The last few months I’ve found myself reflecting on many of the perspectives I’ve taken and decisions I’ve made… and realized I’m usually wrong. As a bit of a stubborn, self-righteous and arrogant person, it can be painful to admit I’m wrong. I also find admitting I’m wrong to be an incredibly powerful tool.
I first thought about writing this article two months ago. I had just finished reading Sal Khan’s book The One World Schoolhouseal. As I read the book, I realized I misjudged Sal Khan. I have much more in common with him than I previously thought. I felt like writing a blog post as some form of apology for the criticism I’ve held against him. We’ve never met, so it was some sort of symbolic message that was likely more for my own personal growth than him actually reading it.
If you’re unaware, Sal Khan is the founder of Khan Academy. The KA website contains video lessons and interactive problems for pretty much every subject in a high school curriculum and beyond. He is one of the original advocates of the ‘flipped classroom’ model in which the lecture for a class is done at home by watching a video and homework is done in the class with the teacher available to help students. His impact has been remarkable to say the least.
In fact, Sal’s work inspired my efforts in starting Open Source High which is essentially a “Khan Academy where the students make all the videos.” Building OSH was a response to the fact that his videos feel a bit boring and sometimes rushed. I believe students can do a much better job. Not because they’re any smarter than Khan, but because they would be more creative, speak the same language as their peers, put more effort into the result, etc. I also imagined that many students would create videos of different styles about a given topic. All of the Khan Academy videos are on a digital blackboard narrated by a teacher whereas I envisioned students creating educational videos using stop-motion animation, sketch comedy, battle raps, puppet shows, expressive dance, and more.
I just spent two paragraphs praising this guy, so where was the misjudgment I alluded to? The mistake I made was trying to make a competitor out of him rather than a partner, collaborator, or even just maintaining him as an inspirational figure. Instead, I took a mindset of competition. Khan Academy became the competition which I wanted to beat. By taking the mindset of competition, I really hindered my progress. In an effort to point out the strengths of Open Source High, I felt it necessary to point out the shortcomings of Khan Academy. In business, that is generally the approach – tell people why what you have to offer is better than what someone else has to offer. After all, would I really be motivated to do something if I didn’t think my version was better?
I got so hung up on the idea of distinguishing myself from Khan, viewing him as a competitor, that I made a psychological nemesis of his venture. It was a “me vs. him” attitude. I imagine that must happen so frequently when people are going around pitching their startups to people and repeatedly saying “our product is better than XYZ’s product for these reasons…” Their entity becomes something more symbolic than real. Competition is the backbone of our capitalistic society, right? That’s the way it’s done. Maybe war is similar – I remember learning about subtle things like during the Vietnam War American soldiers would refer to the Viet-Cong as “Charlie” as a way to desensitive themselves to the fact they were killing a bunch of human beings they never met and didn’t know anything about. Rather than being real people, “Charlie” was just the enemy, this symbolic body that was to be defeated.
As I read Khan’s book, I was able to get inside his head and learn about his background, his ideas, and his motivations. We actually have a great deal in common with our views on education. While he spends a great deal of time generating digital content, his vision is not to have students spending all their time in front of the computer. Quite the opposite. His aim is to minimize the time spent doing rudimentary work by making the lessons and sample exercises efficient through technology – thus opening up the majority of students’ time to work on project-based learning. There’s a lot more I could say about my newfound appreciation for Sal, but that’s not the purpose of the article. As I mentioned, reading his book almost got me to write an article… Something else transpired to actually get me to put pen to paper (or my fingers to the keyboard).
The real motivation for writing this article is the fact that I believe I’ve been very wrong about the idea of competition.
We believe competition is what drives people to succeed – what creates better and better products and services for our economy. Without competition, we believe that people would be stagnant and lazy, that we’d make no progress. At the same time, competition also seems incredibly wasteful. It means that most people put in a lot of effort and then they “fail.” What a waste!
