We Must Harness The Plasticity Of Adolescence To Teach Work Skills
What we learn when we are young sticks with us for life.
The growing mind has a sensitive period in which a young person can most rapidly acquire a particular skill. Learning language versus science ideas like multivariate relationships and the mathematical concept of "which is more" all have very different developmental paths and normalized ages of maturation. But so many of the concepts, skills, and passions that are important for work as adults are formed in the teenage years. Practicing those skills within this sensitive period will define a person’s passions and skills as they become an adult.
First, a fun little video that may help you visualize a sensitive period in action. Ducks are famous for imprinting, in which they form attachments in the first few days of life. They will follow a bouncy ball if that’s what they have exposure to in this critical period. If they miss this window, they won’t imprint at all. We got ducks during COVID and saw it ourselves. Our triad of “squeak squeaks” imprinted on my wife. Here they are chasing after her.
The Experiences that Shaped Me
My life, as with everyone, was formed by my adolescence. I lived with a Chinese family in China for a year when I was 11. Five years later, I started the China Care Foundation to help orphans in China. By the time I was allowed to drink, I had learned to raise money, grow and manage a team, start 5 children's homes with hundreds of kids, build a financial aid program, run a foster program and start 80 campus clubs in the United States. And grapple with life and death.
It’s hard for me to even describe how profound of an impact this all had on the core of my being. My passion for making the world a better place was born from these experiences. When I look back on my life, everything that I am doing today came from that year in China and China Care. I learned that I could push my finger and something would move in the world. Cause and effect. Everything that I do today was shaped by that. It was the most valuable experience in my life.
Given the impact that it had on me, I started a second mission in college, starting clubs in the US to empower youth. A few weeks ago, I had dinner with one of those club founders. He was 14 at the time. He describes those formative years with the same passion that I describe mine. It clicked for me while writing this that I’m on the same mission today, decades later. I’m trying to give this world-shaping experience to every youth in a way that will prepare them for the future.
The Formative Years of Outliers
I’m about to leap into cognitive science for a moment, a territory beyond my background. John Holt, the author of How Children Learn, tells a story about two men in a field. One sees some naked-looking sheep and claims, "those sheep have just been sheared." The other is cautious about drawing conclusions. He says, "they seem to be - on this side." I take the bolder approach. I take the broad strokes of the truth as a basis for solving problems.
Whether literally or metaphorically, we “imprint” all sorts of things at a young age. Those lessons are with us forever. If the critical period is missed, it may be difficult or even impossible to develop certain associated functions later in life. Language is a good example. If you learn after puberty, most people will have an accent for life.
Countless outliers had their first forays in their field when they were incredibly young. By age 2, Andre Agassi could serve a tennis ball on a full court. He went on to be America’s #1 player. Venus and Serena Williams started at age 4. Tiger Woods shot 48 for nine holes at age 3 and was featured in Golf Digest at age 5. Mozart was playing sonatas at age 3. One can say that they were prodigies and therefore they started early. But ALL of these people had a parent that pushed them at an incredibly young age. Andre Agassi’s father taped ping pong paddles to his hands as a toddler. Michael Jackson’s father was infamously aggressive for pushing him into the spotlight as lead singer at age 8. Yes, of course they had to have incredible talent, but they would not have been who they were if they had not started so young. You can be good at guitar if you learn at 25. You’re a lot more likely to be Eric Clapton if you learn at 13, like Clapton did.
The same is often true in the work that we do. The requisites for outlier success can be shaped at a young age. Bill Gates started programming at age 13. Carlos Slim, the telecom billionaire, started his first business at age 12. Spielberg made a 40-minute war film, titled Escape to Nowhere, with a cast of school classmates at age 13. My dad started trading markets at age 12. Most Nobel laureates won for work they did in their 20s, using skills they learned in their teens. Early priming matters. I see it at Endless. Most of our best engineers started in their early teens. These early experiences wove into the fabric of their developing minds. Into their very identity.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell devotes an entire book to the thesis that, while talent and hard work are necessary for success, “early advantage and privileged social standing are what truly make the outliers.” My mission is to understand how we give this early advantage to everyone, not just those of privileged social standing. I want to give them the values, skills and passions during those most formative years to prepare them to live vibrant, successful lives.
