Can’t

I wanted to talk about one of my least favorite words today – can’t. It’s such a small, seemingly harmless word. We use it all the time. And yet, it can be an incredibly debilitating word. It’s one of those words – like fail and hate – that we adults, sadly, teach our kids. It can be a dream killer. It’s also one of those words that directly gets in the way of change.

Can’t and I go way back. I’ve heard this word a lot in my life, though thankfully almost never from my parents. “You can’t get into Stanford.” “You can’t get a graduate Biology degree without doing ‘wet’ biology.” “You can’t get an internship at Microsoft your first year here [in a graduate design program].” (In fairness, the latter was an example of can’t’s close relative, you won’t be able to. And so on. These were all statements from folks like high school principals, department chairs, and deans.

Fortunately, can’t is a word that has the power to motivate me beyond almost any other. I’ve never accepted the power of its hold. It’s something I’d like to help our young adults learn. Like many people though, I need to do a better job myself using it.

There are really two ways to look at can’t. One is with the meaning you are not able to. It’s the dangerous one I point to above. The other is I don’t want you to. For example, “You can’t go out until your homework is done.”

I have to admit that I use the latter form fairly often. The problem with this is that it gets the word can’t into frequent use. Even in this context, I think I tend to overuse it. If I truly want to treat my young adults as adults, I should let them have the choice about when they do their homework, right? We try to do this as much as possible with Aidan and Nev. It mostly works. Mostly.

It’s the first version of can’t though that really irks me. If you watch most younger kids, they seem to have an immunity to can’t. They’ll keep trying something until they figure it out. Sure, there’s frustration at times. But I don’t think that the frustration stems from an innate belief that the kids truly would not be able to do what they are trying. They just want it to happen quickly, but that’s another story.

If someone else, especially an adult, tells them that they can’t do it, that’s where can’t can become disempowering. In a way, it gives someone permission to stop trying and give up. And then they start using can’t themselves and come to believe that they really can’t do something. What an insidious cycle.

I started thinking about can’t recently because I’ve been hearing it a lot at work. Too much. We are going through a transition involving a lot of necessary change. As I mentioned in my last post, most people really dislike change. That’s when I started realizing the broader impact of can’t.

When people start saying that they can’t do something, they (perhaps unintentionally) give others permission to not try. And when you are collectively going through a process of difficult change, can’t makes it easy to not try. It helps people resist change. And that can be infectious.

Conversely, I didn’t hear can’t very much in the startups I worked in, at least not in terms of our ability to do something. In fact, if it wasn’t possible to do something, we’d often just find a different way. Startups are the children of the corporate world. Anything is possible. Somewhere along the line, established companies, like many adults, seem to lose that.

Change needs a fertile environment of the possible, much like startups. Can’t gets in the way. You don’t hear dreamers and visionaries using the word very much.

The destructive power of can’t on the process of change is a newly-found realization for me. Maybe change can be helped along a bit with the elimination of a single word. I’ll give it a try. It’s a nicely “off path” strategy. Pura vida.

Change

At the very beginning of our adventure I wrote about complexity and change: when there is a lot of complexity involved in something, it’s hard to change. As we’ve gone through our transition from our Costa Rican adventure back to Seattle, and as I’ve started working for a company that is itself in transition, I’ve thought about change (a lot) and how to think about it. It’s a bit fitting that I return to that subject now as I transition the blog from the way we were “intentionally off path” before and the way we are “intentionally off path” now. If you noticed, this is the first post where I didn’t start with a sentence that snuck in a link to “our new adventure.” Change is good. But not everyone thinks so.

Perhaps because my brain is back in a more creative, problem-solving space every day now, I started thinking about how to categorize change. It worked in my noodling on engagement so I figured I’d try that again. The model is really simple. It’s a triangle – ironically, the most stable of shapes. And here, I’m looking at how people approach change.

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The Ridiculously Simple Triangle of Change

Resisting Change

People generally don’t like change and resist it. I see it all of the time in what I do. Change can be scary. Change takes effort. And it sometimes takes knowledge I don’t have. It’s easier to just stay the same. It’s safer not to change. It’s comfortable and safe. What happens if… And so on.

Is it any wonder why three of the biggest causes of stress involve major change – a new job or loss of one, a marriage or divorce, and moving? For many people, these don’t come around that often. Even if you are “practiced” in change, they can be very difficult. Often in these cases, though, what adds to the stress is that these changes may not be choices fully under one’s control.

Even when change would be extremely beneficial, some of us still resist it. It explains things like people staying in dead-end jobs they dislike, or abusive relationships. It might even explain the pattern of Italian men who still want to live with their mothers well into their thirties (52% according to one report). Sometimes, a well-known, familiar, if very unsatisfying situation is far less scary than what might be “out there”.

Even if we resist change, many of us will change if the alternative of staying where we are, in our view, is much worse. The metaphor that comes up in business a lot is the “burning platform.” It’s a situation ‒ a crisis ‒ that is so scary that it forces change.

The origin of this story, as I learned in writing this, came from Daryl Connor. There was a tragic oil platform fire in 1988. People who were on that platform had to essentially choose certain death on the platform or choose possible death by jumping into the freezing water. It’s been used a lot to describe situations where a company’s business situation is so dire that it must embrace change. As an example, you might remember Stephen Elop’s email to Nokia employees after he moved there from Microsoft and had to turn around the failing business.

The burning platform situation is a bit extreme, but it does highlight just how wed we can be to things remaining the same. I find it ironic that we as human beings, arguably the most adaptable of species, resist change so often. I think it’s because we are out of practice – but more on that in a bit.

Trying Change

The middle layer of the triangle brings up an interesting conundrum. Is “trying something new” a way of embracing change? I think so. I’m talking about human behavior here, so I do think it applies. After all, some of us go to the same stores and restaurants every time. Others of us actually like to try something new every now and again.

It boils down to the same situation: the “tried and true,” safe choice or the new, unknown, and perhaps scary, one. The basic behavior is fundamentally similar whether the situation is dramatically important or much lighter.

