2001: A School Oddysey

Over the last twelve years, I’ve gone from rote learning in an Eastern education, to a fast-track Western education, to mentorship as an intern, to self-direction in a startup incubator.

They announced the 2013 Thiel Fellows this week, one of whom is yours truly. The Thiel Fellowship is an annual $100k award for twenty teenagers to stop school and start something.

That’s not to say school is worthless.

Switching schools, and switching countries, has exposed me to many teaching philosophies and cultures. I’ve learned things more valuable than anything found in one curriculum alone. Leaving school behind, I must remember those lessons.

My academic life has ended, and this post is its eulogy.

The Chinese Room

The year was 2001.

It was my first day of grade school in Singapore. Like many education facilities in Asia, our school system was less “school” and more “system”. All rote learning, no critical thinking.

You know how when you say a word over and over, it stops sounding like it has meaning? Rote learning is like that — we could recite words and shift symbols with ease, but we never really understood any of it. We were programmed with artificial intelligence.

It never felt like I was being deprived. No, much worse.
It just felt normal.

The Fast Track

When I turned 11, I immigrated to Canada.

For the first time in my life, I felt my classmates were friends, not competitors. It’s something I never even knew I was missing. They valued their individuality, and unlike what Asian parents typically want, they had dreams outside of “doctor” or “lawyer”. One friend got me interested in game development.

The other major difference, was that I now had freedom to learn at my own pace. If I lagged behind, teachers were patient. If I excelled, they rewarded the extra mile. And excel I did. I skipped three grades, and enrolled in an early college entrance program.

That said — I could set my own pace, but not my own path.
Everyone still had to grind through the same generic curriculum.

The fast track is still a track.

The Early Entrance

At the age of 14, I entered college.
This was the moment that K-12 has all been leading up to.

At this stage, students are finally given a choice. A choice of what field they want to major in, of what they want to be. I chose computer science, because of my newfound passion for game development.

Most of the courses weren’t of any help, (seriously, UML diagrams?) but I could still apply some of the material to the games I programmed on the side. Meanwhile, I signed up for my college’s internship program. Because of the games I had made outside of school, Electronic Arts liked my portfolio, and they flew me down to the Bay Area, for an internship as a software engineer.

This was the pivotal moment in my life.

Up until now, school made me do homework alone, write exams alone, and that teamwork was only for sports, where I’d always be picked last. But when I was in a real-world work environment, I was forced to learn the social skills I had been missing for over a decade.

My mentors at EA taught me how to speak up, how to reach out, and most importantly… how to ask for help.

The Early Exit

After my internship in the Bay Area, plus another stint at a startup, I had absorbed the ambitious culture. Choosing a path wasn’t enough. I needed to create a new path.

At the age of 17, a friend and I founded our first startup, (or at least, a poor caricature of a startup) for an accessible game creation tool. Mozilla got wind of our project, due to their interest in Hackable Games, and invited us to be part of their WebFWD accelerator program.

We leapt at the opportunity, and dropped out of college.

Now, I was self-motivated, but only in learning new technical skills. WebFWD forced us to pick up skills on the non-technical side. From business development, to branding, to giving presentations.

I also learned the last social skill I was missing — empathy.

By “not having empathy”, I don’t mean I kill kittens for laughs, but I hadn’t really thought about our project from our users’ viewpoint. If we had any users. That was the problem — we were never sure who we were building it for. The tool we made was too complicated for beginners, not fully-featured enough for professionals, and didn’t simplify game development for either group.

As an intern, I learned how to ask others for help.
As an entrepreneur, I have to learn where others really need help.

I’m still figuring that out.

I used to be on a set path, with a set pace. Set by someone else.

After moving to a different country, I could choose my own pace. In college, I could choose my own path. By the time I dropped out of school, I could carve newpaths.

The real change wasn’t in the curriculum I was given, it was in the culture I was given. In the social structure. In the people. In their beliefs.

A few closing thoughts, for this eulogy of my academic life.

1) Self-motivation can be taught.

The unschooling movement, along with the Thiel Fellowship, is rightfully controversial. The big concern is that most children simply aren’t motivated enough to want to learn.

And that’s true. And so what.

I used to be the kid who had no motivation or direction. I was simply following orders. Only after years of being surrounded by my more motivated friends, did I realize I even wanted to direct my own life.

Most kids aren’t self-motivated, but it can — and should — be taught.
It’s damn hard, but it’s worth it.

2) Schools shouldn’t provide learning material.

This is an age where the world’s greatest library can be accessed through a device in your pocket. Why should we drip-feed students stale information for tens of thousands of dollars, when they can get all the up-to-date information instantly for free?

But go to any public library, and you’ll see the problem. No one’s there. And if they are, half of them are checking Facebook. Most people don’t use library material, because most people no longer have that thirst for knowledge.

Which brings me to my final proposal…

3) Schools should provide everything else.

Some things are best delivered in person, or between people.

A sense of community. A safe space to experiment, and figure out what you want in life. Mentorship from the more experienced. Mentoring the less experienced. Learning social skills, how to communicate, how to empathize. Fostering the drive to reach beyond your filter bubble, and learn about the world. And to change the world.

Create culture, not courses.

Inspired By:

Invert the Introvert
A guest post I made for the Thiel Foundation. It’s the story of how I opened up, emotionally and socially, during my year of internships and during my first startup.

Build a School in the Cloud
This TED Talk from Sugata Mitra, will show you how self-directed, online-based education works in developing countries.

Why Online Education is Mostly a Fantasy
Self-motivation is important, and it’s something online education doesn’t teach.

Originally posted on Medium