Imagine if we removed competition from an industry like telecommunication and remove competition, we could theoretically have an amazing benefit or a tremendous disaster. Think of how much money is wasted by having multiple staffs for accounting, billing, legal departments… or how about the countless dollars spent on advertising and marketing to out-compete one another… that’s a lot of money! And a lot of people’s time and energy. We believe that this competition drives the quality of the products up and the prices down for consumers. We believe that we are benefiting because of this competition. And everything I’ve learned about economics (very little) says this is true – competition drives quality up and prices down. But there is also an incredible amount of waste… and who the fuck do you think is paying for all that waste? You and me! And whose efforts are being put to waste? Ours!
We believe a non-competitive telecommunication industry would become a monopoly where prices skyrocket and quality goes down because the business has no incentive to lower prices or deliver a decent product. Maybe this is an assumption worth challenging.
Is competition really benefiting us or is that merely an illusion?
I’m not an economist, so I am certainly naïve in my feelings. The main point I am making is that competition will always leads to a waste of time, money, and energy – and always results in winners and losers. Again – more waste.
While my realization that I’d programmed myself to feel unnecessarily competitive with Khan Academy was my original motivation for writing an article about the value of admitting I was wrong, what finally motivated me to write this article was an epiphany I had during the student video contest I ran during December for Open Source High called “Make Math Great Again.”
For about two years, I’ve been running contests for teens where they compete for prizes by making video lessons teaching different topics like physics, math, history, and video production. The outcome is that students made really creative, engaging video lessons and many were rewarded with prizes. This seems like a good outcome. But I made a mistake in running contests. Let me be clear – my intentions were very good – but it was still a mistake.
Creating competition amongst the students was a mistake. My goal in building Open Source High is to create a platform where teens teach one another, collaboratively create and learn, and the title of ‘teacher’ is transferred to the students. By accident, I realize I’ve created a platform where teens submit video lessons to me to be judged, much like students handing in an assignment to their teacher for a grade.
This result is entirely contrary to my original goal of the website. Of course my intentions were good. I never intended the website to be a “contest” site. The idea of running a contest came about almost by accident when I went to launch the site back at the end of 2015. At that time, I had this great idea for building a platform where teens teach one another but I had no idea how to launch a community-based site which (it would seem) needs an initial boost of content to get the ball rolling.
I remember I was at a dinner with members of the Connecticut Association of Physics Teachers discussing the project when I recalled how I participated in several engineering competitions when I was in high school. Boom! Inspiration had struck me! “I’ll run a physics video lesson contest to launch the site!” I thought. It seemed brilliant. Again, the original goal was to use the contest as a marketing idea for launching the site, not as a long term plan.
And it worked to some degree. We got some great videos which validated my hypothesis that teens could create amazing educational content. But where to go next?
I wasn’t sure. At that time we didn’t even have a website, just an Indiegogo crowdfunding page! I suppose I hoped momentum from the contest would somehow carry things forward. I decided to do more experimenting by trying different variations of contests. Maybe I shouldn’t have started with physics, I thought. Maybe we’ll get more videos in our next contest now that we actually have a website setup that gives this thing some credibility.
I ran another contest and reduced the prize amounts and gave the students more autonomy over the topics – these were all based on suggestions from the book by Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, where he discusses the ways that extrinsic motivation (rewards and punishments) effect people’s performance. I interpreted the lesson to be “give people very small monetary rewards and give them autonomy” as the goals of motivating people.
So I spent over a year running many different variations of contests trying to dial in the best combination of incentives. I gave away cash prizes, I gave away T-shirts, audio/video recording equipment, comedy albums, artwork… there were lots of different approaches. I tried many different approaches to judging the contests. Ideally, I wanted the students themselves to be the judges. They complained – that they’d prefer I was the judge because I would be impartial. Over time, this all turned into running contests with very small cash prizes and me picking the winners. It was a mistake.
Last month, I decided to dig much deeper into this idea of “prize-giving” and read Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. This forced me to face the reality that I was doing something horrible with my approach to running contests – I was manipulating the teens. By dangling a prize out in front of them, I was trying to motivate them to do what I wanted. If I had something truly valuable to offer them, they wouldn’t need a contest to participate. Maybe there are short-term benefits of running a contest, but the longterm effective is not positive. Alfie’s book is incredibly insightful and draws from countless studies with both children and adolescents in school but also adults in the workplace. Punishments and rewards do not work. Not only did I have to look in the mirror and acknowledge that I had been manipulative, I had to acknowledge that maybe my understanding of human nature and motivation was terribly flawed.