I find it compelling that children try new things constantly. That’s one of the ways they learn, whether it’s trying a new food or a big scary trick at a skateboard park (not that that‘s ever happened!) Kids also aren’t familiar with the concept of “failure” – until we adults teach it to them. You’re just trying stuff and sometimes it’s better and sometimes not.

This experimental attitude that is fundamental to kids sadly seems to get lost somewhere on our journey to adulthood. And like many things about our bodies, when we don’t keep something in shape through practice, well, it gets a little flabby. Somewhere along the way we reduce our appetite for taking risks and trying new things. Things that could lead to change.

Risk is indeed at the heart of change. Years ago I read a fascinating article about researchers using the TV game show Deal or No Deal to study economics (thanks to the Internet, I actually found it again here). In this worldwide show, contestants start with nothing and then choose among many suitcases, each of which has money. Each round, they can choose to stay with what they have, or trade for a different one. When people have nothing, they take risks. Then, when they have a lot to lose, they don’t. The same behavior that got them the money in the first place makes them very conservative and cautious. The researchers had a perfect “sandbox” for studying and explaining why we often make the choices we do.

As we get older, we do have a lot more to risk. Our appetite for risk, and for change, goes down sharply. We stop taking bigger risks and we stop making big changes, even though we might continue to take and make smaller ones. We “settle in”. But, this is something that we can change through a little practice. With apologies to Nev and Aidan (because they hear this a lot), to get good at something, you need to practice.

And when you practice change a good deal, the top layer of the triangle isn’t so daunting.

Seeking Change

As I think about change, “seeking change” isn’t about being satisfied with trying new things or embracing change when you need to. It’s a mindset. And it’s one shared by most kids. In my view, it’s a worthy state to achieve.

There is an element of constant exploration at this level of change. For any early explorer, whether the very early people who confronted a boundless ocean to see what’s across it to the brave folks who embrace “the final frontier” of space, exploration, by its very nature, is at peace with change.

Kids, too, seem to be in a constant exploratory state. It’s in their nature. It’s one of many things I think we can learn from them.

I’m not advocating that we all make major life-changing decisions every day. I am suggesting that developing a comfortable relationship with change has a number of advantages. One of the best in my mind is that it keeps us open to differences and learning new things. And that is something our world needs a lot more of.

I have heard a lot of people, inside and outside of business, use the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” as a rationale not to do something – often something that might lead to change. I never liked that phrase. It is so…static. Permanent. I work in innovation and that phrase pretty much kills the soul of innovation. More than anything, it set’s the bar of acceptability at “not broken.” There is so much more beyond that.

And looking at this simple triangle model, the way to get there is pretty straightforward. Start in the middle and try something new. Practice. Rinse and repeat. It does get easier.

This might sound a little too simplistic coming from someone who along with his family left everything and spent a year in another country. But it wasn’t always this easy.

Many years ago I worked at Stanford after graduation. I was married (the first time). I felt stuck in a relationship that wasn’t working but had a great job. I even turned down some pretty nice jobs because I enjoyed just going out and playing soccer at lunch most days. It was easy. I was settling. I didn’t want to change what had become very comfortable. I was open-minded to change, but not motivated.

Then, my marriage ended and I decided to move halfway across the country, quit my job, and go to graduate school. I met my soul mate and proposed 7 weeks later. Perhaps it was my “burning platform.” I’ve never looked back and now have a more fulfilling life than I ever could have imagined.

In the succeeding years, Deb and I “practiced” change a good deal. And it got easier. It was one of the big reasons we wanted to take the young adults to Costa Rica. Change isn’t something to be afraid of.

Now, in many ways, things seem to be settling into our pre-Costa Rica life again. Most of the big changes have been made. I’m not worried about becoming complacent though. We all, I think, have emerged from our adventure with a more flexible mindset about things. The more I think about it, the more I see change built into much of what we do over the next year and beyond. There are so many things to try and explore. It’s almost like we were kids again. Pura vida.

Transitions

Change has certainly been something constant while on our new adventure in Costa Rica. Now that we are back, we are experiencing lots of change in the transitions each of us is going through as we “readjust” to routine and life here in Seattle. After what we’ve experienced though, change itself is easier for all of us and very exciting. That was a key benefit we hoped that Aidan and Nev got from our experience. I’m not sure though if they realize how differently they – actually all of us – approach things now.

I started my transition back in August really. That’s when I started reaching out to folks and looking for a new job. I had a pretty firm set of things I was and was not looking for in my ideal new job. Perhaps that’s why has taken several months to find my place.

Leaving for a year, and especially having the opportunity to spend so much time with my family, made me think hard about what type of job I wanted to have that would take me away from them for so many hours a day. Deb and I had the luxury of spending all of our time together. We love working on things together. That’s why it’s a big deal for me to transition back to seeing co-workers for more hours per day in many cases than Deb.

I didn’t feel compelled to return to any sort of “ladder climb” in a company. I could have managed a large team again, but I wanted something different. Ideally I wanted to find a place where I could be more “hands on.” I wanted to do something that had benefit beyond corporate success. So I took a position as an “individual contributor” in a company and industry that will get me right back to my roots in helping to evolve education.

A year or more ago I probably would have worried a bit about taking a “step down” from a bigger position and title. Not now. I feel solidly centered on how I want to spend the precious time I have. For me it’s about the “why”, not the “what” or “how much.” And I expect this ride to be even more thrilling than the previous things I’ve had the privilege of doing.

Deb is choosing not to return to the corporate world for now. True to her nature, she has a wild idea about want she wants to do next. That transition is far more in her nature and will include being out in nature a lot more. Deb is not ready to talk about it yet here in more detail. It will take some explaining to do, hopefully in a future post.

Nev has decided to go to back to public (high) school – but not just any high school. Nev enjoyed home schooling and was doing well. As we mentioned awhile back, a large public middle school was a nightmare for Nev with all of the posturing, bullying, cliques, and stress. We were a little surprised about the interest in going back to a public school, but this one could not be more fitting for Nev.

