Adaptation – The Everyday Superpower

Did you know that you have a superpower? Seriously you do, but like so many heroes from science fiction and fantasy, you probably lack control of your amazing ability. You need a mentor to show you the ways of the force or introduce you to the wizarding world. I am not necessarily that guy, but I think I can get you started. First I have a cautionary tale.

Have you ever seen someone with a bad case of spinal stenosis? That’s the term for the curving of the upper spine that cantilevers the head out over the chest and creates a hump on the back of the neck. I first read about this condition in Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal. It’s very common in older adults and it causes lots of complications with eating and swallowing. The thing is, it is preventable, but lets talk about causes first.

See all of the soft tissues in the human body are adaptable. Sure they connect our muscles to our bones so we can move, and they align and cushion our joints, but they have one cardinal rule:

Tissues take on the shape that they spend the most time in.

In a perfect world our heads should always be balanced directly above the shoulders and spine. In that position the bones and muscles and tendons of the neck are aligned in the most efficient way to minimize the stress on the system.

Unfortunately many of us spend a lot of time leaning forward to look at  books that are laying on tables in front of us. We hunch forward to squint at laptop screens and keyboards and phones. Heads are heavy. Every second of time that we spend in that position stresses our head’s support system, otherwise known as the neck.

Over time it becomes harder and harder to even pull your head up into the proper position. This eventually pulls you into a downward spiral that is difficult to escape. The more difficult it becomes to get into a proper upright position, the more likely you are to let your head hang at the end range of motion for those tissues, which immediately starts training them that that is the position they need to conform too. This in turn makes it even harder to get into a good position.

As I’m typing this I can’t help but sit up a little straighter and shiver at the image of my hump-backed future self.

There is a way out. If you focus religiously on proper posture, and spend more time in that position, all of your tissues will return to the proper shape.

Ok, enough of that. I think you get the picture. Tissues adapt to the inputs we give them. Now back to your superpower. Have you guessed what it is yet?

I gave it away in the title. That’s right, the same adaptability that creates humpbacked humans has been the key to the success of our species. All animals adapt, but in general those adaptations are of the physical nature. Thicker fur for cold climates. Specialized beaks to enable a new food source. Colorful plumage to attract more mates. In humans, adaptation has gone beyond that. We’ve developed external manifestations that make us the most flexible creatures imaginable.

Over the course of our rise on this planet we’ve found ways to outstrip the pace of evolution by building artificial skin and claws (clothing and weapons), externalizing our digestion to broaden the range of foods we can eat (cooking and farming), and building external brains to pass knowledge on to the next generation (language, writing, books, and computers).

Like most superpowers this can be used for both good and evil. In this case the evil is failing to understand the consequences of these manifestations. The easier we make things on our brains and our bodies, the more native capability we will lose. All of our gadgets make us weaker. GPS and calculators and contact lists are a crutch that enables mental atrophy. The amount of hard labor that is done in the developed world has been steadily declining, and gym memberships are ubiquitous as people attempt to offset the lack of exertion that was once build into daily life.

Why am I telling you all of this?

The message the pervades marketing is that easier is always better. It surrounds us. I think that is wrong. I think you need to keep some hard work in your life. I think it inoculates you against the dangers of negative adaptation. It doesn’t have to be much, just enough to make you uncomfortable. Discomfort means you are still working hard enough that you are not losing ground.

Here are a few ways I have worked this into my life:

  1. I have a hand crank coffee grinder. every morning, I have to work for that shot of caffeine. I love the thing, but I find myself annoyed by my choice most mornings. It takes far longer. My hands often begin to get a little tired before I’m done. But that struggle just lets me know that I am still fighting the good fight.
  2. I have an old fashioned reel mower. Sure if the grass gets too tall, I pay for it. But to me it is worth it. It’s quieter. It doesn’t break down. I never have to go fill a gas can. The lawn isn’t perfect when I’m done, but I can feel the burn of good, hard, honest work in my hands and arms and legs.
  3. We resist using the air conditioner and the furnace just as long as we can. I used to work in foundries. back then I was so well adapted to heat, that even the warmest weather was never a problem. The last several years of working in air-conditioned comfort have ruined that, but at home, we still try. This has a double benefit of saving you money, and making you more resilient in the even that the comforts of central air are not available.
  4. I memorize my numbers. Credit card numbers, phone numbers, social security numbers, and library card numbers. Passwords too. Not only is it handy, I’m seldom at a loss when a phone battery dies. Plus it save time when buying things online, filling out forms and reserving books.

I’m not perfect. There are times I give in and pay to have the yard mowed. There are times I forget things and have to reset passwords. But none of that is the end of the world, and more often than not I come out ahead.

So next time you are thinking of buying the latest time saver, take a moment to decide if it will push you past the point of convenience and into the realm of a negative adaptation.

