How I Learn Stuff

September 1, 2012

Richard Bach: Lesson About Risk

Filed under: Uncategorized — james @ 9:43 pm

My father crashed his airplane, yesterday. He’s alive, but seriously injured.

He hit a power line while landing at a small grass field on San Juan Island. We don’t yet know much about the conditions surrounding the accident. It may be a simple matter of pilot error, on par with backing your car into a fire hydrant while trying to park (I’ve done that– twice), or there may have been a sudden downdraft or mechanical failure that contributed to the situation. We don’t yet know.

[New Information: We were wondering how he hit the power lines when he had been told about them. It turns out that there are two sets of transmission lines at that location. He cleared the phone lines and hit the power lines. I bet he saw the phone lines and assumed those were the ones he'd been warned about. Meanwhile he was landing to the South because there was a South wind, and he would have tried to cut it close because the field slopes downward and is not very long.]

But it makes me reflect on what he has often told me about risk-taking. He enjoys taking risks, he often says, but his risks are controlled and calculated. His risk-taking is characterized by plans and backup plans. He is a safety-obsessed pilot.

Part of what he loves about flying is the harsh honesty of it. Aviation is perfectly lawful and just. A pilot who lives well by the laws of flying lives long and happy. A pilot who violates them will not remain a pilot for long. Still, a pilot cannot control every detail, so good pilots fly with humility.

That attitude about flying also permeates his life, and its one of the many gifts I have of him, and my brothers and sisters, also: We are not victims of fate, we are the authors of our lives. Yes, life will be turbulent, at times. We will have our inflight emergencies. But we prepare for them, and we take action to turn bad feelings and bad situations into something positive.

Turn everything positive. Learn from everything that happens. In this way, we are always pilots-in-command, no matter what happens.

October 22, 2011

New Chapter in the Paperback

Filed under: Uncategorized — james @ 12:54 am

The paperback version of the Buccaneer- Scholar is now available. It has a new chapter.

Although I wrote the book for young working people who work with their minds, it turns out the dominant market for it is parents of homeschooled and unschooled kids. So, I’ve added a chapter specifically for them. It’s deals with how to think and feel about your child growing up and making the jump to adulthood. Being self-educated is no obstacle for them, but we parents sometimes worry about that.

The chapter looks at three famous thinkers: Vincent Van Gogh, Mark Twain, and Charles Darwin. None of these men found their stride until they were 27. My self-making son is 17, so that’s a comfort to me! Van Gogh, in particular, wrote a painful letter to his brother, wherein he poured out his heart about feeling aimless and frustrated. Just a few weeks later, he decided to be a painter… and made history.

See Van Gogh’s letter, here.

June 9, 2011

Indispensable Skills

Filed under: Uncategorized — james @ 7:04 pm

One day a few years ago I reflected on my responsibility as a father to educate my son. I decided that education is a personal work of art, and therefore it’s my son’s decision how to educate himself. My role is to facilitate and support but not to “educate” in any active sense, unless he seeks that from me.

A good parent, I think, is like a forest ranger. It’s not for the ranger to decide exactly which tree should grow in what place or fashion. The ranger sees to the robustness of the forest ecosystem in general. The ranger should protect the integrity of the natural world, rather than play organizing angel.

I feel like saying this more strongly: for me it would be child abuse to insist that my son adopt my religion or politics or to learn any specific skill, including the ability to read. Of course I would be pleased if he did learn things I personally have found useful. But to insist upon that is contrary to a fundamental belief of mine: each of our lives belongs ultimately and only to ourselves. A parent is a temporary steward of the lives of his children.

What if I were responsible not for a forest, but for a single plant– only, I didn’t know what kind of plant it was? I might be partial to oak trees, but my plant might turn out to be a creosote bush. It would not be right (or productive) to try to force that bush to be a tree. I would hurt the plant and frustrate myself. Instead, I would have to discover what conditions that bush needed to thrive. I supply those things, as well as I reasonably can.

Different plants need different things; same goes for the minds of men.

As I pondered my role, I decided to make a list of all the skills I believe are absolutely indispensable to living a good life. This list reflects my values and beliefs about life in the free world. My list is humanist and secular. Your list may be different. Anyway here it is:

  • Ability to evaluate and maintain your own physical body.
  • Ability to comprehend your choices, and know that you can choose differently
  • Ability to forgive yourself and others.
  • Ability to live near others without creating unnecessary resentment or unreasonable disruption.
  • Ability to seek and experience joy without destroying yourself or others to get it.
  • Ability to daydream, imagine, explore, and play; ability to value those things.
  • Ability to quit doing things that don’t bring you satisfaction; ability to change your mind, even it disappoints other people.
  • Ability to tell the truth to yourself; and to know when you are telling lies.
  • Ability to face disappointment, sorrow, and hardship with courage; to understand that pain can be a path to growth.
  • Ability to take reasonable risks to achieve something important to you.
  • Ability to understand your values as choices.
  • Ability to evaluate your life as if you were a self-creating being with the power to change things and improve yourself.