Nova is indeed a Seattle public school but it is very alternative. When we first drove up for a visit, we saw a bunch of students in the parking lot and a lot of diverse hair colors, piercings, and tattoos. This was clearly a place where people felt comfortable being who they were and Nev said that it felt like “home.”

But Nova is not alternative because of the students. Rather, I think it simply attracts more alternative students. Nova is run more like a college where you choose your classes and everyone’s schedule may be different. They have some incredibly interesting and non-mainstream classes like Experimental Animation, Feminism and Fashion, and Naked Truth on Stereotypes. Students and faculty work together to make the school a very open and accepting forum for ideas and place for people. And the teachers are as refreshing as the students.

Transitioning from a year in Costa Rica being homeschooled to even an alternative high school will be a big transition, but Nev is ready and excited.

Aidan, as usual, is open to everything and excited about trying new things. He and Deb are attending a home school cooperative program Mondays and Fridays where different parents teach different classes and where Aidan can meet some new friends. That leaves lots of time for doing some activities Aidan and Deb work out. It’s a bit different approach to unschooling, but it will be a fun, new adventure for Aidan.

The most interesting thing to me about our transition back isn’t what we each are doing; it’s how our general perspectives have changed, especially Aidan and Nev’s. We are living much more simply. We don’t need much “stuff.” The young adults are taking on much more responsibility. And change is something we take in stride pretty easily.

I expect that all of this didn’t simply come from living in Costa Rica. Some of it would have happened naturally, I’m sure. I think our experience though may have hastened and facilitated much of it.

We each have our own work, school, and life transitions back to the world we knew. On the surface, they seem fairly normal compared to our previous year. But they are all very definitely, and very intentionally, “off-path”. I hope our off-path perspectives don’t dim as we return to reality. I don’t expect they ever will, though, and that’s a good thing. Pura vida.

Yoga Gamification

One of the great things I have discovered on our new adventureis yoga. Yoga is an intensely personal endeavor and I probably approach it very differently than most. Strangely enough, for me it ties in well with gamification– a subject I’ve written about a few times before in the context of some of the ways we are unschoolingVie and Aidan. Here’s how I think about connecting yoga with it.

I had tried yoga before Costa Rica, sort of. Deb and I used to do it as one of the modules of P90X. We did yoga moves, and many were hard, but they were the same every time. When we came to Costa Rica, we started taking classes from Sattva Yoga and experienced a much deeper and genuine yoga experience. That’s where my yoga quest began – and I use that word intentionally.

For some context, I have traditionally been more of a team sports person for the most part all my life. I tend to get bored with repetitive individual sports like running, bicycling, swimming, etc. The individual sports I like tend to have some challenges to occupy my brain as well as my body, like snowboarding. I know many folks who tell me about the zen qualities of long distance running, or the peace of swimming but that’s not how I enjoy sports. I also tended to try many sports rather than fully dedicate myself to one and be the best at it. Aidan approaches sports that way too. Just one was hard to hold my interest.

Yoga does a great job occupying my mind as well as my body when I do it. It was the larger landscape of yoga that really hooked me, however.

Here is where I apologize to all my yogi friends. What I will share will probably not feel like the “essence” of yoga to many yogis or even most people who know much about it. However, in yoga, it is always about you and what you can do – not what everyone else is doing. So, for me, yoga shares many aspects of games. In my view, it is highly gamified and that is what draws me in.

Once again the definition of gamification I like comes from Gabe Zicherman:

“Gamification is the process of using game thinking and game dynamics to engage audiences and solve problems.” (gamification.co)

As I started yoga here, I learned a number of new moves, or asanas (poses). Then, Deb saw a poster of 900 asanas and told me about it. I had no idea there were so many. So, I started doing some research to understand all of the moves. That’s when I created my somewhat geeky spreadsheet of yoga positions. I keep track of the Sanskrit and English names of the poses, a picture of each pose, and additional data such as type of pose, etc. I also track when I completed a pose.

You might think there was one site on the web with a full list of all of these asanas. There are several. None are complete. In fact, I keep finding new ones. My spreadsheet now has 1113 poses, of which I’ve completed about a third so far. My original goal was to complete them all this year. Of course, that seems unrealistic, I know, even though we practice yoga 5-6 times a week now. There are some incredibly insane poses and people spend lifetimes mastering a few. Still, I like big goals.

That’s where gamification comes in. The thing that motivates me is the exploration. I want to explore and complete every one of those moves. If you play video games in particular, it’s a lot like wanting to visit every place, every challenge, and try every move or skill. Master Yogis may spend years perfecting one asana. For me, I want to complete the asana well, but it doesn’t have to be perfect; I’d rather move on to try others. My spreadsheet is essentially my map of this journey.

So how do I connect yoga with gamification? Yoga, for me, meets many of the core criteria for gamification. It also is strangely similar to how role-playing games (RPGs) evolve. These are games like World of Warcraft and Halo (campaign, or “story”, mode). The one caveat is that most game mechanics* and game dynamics* involve games embedded in a social setting. I turn all of these inward in how I look at gamifying yoga.

Let’s start with game mechanics*. First off, for me, the range of asanas present clear goals and many paths to get there. It is not just about the outcome of attaining the goal, it’s also about how you get there. Many asanas require a lot of prep work and conditioning before you can even attempt the pose and there are usually particular ways of getting into the poses that enable more success.

The asanas present a series of progressively harder challenges. Each basic move has a relatively simple version. Tree pose (Vrksasana), for example, is pretty straightforward to start. Flip it upside down and you have Adho Mukha Vṛksasana, or a handstand. Add the lotus position to get Urdhva Padmasana in Adho Mukha Vrksasana. Now, make it one-handed and you get Eka Hasta Padma Adho Mukha Vrkshasana. You get the picture. There’s plenty to keep me busy for years. Heck, even some of the basic moves are hard, like Bakasana:

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Bakasana

Levels are a another common game mechanic. Yoga has no belt system like martial arts which could indicate one’s “level” or proficiency. However, I definitely feel a progression from simpler asanas to “higher level” ones. Things that were once very difficult are now easy. There is just no outward manifestation of your “level.” It is an internal feeling for me, and that ties well with the “spirit” of yoga.