Why We Should Ignore Child Labor Laws

“The future is already here- it’s just not evenly distributed.” – William Gibson

If you read my last post, you know that I want to change the way society thinks about what kids are capable of. Today’s post is the first of a series that digs a little deeper into that mission, so strap in and prepare to be surprised.

Did you have a job as a kid?

When I was growing up the options were pretty limited. The days of paper routes had come and gone, and I didn’t live far enough out in the country to get drafted to haul hay. The creative world was controlled by agents and publishers and labels. Kids didn’t stand a chance getting noticed. Dad ran two businesses but there wasn’t really a way for me to help out, so until that magic age of sixteen, mowing neighbors’ lawns was just about the only thing I could do to make money. I hated it, but that was just the way things were in the 1980’s.

The internet changed all of that.

Now tools for starting a business are ubiquitous and available to all ages (with help). Through innumerable digital channels, access to potential markets is unprecedented. Design services, web hosting, prototyping and manufacturing, print on demand, app stores, Easy, Amazon, Shopify, YouTube, Wattpad, the list of resources is very long.

Besides that, there’s a tutorial for everything these days. If a child has supportive parents, there’s nothing preventing them from starting a micro-business from the time they can read and write. Don’t believe me? Check out this story. That’s right, pre-teen kids can now earn income equal to some CEO’s while running their own businesses.

For me though, it’s not really about the money.

Kids are incredibly creative. Sure, many of the examples from that article are creating consumer goods. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The only reason that story got written is because the author knew it would draw millions of clicks due to the novelty of kids raking in six and seven figure salaries.

What if we gave creative kids the tools to solve some of the more thorny problems of living in the twenty-first century? What could their uninhibited minds achieve if we didn’t exclude them from those conversations? I think these are fascinating questions.

Maybe you disagree with me on that. That’s fine. Let’s get back to the consumer world.

We adults seem to obsess about “jobs” these days. It’s been a political focal point for so long that it’s stale. The waters are very muddy. I tend to think the jobs numbers are worthless. The days of “employers” being the measure of success for our economy are fading fast. What we should be caring about is whether or not people are able to create value that others are willing to pay for. James Altucher has been very vocal about this.

Every tool that I mentioned above is currently enabling new business models that could never have previously existed. There are people who rent chickens. Seriously. If you can dream it up, there are people out there who will pay for it. Entrepreneurship is the direction the world economy is going.

With that said, doesn’t it make sense to begin teaching kids where they fit in that space? Shouldn’t we stop pretending that they all need to go to college and try to get a job with a “good” company that will set them up for life? I think the answer is yes.

So where do you start?

Your kids’ interests will show you. What do they love to do? What causes groans and and complaints when you tell them it’s time for bed? What lights up their eyes? Make a list.

Even if it seems like all of these are acts of consumption and not creation, there’s still plenty of material for building a business. All you need to do is figure out how to add value. Here are a few general categories.

Creation – This is the most obvious method of value creation. Writing, art, music, inventions, building apps, and making movies all fall into this category. Some kids believe that people won’t want to buy something created by them, but I think that’s wrong.

Curation – The world is getting busier and more cluttered. If your child is someone who can find the gems hidden amidst the trash and match them up with an appreciative audience, they may never have to see the inside of a cubicle.

Connection – Putting people who want something in touch with the people who can provide it is valuable. This with this skill can easily parlay it into a steady income.

Coaching – I hate this term, but it does capture the essence of the opportunities available in the new economy for those who have the ability to teach, and teach well. With the world more connected than ever, the best teachers become even more valuable. Even if they only have 10,000 hours of playing Minecraft, there are those willing to pay to learn from them.

This isn’t a complete list, and I’m not saying that it’s easy. Most businesses fail. That is just a fact of life. But the earlier in life someone builds something that fails, the sooner they learn that it’s not the end of the world, the more likely they are to build a second and a third and a fourth. This is the attitude that prevails in silicon valley, and it’s likely why so many innovations hail from there.

So that’s the first part of my theory: We parents should be doing everything in our power to encourage entrepreneurship from an early age. We need to acknowledge that the world is changing and begin preparing our kids for that future.

If all of this sounds crazy, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One…It Takes a Village

How far back can you remember? Can you dredge up what it was like to be four or five or six years old? I can, just barely. I was already playing Dungeons and Dragons with my best friend Christopher Kluthe. I remember I had a girlfriend named Corey Maxwell and I remember staying home from school once with the chicken pox and trying to make glue with flour and water at my friend Clint’s house. I remember moving to a new city and a new neighborhood and fearlessly going door to door with strawberries (I think) offering to give them away to anyones’ kids who would agree to be my friend.

I can do a lot better with memories of what my own kids were like.