Teaching the Skills of Careers in this Sensitive Period
Age is just a number. But adolescence is also a critical period for all sorts of development. Neural pathways surge with the activities that we do all day long, becoming dense webs of connections. Other pathways prune. The brain consolidates to form the core of our identity, shaping an understanding of who we are. In these years, youth need to develop belonging, autonomy, purpose, mastery and contribution.
By 25, the brain is set in many ways and that window is behind us. We learn to harness who we have become. I’m not saying that we cannot grow at any age in life. A friend started painting when he retired. His works are masterpieces. One of our best engineers learned to code in college. My point is that the brain’s elasticity in adolescence is precious. We must harness those precious years to train the skills that will be important in the future.
We need to train our youth these 21st Century Skills at a young age if we want to prepare them for the jobs that they will face in the decades ahead. If we want these formative years to prime the pathways to the professions of their 30’s, 40’s and 70’s, we need to give youth direct practice in the activities that they will need. That needs to start now.
One of our best engineers at Endless never graduated from high school, but he was coding well before he was shaving. Today’s educational system waits until youth are in their twenties to give them their first foray into actual practice with the activities that will make up their future careers.
Why? I believe it’s because nobody sees an alternative to the current system. But I believe that there is a way. How? Follow the coming posts as I walk you through my vision.
Silicon Valley Skills
This chart shows how to see the future. Go to the innovators. See which ones solve the needs of the early majority.
The skills required to succeed in a startup today are the same skills that will be essential to thrive in the enterprises of tomorrow. As Microsoft’s CEO said, “every company is now a software company.” Are we adequately preparing kids to work for these companies?
None of my own dreams would have been possible if I hadn’t spent a decade in Silicon Valley. Those years have steeped me in the startup way. It is in the water. I absorbed a culture of failing forward, of believing big, of user-centered design, of knowing how software is built, of pivoting to product market fit. It has shaped me to my core.
My question is, how can I get this to more kids?
Startups Shape The Future Of Work
I once heard someone say that Silicon Valley has spawned so much innovation because people are living in the future. Everyone lives at the forefront of technology. In 2010, if you wanted to see what a college campus would look like if everyone had an iPhone in an era when iPhones were still relatively new, you’d visit Stanford. Students at Stanford were using smartphones and they wanted to share photos at a time when photo sharing wasn’t yet popular. You could “see the future.” Coincidentally a month after I moved to Stanford, someone started a photo sharing app called Instagram. And it spread.
While consumer products may be more visible, this trend is equally strong in the workplace. It’s possible to see the future of work. It is in startups. Silicon Valley’s way of working is being adopted globally. To cite a few examples:
Google ads were once a tool for startups that were unable to buy banner ads from big digital brokers. Today Google is the largest media company in the world, with ad revenues over $130 billion. Salesforce created the first cloud-based company when the concept was so foreign that its team raised awareness by staging mock protests against server-based software. Now cloud computing is ubiquitous. Amazon Web Services’ first customer was a podcasting startup.
These huge companies were once startups.
GitHub helped spread open source and now 98% of code bases include open source code. Development methodologies like Agile and SCRUM, and innovation frameworks like Continuous Innovation are now simply the way that companies build and innovate. There are 71 enterprise software unicorns, like the $10 billion Gusto, which modernizes your payroll, benefits and HR. I was one of the first sales pitches for a nascent startup selling credit cards to startups. Now they are worth $12 Billion, because they are shaping the way companies manage costs. Slack was so effective at reshaping how companies communicate that Salesforce bought it for $25 billion. A collection of more recent project management tools, like Monday.com, Notion and ClickUp, are shaping the way companies operate. These are a few from the coming wave. And there will be more to come.
These companies are spreading more than software. Their software is spreading a more modern understanding of how to run a successful company. The processes, the culture, the values are deeply embedded in the flow of the software they sell. As a case study, the massive migration from Microsoft Office to Google Docs is more than a transition of tools. It’s a reflection of the shift from an old economy’s solitary work towards deeply collaborative work. These software tools reflect an evolution of what it means to be a company, and an employee.
Startups spread cutting edge ways of working until they become the de facto way of working. Geoffrey Moore captures this technology adoption lifecycle in Crossing The Chasm, showing that the leap from nascent technology to mainstream is predictable. See the header image above. Enterprise startups start selling to early adopters and then they “cross the chasm” to the early majority. They jump from startups to everyone and then they sweep through the mainstream market.