Likewise, there are no points per se as a game mechanic. However, every time I complete a new asana, I log it in my spreadsheet. Only I see it. But, I know I got a “point” for that particular asana. It essentially becomes my own leaderboard.

Now we get to the softer game dynamics*, such as reward, achievement, status, competition, and even self-expression. They are all there, but as inward manifestations. If I accomplish a difficult asana, for example, I get the same dopamine hit gamers get when they accomplish a challenge. It’s an internal reward.

What excites me is trying, and accomplishing, new asanas. I don’t need an achievement badge on Xbox to feel the same result as getting an achievement. My spreadsheet shows me the ones I have and the many, many more I have yet to earn.

Self-expression comes with the territory in yoga. We are all built differently and are differently-abled. The way I complete a pose or even try to get into it (often awkwardly) is different than others. What I lack in grace, I have in tenacity, and that fuels most of the things I accomplish.

Competition is a tricky one. I am competitive. Very competitive Debbie would argue. However, yoga is not a competition for me with others. In fact we all love seeing someone accomplish a tough move that they hadn’t before. Rather, the competition, if anything, is internal. I push myself to do more and do it better. But, doing it better takes a big second seat to trying something new. I play RPGs the same way.

There are a few final ways that yoga is “gamified” for me. These come more from the world of RPGs than more basic “gamification” concepts.

Take skill trees, for example. If you look at a map of asanas, they look like skill trees in many RPGs. In RPGs, as you advance and get more experienced in the game, you “unlock” new skills that you can now use, such as new spell if you are a spellcaster. There are often different “trees” of skills for each type of character, such as fire spells or cold spells. Likewise, you can see “trees” of asanas. There are standing asanas, seated asanas, arm balance asanas (Bakasana is one), etc. Like RPGs, some skills may come more easily than others and they get more difficult the further you go (in “level”). As with RPGs, to get all the skills, you need to do it a long time.

For me, there’s even the concept of “quests.” I am currently on one of my own to achieve the Lotus position (or Padmasana). Once I do, I can “unlock” a number of variations that I have yet to try (that’s the quest reward). My ankles are pretty tight from soccer and don’t seem to bend the way most people’s do, so I have to work on trying to open my hips more. It will be quite an achievement for me when I get there.

Finally, there are “bosses” – those super-difficult opponents in games that you need to face, and defeat, before you can continue. Some asanas, like Lotus, are tough for me now, but I know I can work through them, like an easier boss, and get through to the other side (all those poses that become “unlocked.”). Then, there are a few asanas that seem so crazy difficult, like Eka Hasta Padma Adho Mukha Vrkshasana, that I’m not sure yet how I’ll get there. I tend to approach those sorts of challenges in steps and work methodically toward them. Eventually they yield. Just like a hard boss.

I’m sure I’ve managed to unsettle my yogi friends by bringing gaming into the picture. To a greater degree, I probably also unsettled my gamer friends by, gulp, bringing yoga into the picture. Unsettling is good though. It’s an attribute of change. And here in the land of pura vida I think I’ve found that elusive “sport” that I care about dedicating some serious time to, which is a big change for me.

A big thanks goes out to all my yogi friends and teachers for making this an incredible journey. Namaste. And pura vida!

 

* There are several good sources on game mechanics and game dynamics. I tend to like. Bunchball’s simple and accessible Gamification 101 white paper.

Homecoming

It has been almost 6 months since we began our new adventure. This last week Vie and I travelled back to Seattle so that Vie and some friends could attend Sakura-Con, a large anime convention in Seattle. It was my first time back to Seattle in a while and I thought I’d share some thoughts.

We arrived on a Friday and I immediately sent Vie to Utah to meet up with friends for a few days. A few of them would be coming back with Vie to Sakura-Con, but that gave me a few days on my own in Seattle. Fortunately, several good friends took me in for little mini-stays!

Everyone I’ve seen has asked me what it is like. Some things are the same and some are different as you might expect, Just going through the airport to the taxis was very familiar for example. I had travelled so much that this actually felt very comfortable. It really didn’t hit me that I was in Seattle after an extended time.

It was very strange wearing shoes and pants. I hadn’t done that in months. Of course, I had several long hours on the plane and a long layover in Miami to get used to those. At least, I saw a welcome site in Miami!

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Haagen Dazs in Miami

I immediately welcomed the sun in Seattle. I expected rain and cold (and I did get it a few days), but the weather was gorgeous when we arrived. It was about 50 degrees colder to be sure, but the sun made up for it. It will sound strange, but the sun in Seattle when it is out feels stronger and more intense than Costa Rica, despite temperatures there in the high 90’s. I love that intensity. It’s as if the sun, when out, wants to make up for lost time. I can be warm in Seattle in any temperature if I am in the sun.

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The sun in the yard of our house

Unfortunately, not all my time was in the sun, even when it was outside. I was constantly cold everywhere, even with layers. In Costa Rica, I had gotten used to taking a cold shower or a dip in the pool to cool off. It felt refreshing stepping back into the heat. Here, I quickly remembered at a visceral body level that you take showers to warm up and then immediately feel cold when you get out.

It did rain a few days before it got sunny again. The rain came just in time for soccer 🙂 One nice thing though about the rain here in Seattle is that you get stunning rainbows:

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Rainbow over downtown

I have yet to see a rainbow in Costa Rica. Given what I said about the sun, even if I do, I bet they won’t compare to Seattle.

The traffic here was another unexpected surprise. I drove in this traffic for a lot of years, but I quickly got used to two lane roads everywhere in Costa Rica, even to the capital. Traffic happens when they work on the road or a cow is crossing. I came out of the Seattle airport and immediately hit commuter traffic for an hour. The immensity of it was awesome: 10 lanes of bumper to bumper traffic on I-5 at one point. When I went to pick up Vie and company Thursday evening, I had to leave at 4:30 and it took almost 50 minutes to just hit the freeway. I don’t miss this at all. And the cows are awfully cute to watch – more so than (understandably) grumpy commuters.

