Type-A Detox

I learned something very valuable this week from my son Aidan here in Costa Rica on our new adventure. You might even call it “my second mistake.“ It was about unschooling, parenting, and patience. Mostly though, it was about myself. It was simple. I even knew it in my head logically – I just didn’t embrace it. I might not have even paid enough attention to learn something if I hadn’t had yoga and a quiet chance to reflect.

There are other paths to learning and to achievement than the “Type A” way (here is where you can say “duh”).

I’ve been pretty successful, and fortunate, in my education, my career and my life so far. For as long as I can remember I have driven myself to learn new things, to do more, to push myself to do things better, and to take on big challenges. I like it when things are hard. I like competing with, and working with, people who are better than me because I learn more. I like trying lots of new things. I get bored when there isn’t a lot going on. You might call me Type A (though by Seattle standards I am probably in the middle).

The places I’ve chosen to work, particularly startups and Microsoft, really reinforce this Type A approach to things. I found that working with others like me creates a great energy to push the envelope, It was well and good while I was in those environments, but it isn’t as helpful now as I work with Vie and Aidan in unschooling. They are not Type A.

Aidan also has a different way of learning than I do. I tend to just go try things. I learn by doing. Aidan likes to see how things are done first – for example, watching a YouTube video. Neither is better than the other. They are just different ways of learning.

I had the hubris though of thinking that making progress, accomplishing goals, and even learning was better in a Type A way. I hadn’t actually realized just how ingrained in me it was. One of the more insidious things about being successful as a Type A person is that it can blind you from other ways of being – ways that can be equally as effective. I was unconsciously expecting Aidan and Vie to do things like I do. Debbie had even been coaching me with gentle hints, though I didn’t really embrace them either. It’s time for me to detoxify myself from Microsoft and this Type A way of doing things. It’s not working and when something isn’t working, you need to change it.

How did I come to this rather obvious realization? It started with Aidan and his unschooling cooking project. In the last few weeks, it’s been a little difficult getting Aidan to be “diligent” about unschooling. He’s been watching videos of Master Chef and lots of YouTube videos of cooking different things. He had recipes he was working on and I didn’t see him working on those directly, either through cooking or writing up the recipes.

When I learned how much he was watching videos, I lectured him about watching too much “TV” and not “doing” enough on his recipes. I asked him to give me a breakdown of how he was going to spend his unschooling hours this week and that they couldn’t involve “TV.” Can you believe it? I was expecting him to be a Microsoft Project Manager.

I went to yoga afterward and in the part where you do a bit of meditation, I thought about all of this. I had the blindingly obvious insight that I was expecting Aidan to be me and not Aidan. He was learning his way, which was more about learning through study, and he was doing it in an exploratory path, not necessarily a goal-driven one.

When I came back we went out and had coffee by the pool and talked. He was indeed watching all of the videos so he could learn how to do the different techniques needed in cooking his 10 recipes. He also got “distracted” by other videos of interesting recipes and techniques. I’d now reframe “distracted” to mean that he was exploring the wide world of culinary arts his way – by sampling techniques, looking at different approaches, seeing interesting ways others put together recipes, etc.  In other words, he had a perfectly acceptable, but very different, way of learning compared to me. I told him that I was wrong and I didn’t appreciate his approach to things as much as I should have.

Compounding all of this, Aidan is also a very social learner. He loves working with others (I like that too, but I can just as easily focus intensely and work on my own). One downside of unschooling in another country is that he doesn’t (yet) have easy access to others he can work with.

So, after our coffee chat, I suggested that we cook together. He had been learning to pan fry steak so he could create one of 10 recipes for his project: bacon wrapped steak with pineapple chutney. Aidan had come up with this all on his own. What followed was pretty inspiring, confirming unequivocally that there are other effective ways.

Aidan had watched several videos on pan-frying techniques and had practiced that. Recently he had been watching a number of videos on the best way to cook bacon wrapped steaks. It involves searing the steak in a pan and finishing it in an oven.