So if you want to see what the mainstream will soon do, go look at what startups are doing.
Which brings me back to my original question: If we can see what the future of work looks like, are we preparing our youth to work at those kinds of companies?
We Must Prepare Youth For Their Future
If work will increasingly look more like today's startups than yesterday's enterprises, employment will increasingly involve hard skills like coding, digital art, design thinking, marketing and project management. It will require soft skills like collaboration and communication. It will involve entirely new ways of thinking - like Design Thinking, iterative launches and user testing. The term “21st Century Skills" is used so often that it has little meaning. But these are the skills that will be required for youth to succeed in the future.
NASA is an organization full of engineers that operate in the old way. They eventually had to decommission the space shuttle. They had to rely on Russia to take their astronauts to space. SpaceX managed to do what NASA could not. It brought Elon Musk’s web development style, literally launching and iterating until they landed the world’s first reusable rocket. Now, thank God, we are not dependent on Russia to take American astronauts into orbit. Culture did that.
This culture has built almost all of the world’s ten most valuable companies. This is the culture that we must teach our youth. Because we know that it is the future of the workforce.
When asking yourself whether our youth need to learn this, ask yourself what they will do if they don’t. The next time you see them use the hottest new app, remember that changes are coming for their workplace with as much vigor as the cultural shifts that are coming from those apps.
Are we going to teach them this in school? Of course schools can’t teach it. That’s like asking NASA engineers to train people to work at SpaceX. So, how are we going to teach them?
How Do We Prepare Them?
There is hope. The first clue comes from the fact so many startup founders are young. Youth are naturally suited to this style and these skills. They are lean, nimble, flexible and scrappy. They are open. They’re passionate. They’re innovative and quick to try things. They’re on the frontier.
If we can lean into that, we can find an answer. This is what I'll cover in the coming posts.
So stay tuned.
We Can Win Learning Games!
Let’s start with the goal: Kids play a collective 10,000 hours of video games. We want to use a portion of that time to teach them. In fact, those hours may represent the best chance we have at teaching Silicon Valley skills like coding, digital art, management and design.
Games have so much potential to teach. They're engaging. They’re interactive. They give you agency, they celebrate failure, are visual, have stakes, have engaging narratives and can give players the tools of creation. Games are basically giant learning engines. Players enter without skills and are trained until they succeed and win, victorious. And youth do this learning eagerly.
When I was young I would play SimCity and Civilization for hours. I didn’t know that I was learning about urban planning, supply and demand, budgeting, capital allocation, world history, geography, economics, and scientific and civic progress. I learned every step of the way. For today’s kids, modding Minecraft is probably the greatest pathway for kids to learn to code.
These games teach as a side effect. The fact that they teach without even trying is a statement of how good games are at teaching, but what about games that teach deliberately?
The Gap Between Education and Consumer Games
If you Google the top 100 games, you’ll be hard pressed to find a single educational game on those lists. If you Google “best education games” the first link shows the Zoombinis, a game from 20 years ago (full disclosure, our managing director ran the company). Prodigy, another game on that list, looks like Legend of Zelda from 1986 (see image below). These are representative of modern learning games; they aren’t anything like the modern consumer games youth play.
Now let’s compare that to the most popular consumer games. Watch 2017’s Legend of Zelda, Breath Of The Wild trailer to get a sense of how far video games have come.
This is an adventure I want to go on.
Watch kids delight in highly social games like Fortnight and Roblox, spend hours solving puzzles in games like Portal and build the wild machinations of their imaginations in games like Minecraft and Fortnite Creative and you’ll see why it is that youth spend so much time in games. They are mindblowingly engaging. The level of craftsmanship earns their hours.
So why is the gap between learning games and consumer games so vast?
Teens make up the heart of the game market. They have options. And high expectations. When they’re free from school, they want to do something fun, with their friends. The competition for an education game targeting a teenager is the bursting abundance of entertainment options, among them, the thousands of games launched each year, many with hundred billion dollar budgets that aren’t hampered by the dual desire to teach anything.
How can an "education games” compete in that landscape?