I did get to drive our small MINI Cooper Coupe though and that was a welcome change from Mooseand Fanta. It was small, fast, and new. The first thing I did was turn on the heated seats! It’s one advantage to living in a cooler environment. I just wish I had those heated seats while I was sitting in the Convention Center for days!

Watching people here was fun, even before Sakura-Con. Both on the weekend and the weekdays, everyone always seemed to be rushing from somewhere to somewhere. I remember that. In fact, I had a long list of errands and activities myself for the days preceding the conference and I fell back into that rushing pace. I spent a lot of time between errands figuring out how long it would take to get somewhere, etc. It struck me at one point that I never do that in Costa Rica.

I was also pleasantly surprised about the people. I’ve written about how small Playa Flamingo and Playa Potrero are and how we seem to know most folks when we walk in a restaurant or pub. Seattle is a lot bigger of course, but 3 times since I have been here I just happened to bump into someone I knew unexpectedly. Maybe Seattle isn’t so small after all. I had to laugh at one point when I was walking down the street and heard “Hey, I thought you were in Costa Rica!” It was great catching up with those with whom I could, both planned and unexpected. There never seems to be enough time for that. It did make me savor every moment. I knew it would be a good while before I saw the particular person again. With everyone, it really didn’t feel like I had been gone; we picked right up as if I had not.

Eating and drinking was fun. One of the things I was really missing was good, strong, dark, heavy beer – like this:

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Scottish Oil Drum Ale at 74th St. Ale House

I also get a choice of wine here in restaurants beyond (the same) Merlot and Cab, both of which are refrigerated in Costa Rica. I was really looking forward to the food. At times it was absolutely awesome, like the chicken pot pie at the Daily Grill and the mac and cheese at this place in the U-District. At times, it was hideous. Vie and I had inedible pasta the night we stayed at an airport hotel and breakfast at the Best Western Executive Inn was horrible. Breakfast at the Tilikum Café more than made up for it though.

Soccer was a lot of fun but pretty surreal. It’s been about 95 degrees in Costa Rica. The games are pretty slow, actually. There’s a lot of shooting from midfield and short, fancy footwork followed by passing and resting. Here, it was cold and rainy. There was little fancy footwork and lot of running, which I like. It was great playing with my old team, and very comfortable. In Costa Rica, I tend to be the only “gringo” and everyone speaks only Spanish. They are also all men. It was refreshing to play co-ed again. Women make the game more balanced.

Now, about this Convention. Imagine 3000 people, most of whom are dressed up, raging through the convention center. About half seem to be under 21.

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Sakura-Con

The costumes (“cosplay”) were absolutely incredible. There was eye-candy everywhere. Most were anime-related. I saw armies of folks from Attack on Titan, Homestuck, Pokemon and more. There were a number of video game characters as well, from Super Mario Brothers to some stunning cosplayers from Halo and Borderlands. Super heroes abounded as well just like Comic-Con, but they tended to hang out with much cooler anime characters. I saw a particularly forlorn Thor trying to talk with some very attractive women cosplayers from Hetalia. The poor guy was out of his league on so many levels. I even saw several “bronies.” The best Cosplay I saw? An absolutely perfectly-crafted Master Chief with bunny ears worn by a woman. The workmanship was incredible.

Vie and friends Avery and Kam had several Cosplay costumes – per day. There was day and night attire and even pajamas one night. Sometimes the costume changes were quick, sometimes long, and sometimes painful (one particular cosplay for Vie involved contact lenses – see below). They were are home-made and awesome. The three of them worked months in preparation for this.

cosplayers

Vie, Kam and Avery at Sakura-Con

Since the teens were over 12, I didn’t have to follow them around as in previous years – at least 15 back of course 🙂 This year, I just had to be in the building. I found a table in the café here where I sat for 10-14 hours a day, not including time when I was wandering around the Con. I saw a ton of costumes I would love to see Deb in, many for sale, but we don’t need more stuffright now. Besides, it’s more fun to make them anyway. Look for Debbie as Cortana on a future Halloween (if I can convince her).

Despite the cold inside the Convention Center (I was shivering Friday night), I had a blast. I got a good start on our Body Defenders video game (more on that soon). I watched a few terrible zombie movies. I know that sounds bad and expected, but if I watch romantic comedies, I usually miss Deb even more. I caught up and leaped ahead in my Spanish on Duolingo. I snuck out a few times for meals close by with friends. I read a book. I wrote two blog posts.

Mostly, though, I had a long period of time to think about things. We Cargiles are very lucky to have an opportunity to live for a year in Costa Rica. Coming back to Seattle reinforces that for me. When people asked if it was what we expected and wanted, I usually said “yes”, and “no.” Both are true at times. It’s the nature of a journey, an adventure where you don’t have the end planned. Where we left with one possibility about returning, we now have many, many more. Getting free from a day to day routine here really makes almost anything seem possible, and that’s a very powerful feeling – one that was harder in coming when we were here working and living on a regular basis.

Who knows what’s next? We have a long time yet to work that out. Meanwhile, even after only 10 days, I am missing many things in Costa Rica, especially Deb. Maybe our nature is to constantly miss what we don’t have. But, I don’t miss pura vida. I think I brought some here. At least, I think I brought the perspective of enjoying every minute with what you have and really appreciating things. I’m pretty sure I didn’t have that to the same degree the last time I was here.

I hope this experience is giving the young adults the chance to experience the change I’m feeling. Change is good. Feeling comfortable with change is priceless. Pura vida!

Gamification

One of the approaches that we’ve been using for unschooling as part of our new adventure is something called gamification. I’ve referenced this a few times in the past but I’ll go into this in a more detail here and why we think it is a powerful educational approach.

What is gamification?