When we started making steaks for all of us, I just helped him get organized and then acted as his sous chef. He did all of the actual cooking. He just did it. There was no hesitation. He had a plan. He was very thoughtful about differences in steak thickness and how to adjust cooking for them. He carefully monitored all of the steps. And the steaks came out perfectly. They were perfectly seared, moist and flavorful. The bacon too was cooked perfectly. They were the best steaks I’ve had here anywhere, including in restaurants. Vie raved about them. And Aidan did it in one try.

Aidan was indeed learning. I probably would have spent a lot more time cooking and “burned” through several steaks. I probably would not have benefitted from seeing multiple diverse approaches. I now appreciate his and other approaches far more – not because I saw the results, but because I was reminded of the process and understood it. The University Cooperative School Aidan attended had a great tag line that I love (and should have channeled more): “Childhood is a journey, not a destination.” The same holds true of learning. Intellectually, I knew this. Behaviorally, I didn’t embrace it. I still have much to learn myself, especially about unschooling.

I’ve talked about how change is difficult, particularly when there is complexity. Change is not safe. I was proud of what we are doing here because we are not playing it safe; we are changing everything. Or so I thought. Well, now it’s time for me to embrace more change as I help Vie and Aidan unschool their way and not mine. As a (hopefully former) Type A parent, maybe this is just another way of being “intentionally off path.”

Thanks, Aidan, for the very gracious lesson. Pura vida, bud.

Border Run

As part of our new adventure, I got to do what the local ex-pats here call a “border run” this last Sunday. This post will probably be more interesting to ex-pats in Costa Rica but if you want to see what it takes to live here, read on.

Generally in Costa Rica you can stay 90 days as a tourist and then you have to exit the country and return. Most of the ex-pats do this. Deb and I applied for a “rentista visa” (which I described a few posts back) and that means that we don’t have to exit and return every 90 days.

However, we now have a car and that adds some complications. For us to be able to drive here with a foreign driver’s license, we need to exit and return every 90 days, just like the other ex-pats.

I had planned to detail the whole process, but as I was looking for photos of the various forms, I found Gord and Elisha’s wonderful blog post (In Nica Now). They documented the entire process from the Nicaraguan ex-pat view and had lots of good photographs. Instead of recreating their detail here, I’ll focus on some perspectives on the people and process from a first-timer.

In Playa Potrero, we are pretty close to the border of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, so most folks choose to do a border run to Nicaragua at Penas Blancas (“white plains”) 153K (95 miles) away. It takes about 3 hours to get there. I had originally planned to drive up to the border crossing alone since Deb was already flying back to Seattle for work and would get her new entry stamp that way. I wasn’t looking forward to driving poor Moose all the way there and back and really didn’t want to burn all that gas. As I pinged a few friends to see if they also wanted to go, I learned from my friend Dusty that Tamarindo Transfers and Tours has a crazy good deal on border runs: $35 round trip in an air conditioned bus.

Moose gets a whopping 12 miles per gallon so that would take about 16 gallons of gas. At ~$5.50/gallon that’s $88. Moose also doesn’t have air conditioning or a busload full of adventure.

10 folks started in the bus in Tamarindo at 7am and they picked me up in Huacas, which was mid-way between Tamarindo and where I live. The bus was full to the brim. We dropped 3 folks off at Liberia Airport on the way to Nicaragua. That’s where we had expected to pay this mysterious exit tax for Costa Rica. They put it in place a month or so ago, but they had no way to collect money for it at the border. The blogosphere, locals, expats, and travel agencies all had different opinions about whether it was being collected at all and where to actually pay it (not at the border). Our driver dropped the rest of us at Liberia Airport and gave each of us (back) our prepaid $10 for the tax. He suggested we go inside the airport to pay.