I recognize the errors of my ways and am correcting the direction of this ship I am driving.
For one, I won’t be running any more contests.
I may be compelled to run “nontests.” A “nontest” would involve me putting out a new topic for students to make videos about, but would not include any reward or judging. I might still be making a mistake here by offering a topic at all – maybe the goal is really to have them create lessons without a prompt. So maybe I’ll come back in the future and admit I was wrong again. Or maybe in writing this, I’ll realize that “nontests” are a mistake and I’ll just avoid ever running one.
In addition to changing the direction of the website, this experience is pushing me much more toward looking at ways make education more collaborative and cooperative than. I’m recognizing that more and more as one of the major flaws of our education system and inevitably our society.
From the first day of kindergarten, students are taught to compete. We tell them we want them to collaborate – we may even run group projects – but the grading system is built specifically for competition. That is the only valid reason it exists. Why is it that a permanent record is kept of students’ grades for any reason other than to create competition?
Is grading to indicate to the student what they’ve learned? If that is the case, write the grade on the test and hand it back to the student – there is no reason to keep a permanent record starting at age five to one day be shared with a college or employer. People walk away with many intangibles from their K-12 education and only one tangible – their transcript. The transcript is the “competition certificate” – that is the item which tells the world what place you’ve earned in the 12 year contest you’ve been competing in.
When I was in 2nd grade, I remember learning about Japan. I learned two things – 1) how to sing the song ‘head, shoulders, knees, and toes, knees and toes” in Japanese (“ata makata ezay ashi, ezay ashi” and 2) their school system is frighteningly competitive. I remember my teacher talking about all the horrors of being a youth in Japan because students were placed in extremely competitive environments where they must study heavily to stay on the “top track” and falling off that “top track” would lead to shame, dishonor, lack of employment, being dismissed by their family, and sometimes even suicide. We were taught that this was a horrible and frightening way to live your childhood – and how dare the Japanese impose such a system on their children!
This information was presented to me as if the Japanese were the bad guys and that Americans are the guys because we don’t do that to our children. But that is exactly what we do – we’re just not as good at it as the Japanese. Oh no, America is losing the “competition competition”!
From day one, we pit our children against one another. Even the extracurricular activities are turned into competitions. As I mentioned, I participated in engineering competitions when I was a teen. Why did these need to be competitions? Would nobody participate in extracurricular engineering projects if there was not a competition at the end? In fact, why were they just activities at all – why couldn’t we go out and actually design and build things to help real people in the community? Why are we playing games for prizes instead of doing something real? Even something like debate – why can’t students do public speaking about topics they’re passionate about without it being a contest with a winner and a loser?
I participated in sports where competition obviously played a major role. I played many sports as a kid both informally and formally and ended up pursuing basketball in high school. I remember realizing something odd… only one team gets to finish their season with a smile on their face. If your team doesn’t make the playoffs, it means you sucked. Or, you make the playoffs and lose your final game of the season. The only team that gets to finish happy is the champions. They are the winner and everyone else is a loser. It’s interesting that nowadays I am into sports that don’t involve competition at all… I rock climb, skateboard, surf, run, ski, and just tried scuba diving this morning! At no point do I compete at all except with myself.
I used to play basketball a lot which obviously falls into that winners-and-losers category. I don’t play anymore. I’m sure that I could find places to play, leagues to join, or go play pickup at a park. It might be nice to play and meet people and make some friends. Yet, the truth is, when I play basketball, I am fiercely competitive. I don’t really find myself making friends playing basketball with strangers at a park. I am incredibly aggressive and every ounce of my intention is toward winning the game. Some may take the perspective that I’m unnecessarily physical with others. That’s not really a friend-making approach. I have found the same thing has happened on the rare occasion I’ve played poker at a casino – I am sitting there not enjoying the company of the people at the table because I am competing with them. In fact, I find myself hating every one of them, interpreting every word they say to me as some attempt at deception. (I should note that the circumstances shift a lot if I play basketball with people I am already friends with or play cards with people I’m already friends with.)
