Praxis is a New Combination

In an interview for This Week in Startups founder and investor Peter Thiel described three kinds of innovation.  The first is a truly breakthrough technology unlike anything seen before.  Bitcoin is an example.  The second is a marginal improvement on an existing technology or process.  The mobile phone market has seen most of its innovation in this manner.  The final category is a brand new combination of existing technologies and processes.  A unique way to coordinate and combine stuff that’s already here to produce an end result that has never existed.  That is precisely what Praxis is.

We’ve taken a host of existing technologies, ideas, resources, and processes to create a truly novel combination.  We’ve combined the age-old process of on-the-job learning with the immense value of abstract principles and self-improvement.  We’ve removed the time and money barriers that prevent people from getting that on-the-job learning until they’ve spent years and many thousands on less valuable stuff.  We’ve combined the power of curated, self-paced online content with intense, real-time interpersonal interaction and engagement.  We’ve combined the notion of a signal of knowledge, skill, and value with the insight gained in face-to-face conversation.  We’ve adapted the old European practice of oral exams in order to assess and validate knowledge.  We’ve made value created the predominant signal of potential to create value with self-driven portfolios.

We’ve broken down the barrier between work and education; learning and doing; playing and building.  We’ve combined talent identification and recruitment and job placement with liberal arts education and business education and professional development.  We’ve combined a network of small businesses and entrepreneurs hungry for talent with a network of young people hungry for experience.  We’ve merged the roles of headhunters, jobs boards, educational institutions, career workshops, philosophy seminars, coaching, and put it all in a self-directed package.  We’ve added self-exploration with the acquisition of valuable skills and knowledge so you don’t have to “find yourself” and then work or study, or vice versa.  You can find yourself while working and studying.

We’ve created an entirely new path from where you are to where you want to be; to the kind of career and life that makes you come alive; to a vibrant mind with big ideas and a work ethic and habits that can execute on them.

It’s all so simple.  All the pieces already exist.  Apprenticeships have been around.  Internships have been around.  Online learning has been around.  Personal coaching and mentoring have been around.  Virtual communities and videoconferencing have been around.  Oral exams have been around.  Job-shadowing has been around.  Skills workshops have been around.  Professional development has been around.  Communities of self-directed learners have been around.  Seminars on entrepreneurship and startup basics have been around.  Growing businesses eager for talent have been around.  Smart, hard-working young people eager for more than just a dull education-to-career conveyor belt have been around.  Praxis is the first to combine these in our own unique, original way.

We’ve built something special.  I wouldn’t have dropped everything and poured my heart and soul into anything less than a huge innovation.  I’m not an inventor or tech wiz.  But anyone with vision and a lot of work can identify a lot of existing stuff and create powerful new combinations.

Join us if you want to be a part of it.

Oil and Assumptions

Not long ago there was a crash involving a train full of crude oil.  It exploded and caused a great deal of damage.  In fact, this has happened multiple times in the last few months.  Of course reporters and pundits call for more and “better” regulation – as if somehow politicians and bureaucrats have stronger incentives to prevent this horrific scene than the owners of the trains, tracks, cargo, and homes near train tracks.

Many of the same people who lament the train explosions are completely opposed to new oil pipelines.  This is a particularly extreme case of status quo bias.  If you described the two methods of transporting oil to any sane person and asked which seems better it’s hard to imagine anyone preferring trains to pipelines.  Yet those who oppose pipelines are apparently more comfortable with millions of gallons of crude being loaded onto giant contraptions that take a mile to stop and run through the middle neighborhoods and cities and busy intersections on decades old rails.  It’s been done as long as they’ve been alive, so it gets a lot less scrutiny than anything new.

Status quo bias is a major obstacle to progress.  We fall prey to it in every area of our lives. (I’ve written about my struggles with it in parenting and educating my kids).  I like to play a game to help me combat status quo bias.  I pretend I’m a visitor from another planet and have no knowledge of earth’s past and present.  I analyze a situation in this frame of mind and think of how to describe what’s going on and the different options at play.  Imagine, for example, an alien observer in a typical college classroom.  They would assume by the looks on the faces in front of them and body language that it was a penal program of some kind.  This might queue us in to how odd it is to spend so much money to put ourselves and our children through classes we are completely disengaged from and don’t enjoy.

It’s a lot of work but it’s also a lot of fun to try a neutral examination of all around us.  When you’re opposed to something new, ask yourself honestly, “compared to what?”  Size it up to the status quo, not your imagined nirvana, and you might find change is welcome.