There are a few good definitions for gamification out there. We like Gabe Zicherman’s definition:

“Gamification is the process of using game thinking and game dynamics to engage audiences and solve problems.” (gamification.co)

In terms of what Deb and I are trying to do with Aidan and Vie’s unschooling, gamification.org talks about it this way:

“Gamification is a business strategy which applies game design techniques to non-game experiences to drive user behavior.”

The behavior we want to drive, pretty simply, is an interest in learning. We think all of the rest will follow.

Where it started for us

Deb and I both worked with an education focus in our graduate design work at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1995. I focused most of my work there on games and education, even though at the time we didn’t have a word for it. For me it came from a profound but simple insight that came when I was observing kids.

I had a project where we had to teach a chapter of a science book to middle schoolers in inner city Chicago using interactive media (like all of those old “educational” CDs that were out at the time). Many of these kids could not read and the vocabulary of the textbook was daunting. I chose the immune system chapter, because I loved biology and did graduate work on this subject at Stanford. The vocabulary in this chapter was particularly tough and few kids even wanted to read it. It wasn’t “coming alive” for them.

I didn’t know these kids well and so as part of my design process – understand, create, iterate – I went out and researched what they liked to do. At the time, Mortal Kombat was a popular standup arcade video game and these kids were all spending a lot of time playing it. I’d watch kids play and asked them questions. They had such deep and thorough knowledge of these video game characters. Things like:

“…if you want to defeat Scorpion when you’re playing Sub-zero, and Scorpion throws his ‘air throw’ move, then you need to counter with ‘cold blast’ and then…”

I was stunned. There was not much difference between that and real immune system interactions. For example:

“…if you want to defeat Streptococcus (a bacteria) then you need to use a B-Cell, (not a Killer-T Cell) and have it shoot antibodies at the bacteria so that complement (cellular dynamite) can attach to it and blow it up…”

I’m not making this up; it’s real biology.

Instead of just adding interactive media to the same content as the textbook, I basically created a prototype of a video game called Body Defenders where the kids could play different immune system cells (“characters”) and defeat various types of germs. In doing so, they’d focus on all of key immune interactions and the vocabulary would come as part of the game. It was such an easy format to work with that I could actually go beyond their textbook and teach them college level immune reactions.

killer t cell

A Killer T-Cell in Body Defenders

The kids loved it. More importantly, they learned everything that was in their science textbook chapter and a lot more. I learned that games offered a powerful tool for learning – something I continued to pursue in grad school with other kids and other projects.

Why it works

There is a ton of material out there on the subject of gamification, why it works, and how it works. I’ve included some good references here and on our Resources page.

We’ve likely all seen the incredible engagement many video games create. There’s a simple, basic process at work: challenge, achievement, reward. This is a basic behavioral process in us; it is not tied to games per se. Simply put, when we encounter a challenge and accomplish a goal, overcome an obstacle, achieve a result, etc., we are rewarded with a small release of dopamine. It’s a brain chemical tied to motivation and reward and when our brains release it, we feel good. Really good. And we want more. So we try to do whatever it was that produced the dopamine again.

This happens outside of games too of course. For example, I just got a boost in yoga last week when I managed to achieve a pretty tough pose I had been working on. But that pose, like many challenges, was tough enough that I could not just do it over and over. Even if I could, doing the same challenge again has a lesser effect.

Games, particularly video games, create a succession of different challenges that can be “achieved.” Unlike many things in the physical world, you can do these a lot more frequently and get that dopamine effect more often.

I mentioned Ananth Pai in a previous post. He’s the educator that brought gamification directly into his Minneapolis classroom and took a failing third grade class and increased their math and reading scores incredibly, surpassing other grades and other schools. His story, and his success, is inspiring. He uses this approach every day and it works. You can see some of what he dos at Team Drill Head.

What I really like about gamification is the impact that it has on fluid intelligence. According Raymond Cattell, a psychologist that first proposed this theory, there are basically two types of intelligence: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Crystallized intelligence comes from prior knowledge and experience. It’s based on facts or “book learning.” We accumulate it over time. It describes most of the type of learning that most of us have grown up with (and been tested for).

Fluid intelligence is very different. It is the ability to think logically and solve unfamiliar problems in novel ways. It is a key component of pattern recognition, abstract thinking, problem solving, and quick reasoning, Not surprisingly, it has very strong ties to innovation, creativity, and the ability to effect change (something else I’ve written about).

What is particularly interesting is that you can indeed increase your fluid intelligence according to Andrea Kuszewski. She discusses 5 ways:

  • seeking novelty
  • challenging yourself
  • thinking creatively
  • doing things the hard way
  • networking

It turns out that you can find all of these playing most modern video games. (Thanks to Gabe Zicherman for connecting a lot of the dots here. He talks about all of this and more in one of his videos.)

One of our favorite examples of a video game that really pushes these boundaries is Portal (I and II). If you haven’t seen it, it’s probably unlike any other video game you’ve seen. You can play solo or work with someone else as robots solving some clever and difficult interactive problems as part of a rich and very humorous story line. I just learned that you can now create your own levels – something for Aidan and Vie to try.

How we use gamification in unschooling

In our unschooling with Aidan and Vie, we don’t rely solely on gamification, but it is a big part. And no, Aidan and Vie don’t play video games all day, as much as they might like to J

In general, we try to use many of the game mechanics, or tactics, involved in gamification. There’s a pretty good white paper overview of many of these (as applied to use in business). Essentially, as part of the different things Aidan and Vie are working on, we look for opportunities to bring in some of these game mechanics. I talked before about giving Aidan and Vie a “paper quest” to write a paper about the difference between two video games. It was a collaborative project that ended with a 28 page multimedia paper. We also borrowed a game concept of defeating a boss and turned into a grammar “test.”

Part of their regular unschooling involves several great online tools that involve game mechanics. One of the more general tools we use is DIY.org. It has broad topic coverage and basically provides a “gamified” framework for working on various types of activities, such as making videos, cooking, illustration, etc., that can fit into the regular “curriculum” that the young adults have worked out with us. They really like earning achievements there.

