When do you actually become an adult? It’s an interesting question, as globally the cultural ‘coming-of-age’ ranges from 16, 18 or 21, as is the case in the United States. We associate ‘adulthood’ with access to privileges that we are suddenly granted: for instance, the ability to marry, or the permission to drive cars or drink alcohol. We also associate adulthood with the responsibilities that these privileges then bring us. But, in reality, our psychological coming-of-age can vary dramatically. It is fallible for us to presume that there is an objective, definitive period that demarks adulthood. If anything, it seems that between the ages of 17 and 60, we experience the most psychological turmoil. As children and as seniors, we’re slightly less affected by the world’s complexity. Perhaps we have it completely wrong with our age discrimination.
In Silicon Valley, the home-place of emerging technology and start-ups, the concept of youth is being redefined. The mean age for the budding entrepreneur continues to drop further. It’s no longer that unusual to watch 16 year olds pitch ideas or to meet 19 year old MIT drop-outs building financial tech products. At street parties, you can meet 7 year olds, inspired by the savvy nature of their parents, selling 3D-printed artifacts to their neighbors’ families. Asking a local child, eyes bright with curiosity, ‘What would you invent if you could invent anything?’ brought back a surprisingly meta reply ‘A machine that can do anything, anything at all’. If there’s one thing that’s being disregarded in Silicon Valley, it’s the idea that success only comes with experience and age. The youth are claiming their stake in tomorrow, but also their stake in today.
And it makes sense. In the highly technological framework of our current societies, where the average 11 year old has more access to world knowledge through their mobile-phones than Emperors of the past, there has never been a better time for the youth of today to make their mark. Our interconnected worlds allow anyone, and any idea, to play on a global platform. In March 2013, teenagers in their family homes around the world watched Yahoo acquire Summly, whose CEO was the English 17-year-old Nick D'Aloisio. With a deal worth $30 million, it reminded us all that ideation and execution could come from anyone and anywhere. In an industry where the tools for creation can be learnt from a laptop in a bedroom, the internet game allows fair entry to any player. As D’Aloisio himself stated, ‘The App Store has democratized the creation of content. As a 12-year-old kid, I was able to put my application on the store. No one knows who's behind the screen so you can't tell I'm a 12-year-old.’
Silicon Valley has come to shun the traditional life model, with a vigor so strong that it has the chance to ripple globally. There are deep criticisms of higher education, with the argument that traditional academia doesn’t teach you how to take the risks that allow you to fulfill your potential in the same way that entrepreneurship does. Academia also doesn’t make it easy for you to reap the same rewards as you would if you were the CEO of a large tech company. Whilst we used to celebrate PhDs and MBAs, we’re now celebrating the founders of start-ups, with the idea that the aggregate value of a PhD or MBA is not necessarily greater than just going out and building something. A desire to learn, with the ease of access to information these days, gives anyone the opportunity to educate themselves if they want to, without the constraints of the traditional academic system.
And the idea of breaking the youth out of the system of higher education has become a viable and impactful business model. In May 2011, PayPal co-founder and investor, Peter Thiel, funded his first program of the Thiel Fellowship (then called ‘20 under 20’) which offered 20 teenagers a total of $100,000 over two years, as well as guidance and other resources, to drop out of school and pursue other work. This work would need to be impactful in some manner and could involve scientific research, or creating a startup, or working on a social movement. By December 2013, after two years of the program, the Wall Street Journal reported that 64 Thiel Fellows had started 67 for-profit ventures, raising $55.4 million in angel and venture funding, published two books, created 30 apps and 135 full-time jobs, and brought clean water and solar power to 6,000 Kenyans who needed it. In 2015, where the upper age limit was raised to 22 years old, there were a record 2,800 applications. At present moment, 80 current and former Fellows have raised a total of $142 million in venture capital, generating $41 million in revenue, and have created over 375 jobs. Entrepreneurship gives global youth the ideological framework to come up with an idea and turn it into a profitable business. Ideation may seem simple, but execution separates the winners from the losers. The question becomes, does traditional education better us at executing our ideas, or do we learn better from the entrepreneurship approach -- trying and failing, over and over, until we hit success?
Academia has been losing some of its brightest candidates to entrepreneurship over the last decades. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin famously met at Stanford whilst undertaking PhDs. They of course dropped out of their programs to start Google -- even taking on some of their Computer Science professors as business advisors. Elon Musk, the much-acclaimed entrepreneur and investor, lasted only two days in his Stanford Applied Physics PhD before dropping out to focus on his then startup Zip2.