Inside, you can indeed pay an exit tax, but only the one when you leave Costa Rica by air. We drove around a bit to find what look to be the immigration police station, but it was closed on Sunday. We then took our chances and just drove to the border. Luck was with us and no one asked us to pay the tax. Afterward, I heard from several folks that they stopped trying to collect it after all the confusion at the border.

On the way up, folks were trading stories about how many days they were given to stay. The usual is 90 days. A few ex-pats that had been here awhile got 60 days. Evidently, it seems to depend on the border agent and maybe the moon, stars, time of the week, etc. One particular woman was very grumpy about the last time she went up and only got 60 days. She seemed to have a lot in general to complain about and it extended to Costa Rica, the US, Canada, her employer and several other things.

Normally on these runs, they simply go up, you cross into Nicaragua and then come right back. This particular woman was certain that the reason she only got 60 days was because last time she turned right around and so she refused to come back in anything less than two hours. Therefore, the entire bus had to spend two hours in Nicaragua.

Getting through the exit point in Costa Rica was pretty easy. It only took 20 minutes or so. Likewise, getting entry into Nicaragua was easy. It only took about 30 minutes. This is where I learned several tips for the next time.

Tip 1: Bring about $20 in $1 (USD) bills.
Things at the crossing and in Nicaragua are very cheap in general, including the fees. There are a lot of fees that cost $1-2 and change is a bit hard to come by. As an aside, Debbie read on the internet that you need to enter Nicaragua with at least $500 cash in USD. They only work with US dollars at the border and generally in Nicaragua. Well, at least she had the US dollar part right J I didn’t need $500 in $20’s. I did need $1 bills desperately.

I paid $1 when I first entered Nicaragua for an Alcadia Municipal “Contribucion Especial” (special contribution) ticket. Then $12 to get the entry stamp. On the way out, you have to pay the “Contribucion Especial” again.

With two hours before we left, we didn’t have time to catch a cab to Rivas (30 minutes away) or San Juan del Sur (45 minutes away), so Dusty and I just found a local restaurant – a shack really – and had a $1 beer. It was Toña, the Nicaraguan national beer. I had a good chance to watch a lot of the activity around the border and saw some fascinating things (more later).

Tip 2: Bring several custom forms with you or get them all at once.
Evidently Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and perhaps all of Central America uses the same customs form. At least, it is labeled as a Central American customs form. Also, evidently, when you first get into Nicaragua, you have to go to a special place to get these forms (a different line to stand in). Fortunately, there are tens of people there handing these forms out for a small fee – $1 USD. I would recommend buying 4 because you need them to leave Costa Rica, enter Nicaragua, leave Nicaragua, and enter Costa Rica. There are no tables in the customs area with stacks of these so you need to find a source. We forgot when we were entering Costa Rica again. Fortunately, we were able to get one from the agent (who didn’t look particularly pleased – and you definitely do not want to displease them).

Tip 3: Pick a good “dealer.”
This is Dusty’s term and he hit it spot on. It is a bit like going to Las Vegas and looking for a good dealer for blackjack. Yu want someone who is not grumpy, not a hard-ass, and ideally has a good sense of humor. The same seems to hold true of border agents. You’ll have several lines to choose from, so pick well. Afterward, I heard a story about one border agent in particular that the ex-pats seem to recognize and who consistently does not give 90 days. I don’t have his picture, sorry.

Our first two agents leaving CR and entering Nicaragua were great. They were both women and very friendly. Leaving Nicaragua, we had a guy who was friendly, but then started to ask questions. We were really only out of Costa Rica for two hours after all. They like folks staying and spending some money. Dusty talked to him about his home town and we sailed through. Our final one was a young guy who seemed serious but was very efficient and friendly. We got 90 days. Of course, we were also friendly.