We also use some other tools for specific things. For example, Vie and Aidan use StudyStack to supplement the Spanish lessons they take with a local teacher here. Deb and I are even getting into it, although we prefer Duolingo. This well-designed, and well gamified, site has leaderboards, achievements, levels, challenges, etc. all around learning Spanish, We get to compete with some of our friends. You might want to try it out if you are planning a visit!

Of course, as Ben Franklin wrote, “All things in moderation.” and that certainly includes gamification. What gamification is not, for us, is something that touches every aspect of unschooling. For example, Deb’s brought in much more discussion and group work. It also doesn’t mean that we need to use technology in every aspect of what we do. In fact, we are still working to find ways to tone that down even more. Hopefully, we’ll be creating a baking card game with Aidan in the near future as one example of bringing in gaming without technology.

We are still working continuously with the young adults to tune their unschooling and try different things, not all of which involve gamification. Some things seem to work well. Others don’t and we learn from those. My challenge continues to be more around “how” we help them with unschooling more than “what” they focus on. The parent-child dynamic can often affect the learner-helper dynamic and we haven’t found gamification to help there, yet.

Why it matters

We think gamification is an important trend in general and one that applies beyond learning. Businesses are waking up to its potential. As one data point, Gartner notes that “by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.” (Gartner) This is the world our young adults are growing up in.

On the flip side, we see schools struggling to keep up with what they have to teach and how they teach it. As I mentioned in Why We Decided to Unschool, 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 heart-wrenching documentary Race to Nowhere for some sobering reality here.

The focus of the schools in most cases is on what to learn i.e., developing crystallized intelligence. It’s easy, and reasonably non-controversial, to test for after all. Far less time is spent on how to learn or how to look at problems creatively and solve them in novel ways; i.e., fluid intelligence.

Now consider that, according to IBM, “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone”. When the current middle and high-schoolers reach the working world in a few short years, much of the “prior knowledge” that they’ve learned in school will be out of date.

What good, then, is the radically increasing body of knowledge students must learn in school when a good deal of it may be out of date? More importantly, with the majority of school and after school work focused on developing “prior knowledge,” where is there time for learning how to think creatively and differently about solving new problems? We are giving students fish and not teaching them how to fish.

Whether you believe that the “video game generation” is or will be different than their predecessors, there is no doubt that video games and technology in general are influencing this generation heavily. I might argue that for those kids that play video games, some of the most valuable, and “evergreen,” types of learning probably comes from those video games.

Now imagine combining the two approaches. There is plenty of room still for learning “things.” Working with that, we can add new ways to learn – ones that inspire kids and not keep them up late and stressed about their homework and tests. Hopefully they would be better innovators and problem solvers. They world they inherit will need more of that.

That’s essentially what we are trying to do. We won’t get it right the first few times but we’ll keep refining it and we’ll continue to share progress along the way. It’s very Intentionally Off Path. Pura vida!

A Few Changes

There are ebbs and flows in most things and that includes our new adventure. We made a few more changes on the path to getting unschooling right with Aidan and Vie this past week. Things weren’t working quite as well as we liked and so we needed to do some tuning. The changes have given us all some new energy.

If you remember, we started our path in unschooling with a bit of structure in when we did unschooling; i.e., we had a daily schedule. On the flip side, we gave the young adults a lot of freedom in their choice of “projects” and helped them understand that they were responsible for their unschooling (with help and support of course).

Shortly thereafter I made my first mistake and realized that I was giving the young adults freedom in unschooling pursuits, but not in their schedules. So, I reined that in and allowed them to set their own schedules for when they got up, worked on unschooling, etc. as long as they hit an average of about 20 hours a week.

After working this way for about two months, the pendulum is swinging back a bit in the other direction. While we are still giving Aidan and Vie schedule flexibility, we are adding back more structure to their unschooling work. And I’m taking a little break while Deb, who recently finished working remotely, takes over.

Many things were going on, but I think the biggest factors leading to these changes were overexposure to technology and what I’d probably call dwindling motivation in Aidan and Vie to take unschooling seriously. It got a bit too easy for them to slip into letting technology drive what they did vs. driving it themselves.

In fairness, they are 13 and 11. Having the responsibility for directing one’s schooling path, while an awesome opportunity for pre-teens, can also be a daunting and at times complex task. We adults are still working to get it right.

I had already come to a good understanding of how Aidan learns, which is very different than me. That led to some learning on my part, which I also wrote about. While Aidan did continue to work on his recipes, more and more of his time was spent watching videos on YouTube, not just of cooking, but really anything he could rationalize as unschooling. He’d track his unschooling time meticulously and then switch to watching more YouTube videos – not unschooling related – and not keeping track of his technology time as we had asked.

Vie also tracked unschooling and technology time and focused. The challenge with Vie was in what the topics of focus were. We went from a project comparing digital art tools and another focused on making videos of walkthroughs of Vie playing a video game, to creating a video game, to just wanting to play video games as learning. Topics would change almost weekly and get more abstract.

Each time Vie would change topics, I would spend a number of hours researching the topic, learning the tools (e.g., Adobe Flash gaming engine to build a video game), etc. It was getting frustrating to me.

Vie and I had a good discussion about gamification, Gabe Zicherman’s TED talk How Games Make Kids Smarter, and how Vie wanted to focus on being a video gamer. While I was hesitant, I was open-minded towards trying it. My requirements were simply that Vie describe what the particular video game offered in terms of learning content, and then after playing the game, how would you know that you learned something; i.e., how do you know you were successful at learning what you expected to.

As we went along, it was getting harder and harder to get Vie and Aidan to tell me what they were working on. They weren’t doing the few things I asked them to do. For example, Vie wasn’t writing up what was learned from gaming. I was also getting a lot of “Dad, we are responsible for our unschooling so why do we have to tell you what we are doing?” It is certainly a creative argument that I would probably raise – they are my young adults after all 🙂 – but it wasn’t helping me help them.

