher that is language is practically super-power in letting us open new doors, whole universes. The unraveling of science gives the knowledge once restricted to society elders to a five-year-old, as we come to grasp the physical riddles of fire, gravity, why our little teeth drop out of our mouths and are replaced without asking by big teeth. Every day we see our friends and share with them. We sing with them, we learn to play soccer together; we come to embrace simple rules of order and etiquette so that we can get along, even if it just means being polite when cookies and juice are served. We are in a peer group of our own, with an authority figure who temporarily replaces mom or dad called a teacher, and we know intuitively every day we are getting smarter because we are having more fun.

Then they start to measure our performance, and the jig is up. No more fun. Grades. Test scores. College prep. So we can learn something valuable enough to get a job and make money. Oh yeah, that sure is fun.

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama said, “We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.” If this is just rhetoric than we are bipartisan doomed. We absolutely must embrace the nerds just as much as we applaud the athletes, not because they will all grow up to be Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, but because they probably will not. Unless it is cool just to be smart and “be in the band,” then why on earth should anyone stick with education? I buy that with every fiber of my conviction, probably because I was one of the nerds and an embarrassingly awful athlete—but I was never an outcast, because I knew learning qua learning is what mattered most and I was always on the inside with someone who shared that core value and called it fun.

Now let’s dig a little deeper into President Obama’s meaning. My personal sense is that he was saying until education returns to being a core value, we will remain a divided land. That division is what I suggest our well-intentioned but unedited antagonist, Professor Chua, is unintentionally supporting, not the least of which is by drawing ethnic association into a social landscape that continues to evolve appropriately to multiculturalism, tolerance, and shared embrace. If some of us are forced to learn in over structured traditions of education, then whether we like it or not, we probably will get through college and end up with a job that allows sustenance. Whether that is fulfilling and happy for us is not the point, we will participate in the economy and not be a burden to other taxpayers. What then do we do with the rest of us, is it just, oh well, we will get by the best we can? I don’t think so, because the currency of the new economy is not instilled knowledge, it is creativity. In President Obama’s own words: “The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.” Innovation is a direct reflection of creativity, not recitation.  Larry Summers said as much in his response to Professor Chua, citing great minds that did not follow traditional paths, but embraced creativity and started companies instead. And here is another secret that almost no one seems to get—they started those companies not to make money, but to have fun. They chose to work hard at building those companies because they found it enjoyable. There was no separation of work and play, education and entertainment in their minds. They did what they wanted to do, they did it well, and they enjoyed more days than they did not. The fuel of innovation is creativity, and the fuel of creativity is fun.

Sound familiar? Like professional sports perhaps? Or young people who want to become musicians, actors, writers, or fashion designers? Well, we all know the bad news on statistics, we aren’t all going to be at the top of our game if our game is economically limited to a celebrity few. A tiny few of us will start companies that become empires, accidental or otherwise. Yet can we borrow from the motivations of the people who do make these inroads? Instead of fantasizing about playing in the Super Bowl or collecting an Academy Award, how about looking into the sheer drive that brought those “players” to the top of the top. Leave the frosting, eat the cake—the lesson is that the journey is the reward, so start learning the way you want to learn such that you learn what matters to you, and put it to work for intrinsic rather than extrinsic reasons. When you do that, education and entertainment are one and the same, it’s your world. Why don’t we get smart and start teaching kids that way?

If the currency of the new economy is creativity, then we need to celebrate creativity. If kids love entertainment, then we need entertainment to be the fabric of learning. Am I suggesting we do away with drills, practice, focused preparation, and the like? Does the football coach do away with drills, practice, focused preparation and the like? And does the football coach tell his players the reason they are running drills, practice, focused preparation, and the like is because he wants them to understand that this is how football will reward them with riches? The football coach is a teacher, and his game is one of learning. If you haven’t had the pleasure, check out the TV series “Friday Night Lights” and see how much heart it takes to escape the ordinary: “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.” Let’s learn from that.

Luckily, my teachers took a different tack, keenly advising that I walk in the shoes of the masters so that when the time came to rebel, I would know precisely what I was rebelling against. I was one of the lucky ones; I had guidance first, instruction only as a conduit. There was plenty of welcomed discipline, unending study, invited volumes of dusty old books; all I wanted was more, because it was clear to me that a war chest of fully digested material was armor for the long and winding road. Most athletes don’t really like push-ups, but they do as many as they can, as often as they can. Most students don’t really like Hegel in the vernacular or translation, but oh, dialectic synthesis can sure come in handy when a modern Sophist plays fast and loose with history. We each only get one vote, the same value, but we both know if we earned it. In developing our own voices, we are able to see clearly that laughing is always part of learning. When we learn and laugh well, how can we not call it fun?