Those games cost a ton of money and require a lot of luck. There isn’t any example of a successful education-first, consumer quality game. So why would you build them?
So education game developers choose the proven paths. Target parents and schools. Parents decide what their young children play. They play simple games that teach simple things. Some schools use education games. The designers of these games will tell you that schools specifically ask for fewer of the “fun things'. They’re distracting in an academic setting. The result is a flourishing ecosystem of kiddy games with a strong academic bent.
That’s fine. We need those games.
But the promise was that we would engage our youth for endless hours with the sorts of games that they play at home, teaching them skills that can change their lives.
To engage the 10,000 hours of game time and teach career skills, you have to win teens. That is the holy grail. But that’s incredibly hard.
So, how do we do it?
Give Teens What They Want
Let me tell you a story. A young black man in an inner city school in Queens showed up to our focus group twenty minutes late. He sat silent. Until he started to understand that we were talking about building games. He lit up. He was the most engaged kid in the group. When the kids left, his teacher told me, “if you were to ask teachers who the worst kid in the school is, most would tell you it is him. He causes trouble and doesn’t show up to class. But, when it comes to coding, he's my best student. He's never been a minute late for my class.”
Why did this engage him? In that answer, we have the clues for conquering this holy grail.
- Teens love building things. The impulse starts so young, with legos and sandcastles. Then it bursts through us in our teenage years. We see it in the success of games like Minecraft, Roblox and Fortnite Creative. And we see it in life, in songs, paintings, and TikTok masterpieces, in fiction writings, robots, apps and games. We take our talents and tools and we make things with them. It is so deeply human.
- Teens want to do things with friends. Their social synapses are firing at full bore as they are learning who they are. They are forming their identities. They bond their social neurons as they bond with their friends, and we see this in social media, in cliques and in collaborative and competitive gameplay. It satisfies a fundamental need to socialize.
- Teens actually want to learn things! The teenage mind is bursting with wild curiosity. It’s a time of search and discovery. You see it in the number of extracurriculars they jump into and the communities they join. Whether it is with guitar or ballet or robotics or art or crypto or stocks or coding, the teenage mind wants to let its passions reign free. Teens want to discover their purpose and passions and let them flourish.
If you can tap into those desires, we have a way forward. And games may well be our best shot at doing that. Certainly, we see it in the hundreds of millions of users that play the social creation games like Minecraft, Roblox and Fortnite. They tapped into these impulses.
If you can help teens find their passions by building games and interactive experiences that harness their curiosity, and do that with their friends, you have a way forward. And if that can help them figure out what they want to do with their lives, that is gold.
The common refrain is that “nobody has managed to win teen discretionary time with an educational video game; it can’t be done.” What kind of a reason is that? As JFK said, we choose to go to the Moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
Now, games and virtual worlds are embedded into our culture. Now, game development tools like Unity have democratized game creation. Now, games like Minecraft and Roblox have paved the way for gameplay and game creation to be interchangeable. Now, an entire generation is primed - indeed, is hungry for - the ability to get into their games.
The stakes are high. Our youth are not prepared with the skills that will define their future. Teachers? There aren’t enough. Online courses? We know how those are working. So how will we do it? Meet our youth where they are at. With games.
Teach skills they want to learn by helping them build games they want to play.
They want it. They want to build. They want platforms for their artistic impulses.
So teach them with that. All the while, they will be playing, making, laughing.
Swarm The Mountain
The world thought that Everest could not be summited. Look at it today.
"I tried carrying the weight of the world but I only have two hands." - Avicii
Have you ever cared about a mission so much that it didn’t matter if it was you that made it successful? You just knew that someone had to do it. I feel blessed to have three missions that are more important to me than my being the one to achieve them. The three missions:
1) Building games that can hook kids on coding, design, and the skills of the 21st Century.
2) Ensuring that every kid has the benefits of the internet, even if they live beyond broadband.
3) Unlocking financing so that billions more people can afford a computer.
I recently wrote about these as my Three Mountains that I’m tackling with my team at Endless. If these three problems are solved, every kid in the world will have the tools and ability to live an empowered life. I followed it with a post that talks about how we chart a course to success: we shape the impossible mountains to make them have small, surmountable summits to the top.
