We fail to grow during this time of isolation because of a few unconscious lessons we learned during our time in school. The antidote is to choose ourselves.
We wait too long for others to choose us. We wait for the right schools, universities, employers, partners to choose us. We wait for someone else to give us permission to do what we really want to do. To learn what we want to learn, to make what we want to make.
Self-directed learning via online courses and books are more abundant than ever before. But my mind goes to why we so often fail at following through, on learning ourselves, or insisting that we get the right credentials.
On waiting for someone else to choose us.
The Seven Lesson School Teacher
Meet John Taylor Gatto.
He was New York State’s and New York City’s Teacher of the Year for 3 years. He took underperforming kids and made them into smart, interesting, curious, and well prepared individuals. In short, he did what great teachers do.
It was during the last year where he won the Teacher of the Year award that he wrote a very public column in the Wall Street Journal announcing that he was quitting teaching for good.
He said he was done harming kids.
He believed that the real lessons of school were very different than what we believe them to be. These lessons are:
- Confusion: Schools teach us everything, disconnectedly. Math is different from history is different from science is different from language. But true education is meant to be an in-depth understanding of the world and to develop a skill set that can serve us navigate it. That is how the world functions. Everything is meant to be integrated. Schools teach unrelating everything from everything. It isn’t until much later years where the synthesis of these things come together.
- Indifference: Classes are strictly divided into a timetable. English is homeroom, Science is second, and then math. You can have a great teacher at the front of the class, but when the bell rings, you must stop and just shut off your brain and rapidly go do something else. No wonder we struggle at finishing long term projects that matter in our lives in our adult age. No wonder we struggle to keep focus on doing deep work, which is where mastery and greatness happens.
- Position: Students are numbered, and they are put in a strict position. You know what your position is, and you don’t like to deviate from it. I see this (and it’s happened with me as well), where it is very difficult to relate and connect with people of different age groups, different socio-economic factors. We know our position, and our world starts revolving only around people in the right class, the right subjects, the right position. This is not the way the real world is supposed to work. No wonder we are so divided. Why we struggle to see the other person.
- Emotional Dependence: The golden star stickers in the report card, the permission to go use the bathroom, the rankings and class performance charts. They all teach us that we need someone else to bestow their good graces upon us so that we may express our individuality. There is value in this of course. When we are small children, we need this to teach us social norms to function well. But after a while, we keep chasing the golden star sticker in everything we do, from the universities we want to go to, the jobs we pursue, the vacations we take. Everything is a signal waiting for someone else to validate us and give us permission to be. There is no outlet to fight against this.
- Self-esteem dependence: Of course a result of the above issue is that our confidence is highly tied to how someone else approves of us or not. You are constantly evaluated and judged. A quiz a day, a test a week, exams, etc. Most of us remember the relief of the summer vacation. When we returned from these vacations, we ourselves know how little we remember from what we learned the year before. Instead, it was only the things that we were interested in that stayed with us. But despite that, the grade we get can devastate us or make us.
- Intellectual Dependence: Someone else always sets the agenda of what we need to learn, and how we must learn. We wait for instructions. Someone tells us we are Wrong (with a capital W) when we get something incorrect. I have barely used the tools from my English classes in school, but yet back then there was a correct way of doing things and an incorrect way. We are supposed to learn self-evaluation. But instead, we wait for others. This carries over to performance and annual reviews in jobs. Instead of focusing on continuous self-driven improvement, we wait for someone else.
Of course the question becomes, if schools are so ineffective, how else are people supposed to learn? But learning was always supposed to be a self-driven thing. And teaching kids to be motivated to self-learn, self-evaluate, and chase their own interests and how it relates to everything else is supremely more powerful.
This isn’t about becoming drop-outs. This is about understanding the hidden lessons we have learned in school and what it has done to us. I highly recommend looking through John Taylor Gatto’s books (do we even have the concentration to read a full book anymore?) to think about alternative ways of learning.
It is heartening to hear things changing. A great family friend whom I had the pleasure of spending a weekend with last month told us she was homeschooling her two kids. She comes from a conservative Hindu family, and she herself has a PhD in Chemistry from a major American university on the west coast. It was amazing to see her insistence on this.
Forced to stay at home, many of us with kids are waking up and are faced with a choice to either hand our kids a screen so they can distract and entertain themselves, or engage in serious self-directed study and learning. Self-directed being the key here.
Consider looking into the unschooling, self-direct learning movements, and home schooling movements if you have kids. These children have and can grow up to be marvelously well rounded and successful people (that’s what the data shows).
In the meantime, we all need to unschool ourselves a little bit as well. The mental baggage can slow ourselves. Being aware of it is sometimes all we need to unload it.
In short, we need to choose ourselves.
That’s how we make this time of isolation into a time of productivity. Where we let our own self-directed curiosity guide us to grow. That is because ideas are powerful.
On great ideas
Ideas are the real currency of this century. I’ve gotten work without resumes and cover letters, just through the strength of ideas. This week alone, I was contacted on Twitter by an entrepreneur for a major (at least for me) business transaction based on the strength of my ideas. I’ve gotten large consulting projects through cold emails and the strength of my ideas. And of course sharing those ideas.
I’d like to encourage all of us to please do share your ideas! What are you learning? What are you thinking about? What are you curious about? Help me be of service to you by either making me a sounding board or someone who can recommend a book, course, or resource to guide you through your curiosity.
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