The 20’s are a funny time, aren’t they?
The first couple decades of my life were fairly well structured, and I imagine that’s true for many of my friends. Kindergarten at five. Go to college at eighteen. Maybe grad school, maybe not. The real world at last.
Ah, the real world. It’s a term that was always mentioned in the same breath as words like “understand” and “older” and it was always uttered out of the corner of the speaker’s mouth, like some kind of secret that everyone else was in on.
I graduated college and got a job with IBM, and there it was — the real world. Looming over me. Staring at me, poking me with sharp glances and wordless gestures during the eight weeks I had off between college and the start of my job as a consultant.
I used to imagine what my life would look like in the real world. In my fantasy, I had a high tech apartment with moving furniture. I wore a suit and said important things to people (not actual words, but shadows of real world business goings on).
In my fantasy real world, I was always on my feet. I was happy. I had a wife and two kids and I took them out for pizza on Fridays or perhaps order in the finest Chinese food. I would teach them about the values of dental hygiene, and I would tell them about the time their old man had to have nine fillings and two root canals done in the span of six months, and they would brush their teeth til their gums were sore. To me, this was the realest world I could imagine at 22.
It wasn’t much like that.
I got paid a decent amount of money and spent time trying to break computer systems. I’d come up with creative ideas only to be told that the priority was on fixing things, rather than re-inventing them. A handbook of best practices was shoved into my lap, as if good job performance was as easy as following a set of instructions. That’s consulting, though. Re-inventing is costly.
Year after year, I was told my performance was adequate, if not excellent. But it was never about my ideas or my ability. If I could charge more hours to a client than my colleagues, I would win big. Sort of big, anyway. Nothing to write home about. Perhaps something to text home, or tweet.
Once, we were told to increase the weekly minimum billable hours to 44 from 40 - no raises or bonuses, just a new standard. Going above and beyond to get a “C” grade. If you wanted to do really well, you could try to bill more than 44.
Don’t get me wrong - I’m not complaining about having a job that most would consider respectable, with a good salary and benefits and all of that. But we’re talking about the real world, after all, and the real world goes much deeper than money and status.
Another time, IBM accidentally laid me off. A labeling accident in HR landed me in the “fire” pile, and no research was done to confirm my actual value at the company. I had a termination date and everything. I had already returned my laptop and had received my severance package. A month later, with no explanation or apology, the decision was reversed.
Back in my cube, after being un-fired, I was blinded by a brilliant flash of Obvious.
The real world is false.
Indeed, the real world is so far removed from reality that we might as well call it the pretend world. We pretend that fancy designer costumes make us better at what we do. We pretend that the more money you make, the more valuable you are to society. We pretend that other human beings are “above” us instead of “with” us, and so they have the right to yell, scream, and dehumanize us whenever they wish. We pretend that being good at what we do means we’ll be safe. We pretend that we know what we’re doing. We pretend that the acceptance of others is far less important to us now than it was in the schoolyard.
Two years went by since my accidental layoff. I searched for other tech jobs. I even got a few interviews, but nothing ever came of them. Meanwhile, the pretend world roared on.
"You shouldn’t wear jeans to work," my supervisor whispered to me, one day at the office.
"It’s Friday. Most people wear jeans," I said, incredulous.
"How about something casual but not too casual, like a button down and a nice pair of khakis?" she suggested.
"All my khakis have yogurt sauce stains on them from that Mediterranean place downstairs. And also, what you’re describing is my version of formal attire."
My supervisor is lovely, of course, and we work in a client-facing office, so her comment wasn’t out of place. But after six years of working here, I’ve lost the desire to pretend. I’ve lost the desire to wear costumes. I even started giving a sincere and lengthy response to the random people asking “hey, how are ya?” when they passed me on the way back from the restroom.
And then Seth Godin released his book, Stop Stealing Dreams. There was no audio version, so I made one and sent it to him. It started as the fulfillment of a dream I’d always had (to record an audiobook for an author I respect), but doing the reading affected me in a profound way.
Over the course of the two-week recording session, I found myself deeply engaged with the text. I learned about how the school system was built on an outdated industrial age, one where the goal was to simulate the process of working in a factory. I learned about some innovative schools that are adapting to the needs of the current economy; schools that value creativity and artistry above rote memorization and regurgitation. Schools that wouldn’t just ask when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but schools that would ask a student how she would go about exploring and discovering new territory.
And the solution, in Seth’s mind, starts with teachers. The goal was to figure out how to be engaging. How could you utilize and harness creativity in a way that made school a joy, rather than a chore? How could you use art to create a school where children were leaning forward in their seats, eager to discover the properties and rules of the natural world?
Well, this was a problem worth investigating. Or at least, it was a solution that I could see myself participating in. Or maybe leading.
A masters degree was out of the question, so I applied for an alternative certification program at a local college. I was late on the deadline, so I was told to wait a year.
And then we had lunch with one of Liza’s friends from her study abroad program in college. She was working at a place called the Center for Inspired Teaching, and told me about their 2 year certification program.
"You take coursework and co-teach in a DC public school in your first year. It’s a residency model, like what they do with med students. At the end of that year, you’re certified to teach full time in DC as you continue taking coursework. Then, you work for three years after that in DCPS," she told me over a gyro platter.