But what if we fail? I have seen Marcia in Guatemala drop out of school because she couldn’t afford an internet cafe, and then get a computer and become valedictorian of her high school. How could I forgive myself if half of the world’s kids can’t afford a computer, can’t get internet access and are stuck in a school system that can’t teach them, all because I didn’t succeed? I know these barriers are solvable. This post is about how we ensure that someone succeeds, even if we fail. The stakes are so high. We have to plan for our failure.
We have gleaned pearls of insight in the mountains of rural villages around the world. We have learned that games can teach kids who live beyond the reach of great teachers. We have learned that storage can be a shockingly wise substitute for bandwidth. We have learned that you can also unlock computer financing with a mechanism that unlocks whenever you pay.
These pearls were buried within the muck of the poor towns we’ve traversed. They were not easily found. I know how unlikely it is that someone else will discover these insights. I return from the mountain bearing these ideas. I know these ideas work. I’ve seen them change lives. They must live, regardless of whether we are the ones to nurture them. Because the one thing that I’m clear on is that these three mountains cannot go unconquered.
If we fail, the only other way I know of ensuring that they are conquered is for there to be others walking by our carcasses on the way up who can do what we were unable to do, learning the lessons of our failures, finding the path that we couldn’t find. The best way for us to ensure that someone, anyone, gets to the top of the mountain is to swarm the mountain. To do that, we must share the insights that we have found.
That is what this writing is all about.
Shape The Mountain
"Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing." - Barry Finlay
In The Endless Vision, I wrote about the three mountains that are the foundation of my dream for every child in the world to have the tools and skills to live a powerful life in this digital age. For the better part of a decade I fought on the front lines of this war for digital equity, traveling hundreds of days a year, in the field and working 100 hour weeks. Through this, with Endless, we have enabled tens of thousands of kids in slums and villages and refugee camps to access life-changing technology. In these places, I gleaned three key insights that make it possible to get this to millions more:
1) Use games to teach skills that are the future of work, like coding, design and management
2) Harness the power of storage to ease the internet divide
3) Unlock financing to enable every kid who wants a computer to get one
I suggest that you read more about them in The Endless Vision.
Charlie Munger says "take a simple idea and take it seriously." These are simple ideas and I take them very seriously. Each one is a massive mountain. So, how do we conquer them?
In the real world you can choose the trail but you can’t shape the mountain. In 2007 I spent a month climbing Mt Marcus Baker. It was the highest peak in Alaska’s Chugach Mountains. We were a day from the peak and had to turn back. Real world mountains are made of immovable rock.
But in the world of products and technology, mountains can be reshaped. The mountaintop is a vision, the solving of a problem. There is freedom to shape strategies, to craft a series of summits, each achievable. Elon Musk had a vision of mass producing electric vehicles. His version of tapering the mountain was, “Create a low volume car, which would necessarily be expensive. Use that money to develop a medium volume car at a lower price. Use that money to create an affordable, high volume car.” Each was a camp on the way to the top.
This requires patience. And patience requires total faith. Bezos dreamt of an “Everything Store”. It was impossible at the start, so he built an online bookstore. It started humbly. One of his first innovations was a packing table so his knees wouldn’t hurt when he was taping boxes. But he knew that if he could build the world’s best online bookstore, he could advance from there.
We are pursuing a dream in which every kid can have: 1) a computer 2) that works in any internet environment and 3) that teaches the skills to participate in the modern economy. If we can shape the summits so that each victory leads us closer to the top, we will get there. I'll talk about how in future posts. But this point is important enough to emphasize on its own.
While the scale of what Endless is attempting to achieve is quite literally world-changing, it is possible if we make each of the summits along the way surmountable.
How will you taper the impossible mountains in your own life to let you conquer them? Perhaps thinking about the world this way can even allow you to be more aspirational, dreaming of the even bigger summits beyond the one that you are climbing.
The Endless Vision
My Three Mountains: Learning Games, Internet Access, and Device Access, with Endless OS in the background.
It has been a while since I've written. We have evolved a lot and I want to share what we do. If there is a question that lights me up it is "What do you do?" It is an invitation for me to tell you how excited I am about my work, but it's also so big it's hard to know where to start.
So I've written the definitive answer to what we at Endless do. Here it is!