Eli was so serious and curious. We wandered the yard together with a notebook and took notes on all of the bugs and other critters that we saw. He built a sleigh out of tinker toys and lined up all of his stuffed animals to serve as reindeer. He packed a backpack with chopsticks and tweezers and went around rescuing rubber snakes and lizards like his hero Austin Stephens. When I set the lock screen on my old Nokia cell phone to keep him from calling random people, he figured out that if he dropped it on the rug it would restart from the impact and would unlock itself so he could play with it again. He memorized books he couldn’t read and complained if I got even a single word wrong when I read to him.

Clara was a massively productive artist. She must have made ten thousand drawings and paintings before she turned five. Stacks and stacks of intricate patterns and creative portraits. She made books and pots and turned cardboard boxes into cars and houses and rocket ships. She set up intricate scenes with her stuffed animals and her doll house. She loved to dance in the rain and tight-rope-walk the back of the couch with perfect balance and absolutely no fear. She memorized all of her alphabet cards and all of her animal books and learned so much about nature from YouTube that I had to ask her questions about bats and planets.

Then they started school.

I’m not saying they stopped learning, but things were suddenly different. Now school was where the learning was supposed to happen. When they were home, it was time to play and relax.

Don’t get me wrong. They’ve had excellent teachers, and they’ve learned things at their school that they would not have learned at home, but it’s still different.

Once they were drawn into the ruts of two hundred years of public education, my beautiful, curious, carefree learners  suddenly needed to prove to someone else that they were learning. Their work now needed to be graded and tallies kept of their scores. Their studies were now guided by a defined curriculum. That curriculum was created to teach the concepts that they would need to demonstrate on standardized tests. The scores on those tests were important because that was how the school proved it was serving its purpose and deserved its funding.

In this system, having interest in the subjects is at best secondary. The progression of the lessons are based on the time remaining until the test. If that is too fast or too slow for some students, well that’s life, and life’s not always fair.

In general, it’s not the fault of the teachers, nor the administration. It is a failure of the model, pure and simple.

Bear with me for a minute, I promise this will make sense eventually.

What do you think would happen if you ran a public popularity contest to determine the CEO of a food manufacturer? What if, instead of picking someone who started out on the factory floor and worked their way up through supervision and management, you held an open contest to give the power of funding and regulation to anyone with the desire to have those things? Someone willing to publicly declare that they are the best person for the job in the most convincing way? Who do you think will sign up?

What are the odds that this person, even if they were successful in another realm, would be able to guide the business to success?

Would a successful lawyer understand how to organize three shifts of labor to meet a customers order schedule? Probably not. Would a successful doctor understand how to market new products to target specific market segments? I’m going to go with no.

And yet, this is exactly the model for the education system. Former teachers are seldom on school boards, especially in smaller school districts. Worse yet, funding models are built by higher level politicians who are far more likely to be lawyers and business people (this is older data, but I’m guessing it hasn’t changed much). Are those the people you want in charge of your children’s education? I know I don’t.

Ok, enough gloom and doom. Where am I going with all this? I think the system is broken and we already have the tools to fix it.

Remember all of those stories about my kids? The common thread there was curiosity and freedom. Add an internet connection to that and I believe you have a recipe for success.

There are thousands of free, high quality resources out there now for anything you might want to learn. MIT’s Opencourseware gives you access to most of their lectures and course material and class notes with the click of a button. Kahn Academy has thousands of videos in their library covering every subject imaginable. CodeAcademy has tutorials for all of the major programming languages. YouTube has how-to videos for literally millions of tasks and skills. Duolingo is a free app that uses gamification to teach language skills while simultaneously translating the web. There are forums and wikis and user groups and Facebook communities and Slack feeds and podcasts that will give you tips and answer questions about every industry or field of study available. If you want to learn, you can, no classroom required.

So how do you take advantage of all of this? My favorite approach is something known as unschooling. It’s an unstructured free range education system that involves letting kids study the things they are curious about, and providing them opportunities and resources as needed. It harnesses the engine of curiosity, builds practical skill, and builds lifelong learners. Here is my favorite book on the subject.

You may be wondering how we are applying all of this in our family. Well, we’ve gone back and forth. We tried private school and were dissatisfied. We homeschooled, with a healthy dose of unschooling for two years with Eli, and loved it, but he was missing the interaction with other kids.

Currently both kids are in a wonderful little neighborhood school that teaches in the International Baccalaureate style, but we emphasize that learning is a personal responsibility. That they have resources and that they can chase any subject they fancy outside of school.

It’s not perfect, but it’s working for now. My curious and creative kids are back and I have high hopes for their future.

So how about you? What do you do to keep curiosity levels high? Have you tried unschooling? Do you have any great resources to add to the list above? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.



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