Tip 4: Bring patience and a sense of humor – or at least a good book.
Some of the lines are long. Your passport gets look at 7-8 times. It’s hot and dusty. Our final line back into Costa Rica was 2+ hours. The two hours we stayed before returning evidently put us in the window of when all the tour buses from Nicaragua were coming through (about 1pm). Ideally, you’d want to get through before all of that. If you are stuck in a long line though, being grumpy probably won’t help you out much in the end. Remember pura vida? This is a good place to channel it.

Between my wait in Nicaragua having a beer and this two hour line, I actually noticed something quite remarkable. There is an entire ecosystem and economy built up around this need for ex-pats in both countries to head to the border and renew their entry stamp. As with many rich human ecosystems, you can see signs of inefficiency, but then also enterprising ways to work within the system. You can see innovation and creativity, as well as boredom and “just do what everyone else does” mentality.

As I mentioned, there are many folks handing out customs form for a tip (eliminating the need for you to stand in a line to get them). There are folks whom you can tip and get to the front of the line. It looks like the people at the front, only locals from what I saw, are willing to sell their place in line and then start over. There are folks selling cold drinks and mobile phone cards.

And of course, there is a whole bank of booths selling bus tickets. When you enter Costa Rica, you need to have proof that you will be exiting the country within 90 days. This can be an airline ticket (and that seems to have some advantages). Most ex-pats, though, buy a bus ticket (every 90 days) that they never use but that shows that they have a ticket out of Costa Rica. So, conveniently, if you forget your proof of departure, or are just someone who likes to do things last minute, you can easily buy one at the border.

One could look at all of this and suggest that it could be more efficient, better, and easier. I hear lots of complaints about the exit taxes, etc. From my perspective, I’m rather impressed. It’s got to be a hard life living in Costa Rica and Nicaragua in general given the average daily salary and unemployment. Enterprising people seem to be making some extra $ in this ecosystem. I don’t mind paying someone a tip for a form. It’s only a dollar and that seems to go a very long way in Nicaragua. I love seeing creative thinking emerge in ecosystems like this.

At the end of our long lines, we hopped back on the bus for the ride home. Most folks got 90 days. Our friend who was a bit grumpy only got 60 days again. Perhaps she didn’t pick a “good dealer.” Perhaps, it was her passport full of entry/exit stamps from Costa Rica (and Nicaragua). Maybe it was the fact that she had a bus ticket vs. a plane ticket to show proof of exit. Maybe she got that “one” border agent. It could have indeed been the moon, the time of the week, or any one of a number of reasons. She certainly seemed to be the exception.

For my part, I think it may go back to how you come across to people. Grumpiness, entitlement, continuous complaining can’t make a good case for getting anything. Costa Rica is the land of “pura vida.” Perhaps, the border agents look for that and welcome it back into Costa Rica and reward those who show it. We are guests here after all. Maybe a 60 day stamp is a good “teaching moment” – a reminder both of pura vida and how we should try to embrace it. At least, it seems as plausible as any other theory I’ve heard 🙂

Pura vida!

Why We Decided to Unschool

The decision to home school or to unschool may be as unique as the families that do it. We actually made the decision to unschool a number of months before we committed to coming to Costa Rica for our new adventure. This is how we came to our decision.

Before jumping in, there is a big difference between home schooling and unschooling, or “hack schooling,” even though they share some similarities. Susan Wise Bauer, author of the Well-Trained Mind has a good description of home schooling that begins with:

Home schooling occurs when parents take charge of their children’s education — organizing subjects, teaching lessons or arranging for tutors, evaluating progress, and supervising social contacts.

Unschooling goes a bit further. There are several good descriptions of unschooling: Earl Stevens, John Holt, even Wikipedia. John Holt is one of the early pioneers of unschooling and we like his definition, which can be summarized crisply as:

This is also known as interest driven, child-led, natural, organic, eclectic, or self-directed learning. Lately, the term “unschooling” has come to be associated with the type of homeschooling that doesn’t use a fixed curriculum.