Notice what is not on my list? There’s nothing here about learning any specific subject, including how to read. Nothing about social activism, or making friends. Nothing much about morality or discipline.

This list is about how to be alive, amidst other people, with integrity and without misery. I think anyone who has these skilled can live a good life, and without these skills (all of them) I believe life would be stunted and unhappy.

I see only one skill on this list (the first one) that a parent is actually obligated to teach. Well, maybe the fourth one, too, I’m not sure… The others can’t be taught directly, but they are definitely learned. Each of us, on our way to being an adult, develops each of these skills to some degree.

Many people (most criminals for instance) are not strong in one or more of these skills. I’m particularly depressed with the backwardness of politicians. This demonstrates my point: skills like this can’t be taught unless they are sought. They come to you over time, if you live at least a moderately reflective life.

I try to be an example for my son. He sees me using these skills. But I think it’s more about creating an environment where there is no fear or coercion. Then the garden will grow.

March 13, 2010

Another Puzzle

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — james @ 8:19 pm

Trey Klein sent me another puzzle…

“Find the missing 13th number in this sequence:

77, 341, 923, 1547, 608, 2116, 377, 2263, 518, 1394, 3182, 1645, _____ , 944, 4636, …”

Anyone who solves this, I’d like you to post the sequence of tactics and ideas by which you solved it, in the comments. (Yes, I have solved it, and I’ll put my method in a comment, too.)

COMMENTS WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS, so don’t look unless you want the secret. Trey offered some hints, but I’m against hints, so I won’t publish them.

December 25, 2009

William Boshoff

Filed under: Uncategorized — james @ 8:26 am

A young man from South Africa, William Boshoff, recently wrote me with a familiar story of trouble in school…

School! Nobody could ever justify why knowing the structure of fauna RNA is vital to my future. Solving problems which had no relevance to my life was one thing, but something else really bothered me: If I solved those problems with answers not found in the book, I was automatically told that I was wrong. No intellectual debate, second thoughts, or checking of sources. I was just “wrong.” I quickly lost will to do homework or pay attention in class. The teachers told me that I would get nowhere in life and that I was doomed to sweep the streets.

William didn’t accept that.

I spent my time teaching myself anything and everything that I could get my hands on about computers. I tinkered, toyed and experimented and when I had run out of material to go through I would break it and try to fix it again.

I grew up in an exceptionally poor home. It was to the point where we were forced moved to a farm house because that was all that we could afford. No background, no financial help, nothing. Even when faced with a bleak future I still continued to educate myself. Not to change my future, but because I loved what I was doing. I was growing stronger every day and with that growth passion followed.

Finally, I was old enough to spread my own wings. We moved to another farm close to the city. I bulked up on self-help-get-employed information and set out to find a job. No job experience. No qualifications. Not even my own transport. I went to half a dozen interviews. Minimum pay and long hours never scared me. I just wanted to do what I love. Regardless, nobody was interested.

William’s experience to this point seemed to justify the predictions of his teachers. But notice what he does next. This is a classic buccaneer move…

I was at an all-time low. I decided that whatever my next interview would be, I would get the job. I saw an ad in the paper for a “technical call center agent” and decided to apply. I remember walking into that office like it was yesterday. This company had a library full of books, a server to test things on and more than enough room. It was my dream opportunity. Right there and then I decided that I had enough. I told the interviewer that I knew on paper I was not much to look at. “But,” I said, “I promise that if you hire me you won’t regret it.” I told him about my thirst for knowledge and how my passion drives me. Five hours later, I got the call: I got the job.

It was only as a Technical call centre call logger but I was proud. My employer nicknamed me ‘future’ which I wore with a smile on my face because on that day of the interview I promised him that I would be the future of the company. Let it be understood that I was not seen as arrogant: because I fully believed every word that I said.

In four years, William has gone from being a call logger, to a call center consultant, to a junior systems engineer, then systems engineer, senior systems engineer, messaging architect, and technical manager.

Today it’s nearly four years later. As I’m writing this I am sitting in my own office, with technology that I helped build from the ground up and an e-mail signature that reads ‘Technical Manager’ which will soon change to ‘Technical Director’. Today as your reading this I am more driven than ever and doing what I love. I can say with full conviction that I am William Boshoff and I am a buccaneer!

I have never been wealthy by American standards, but William was downright poor. Still, he doesn’t see poverty as a barrier.