This focus on competition over cooperation and collaboration that I’ve highlighted in this article is just one example of where I’ve made a mistake. I could very well have just written an article titled “Competition blows dogs for quarters.” I felt like it was more important to write something emphasizing the value of admitting you’re wrong. All the most useful insights into the world I’ve gotten were when I realized I was wrong about something. (Edit: “competition blows dogs for quarters” may make a great subtitle!)
Interestingly, the fellow who created the Veritasium YouTube series got this Ph.D. in physics education and found that people learned physics best when they realized they have made a mistake and were offered a correction. People nonchalantly believe they understand how the world works and if you simply give them information explaining the behavior of the universe, they don’t retain it because they believe they already understand it. They think you are wasting their time. But if you ask them to explain themselves, and then point out their inaccuracy, they learn much more. They learn only when they recognize they are wrong.
It’s wicked interesting to realize you were wrong about something! It’s just much easier to convince someone they are wrong about the laws of the physical universe which have concrete equations, examples, and demonstrations to prove them wrong.
There are countless other realms where I’ve found myself wrong about something more subtle. This has been particularly true when I’ve been dismissive of different people, ideas, or lifestyles. My teen self would certainly call my present self a pussy… I am a vegetarian, do yoga, don’t drink or smoke, am obsessed with physics, value my sleep, find prejudice nauseating, think astrology/chakras/crystals are kinda dope, I meditate, and am overly concerned with other people’s feelings. At some point in time, I’ve definitely insulted people who have taken these perspectives. But my perspective has changed, mainly by recognizing I made mistakes (sometimes the hard way).
The vegetarianism came from realizing it was a mistake to be unnecessarily eating animals when there is a shitload of food available to me that doesn’t require any animals to be harmed. I don’t really give a damn about animals, I don’t really like them, but it seems a mistake to just go kill things unnecessarily when I live in a country where there are grocery stores filled with a never-ending supply of food. (Not to mention that animal-raising is one of the largest contributors to global warming). This came as a rude awakening after I was horribly mistreated by some people in a business deal and had some strange dreams or hallucinations involving animal cruelty.
The interest in yoga came from a completely changed perspective about spirituality and truth-seeking – something I once would have mistakenly dismissed as an activity for women or fags. Or at least “crazy people.” That word “crazy” has definitely taken on different meanings throughout my life. That is the topic of a separate article that I’ve already started writing.
My vocabulary has certainly shifted. Something super subtle, like realizing it’s not proper to refer to the archaeological sites in the Mayan Riviera as “ruins” since that implies that are ruined. It’s far more appropriate to refer to them as ancient Mayan markets and temples or archaeological sites. Some more aggressive changes to my vocabulary – I can look back and remember being a teen and using the terms ‘nigger’ and ‘faggot’ with an uncomfortable frequency. I’m deeply ashamed at my casual use of such painful terms.
Sometimes, subtle and sometimes glaringly obvious (in hindsight), these were mistakes. I guess there’s something therapeutic about “publicy” admitting these mistakes on the internet, but they’re also buried 4,000 words into my blog. But really it’s about admitting a mistake to myself to change my own course. Drinking and smoking – learning these were dangerous for me only came with heavy experimenting and making mistakes. Not to say 100% of my activity or experience with these drugs were bad, and I am actually for the legalization of drugs, but I made mistakes which I’ve learned lessons from. And those mistakes have changed my course.
As I write this, I feel I should point out that I recognized many of these mistakes during times of what doctor’s would call “psychosis.” Many of these positive changes in my life came through what is effectively considered an illegal thought process and behavior. I’ve felt shamed and criminalized for the processes that have brought these positive life-transformations. “Criminal” is not the best word for it. Without turning this into an entire other blog article…. But I’ve been handcuffed, locked up, somewhat psychologically tortured, and treated very inhumanely during what the medical profession considers to be “psychiatric emergencies.” During these “psychiatric emergencies”, I came to respect living things, eat better, acknowledge other human beings as human, adjust the direction of my ship toward one which is for the betterment of humanity, and found a self-confidence and spiritual path to support myself.