And the trend continues. Having lunch with Dr Katharina Volz, a 28 year old German native, she relays stories of her research in 10 labs around the world, including Harvard and Stanford Universities. By 2015, Volz had pioneered Stanford’s first PhD in Stem Cell Biology & Regenerative Medicine, one of the fastest PhDs in Stanford’s history. It took 100 hour work-weeks, often causing her to have to sleep on the hammock she installed in the lab. Whilst most people in their mid-twenties spent their nights out in clubs, she spent hers handling mice into the early morning. The hard work eventually paid off. In the end, Katharina completed the tough 6 year program in 2.5 years, identifying a breakthrough in coronary medicine.The traditional path for her would be to carry on within academia, leading a team and building her own lab. But after 12 years in academic biology, Katharina was perturbed by higher education. Despite loving the lab that had supported her during her PhD, she complains that the academic pipeline ‘was too old and too slow, and often too corrupted by the wrong incentives’. Instead of carrying on within the system and allowing the errors to continue, she decided get into entrepreneurship in an attempt to create a line of valuable technological solutions for academic researchers like herself. Would she ever go back into the academic system? ‘Maybe’, she says, ‘but I would want to fix it first’.
We can look at traditional education to be a bottoms-up approach. Individuals continuously update their level of skill and knowledge as they graduate through the academic curriculum. But what happens if we were to learn by a more top-down approach? What happens if, through education, problems were simply presented to us, and we were forced to take the approach of seeing how we might come to solve them. We might go on to think of novel and amusing solutions, through our own speculative research. We may think of strange new tools. When the correct way is presented to us, we might already have more of a sense as to why these tools are valuable, because we will have considered the problem in a way that the classical ‘tool-first’ approach might have never been made apparent to us. This approach might also allow us to use our own imagination around the problem at hand, allowing for more fun and personal involvement.
It’s an idea that Elon Musk is getting behind. Last year, Musk told Beijing Television that he had founded a small private school in Los Angeles called ‘Ad Astra’, which translates from Latin as ‘To the Stars’. He states in the interview that his grand vision for the school involves removing grade levels, so there would be no distinction between students in 1st grade and 3rd. The Silicon Valley mindset seems prominent- “It’s important to teach problem solving, or teach to the problem and not the tools," Musk says. "Let's say you're trying to teach people about how engines work. A more traditional approach would be saying, 'we're going to teach all about screwdrivers and wrenches.' This is a very difficult way to do it.” Instead, it makes more sense to give students an engine and then work to disassemble it. "How are we going to take it apart? You need a screwdriver. That's what the screwdriver is for," Musk explains. "And then a very important thing happens: The relevance of the tools becomes apparent.’
As children we dream of wide-spectrum possibilities, fantasizing over our own powers and potential that, once finally freed from the shackles of our parents and schools, we would have the chance to utilize. We remember being inspired by our playground peers, telling us how they would one day do this or that, conquer space travel or design new nations just like they did after school in SimCity on their PCs. And after all these years, after all the Facebook pictures of former classmates with their new families and their lives seemingly not conquering new nations, perhaps a part of us still believes that they are playing out the goals they set out for themselves as children. That maybe at some point in the future they will turn around and be like ‘Ah! You see! We were just kidding all along, we’ve been secretly sailing the galaxies, whilst you foolishly doubted us’. It’s fun to daydream of the possible worlds that would support these kind of revelations.
In 2001, Stanford University developed a cross-national study to compare children’s perceived self-efficacy. Self-efficacy beliefs are the product of a complex process of self-persuasion that relies on the cognitive processing of diverse sources of efficacy information conveyed directly, vicariously, socially, and physiologically. Once we as children acquire a sense of personal agency that we can make things happen, we develop effective self-reactions that serve as guides and motivators for our actions. A body of research shows that perceived efficacy is a common mechanism through which much psychosocial influences produce their effects. Perceived personal efficacy predicts the goals people set for themselves and their performance achievements, which differs from self-esteem which neither influences personal goals nor performance. Self-efficacy is concerned with judgments of personal capability, whereas self-esteem is concerned with judgments of self-worth.
In the Stanford study, family came out as the first source of efficacy information for children. During the early period of life, parents are the main go-between for a child’s transactions with their environment, thus defining their experience. As our social world in childhood rapidly expands, peers become the second most important source of information concerning capabilities. In this context children experience new relationships that can enlarge and validate their own personal capabilities. And lastly, school is the third source of efficacy information, with teachers serving as important contributors to the formation of a child’s intellectual efficacy during formative years. Considering all these inputs from external forces, the question becomes how much free will do children have to define their levels of self-efficacy, if any at all?
As children we can fathom of all human history as if it was a pocket book that folded neatly into our hands. We imagined the Kings and the Queens, the Tribe Leaders and the Cavemen in all their color and splendor. The Diplodocus was an aesthetic sibling to the Giraffe, their long necks reminding us of the slides that we would run to in the park. On walks to school, we would have time to notice the dapply grey jacket sported by an overweight pigeon, on another the red-breasted tuxedo of an aristocratic robin. We might have imagined their faces, their spectacles, their conversations. We might have imagined their families, their friends, their interactions with lower species. We might have thought we would unlock the secrets of interacting with them, and sometimes we thought I had. But by the time we got to school, speculating about what ifs? was frowned upon. Apart from in a creative writing class, school was never a safe haven for imaginative speculation.