We believe that youth should be able to shape their technology rather than be shaped by it. We want to create a world in which every child is a creator, and in which the statement 'every child' doesn't just include every child of privilege. It truly includes every child.
Endless began with the realization that smartphone processors could enable affordable PCs. I say this only because it was the catalyst. Our answer to that was Endless OS, which is still produced today. Endless OS combines everything we do into one place. But the real power of what we do today comes from what I learned spending years in the field with our users. Climbing that mountain gave me a vantage point to perceive the real problems and solutions. Three insights during those years have shaped the three pillars of our work:
1) We needed to teach kids who lived beyond the reach of great teachers. We can use games to teach kids everywhere.
2) We had to solve for the barrier of internet access. Storage is a shockingly powerful tool to deliver key information on any internet connection.
3) We had to address the fact that billions of people can't afford a computer. A payment mechanism that unlocks your device unlocks financing for the whole world.
Let's go into each one in detail.
Every time I went into a school, I found kids playing the education games we had bundled. It was clear: games were by far the most powerful way of engaging kids in learning. If you can build great learning games, you can teach them. We also realized that the majority of our engineers had learned to code by hacking games as kids! If there is anything that kids like more than playing games, it is building them. From this was born Endless Studios, a distributed youth game making studio that is harnessing the power of games to teach youth 21st century skills like coding, design, digital art, storytelling, marketing and project management. It is an always-on internship that anyone can join to build games in community with friends and mentors. Collectively, members of this community are contributing to an endless game called The Endless Mission. When the players in The Endless Mission are victorious, they will be ready for their digital futures. I will be writing much more about this in the coming months, but I believe that games are an important part of the future of education, and we are going to be working hard on that in the coming years.
Our goal is to make it so that every kid in the world has the ability to access these tools. There are two barriers to that happening: internet access and device affordability.
The Internet has an end. It ends where wires, cell signal or people's ability to pay for it ends. Nearly half the planet lives beyond the internet's end, including millions of American youth. The question is, how do you get people what they need even if they live beyond the internet? Our answer is quite simple. If you take the internet and put the tip of it right into someone's personal computing device, as if the very last server lived right inside of their own computer, then that person is able to have access to the important things even without connectivity. Storage is now so vast that a $100 hard drive can fit millions of web pages. If you had that much content to educate a kid who lived beyond the internet, what would you put there? All of Wikipedia. All of Khan Academy. Digital textbooks. TedEd. PBS Kids. Anything a child could dream of. All of it. Refreshing every time a kid is online. If we wait a decade for broadband to reach every corner of the Earth, 8-year-olds will become 18-year-olds. What are we going to do for them? Simply having a USB key filled with content can ensure that every child has access to the most important resources on the internet. Now.
Endless Laptop Financing
It seems so unsexy, but financing is the answer to the biggest problem in digital equity. When COVID hit, America discovered that millions of kids didn't have a computer at home. Only 11% of kids in countries like India have one. Imagine sending your child to school without a PC. If a smartphone isn't enough for you and your child, it isn’t for their kids. How can we make computers affordable to billions more people? The same way you make homes and cars affordable: Finance them. A $200 computer financed over 3 years costs less than a cup of coffee a week. BUT, we found that banks wouldn’t give these people loans. They weren’t creditworthy. Our response to this was inspired by the solar panel industry. They're solving this same problem by building “pay as you go” solar panels. If you don't pay the electricity stops. So people pay. We have built the same idea into a computer. The computer unlocks when you pay. The result is a high repayment rate. The result of that is that we can disperse financing liberally to those who couldn't afford a computer before. Every computer is profitable to those selling them, and thus scalable to billions of kids.
Every Child Is A Creator
We envision a future where every kid is pulled into the allure of building games and, in the process, into becoming a coder, a designer, a product manager, a creator. What would the world look like if every teen grew up with the tools to unwind the injustices of the modern world? If we succeed in these three dreams, that world will be possible.
While we are building solutions ourselves in Endless Studios, an Endless Internet, and Endless Laptop Financing, our aperture is larger than these products. We are advocating for the ideas within them. We are trying to urge others to use games to teach. To use intelligent caching for those who can't connect to the internet. And to use financing for those who cannot afford computers. If any of these ideas carry weight with you, share them. Use them. The ideas themselves, in the right hands, are enough to change a lot of lives.