Things We Do To Our Children

I joined Albert Lu on The Economy Podcast to talk about things we do to our children.  We discussed whether and to what extent a parent can know what’s good for a child and force them to do things for their own good, from sports to music lessons and beyond.  We also discussed the lack of student-directed learning from grade school all the way through college and the problems it creates.

Listen to the episode here.  I’m on first and then author Richard Maybury on the same topic.

Dreams and Human Sacrifice

I once had a powerful mental image of people taking their dreams, represented as newborn babies, to an altar to be burned.  It was horrific and it stuck with me.

Dreams, goals, desires, a sense of purpose and what makes you come alive; these are akin to new life.  When you have a notion of something you are inspired to do or create it’s like being pregnant.  I’ve written before about this analogy.  When you’re pregnant with an idea, you know its birth is inevitable but it still requires you to do things to tend to its growth and development, and finally the birth itself.  When an idea comes to fruition something truly new is introduced to the universe.  New life emerges.  Something that previously existed only as potentiality is now reality and has changed the sum total of opportunity in existence.

Just like in my mental image, it’s too easy to ritualistically slay our own dreams.  Whether the fetus is aborted before it’s ever born or the newborn dream is destroyed shortly after, it has the same soul-deadening effect and is equally tragic.  We come to believe that our dreams are fun playthings, but really a lot of work and mess to take care of, raise, nurture, and watch grow.  They might be more than we’re ready for.  Keeping them is really rather irresponsible.  Who are we to think we can handle these inconvenient things or really tend to a new life?  When we mature, get serious, “grow up”, we realize the silliness of the idea that we could ever birth, raise, and unleash our dreams onto the world.  We have to get real and purge ourselves of all but their memory.

Best not to let them fertilize at all.  Best to prevent the growth of the tiniest seed.  Don’t let it come to term.  If it does, put an end to it quickly, mercifully.

Perhaps this mental image is in bad taste.  In fact, I know it is.  I did not consciously construct it.  It came to me when I was a teenager and it brought me to tears.  It terrified me.  But in that moment I realized how real and important it was.  Just as grisly and awful as the notion of children being sacrificed is the voluntary destruction of dreams.

Don’t give it over.  Don’t laugh at your young idealistic self and boast of growing out of it.  Don’t join the gruesome collective ritual of dream sacrifice.  It is a life, and when a life is lost it is tragic.

A Few Insights on Institutions and Sports

One of the reasons I love sports is the opportunity they provide to see how formal and informal institutions and norms interact to create outcomes, often surprising.  When athletics and economic thinking intersect, I’m a happy man.

An excellent article on Grantland by Brian Phillips got me thinking again about the incentives in college basketball.  Small changes in formal rules and small changes in the informal enforcement of those rules can lead to pretty big consequences.  In the case of college basketball it’s resulted in a far more painful viewing experience.  Watch some of the tournament games this year and you’ll see what I mean.  Basketball is a game of runs and big emotional momentum swings over a series of plays.  Yet instead of fast paced scoring streaks I’ve mostly witnessed a baseball-like process of a play or two followed by long pauses for TV or coaches timeouts or free-throws, followed by another play or two.

There are several possible changes that could improve the experience.  Economists Ed Lopez and Wayne Leighton in their phenomenal book, Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers discuss the origin of the shot clock.  The game was in a similar place.  The best teams were known to get a small lead and then pass the ball for several minutes at a time to run out the clock.  A sensible strategy but a horrible spectator sport.  The introduction of the shot clock dramatically improved the experience.

The shot clock is an example of a new formal rule.  Mike Munger and Russ Roberts talk about not just formal but informal rules and norms in sports in one of my favorite EconTalk episodes.  We tend to assume the order around us, in the world as in sports, is the result of formal rules and enforcement, but more often there is a far more powerful substrate of informal norms and expectations with their own unique enforcement mechanisms.  Fights in hockey, or fake fights in baseball are great examples, as is the social approbation faced by teams who run up the score at the end of an inevitable victory in football, or those who continue to foul the opposing team when trailing by double-digits in the waning seconds of a basketball game.