At school we were taught and tested on a checklist of historical eras, categories of animals, charts of elements, models of how the world works and about the systems that override us. Asking difficult questions was taboo, just as it was for teachers to ever answer ‘I don’t know’. But there’s a beauty in the ‘I don’t knows’, in the answers that we aren’t able to give. For every answer we don’t have, we can imagine different potential scenarios. For every answer we have, we should still continue to imagine alternate options. The world is forever developing and isn’t fixed, which makes it quite literally a manifestation of what we collectively believe to be true or not. We’re always giving answers, because our answers help define us. But in not knowing, we allow for imagination, speculation and collaboration. Where are the schools that are teaching children about unknowns, whilst promoting levels of self-efficacy to create adults that are able to challenge them? We might hope that Musk’s Ad Astra be one of the first.
Los Angeles-based author and editor, Annaka Harris, challenged the speculation problem head-on in her children’s book “I Wonder”. Noticing that her daughter began ignoring questions she couldn’t answer or giving knowingly false answers before she had even turned two, it became clear that her child, just like millions all around the world, had been indoctrinated to believe that value only came from giving correct answers. ‘We live in a society where people are uncomfortable with not knowing. Children aren’t taught to say “I don’t know,” and honesty in this form is rarely modeled for them. They too often see adults avoiding questions and fabricating answers, out of either embarrassment or fear, and this comes at a price. When children are embarrassed or afraid of not knowing, they are preoccupied with escaping their discomfort, rather than being motivated to learn. This robs them of the joy of curiosity.’ After looking for a book that celebrated curiosity left her stumped, she penned her own. Marketed as a children’s book, the lessons seem apt for us as adults too.
The risky nature of entrepreneurship forces people to challenge ‘I don’t knows’ in a way that traditional academia doesn’t seem to allow for. For instance, we acknowledge that it’s hard to find an idea or a belief that has existed since the dawn of man, or even lasted over a century. This proves that we are not very good at working out fundamental truths, yet at the time of a belief we hubristically stand behind its supposed truth-value. The concern is that children, still malleable in their minds, are not being equipped with the right intellectual tools to process data with rational skepticism. At TED 2013, the British-Indian academic Sugata Mitra earned a standing ovation, as well as a $1 million prize, for his talk declaring that traditional schools are obsolete because we no longer need traditional teachers. It's becoming a cliche that the teacher should move from being a “sage on the stage” to being “a guide on the side.”
Laura Deming is 21 years old. At 8 years old, she decided she wanted to research the biology of aging. The question as to why we age is one of the most under-appreciated questions in medical science. But Laura wasn’t deterred by the ‘I don’t knows’, including her own. She tells of the moment that defined her career path- ‘E-mailing molecular biologist Cynthia Kenyon at the University of California, San Francisco. She studies aging, and I was reading about her, and thought, holy cow — someone is working on this stuff. So I contacted her and said, I'm 12, but I have to see if I could work in your lab. She was struck by my interest and let me come in as a volunteer. I experimented on genetically mutated strains of the roundworm C Elegans. Cynthia was my first mentor — she taught me how to think and be creative. She thinks as if there are no rules. Watching her changed how I am as a scientist in a very deep way. And working on this thing that I am passionate about changed my life.’ By 14, she was at MIT, and by 17, she was one of the early recipients of the Thiel Fellowship, throwing herself into the biotechnology industry and creating a venture capital firm to back research on new therapies for age-related diseases. And now at the ripe old age of 20, Laura is Partner at the Longevity Fund (which she founded) and is based in San Francisco. She has broken all models for the traditional route to investment professional, combining the issues she cares most about with the self-determination and drive to make it happen. But there’s a reason why Laura’s story is special, and that’s simply because this kind of young adult is rare. The question becomes, how do we build an education system that supports the development of more confident and knowledgeable young adults?
It’s back to Silicon Valley again to be thinking about solving this education problem. Launched just two years ago, AltSchool is part school, part start-up. Its CEO, Max Ventilla, was a former executive at Google who became frustrated by the lack of educational options available to him after having his first child. AltSchool recently raised $100 million in funding, including investment from Facebook CEO,Mark Zuckerberg, and Founders Fund, one of the investment arms of Thiel Fellowship creator Peter Thiel. AltSchool plans to launch a network of ‘microschools’ around the US, where teachers personalize lesson plans for each child based on their learning needs. Teachers load what they call "playlists" with subject cards onto the kid's laptops and tablets. Teachers can then track the student's progress, allowing for a customized learning experience. What’s more, the teacher-student-parent relationship is radically more like a partnership in the child's learning experience. Students are given more autonomy, and whilst there are periodic tests, there aren’t regular report cards. Rather, students are being assessed on a regular basis and making adjustments on a weekly and daily basis, rather than quarterly. Children are given the freedom and respect to enjoy learning. "They are going to have to shape the world that they live in for their own benefit and for the benefit of those around them and this is where that preparation starts," Ventilla said of AltSchool in an interview with CBS News.
It’s often a seemingly culturally-risky idea that perhaps we should respect and trust the youth of today and tomorrow to have more autonomy in their lives. But if we want to raise adults with the levels of self-efficacy needed to face the challenges facing our planet, both today and tomorrow, we need to create education systems that don’t deprive children of their confidence. At what point did we come to believe that they could never conquer space travel? Why haven’t any of us grown up to become competitors for Elon Musk? Did our teachers beat our inspired minds out of us, because traditionally we were young and naive like every other class before us? Or did the bottom-up approach of education just make the road to success appear too long and hard for us? All of these options seem pretty bad, but the latter was probably culturally devastating.
In early 2015, Disney released a sci-fi kids’ movie called Tomorrowland. Financially the film flopped at the Box Office, with critics complaining of ‘improbable’ storylines. Tomorrowland was special, mainly because it depicted a future utopian world, which is rare for the movie industry where dystopian futures are the norm. But more interestingly, the actualization of this future utopia depended on the collective positive mindset and confidence of the current human race. It also champions the power of children, way over the power of adults, not least because it is a kids’ movie, but because it correctly highlights that they are in a unique position to author their entire life. The movie highlights the extent of the value that could come from collective youth optimism. In one of the most notable scenes of the movie, the Governor of Tomorrowland, played by Hugh Laurie, tells both the child protagonists and the movie audience something that seems extremely apt. 'In every moment there is a possibility of a better future, but you people won’t believe it, and because you don’t believe it, you won’t do what is necessary to make it a reality.’
Bryan Johnson, founder of online payment company Braintree (acquired by PayPal in 2013), is trying to make that utopian future a reality, by using $100 million of his own capital to invest in areas such as curing age-related diseases, synthetic biology and mining asteroids. The aim of the OS Fund is to maximize global impact towards a positive flourishing world and has lead Bryan to be an internationally recognized and admired investor and public-figure. His fund’s aim is to invest in entrepreneurs working towards quantum-leap discoveries that promise to rewrite the operating systems (the ‘OS’) of life. Understanding the complexity of the challenges we face as a species, including their multi-generational duration, Bryan is also a children’s book author. To rewrite the operating systems of life, it must surely be necessary to inspire the operators of the future to go on to utilize the tools, or design the necessary tools, that are needed to achieve these planet-changing goals. The theme of systemic change towards a flourishing world is strong in both Johnson’s manifesto and investment portfolio, but it is the publication of his children’s stories, just like Annaka, that show his integrity to inspire those future idea-builders who may go on to contribute outside of his own time-slice of existence and immediate personal reward.
In the Stanford study we learnt that the effects on children’s self-efficacy came from family, peers and school in that order. And whilst Silicon Valley may be tackling the ‘school’ issue via projects like AltSchool, Musk’s Ad Astra and the Thiel Fellowship, we must individually and globally think of a way to inspire those children which these projects can’t reach. We should fear for those children in narrow-minded schools being taught their supposed place in the world, confirmed to them by their parents and peers. That’s millions, if not billions, of children, when we consider present and future. Those children and what they believe they are capable of achieving, dramatically affect what our future world will look like. If the goal of humanity is a flourishing world, then we need adults capable of manifesting and building it. We need confident adults, who are able to speculate over problems and be knowledgeable of the methodology and tools to solve issues. And for that, we need to start at first-principles. We need to inspire and raise confident children. It can range from individually taking the chance of respecting children a little bit more than we’re used to, whether they are in our families or not. It could be speaking up about our children’s current education systems, knowing that have a direct role in defining the future state of our societies. It could be just simply recognizing how much the development of young mindsets will determine what they as a generation can achieve.
Silicon Valley may appear to be the playground for the youth, but globally we need to rethink how we treat and prepare our young adults. We must equip them with important tools, such as learning to code. We need to rethink our TV series and our magazines that we feed our children with, the advertisements that push them to be consumers from an early age. We need to think about our words, our sentiments, our levels of enthusiasm towards their opportunities, even if we are cynical about our own experiences. A playground is defined as ‘a place where a particular group of people choose to enjoy themselves’. Surely this planet should be a playground for both adults and children. The Silicon Valley mindset would refute that limitation, because the entire cosmos could be ours. We don’t really know how big this playground could get ,but it’s up to each of us, individually, to inspire ourselves and each other to play Ad Astra.