While one key difference between home schooling and unschooling is no fixed curriculum, the bigger difference for Debbie and I is that in unschooling, the students direct their own learning based on their individual interests. As Holt notes, unschooling is “…the natural way to learn.” It is “…the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work.”

Debbie and I are both human-centered designers. Human-centered design is basically a design process that emphasizes creation of artifacts based on the understanding the goals and needs of people (as opposed to making the user have to adapt to the product). For us, unschooling is the educational equivalent. We tailor learning to the interests of the learners.

We had three big reasons for why we favor the unschooling approach, but like many things, there was an initial “trigger.”

By the end of year 2 of middle school, Vie absolutely hated school. While it was the largest middle school in Seattle, it had many of the same challenges as other public, and many private, schools: large class sizes, emphasis on memorization and testing, little individual creativity, lots of effort spent on managing the class, and little actual time spent on learning.

I remember going to a science fair and seeing a number of signs in the classrooms about what the kids could not do, right next to equally large signs about what the consequences were if someone did them. I asked if they actually spent much time learning and Vie said “no”. Add to that all the mental bullying among pre-teens and Vie was ready to try unschooling.

In contrast, Aidan had a fabulous experience at University Cooperative School. We loved the place, the teachers, and the parents – and continue to be inspired by them – but he had graduated from 5th grade and was destined for a similar middle school experience.

We had planned to start unschooling this year in Seattle. As we first planned and then started making Costa Rica a reality, we saw our adventure as yet another way to enhance unschooling.

With that, here are the 3 big reasons why we decided to pursue this path of unschooling. Like most things, this is a change we are trying. We hope and expect it will bear great fruit. We don’t expect to get everything right but we all expect to work together to fix things when they aren’t working.

The Challenge – A Failing System Under Pressure

Our schools are under incredible pressure these days and are less and less capable of achieving the goals we all put on them. There are growing demands on what teachers have to cover in their curricula, producing more and more homework and focusing on memorization. Take a look at the incredible documentary Race to Nowhere for some sobering reality here. Add to this consistent budget cuts to education and the consequent growing class size, reduction in class diversity (especially the arts), and other downstream challenges. John Taylor Gatto talks about a lot of this in his “underground classic” Dumbing us Down and his other books.

Probably the most telling challenge to me is that so many bright and creative teachers – the ones who can bring change, the ones who are willing to take risks and try new things – are getting burned out or pushed out of the system.

That saddens me especially since, at least generally in our system, every student has to experience the same thing. An incredibly gifted teacher, and we’ve seen many, can make almost any subject interesting. But that places all of the weight on one part of the system and those teachers are getting to be few and far between.

The Opportunity – Learning to Love Learning

Lifelong learning is an important value for both Deb and I. We embrace it completely and continue to learn every day. We want to help our young adults embrace this value as well. That’s one reason why we left our high-tech jobs for a year – so that our young adults have an opportunity to experience another culture. However, to get our young adults to embrace lifelong learning, they have to love learning, which is difficult if they “hate school.”

We wanted to get Aidan and Vie back to the point where they loved learning as young kids. Letting them experience learning more naturally by what drives their interests harnesses their natural passion and curiosity. Basic skills like reading, writing and math can be learned in the context of something they care about in ways that help them understand why it is important to learn those skills.

A good example is what Vie and Aidan when they did their “paper quest.” Aidan generally didn’t like writing, even at UCoop. Vie was uninspired at best, except perhaps for creative writing. Both did have a good foundation of how to write a paper though. They just had assignments that didn’t engage their interests. It used to be like pulling teeth to get Aidan to write more than a few sentences, even though he loves speaking and has an incredible vocabulary.

Aidan and Vie’s “paper quest” was a “quest” to write a paper comparing two of their favorite video games. They were both excited to write about it. Their final paper was a 28 page multimedia paper. That’s more than I’ve seen either of them write before – or anyone in their schools for that matter. The incredible part is that we didn’t say anything about length; we just let them go. They wanted to write this much. This example just reinforces for me the benefit of harnessing their natural, and different, interests and using them to cover the more basic things.

