Last weekend, I gave a TEDx talk at the University of Iowa. I attempted a new format and a new angle, while also trying to condense 3 1/2 years of work into 8 minutes. It was a great challenge that rattled my nerves and pushed me to rethink every part of how I present.
Trying new things is never easy. But, those are the moments when we learn the most about our craft, our style, and ourselves.
The manuscript of the talk is below. Or, if you prefer, I’ve recorded the audio for you here.
Thanks for reading,
Title: Sharing Leads to Learning
I pulled into the empty parking lot on a cool spring afternoon. I had just spent 30 minutes explaining to my friend Dan that, after nine months of exploring business school, I wasn’t sure the investment of time and money was wise for me. I told him about an idea to leave my work for a season and design my own education. As I put the car in park, I had begun my long spiel about the challenges of the idea – finances, family and societal expectations, and general failure.
Dan’s only response in this tense moment – my confusion and doubt swirling in the car…almost making it musty – was, “Oh…what a grand adventure…”
I sat there puzzled. I had just shared an audacious idea and my deepest fears, and he shed an entirely refreshing light upon it.
Shortly thereafter, I resigned from a job I loved to design my own Masters, which would entail twelve projects around the world in twelve months all focused on design, business and social change. It would be called, the Leap Year Project.
I started a blog and a newsletter to share my journey with a group of friends and family and asked several of them to subscribe at $10/month to help fund the idea. In return, I’d share monthly learnings and find ways to connect the community throughout the year. The projects led me all over the world – from working alongside architecture firm, NBBJ, creating an art installation for a new onsite healthcare facility for Microsoft, to telling stories of positive change in Cairo during the Arab spring, to helping organize thanksgiving dinner on Skid Row with Union Rescue Mission.
Along the way, I invited others to take risks or “Leaps” to create change.
Over 250 people from around the world spotted the project, took a leap, and shared their stories.
2012 culminated with book of vignettes that was funded by the community on Kickstarter, a TEDxtalk where I staged my graduation, and the start of a new type of school called Experience Institute – where we’re exploring how to help others design their own education through experience.
On the surface, this may come across as some sort of vigilante, solo-millennial-mission-impossible gone (fairly) well. Nothing could be further from the truth.
That conversation with Dan on that day in April 2011 was the first of a host of conversations.
It seemed that the more time I spent thoughtfully and humbly sharing my journey, the more I learned and grew.
During the beginning days of working on Ei, I met a friend named Erik Olesund at a holiday party in Chicago. After talking for a bit, he mentioned that he attended Stanford, volunteered for the student radio station and that he’d like to share a conversation about higher ed on-air.
That conversation with Erik led to a visit to Stanford’s campus where I had the chance to meet with the team behind the d.school.
I learned of a project they were working on to explore the future of four parts of the campus:
- The Library
- Resident’s Life
- Experiential Learning
They didn’t just tell me their ideas, they were genuinely interested in what we were attempting, and over the following months, our first five students and I had the chance to collaborate on projects and plans for @Stanford.
For the d.school, the project culminated with four provocations to higher ed entitled Stanford 2025.
For Ei, we gained new friends, and a deeper understanding of what we were building and why it mattered. Now, as we continue our second class, those ideas are shaping our curriculum and our relationships.
There are contexts when sharing may seem like a sign of weakness. But, I’m learning, when we loosen our grip on what we think we know and have, we strengthen ideas and relationships.
Now, to give you some quick context about Experience Institute, it’s a 12 month program that begins in September.
Students range from 18 to 39 years old, mostly strangers, and they begin in Chicago where they meet in-person for quarterly meetups that entail intensive classes and group projects.
We focus on five core competencies: Self Awareness, Community Building, Storytelling, Operations, and Human Centered Design. Since we meet quarterly, all of our staff and instructors are practitioners who are mainly funded by full-time jobs.
And, we haven’t spent exorbitant finances on a campus. Cities are our campus. Our Meetups have been held in every type of space from furniture showrooms to co-working spaces to rock climbing gyms. In each space, we consider what our offering is to the people who invite us into their space.
The students then design their time in between by pitching companies for apprenticeships or pursuing ideas of their own.
Host companies share problems & goals & resource…students explore ways they can be helpful while building skills.
It takes something as age-old as an internship and mutates it into the core of one’s education and into a truly meaningful part of a company’s culture.
Students have completed an array of things ranging from award-winning sound design projects to building typhoon-proof earth-ships in the Philippines.
And, at this very moment.
+ Jonathan is working alongside a new design high school in the Bay Area
+ Toph is working with an digital strategy agency in Spain
+ Nicole just finished a stint at Dev Bootcamp where she learned how to code
And, Ei didn’t place them there necessarily. Sure, we have a network of host companies, but if we held everyone’s hand to the front door, much of the experience would be lost. Rather, we give tools, build a community, and teach a process for finding problems and pitching those teams to help find solutions. But it’s those companies and individuals who’ve responded by sharing space, sharing projects and providing compensation for the students’ time.
Along the way, students document their journeys through photos, videos, blogposts, newsletters, and other mediums to share how their growing. And, weekly coaching calls with staff help to bring the group together to solve problems and continue exploring how the content meshes with their work.
There is an ecosystem of learning based on a shared economy that makes designing education more feasible than ever. Companies receive great talent and energy. Students gain practical experience that builds their portfolio, their confidence, their skill sets, and their relationships — all without crippling debt.
As we look specifically at the realm of higher education, I’m insatiably curious about how to elevate the role of this type of self-designed education.
So much of education has been who am I doing this for: parents, future employers, society at large.
But perhaps the questions should be,
“Who am I doing this with?
What am I sharing rather than what am I getting?
Who might I become, rather than how much will I make?”
My hope is that someday, every company will leave a seat at the table for a learner. And, perhaps, more importantly that each of us will remain learners throughout our lives.
And that anyone who’s at a point of transition would not only consider designing their education through experience as a means to blunt cost and achieve necessary skills, but that doing so would be seen as a credible and transformative way to learn and grow for anyone, anywhere of any background or stage in life.
It won’t be easy. It’ll take time and energy, and sometimes, things won’t work.
But to that I say, “Oh…what a grand adventure…”