What I was coming to realize was that Vie and Aidan, in different ways, really didn’t want to unschool. That didn’t mean they wanted to go to school. They disliked that idea even more. They just weren’t very interested in [any]schooling. Period.

We had set them on this path of unschooling. Here I’ll emphasize unschooling and not home schooling. In Grace Llewellyn’s great book on unschooling, Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, the book is targeted toward young adults who want to do this and may need help convincing their parents. We had a bit of the opposite situation, so the book didn’t help as much.

I went online looking for some help and guidance. What I found surprised me. I found tons of advice on tactics for helping learners with different subjects, what tools and resources are most helpful, where to go for all sorts of supporting material, etc. I also found strategies for helping learners develop curricula for their unschooling. I even found information on how to help your learner learn a subject they think they dislike, such as math. What I didn’t find was anything helping with getting your learner to want to unschool. Most of the information assumed that that wasn’t a problem. While I can’t say I did an exhaustive search, I did expect to find some information fairly quickly.

Adding to the mix, more and more, particularly with Vie, most of my suggestions and asks were getting met with arguments. Aidan didn’t generally argue, he just often “forgot” about requirements and rules.

I was getting frustrated. I felt like I was giving them lots of room. I was open-minded about what they were working on and how they were doing it. And yet, I felt like it wasn’t working. While I felt that Vie and Aidan were taking advantage of the situation a bit, I felt like I was failing in making unschooling work. And I hate to fail. I know, I need more Type-A Detox. Failing is an opportunity to learn something. While that’s true, and I do embrace that philosophy, it was “different” for me when my kids schooling is on the line.

After one particular night where we caught both the young adults on their computers well past their bed time and against our rule of no technology after bed, and then learned that it was a pattern, we decided we needed some changes. My trust in them was a bit broken. And I needed a little break. This was Deb’s very good idea.

Fortunately, Deb had recently finished her part-time remote work and had time to step in more deeply. We had a family meeting and talked about what we needed to change. We talked about how we needed to add back more structure to the unschooling.

Deb started with having Vie describe to Aidan what middle school was like. Vie had a fairly typical unpleasant middle school experience, full of rules and consequences, lots of behavior management and little actual learning, bullies, and micromanagement of time to name a few. It was a brilliant move. Aidan had had an awesome experience at University Cooperative School, but didn’t have a larger context of what most schools were like. And this got Vie to remember all the reasons why the middle school experience was so bad, hopefully creating some appreciation for unschooling in both cases.

Deb adding back more structure around what they were working on along with a little more structure around daily activities to go back, at least a bit, to a routine. We also limited technology in a few ways. Vie and Aidan needed to write up short descriptions of what they wanted to do online and why before they did. They also needed to use their computers in the main room of the house; no more sneaking computer time late at night. We explained that in time, if they were working well with this structure, then we could try relaxing it a bit.

Deb is also adding in some structured time for conversation – talking about things in the world, why things are the way they are, etc. to spark broader interest and questions. It was a great idea. It’s already led to discussions on economics, body chemistry and biology.

This last week has been a lot more manageable after the changes, even with the serendipitous intervention of having no Internet for 5 days now. While it’s been inconvenient for all of us to not have internet access, and while it’s been frustrating getting the cable company to make a visit to fix it, it’s been interesting to see the household effects of no internet on top of our added structure. Stepping back and taking a break (from technology) may help Aidan and Vie get some perspective. It works for adults too. It already has in my case.

In reflecting on recent events and doing some more research (thanks to the Wi-Fi at the Shack), there are a few insights I had that I’d thought I’d share.

Systems and Goals
Awhile back, Deb found a great article on systems and goals. I had intended to do something with this in a future blog post, but the opportunity for application in our current situation was powerful. Essentially, the author James Clear makes the argument that systems are more valuable than goals. We all grow up – and continue into the work force – setting and achieving goals. Goals aren’t bad. But systems can be more useful. Systems are structured ways for consistently working toward a goal.

As an example, you may have a new year’s resolution to lose some amount of weight or get fit or save some amount of money. Many people abandon these after a short time. The goal doesn’t easily lead to day to day energy and focus on the goal. In contrast, if you simply start going to the gym consistently a few days a week and put in place some structure to make that easy, then you will eventually lose weight/get fit. More importantly, you don’t just achieve the goal. You now have in place tools that will help you consistently achieve that goal in the form of a system.

In our case, I was focusing on the young adults having projects and goals (of their choosing). I did not have in place enough structure (a system) for them to make consistent progress. I think adding back structure to our unschooling will help Aidan and Vie develop more systems for working toward achieving any goal.

Executive Function
Adults have the ability to visualize and plan for the future, think strategically, and see how they need to tune near term actions to better help them with their longer term strategy and goals. It’s called “executive function.” This ability is not well developed yet in pre-teens. Immediate gratification trumps longer term, and more substantial, benefits. We probably all have examples of this coming into play in our early teen years.

Unschooling gives responsibility to the learner to determine what and how they want to learn. They develop a love for learning and with some guidance, they can learn anything. The challenge I see, now, is that without developed executive function skills, it’s hard to expect a pre-teen to be able to do this well. I’m sure in time they may naturally get there, but I also see the role of a parent is to be a significant “flywheel” in this process – something that makes it go better, faster, stronger. At times, I think this means that we need to add more structure and help edit goals and systems a bit.

I’m still getting past my ego and inability to make this work smoothly so far, which is tough. We came into this so optimistic, thinking it would be a wonderful, easy experience. At least I did. I was naïve. It’s hard. Though, it may not be nearly as hard as dealing with some of the negative side effects of schools (over reliance on homework, bullies, less attention to individual learning styles, etc.) over which you feel as though you have little ability to effect change.

However I can’t think of anything more important and so we will keep learning, tuning, and refining what we are doing. We’ll also keep sharing our journey. Maybe it will keep some folks from falling into some of the holes along the way that we did! It is all part of the journey and I think we will all be stronger for it. Pura Vida!

“That which does not kill you only makes you stronger.”

Nietzsche