What I like about the Grantland article is that it touches on formal and informal institutions in its analysis of what’s happening to college basketball.  It’s not only the number of timeouts allowed and the defensive rules (formal), it’s also the way refs choose to call fouls and coaches choose to reign in improvisation by players (informal).  The article went further than this.  It had some profound insight into something even more fundamental than formal and informal institutions.  It touched on the beliefs of fans, players, coaches, officials, and everyone involved.  It’s not only the rules written on paper, or the unwritten rules in our heads that create these outcomes.  The beliefs we have about the game and the rules create the context within which all these institutions must operate.  Beliefs are the ultimate binding constraint on what kind of institutions can exist.

In the case of college basketball, Phillips argues that we all know deep down it’s a professional affair the goal of which is entertainment, yet none of us wants to admit this to ourselves or publicly.  We wrap it in the cloak of character building, preparation for life, team-work, and a lot of old-timey notions about young men getting exercise for their bodies to compliment the mental exercise of a college education.  It’s not that sports don’t do these things or offer no life lessons.  Far from it.  It’s that the primary goal of sports is to make money like any other enterprise, and in our society the great lie we all pretend to believe is that self-interest is inferior to altruism as a motive (even though the beneficial outcomes of self-interested behavior far exceed all the altruism in human history).  We have to keep up the fiction that college athletics is not primarily a moneymaking entertainment enterprise.

Lots to think about on this topic, but I think the insights about the role of our beliefs (and the contradictory nature of our stated vs. revealed preferences) in shaping institutions which shape incentives which result in outcomes is powerful.  For the future of sports and society as a whole.

The Need for Structure

The most common argument for authoritarian schooling is the need for structure.  Structure is crucial to any kind of success and young people need to learn it.  I could not agree more.  Which is precisely why I find school so problematic.

If you cannot make and live by a schedule and learn to prioritize and execute on activities you will have a difficult time creating value and meaning.  If you want to learn how to create your own structure the sooner you exit environments where the structure is provided for you the better.

Schooling provides structure and the external stimulus to follow it.  The mental muscles and willpower to create one’s own structure atrophy.  I’ve seen young people enter amazing work experiences where they have tremendous amounts of autonomy with their hours, where they work, what kinds of work they want to do, and in what ways.  These are enviable jobs.  Yet these young people are stressed and unproductive.  They yearn for more externally imposed structure because they are incapable of creating their own.  They want to be told what to do because that is how they have always achieved; not by setting their own goals and exploring and testing their own means, but by jumping through hoops set up by self-proclaimed authorities.

Managing one’s own time, setting one’s own goals, and creating one’s own routines are so very important they cannot be left to schools.  They are impossible to learn by having someone else do it for you. F.A. Hayek said of the economy, “The more the state “plans”, the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.”  Schools make planning harder for the individual by doing it all for them.

The sooner you learn to create your own structure in environments where no one will provide it for you the better.  The sooner you learn how to operate where all that matters to others is the value of your outputs and no one cares how you produced it the better.  Get to know yourself.  Learn to be alone with yourself.  Learn to manage yourself.  If you don’t someone else will be happy to manage you.  Then you might find yourself wondering why your life doesn’t feel like your own and living feels only partly alive.

The Myth of Misanthropy

It’s normal to hate people.  Everyone hates people.  Fortunately, there is no such thing as people.  There are only individual persons.

There are no classes, groups, nations, or any other collective capable of acting or believing.  Only individuals love, hate, lie, steal, give, create, think, and act.  Collectivism is a convention of language, but it is probably the most dangerous paradigm in human history.  Not just because it has led to massive violence in the hands of mobs and states, but because of what it does to the individual.  It let’s us get sloppy in our thinking.

We like to collectivize because it lets us avoid responsibility and accountability.  I can say I hate people and that people are guilty of all manner of crimes and deserve what’s coming to them.  But if I’m forced to point out a single, actual individual that I hate and believe ought get it, things get very uncomfortable.  I want to place blame on a fictitious entity and get the self-righteous satisfaction of setting myself above it (while simultaneously benefiting from the false humility of lumping myself in with it) without any sort of repercussion.

If you find yourself angry at humanity it’s instructive to dig a little deeper.  It’s often not the millions of individual actors pursuing their own ends that cause annoyance as much as certain phenomena and patterns that result from these interactions.  Those are the result of the norms, rules, institutions, and incentives faced by the actors, and those can often be altered or worked-around.  It’s not people that cause traffic jams or bad movies, but individual persons responding to incentives and seeking satisfaction.  Maybe you can change the incentives or introduce new ones?

De-collectivising doesn’t necessarily make you any happier, but it can focus your discomfort onto real entities that are changeable or avoidable.