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Thursday, June 24, 2010

The New Existentialism? Are We Seeing The End of "Faith in Institutions" and the Birth of White-Collar Homesteading?

Are we are seeing the end of "faith in institutions?" If so, it has not come suddenly. This may becime the reasoning and new thinking:

HBO's "The Wire" documented and forecasted it. BP's monument in the Gulf to greed and incompetence just visualized it.

The false productivity philosophies of metrics and accountability have created cultures that hugely reward the "management" of value (read that, zero sum clawing of credit and hollowing out of others' work) rather than the creation of it. Sharp elbows, spinning, and relentless self promotion have become better adaptations and predictors of success than innovation. Ambition and entitlement have become dissassociated from competence or vision. As a result, people are busier than ever and getting less done.

Dilbert creator Scott Adam's term Confusopoly reigns as a model. Here institutions are most successful when they baffle and trap both the consumer and employee for exploitation, rather than meet their needs more efficiently than others.

The New York Times Pulitzer prize winning reporter and columnist Thomas Friedman used to write about "the golden straight jacket." In this model, people and companies and countries had to follow strict rules, but in exchange got access to huge wealth. Today, the gold is gone. For many people, the model of mainstreamed society has become a lead straight jacket in a pool of leeches and ticks.

It is no wonder that we are seeing the emergence of what can only be called "White-Collar Homesteading." More and more people are trying to untangle themselves from toxic institutions, from box stores to, in some cases, schools, and taking control of their own lives.

Emerging "white collar farmers" (I first used the phrase in a Businessweek article here) and homesteaders are working for themselves, creating a productive quilt of relationships, highly leveraging all different forms of technology, from blogs to LinkedIn to video Skype to Google Docs. They tightly collaborate with institutions, and add huge value, but do not rely on any one.

The faux safety of compliance (and the corresponding near-full time job of "making your boss look good") has been replaced with an accute need to actually be highly productive. And corporations are flocking to these "WiFi homesteaders" as consultants who actually get a lot done, and who learn faster and have a richer perspective than anyone on staff.

We may simply be in the death throes of the baby boomers' time at the helm. But seeing how many Gen Xers and Gen Yers have not just embraced but even refined their philosophy makes one think that the return to independence may be both inevitable for moral, productive individuals and collectively necessary for the improved wealth of nations.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Downplay weekends and find the rhythm of each day

Industrial models of school and work have put such importance on "the weekend." But one has only to spend time on a dairy farm or in a hospital to realize how artificial this schedule really is.

The alternative to the cycle of "supressing then binging" is to find and optimize the productive rhythm of each day. And there is no one answer. Everyone is efficient at a different time, and stubbornly inefficient at other times.

But this earned insight into one's self is so valuable to a life of accomplishment (rather than just busyness). And those individuals and families that have found their own collective rhythms start seeing weekends as a distraction to the week, not the point of it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

K-12 schools won't significantly change in the next three decades

I talk to a lot of people, from foundation leaders to entrepreneurs to senior government officials, who all imagine a world where K-12 schools improve by 2015. Or 2020. Or at least 2030. And more specifically, they invest energy in a way that assumes schools can and will significantly evolve.

But if history has taught us anything, it is that K-12 probably won't change much at all during our lifetime. While masters programs are changing at the speed of the Internet, and colleges are changing at a pace just slightly slower than the speed of a traditional corporation, K-12 schools in 2040 will probably be almost exactly the same as K-12 schools in 1980, and 1990, and 2000, and 2010.

This may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your expectations. In fact, most people want their children to attend a similar program to what they attended.

As we make assumptions about the future, there are few good bets. But one useful assumption is not to expect the experiences of 95% of K-12 students in 2040 to be much different than they are now.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Build More, Consume Less

Those leading the industrial education system have two incompatible goals:

  • One one hand, they are ever more following the dated and disproved tops-down "management" theories of metrics, standardization, and short-term accountability.
  • On the other hand, those at the national level who track skills, because they are terrified at the drop in mathematics and science competencies in today's students, are trying to change schools to better develop our nation's capabilites here.

The truth here is that for schools, getting out of the way may be the best thing they can do. Students, left alone, will build things. They will create unique, surprising things to meet specific needs that often only they understand (even if the need is to enable an elaborate prank).

Building can be done with computer code or lumber or ingredients or fabric. And building is the opposite of consuming, such as done of movies, text books, restaurant meals, most video games, or lectures.

The next generation of engineers and scientists are not going to be the ones who are the best "students," memorizing this week's lists of tables and equations before heading off to history class where they do the same with historical figures and dates. In fact, it will be a failing graduate school that draws from this lot. The next generation of engineers and scientists will be the ones who are skipping the class but painfully and meticulously gathering the building blocks in their secret workshop and putting together something unprecedented.