An unschooling approach is really tailored to each of them naturally. We aren’t designing curricula around their interests. They are. We simply help them bring some structure, take responsibility, find resources, act as sounding boards, and yes, help motivate them – especially now in our early days of doing this. Logistically, this doesn’t fit the one-size-fits-all approach in schools; that’s not how they are structured. And unlike home schooling, it doesn’t rely on Deb, me, or anyone for that matter to find or create a curriculum to teach them. They learn naturally because they want to. Or at least, that is what we are hoping.

Almost by definition, an unschooling approach focuses on building confidence, interest and passion – more than mastery. It’s the fuel for mastery. There is a place for mastery, but I believe mastery is actually not possible without the former, otherwise it ends up being short term memorization to pass a test. I even saw this at Stanford, a school I love dearly. As a premed (who decided not to pursue medicine), I saw many people studying for science tests, writing memorized formulas and facts down on those tests to get “partial credit,” rather than actually trying to solve the problem. That approach may work well in the short term for tests, and perhaps for some schools, but not for creating mastery.

Creativity, along with mastery, allow people to do or solve things that they have never seen before. To get there, people need to be good at learning new things, applying knowledge in new ways, and fearlessly trying new things that might not work out. In other words, they need to know how to learn more than what to learn. With the latter, you can do what you know, if you manage to remember it. With the former, you can do anything. We need more of that in our world, especially now. And it won’t be on any test you can study for.

Learning is changing

There’s one more reason for why we are unschooling. It wasn’t on our radar as much before we started this journey. We are seeing learning itself changing, not through some plan, but rather organically, shaped by the economy, generational differences, technology, the internet, and Universities themselves.

According to IBM, “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.” Much of it is available online now. If we want to learn about something, or try doing something, it’s likely that there is a YouTube video on it. [As a fun aside, Aidan wanted to make Deb and I Margaritas the other day. He looked up a video on YouTube, made the drink, and brought it to us, all without us knowing about it. He made a great Margarita to boot.] We are getting good at looking things up “just in time” when we need them. People are learning how to learn differently as part of the digital world most of us live in.

Now think about all of the incredible resources that are becoming available online. For younger folks there is Khan Academy of course. But college classes from some of the best instructors in the best Universities in the world are available through services such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX. They are available to the whole world, not just their “home” Universities.

I heard an amazing story at the IIT Institute of Design Strategy Conference last year (thanks to Carl Bass). A few years ago, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig at Stanford put their “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online for anyone to take for free. More than 160,000 students from around the world enrolled. Evidently, the top ranking Stanford student in that class of 160,000 was somewhere in the 300’s. The company Udacity was created out of this experience. Talk about levelling a playing field.

What happens when instead of paying a large sum of money to one University (even a top one), you can pick and choose the best of the best University classes from all of the top Universities for a fraction of the cost? This is reality today.

On top of this, we have a worldwide job market that is trending to care less about degrees and pedigrees and more about what you can do and what value you can bring. David Wong describes this well in his scathing Cracked post 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person. Be sure to watch the video from Glengarry Glenn Ross (warning: it has NSFW (not safe for work) language).

Vie will be college age in perhaps 5 years and Aidan in 7 or maybe less. That’s a very long time in our digital world. Would they even want, or need, to go to a physical college? One thing is clear to me, however. Taking advantage of resources like this, creating your “own path” as a “major”, circumventing the institutional system entirely and yet learning what you want, will all take a honed ability to know how to learn as well as a curiosity and passion for learning itself.

On our unschooling road, we have really just started taking baby steps. We are working hard to create interest and passion. We can then can work toward confidence. There is still a lot of work to go on helping Aidan and Vie learn how to learn and at least for now it comes a little at the expense of learning some basic skills such as math and science. We’ll get there. That’s part of this journey we are on – one that itself will hopefully be a model for how to learn new things.