In today’s world, there is no excuse not to learn. While living on a farm, I didn’t have access to libraries. But even when I had nothing, I would go to an internet cafe and download ebooks.

I love hearing stories like William’s. I dip my colors to you, fellow buccaneer!

September 15, 2009

Education Without Schooling

Filed under: Uncategorized — james @ 6:03 pm

Hand me a Band-Aid. Make a Xerox of that. Get some more Kleenex. FedEx that package. These are all examples of a synecdoche. That’s when one kind or form or part of a thing is made to stand in for an entire category. This is not necessarily a bad thing, except when language becomes a prison. Xerox is not the only company that makes copiers. FedEx is not the only package delivery company. We know that.

A more insidious and sad example of synecdoche is that a lot of people say education when they mean schooling.

Schooling is an approach to improving education. Another approach? Just living and never going to school. Extremely different paths, yes, but both result in some sort of education.

My definition of education is the mind I have constructed and my process of constructing it. This definition is consistent with deep nature of education as no mere collection of static facts and formulae stored on your hard disk between your ears. Your education is the sum and synergy of all that you have become. Not just your experiences, but what your experiences mean to you, and how they helped you shape yourself. (Notice when I speak strictly, I don’t say that experience shapes you. Experience can’t shape you. Your own mind shapes itself in reaction to experiences, and there are many ways to react to the same exact experiences.)

Unschoolers believe that a rich education can be gained without schooling of any kind, and certainly without compulsory schooling. Schooling, or some parts of schooling, may help, but it isn’t necessary. This truth ought to be obvious to anyone who studies how people learn, or looks at the history of education among the peoples of the world. But there are rich and powerful interests dedicated to promoting formal (and invariably expensive) schooling as the ONLY way– THE ONLY WAY– to gain an excellent education, or even a barely adequate one.

This is a terribly uneducated point of view, ironically.

Anyway, I’m going to be speaking about this at the East West bookstore in Seattle, next week. Come argue with me! (or not…)

I will talk about the Buccaneering way of self-education.

September 14, 2009

Buccaneer Rob Bach

Filed under: Uncategorized — james @ 11:21 pm

My brother, Rob, taught me to fly in 1991. I thought it would be weird, spending day and night with him as a student. I assumed there’d be lots of sibling tension. In fact, it was glorious. We had a great time. I went from neophyte to solo cross-country flight in three-weeks.

Being a pilot is automatically a sort of buccaneery thing, if you want to be a GOOD pilot. You can get the certification, but that’s just the beginning. An excellent pilot does a lot of extra self-education to learn his aircraft inside and out. After years of not flying, I’m going through training again (this time my father is my instructor.)

Rob is an airline pilot, inventor, and antique aircraft restorer. He never went to college, and none of the things he’s famous for were taught to him in high school.

Here’s Rob talking about how he built his latest plane.

I wish I lived nearer to him, so we could build a plane together.


September 13, 2009

Among Unschoolers

Filed under: Uncategorized — james @ 11:40 pm

About five hundred folks, from young children to adults, gathered at the Marriott in Westlake, Texas, last week, for the Rethinking Education conference. The event took place all over the hotel: hallways, lobby, lounge, even the space in front of the elevators on several floors. The whole place had been converted to a free kid zone (the opposite of “kid free”).

The event seemed to stratify into young kids, younger teens, older teens, and adults. I saw not much mixing between the groups, except that very young kids sometimes orbited their parents as they attempted to listen to a keynote talk, causing bit of tolerable noise and disruption.

I spent most of my time with the adults, but I saw lots of kids, who were for the most part friendly and exuberant. Just as I would expect in a self-organized five-day gathering, there were some difficult moments. Someone broke the glass in the elevators, and there were at least a couple of little fights among the kids, including a little kid in a dinosaur outfit whom, it was rumored, walked around making dinosaur noises and punching other, bigger kids.

(My father, hearing about these events, is scandalized. I think he imagines a prison riot, and nothing I say has succeeded in creating a category in his mind mid-way between “prison riot” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies.”)

I appreciate the patience and forbearance of the parents in reacting to these events. Unschooling requires patience and trust. I think that is the number one requirement for unschooling parents: saint-like patience and trust. We want our children to be safe, but we need our children to gain experience, too; to try things, even a lot of things that could end badly, so that they learn about the consequences of their choices. My own son has a habit of making sardonic comments worthy of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. I wish he would say friendly things instead and open his heart to humanity… and yet, I sorta remember being like that at 15, too. Today I am occasionally capable of kindness, and I have good theoretical knowledge of polite behavior, so there’s hope for him, too.

I did a couple of talks about being a high school dropout surrounded by college grads. These went over very well, much better than I expected, actually. Being a technical guy in a non-technical environment, I worried that I’d come across as an alien life form. Apparently that was not a problem. I was happy to see a few young adults in the audience, too. I videoed the talks, and I’m thinking about putting them online.

The most exciting and satisfying part was being with all these other adults for whom unschooling is normal. These are people who don’t panic at the thought of not knowing exactly what their children will do for a living, in ten years.

You know, the idea of not sending your kids to school AND not driving through any sort of curriculum at home is truly bizarre and frightening to most educated people in the world (who are themselves products of compulsive schooling). I regularly fall into debates with folks who imagine that unschooling will cause our very society to unravel, and then implode– as if that hasn’t already been happening despite widespread kid imprisonment call public school! I think, rather, that rejecting compulsory schooling would renew society, because we need a society of self-created hard-to-manipulate adults to counteract the rampant international consumerist corporatism that now controls the world.

Public schools were created as a tool to produce a docile and undemanding citizenry. This has led to amazing paradoxes in America, such as our expectation that fire departments should be a public service, but that somehow medical care should be considered a private luxury. The way things are, here, is not a result of a strong sense of our culture or philosophy as Americans. It’s a result of our collective inability and unwillingness to take responsibility for our own thoughts. Radical unschooling is part of a radical corrective for that.

(That there was the rant portion of this post, if you’re scoring at home.)

Excerpt of Buccaneer-Scholar

Filed under: Uncategorized — james @ 2:41 pm

The Daily Beast has published an excerpt of my book.

However, they embellished my record, and I need to set it straight.

First, they called me a genius. If I were a genius it would undermine my message. You do not need to be a genius to do what I did. I’m an intelligent guy, sure, but so are you. Unintelligent people don’t read blogs. I prefer to say that I’m “guaranteed not stupid” (most days), but the word “genius” is used to separate people. It’s what you call those special magical people who think in ways you can’t imagine.

Second, they said I have an eighth grade education. What I have is an eighth grade diploma. It’s the only diploma-like thing I have. They didn’t give out diplomas for 9th and 10th grade, but I did sort of finish 10th grade (not sure if I passed it, because I don’t know how to interpret my transcript, but I tried NOT to pass 10th grade). So, I have a 10th grade formal education.

August 27, 2009

Working With Kids

Filed under: Uncategorized — james @ 9:10 am

I like working with teens who are eager to learn. For four months last year I had the pleasure of working with two brothers, Brandon and Chris Ojaste. Brandon is 18, Chris 16. These young men– both unschooled– worked with me to learn about computer technical support. I was showing them the ropes, and in the process I wanted to experiment with the learning methods I wrote about in my Buccaneer-Scholar book.

Brandon, being older, was a bit more sure of himself as a technical thinker. At the time I worked with him, it quickly became apparent that he could solve most routine computing problems on a PC. I asked him to research a secure and portable approach to computing so that I would no longer have to worry about my notebook being stolen when I traveled oversead. Brandon Googled around, and found a great idea. He suggested that I use a combination of TrueCrypt and portable applications running from a memory stick. Within two weeks he had me completely set up and tested.

Amazingly, my computer WAS later stolen in the Stockholm central station (three thieves working in cooperation pulled off a classic distraction routine– kind of like Cirque du Soleil, except no costumes or juggling, no music, it’s in a train station, and they steal your stuff). But the thieves never got my private data because it was all encrypted. I lost nothing important, and transferred my work to a new computer the next day.

Brandon also built his own computer and wrote me up a detailed account of all that he learned in the process. I am presenting that story as part of my talk at Rethinking Education, next week.

I need practice documenting learning stories. Chris helped me with that when we were trying to repair a cheese grater, at Christmas dinner. This turned into a tutorial in how to analyze, solve, and report on technical problems. Wanting to impress him, I turned our conversation into a written report. This is the cheese grater report on my website.

Chris is the more extroverted of the two brothers, and I took advantage of that by spending hours with him, one-on-one, challenging him to Google the solutions to technical problems. We spent all one afternoon looking for a personal information manager that could interface with Google Calendar. Another day we looked for web tools and performed a link analysis of my site. It became a sort of competition, with each of us trying to out-Google the other. That helps get good energy going for the learning process.

For young technicians, the biggest challenge is often lack of self-confidence. Knowledge can be gained, but without confidence they won’t try very hard to gain it. So, it was satisfying to see the confidence of these young men grow in real-time, with each work session. Physical presence matters a lot, though. I no longer live near them, and the collaboration online doesn’t work so well.

I would love to help more kids find that technical confidence that comes from sizing up problems and solving them for a paying client. That’s critical for transitioning from dabbling child to adult professional thinker who drives his own education. For unschoolers especially, this transition is a vital process.

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