"I don’t know," I sighed, while stuffing a french fry into my mouth. "Isn’t it all about standardization and tests and stuff?"
"Inspired is a little different. They really focus on teachers with creativity, and they’re more about the children than about the numbers. They create change-makers, in fact. You’d be a great fit."
So I applied. I got past the first couple layers of the online application and then was scheduled for a phone interview. A couple hours before the interview, I prepped. I wrote down a list of the skills I’d acquired as a Resident Assistant in college. I reflected on Seth Godin’s words in Stop Stealing Dreams. I was ready to discuss how good I was at presenting, and how I believe that teachers have the power to change the future.
"Tell me about a time that you interacted with a child who fascinated you,” the interviewer said. Like a deer in stadium lights. I took a silent breath. I closed the laptop in front of me, which had all of my prep notes on its screen. I hadn’t prepared for a question like this. I had prepared to answer questions with my brain, but it was my heart that broke the radio silence.
"I… uh. Fascinated, huh. I’m… I’m constantly fascinated." Good one. Try again.
I completely forgot about this 9-year old philosopher that I met and videotaped. If I had remembered, my words could’ve filled volumes.
Instead, my mind jumped to an eight year old I’d met in California at one of Liza’s family barbecues. I was performing magic for her.
"Wowwww," she stammered, after I made her chosen card appear out of nowhere.
"Want me to tell you how I did that?" I baited her.
"Nope!" she said.
I was perplexed. Even adults can’t help but ask how I do the tricks. I always reply with the Magician’s Rule #1: A magician never reveals his secrets.
"You don’t want to know?" I asked her.
"The world is more fun when you aren’t told how it works!"
She scampered off.
And all this time I was taught to believe that there was such a thing as a “best practice.” This kid (and the one in the video) knew more about reality than I did.
Come to think of it, I thought, was I that smart when I was her age? Were all of us?
Kevin Arnold, in an episode of the Wonder Years, said that when you’re a kid, you’re a number of things. You’re a scientist. A detective. A magician. An artist. A singer. A dreamer. A fashionista. He comes to the conclusion that growing up is just the process of giving up these identities, one by one.
What happened along the way to force us to hide that curiosity?
How did the adults in our lives erode our mountain of passions until it was nothing but a laundry pile, forgotten and stuffed under a table?
At what point were our dreams stolen?
When did we give up?
When did I give up?
Did I just, at some point, assume that I knew everything there was to know? Was it in a college classroom, or perhaps an office conference room, where I killed my imagination with bullet points on a yellow legal pad?
And as the country aims to become more competitive, is this tragedy happening even sooner with today’s youth?
Her words returned to me: The world is more fun when you aren’t told how it works.
Ah, yes. Of course it is.
Of course. Countless teachers have tried to explain how the world works. Employers, too. Parents. Cousins. Friends. Barbers. Bartenders. Bankers. Celebrities. Everyone has their own idea about the meaning of life.
But wait a freaking minute, all of these people were unintentionally and unknowingly making the world less fun!
And that’s it. It’s not that the world becomes less fun when you learn about how it works. No, it becomes less fun when you are told how it works. It’s the discovery that’s joyful; not the explanation.
And so, I am quitting consulting to pursue a career that will allow me to make the world more fun.
Today, I signed my acceptance letter with the Center for Inspired Teaching’s residency program.
And when I get in front of my students, I will not reveal my secrets. I will not explain the inner workings of a clock, or how I knew that their chosen card was the eight of clubs.
I will not say to them that life is a bowl of cherries, or that the key to success is this or that. I will not give them a packet of best practices, or a handbook on anything. I will not tell them what a meaningful career is and I will not tell them who they are.
I will not explain the steps involved in learning how to ski. I will not teach them origami.
I will not provide How-tos. How-tos are for YouTube. And they all know how to use YouTube.
But I will show them that the coin that was once in my hand is now gone. And they’ll wonder where it went. And they’ll develop their own hypotheses, and right or wrong, those hypotheses will result in their own beautiful discoveries.
And there will be days where I will fail to inspire, but on the days where I am triumphant, I’ll be able to go sleep knowing that my students are triumphant as well.
And I will find chosen cards, read their minds, walk through walls, chop myself up into tiny pieces and restore myself. I will draw a perfect circle. I will make chalk float.
Most importantly, I will never tell them how it all works. They’ll squint a little harder. They’ll strain their necks to look under the veil. And I will show them just enough of the rabbit to make them wonder about what’s happening in the top hat. I’ll even let them poke it and examine it. Like the best magicians do.
I hope it makes them want to create their own magic tricks. I hope they never tell me how those tricks works, either. I hope they develop abilities that they, too, can’t unfold immediately. I hope my students find full masterpieces standing at the forefront of their imaginations, waiting to be transcribed. I will be there, telling them to “GO!”
I hope they live in a world where everyone is encouraged to discover their own unique abilities. That place would be the real real world.
And if you’re wondering how I’m going to do all this? How, in the face of a society that wants to turn children into data, could I possibly have the audacity to believe that I can just leave consulting and make waves in the education world?
Well, I’m going to have to stand by Magician’s Rule #1.
The world is more fun when you aren’t told how it works. Trust me.