Yet, during this transitions, I’ve been considered mentally insane. What the fuck? Not sure what else to say about that. But in many eastern cultures, these “psychiatric emergencies” are generally regarded as “spiritual emergencies” – and they are treated as a valuable process which the individual must undergo as a growing process and should be aided, comforted, and supported. In America, we treat these processes as a disorder – a dangerous medical conditions which must be halted by any means necessary, even to the physical, emotional, and psychological detriment of the individual (and ultimately to society).
So – medical community – it would be pleasing to me for you to admit you have made mistakes. And to change the direction of your ship.
When I started writing this article, I really had no intention of it leading to a place where I’d discuss mental health and get into psychiatry. But I am really glad that it went that way. It feels like an appropriate time to wind this down.
What started as an article talking about admitting your mistakes turned into one about the issues with competition in society and then concluded with pointing out the mental health system is making mistakes. I think this is actually a very logical path (looking back).
Admitting a mistake is the way we redirect ourselves. The competitive nature of our society makes it very difficult for people to admit a mistake and change direction. Either they are worried about losing money in business, or judgment of their peers/family/society… there is lots of unwarranted shame with admitting mistakes… but this nature leads us to continue making mistakes. And it effects all of our mental health.
We look back on time toward slavery as something that went on which was accepted by society and slowly became rejected. Certainly there were many people who were anti-slavery even when It was a widespread practice. They didn’t all speak up. They didn’t all act. Some probably did and were likely punished. Even after slavery was less acceptable, many whom made economic benefits from slavery had a very hard time admitting they were wrong. Eventually, most did, but I don’t think everyone has.
I think people will look back similarly on the way we treat animals, minority groups, children, prisoners, students, senior citizens, our environment, and foreigners in a similar way. Until we acknowledge our mistakes and redirect our ships, we’ll continue to make those mistakes. And if we look at society as a whole organism… our mental health (as a whole society) is suffering from an incredibly painful auto-immune disorder. We are destroying ourselves. It seems to go unnoticed. We seem to be unaware of the problem. Or we acknowledge it but think it would be too hard to change. Or maybe we simply don’t know what life would be without all of these problems, so we keep doing what we’re doing because “hey, things aren’t really that bad.”
Maybe there are similar implications to celiac’s disease – these are the folks on gluten-free diets. I know I’ve judged these people and talked trash about them at some point. I’ve criticized it as ‘more hippie bullshit’. Or maybe it’s been for pussy’s. Not sure – but probably some subconscious discrimination against women is buried in there. But, much like my young self would have dismissed things like yoga, meditation, vegetarianism, etc… maybe I’m wrong too about gluten. Maybe removing this food from my diet would actually bring drastic health benefits to me. Without being fully awake to it, maybe I’ve been suffering from an auto-immune disorder based on consuming food. Maybe my mental health “problems” are actually rooted in the food I consume. It’s an off-possibility… but maybe there are more mistakes I’ve been making that I can’t quite identify, but once I do, will result in more positive transformation.
Only time will tell… but I look forward to realizing I’ve been making more mistakes. Admittedly, It causes me to feel ashamed of an ignorant, imperfect younger self… but also more optimistic about my future. If I can forgive myself for past mistakes and acknowledge that’s a normal part of growing… then I’ll be all set.
ADDENDUM: I never acknowledged the great irony in the face that the all of this commotion happened while running a “Make Math Great Again” contest. There is probably some underlying link to the current state of affairs in the United States. Competition seems to be the way of life in most developed nations, the US is just making an extreme caricature of the concept. My hope is that bringing issues to the forefront will cause them to be addressed rather than continue to be casually accepted and ignored. Sometimes it takes a hammer to the head to wake up. Also, I realized I should have included the video I posted to Open Source High announcing the ‘results’ of the contest. That is included here: