Why School is Bad for You

There we were sitting in the conference room. My ivy league director sat at the right, tall and thin, dressed in pressed khakis with a Tar Heel blue dress shirt. No tie. With a white mustache, untucked collared shirt and khaki shorts along with his trademark pulled-up-to-the-knees black baseball socks sat a tenured and scholarly professor at the left, among other educators. We were the search committee in charge of a large, hulking mass in the middle of the table, a box full of 35 resumés sent from people all over the country with a singular objective: to win the University of Missouri Director of Jazz Studies position.

Of course, we started by discussing. What is our ideal candidate? Will they have academic teaching experience? Will they have a real-world background? Will they compose for the big band?

Finally, we decided we were open to many options save one strong preference: they needed to have a doctorate in music. So we started sorting resumés. Who had sent us all the requested materials, the video, the press kit, the cover letter? Did someone send us an album as well? We sorted and prodded, picked and chose, and hummed and hawed. It was a long process with multiple levels of analysis and lots of red tape, naturally. I learned that people often look completely different on paper than they do in action. However, the thing that will stay with me the rest of my life happened at the very first meeting.

The initial sort was underway and we had the doctoral and non-doctoral candidates organized. There were still many eligible applicants, so we got picky. Anyone that was young and had a doctorate straight from their master’s straight from their bachelor’s was immediately billed as “too green.” They got the ax, and that day I realized that even in academia people must have some credentials, some street smarts, some sort of recognition that exists outside of the university setting.

Going to college is a privilege, there are billions of people who will never have the opportunity. It is a place where you can have the freedom to make mistakes and learn without grave repercussions. You will find insulation and support from a community of people that want you to succeed. The beauty of it all lies in the fact that going to school is never enough. It is simply the beginning.

There is one big problem with educational culture today: it breeds academicians who do not assume responsibility for their own learning.

I argue that the moment someone begins to get old is the moment they stop learning. You may have wrinkles and big ears, but if you maintain curiosity in life, you will not fade. The university educational system castrates this learning process by spoon-feeding students data and information, facts to memorize, tests to pass. The end result? We have a sterile regurgitation of compelling facts disconnected from useful application. Students need more projects, hands-on work, and presentations if they are truly going to learn. Make them teach the classes. This is why school is bad for you, yes you. It perpetuates learning for the sake of a bastion of intellect rather than the purpose of applicable intelligence. It manufactures students hypnotized by their teachers, taking their position as gospel when in fact many solutions may exist! Most dangerously, it puts your mind on auto-pilot to expect others to teach you how to think.

In 2007, my humanities professor at Oral Roberts University, Jayson Larremore, gave us an assignment to watch the Al Gore documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” We watched the ice core samples from Antarctica and the immaculate computer-generated graphs. I was convinced global warming was a big problem. Even so, we still had to write a paper on what we thought of the movie. Did we agree or disagree? Did we find fallacies? What did we think and why? This was the first time in my life that someone concretely demonstrated to me the excercise of critical thinking. Once I began examining the presentation and the evidence, the answer I was so convinced of became less clear. I owe Prof. Larremore a great debt, not because he taught me about global warming, but because he helped to me think for myself. It was by far the most valuable lesson I got out of ORU in my four years there.

A good way to learn is to ask questions. At the moment, the question is, “why are you going to school?” If it is because everyone else is, or you want a good degree, or your parents insist, consider the impact your position may have down the road. Is it worth the debt? Is it worth the tradeoff of leaving the real-world experience? How will you use this education to get ahead?

When I was working on my master’s degree, I relied heavily on my music teachers to tell me if I was playing out of tune, if my style was bad, and if my technique was sloppy. I listened to them because they were my teachers. It was my job to gain from their insights so I listened to them intently. In fact, I listened so intently that I forgot to take ownership of my own two musical ears. I just figured if I tried to do what they said, things would work out. These days, I learn by watching talented musicians on YouTube in half the time. I must listen. Then I experiment. Of course I question. But in the end I apply. I still have teachers and mentors. But they are guides, not gospels. If you still haven’t decided what you’re going to do with that phat education you’re chasing, don’t waste the time sitting in a classroom. Hit the streets. Take on the real world. Read your own books. You really will learn more, faster, about what you want out of life.

Planning vs. Living: A Dilemna

Maybe you have just finished school. Whatever it is, it comes with degree of recognition. You have finished the course, perhaps won the race even. Big or small, it does not really matter. It is what comes next that we contend with. Your curious neighbor, water cooler co-worker, maybe even the newspaper reporter all have the same question. What are you going to do now? What’s your plan? Where are you going next? Zig Ziglar, John Maxwell, and Brian Tracy (to name a few) have made careers out of helping people take control of their lives, that is to actively choose their course of direction.

For the sake of our discussion the concrete question I pose is this: What are the facets and what is the balance between actively visualizing a lifestyle or career goal and leaving matters to develop on their own? Understand, the main issue here is time. The only thing we all really have to do in life is, well, die. We all have a finite amount of living to do. I know a number of people, some quite successful, who insist that their accomplishment never came on the back of a game-plan or formal strategy. It just sort of happened and they were there, right place, right time.

I’ll start out by saying it is important for us to distinguish between different kinds of time. First, there is long-time. I suppose for me that means 5+ years away, although I am still very young. And then there is something in between, which I like to call middle-time. Finally, there is day-to-day, something much easier to maintain an awareness of.  Treating these all the same would be a mess.

When it comes to planning on the long-time, we must not get confused with the to do verb. It’s too elusive and transforms into a distraction that gets in the way of the fundamental to be. Before you can do something you must first be something (thanks Goethe). Through this lens, you will direct the rest of your middle-time and day-to-day. Before you can be a high-powered lawyer or touring musician, you must first work in the library, in the practice room, in debate, and in learning how to listen. In short, you will learn to be diligent.

Not so long ago, I used to run life thinking in concrete long-time goals. Married by 30. Have a house set by 32. Solid famous musician by 28. These can be silly ideas because they dictate a predictable rhythm in life that can stifle opportunity and spontaneity. Let me say it like this: if you’re so focused to do that position of definition before you have taken the time to define what you will be (if you are fortunate enough to get there) once you get there, you might not be ready. You might not have the goods to deliver. Seriously, what’s the joy in life if we define what we will do before we even arrive with a be? Some do because the market was right, they were born in the right family, in the right generation, perhaps even a preferred skin color. Doing is very elusive. Yes, I know I’m speaking as a twenty-something but this is the time to work this be question out; the answer is NOT doing explicit hoops and goals to satisfy our curious neighbors.

After I moved back to the States this summer, I thought I would be staying at least for the immediate future. Family, Kansas, no place like home (and yes, Dorothy really does live next door). When an opportunity to move to Bordeaux, France came up, it was totally unexpected. It was not in my long-time plans. In the end I made the decision to move  based on this concept of “be.” I must be a world-class musician. That means working with musicians who play a hell of a lot better than I do.

Middle-time is the fun part where we get to do a few concrete things that fit in with who we are. That could mean making a move to be with someone you want to work with. Take a class or read a book that fits in with your be concept. Join a group. Take the initiative to learn and gain ground on your own. Never, EVER, expect to be spoon-fed in middle-time. Remember that people are like magnets, so watch what the people you hang out with you are doing and what their attitudes are like, aware that this is how you may be influenced. I think this phase of time is the one that can be most controlled because it is far enough away not to be micro-managed and not so far away that it becomes a silly obsession. It’s a simple-bucket list on the way towards defining your be idea of self.

Nevertheless, day-to-day sucks. It’s Monday morning, the day after Christmas, everything that happens that reminds us we have to go to the real world. . . again. Learn to love it. Smile on it. Live it spontaneous here. Stop your trip along the highway to go ice-skate on the pond with your siblings on Christmas Eve just because you decided it was fun. Do all that goofy stuff maybe you see on Seinfeld or the King of Queens. You’re not a robot or an iPad either. Don’t plan day-to-day any more than you have to because it’s those little moments in life that make everything else a little bit more significant.

Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.                                           -The Great and Honorable Dr. Seuss

The 10,000 Hours Myth

I begin by quoting renowned American neurologist Daniel Levitin:

“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals… this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

This 10,000 hour theory proposed by pop social science authors (not just Levitin) is enormously empowering, but comes with a big problem. Sitting and working on a single skill set for a given amount of time will make you good, perhaps even excellent. To dominate that ability requires something else: critical thinking. It is not a magic formula where studying a law school book for hours on end transforms you into a powerhouse lawyer. Nor will sitting in front of a piano diligently practicing scales will not turn you into concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Such disciplines are only a part of the equation. Taking responsibility for your own success and failure becomes essential. You must craft yourself, demand the best of your abilities, and most importantly, know when to rest.

In a world of degree plan sheets and major studies programs with award-winning institutions and minor experts in a myriad of subjects, whatever happened to the concept of the individual taking responsibility for their own future? One doesn’t have to read self-help books to come to the conclusion that the stars of our culture always have a point where they actively worked on their own behalf in an effort to achieve something significant. I have had numerous conversations with university professors today who speak of teaching a new generation that believes in an entitlement, a degree of privilege where the people around them should be predisposed to helping them win out. This is the counter-idea of what I am standing for. Until a person chooses to take responsibility for crafting their own image, disposition, and abilities, they will always have an excuse for something or someone around them who didn’t give enough efforts to make them into a winner. Only you have the power to shape yourself—we can give the power away, discount it, ignore it, and otherwise mar it, but its absolute potential remains for anyone willing to use it.

When I look at highly successful people from musicians to athletes to investors and businessman, I see the individual fruit of concrete decisions made to work consistently towards a specific end. This is the second mistake of the 10,000 hours myth: a blurry image of an ultimate outcome is sufficient as long as the hourly quota is met. I remember being told once upon a time that I should aim for the moon and if I miss, at least I will land among the stars. Closing your eyes with hard work and aiming for a positive outcome is not enough! So many people decide to work towards a goal with the attitude that if their goal happens they will be happy and if not they will at least have worked towards a noble cause. You must expect the goal as positively inevitable; come hell or high water, rain or shine, you will achieve the dream.

When Novak Djokovic won his first Wimbledon tournament and Grand Slam title this year, he crouched down on Center Court, reached down, plucked some blades of grass and shoved them in his mouth. He later said, “I felt like an animal. I wanted to see how it tastes. It tastes good,” with eyes wide and his smile contagious. “It came spontaneously, really. I didn’t plan to do it. I didn’t know what to do for my excitement and joy.” If you turned off the TV or left the stadium at center court at that point you might have thought that it was a young man celebrating the completion of a dream. And of course it was, he had just beat ace Spaniard Rafael Nadal, a tennis force in his own right. But if you paid attention to the final interview before he left court, you also would have heard him speak of the completion of a goal he had been focused ever since he watched Wimbledon on TV as a young boy in Serbia. He knew all along what he wanted.

Finally, for all the importance of hard work, life without rest and celebration is impossible. Try and recognize that working fast and efficiently is not like sprinting a marathon (a ridiculous endeavor for me, perhaps not Boston Marathon master Geoffrey Muttai, 2:03:02). Success is built on small, positive actions taken on a consistent basis over a lengthy period. Stop and appreciate the unexpected that will almost certainly occur along the way. It’s part of what makes us human after all. When you’re on, you must be on. But when you rest, take the moment!