It is a fact that all of us have the enormous creative capacity. The only problem is not many practices and develops those skills. On a mission to try to help the world become more creative, Josh Linker inspires you to apply creativity to everyday challenges and to innovate your business. Josh Linker is a business leader, top-rated speaker, and New York Times bestselling author, among others. He guides us in this episode to hacking innovation, solving complex problems in creative ways, and developing the creative resilience we need when faced with adversities.
From solving problems to another, Founder of LifeSchool, Yash Tekriwal, also sits on this episode to present to us a rethinking of how we prepare students for the future. Building an immersive learning ecosystem to make learning fun again, Yash has designed an interactive and engaging online environment that gets students to work on projects and solve problems. He shares with us the journey they embarked on getting LifeSchool to come to life, along with his insights on the value of teaching soft skills, personal development, leadership fulfillment, and the likes that are not generally taught in schools, let alone online.
We have Josh Linkner and Yash Tekriwal. Josh Linkner is a New York Times bestselling author. You’ve seen his books everywhere. He’s a top-rated keynote speaker. He’s a creativity expert. Yash is the Founder and Chief Ruckus Maker at LifeSchool, which is turning education on its ear. We’re going to have something completely different from what they’re working on there. This is going to be a fascinating look at creativity and education. It’s going to be a great show.
Listen to the podcast here:
Creativity In Hacking Innovation With Josh Linkner
I am here with Josh Linkner who started his career as a jazz guitarist. He has been the founder and CEO of five tech companies that sold for a combined value of more than $200 million. He is an experienced business leader, venture capitalists, top rate keynote speaker, author of many books and New York Times bestsellers. Everything that we’ll talk about is going to tie into everything I’m interested in terms of innovation, creativity and hopefully, some curiosity. It’s nice to have you here, Josh.
Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to join you.
I love watching your work. I research people before they were on the show and everybody knows who you are anyway because of all your great work out there. I hadn’t watched some of your latest videos until then. What struck me was how great you are at telling stories. The stories you tell aren’t the ones that everybody else tells. They’re unique and helpful and they paint such pictures. I’m curious how you got to be such a good storyteller. Can you give a little bit of a background as to how you got to this level of success? A little bit of your backstory.
On the storytelling question, we have learned for millennia based on great storytelling, those didactic lectures from foreign college professors. When trying to give people tools, I always try to do that in the context of fun and surprising stories, ideally ones that aren’t cliche. We all know that Apple is innovative and nothing wrong with Apple or Netflix, but there are many amazing rich stories out in the world to tell. I feel that as thought leaders, that’s our responsibility to find the unexpected stories and share them with the world. I wouldn’t characterize myself as a master. I’m a student. I’m always trying to study great storytelling and how to communicate best to leave a maximum impact in people’s lives.
Where did you get these stories though? You can’t find these stories easily. I’ve tried a lot of my talks and you could find the blockbusters and whatever stories easily. How do you get these unique stories? Are there people you’ve consulted with? Some of it is like Ben & Jerry’s and some of it is BMW type of billboard stories. Where do you get those cool stories?
I’m always on the hunt. I’m a lifelong learner and I am obsessed with finding poor examples. I took a systematic approach to content research and we developed seven criteria that for us make a good story. It’s not being judgemental, other people can use other criteria but ours include things like there’s an underdog wins story or there’s an ironic twist or there’s a killer stat or it’s cool. My team and I are always on the hunt. We’ve got a whole list of sources ranging from Fast Company to Springwise, which is an innovation consulting and content company. We’re always looking for stuff. I’ve read this article and I thought you’d find it neat. I talk about innovation and curiosity is very much the DNA of innovation.
Researchers in Japan were looking at the cattle industry and ironically it turns out that flies are a big problem for cows. Unlike horses, it can’t swap away a fly. It sounds silly but it adds up to billions of dollars of lost profits because it affects the cows eating patterns, the way they graze, sleep and all this stuff. Researchers in Japan are trying to crack the code and they’re looking for unexpected approaches and they realized for some reason that zebras don’t get fly bites. Apparently, this has to do with the stripes because it affects the flies’ depth perception and flies avoid the zebras. What do they do? Do they try some type of chemical treatment? No. They painted the cows like zebras. These researchers use healthy and nontoxic paint and they put stripes on the cows. What happened was fly bites dropped by 70% and if they were to extrapolate this practice across the entire industry, it would save the industry $1 billion a year. To me, these are the gems. There are many amazing examples and stories out there for us to find that and talking about how cool and innovative Facebook is almost a bit lazy.
That reminds me of a story you told with a bicycle company. Their bikes were getting destroyed and they put them in boxes that the television flat screens would come in. Do you want to tell that one?As thought leaders, it is our responsibility to find the unexpected stories and share them with the world. Click To Tweet
The reason I tell these stories is not to be entertaining, although it is entertaining. These are the things that we remember and share. When these stories sink in, that’s how they create impact. I talk about innovation a lot. It’s my passion in life and I’m on a bit of a mission to try to help the world become more creative. The research is crystal clear that all of us have the enormous creative capacity. It’s not that some of us are creative and others are not, but many of us don’t practice and develop those skills. It’s unfortunate because innovation doesn’t only apply to the big stuff. It doesn’t only apply to groundbreaking drug therapies. It applies to all of our challenges. The example that you’re referring to is an example of what I call everyday innovation.
In other words, it’s applying the principles of creativity to simple everyday challenges. What you were referencing is a bike company called VanMoof, which is a hybrid electric bike company that ships customers their bikes directly through big cardboard boxes and such was facing a real problem. The problem was that the bikes were getting damaged at a high rate during shipping. They got together and brainstormed how they could solve the problem. The first ideas were obvious and easy ones. Someone said, “Let’s use thicker packaging material.” Someone else said, “What about a fancy white-glove delivery service?” The problem is each of these obvious ideas was too expensive. To their credit, this company kept going.
They said, “We’ve got to find a cool innovative approach instead.” One of the leaders said, “Think about a flatscreen TV. They are about the same size box, they are about the same weight. How can flatscreens get shipped every single day with no damage and our butts are getting all banged up?” This led to a creative approach. They didn’t change the packaging material. They didn’t change the shipping carrier. They didn’t change a single thing. On the outside of the same boxes with the same bikes inside, they printed out the picture of a flatscreen TV. The damage rates were reduced by a massive amount. It saves the company all this money. They solved the problem because they applied creativity to an everyday challenge. These are the things that I love seeing and love sharing.
It’s such a unique way of looking at things. We all hear about the silo effect or thinking outside the box, your team, the silo, whatever you’re supposed to think about. I love it when they think outside the industry completely in a whole new different way. Many times you talked about you’ve got A, B and C, nobody’s looking at that X. How do you find that X? If you don’t naturally go to that in your brain, how do we teach ourselves to be hardwired for that?
You hit the nail right on the head. First of all, we’re already hardwired. As human beings, we are hardwired to be creative. That is our natural state. We are born to solve problems in creative ways. When we don’t develop those skills over time, they can atrophy like a muscle. What I recommend people do inject little daily practices. The teeny ones that’s not going to take a bunch of time or it certainly doesn’t take any money. Injecting creativity as a daily habit ultimately cultivates the skillsets and mindsets needed to perform those breakthroughs. Here’s an example. If you took a challenge and you said, “For the next 21 days, once a day, I’m going to do something creative.” I’m not suggesting that we create the Mona Lisa once a day. I’m saying that next time you order a pizza, ask them to put the pepperoni underneath the cheese instead of on top of the cheese. Those little teeny baby everyday acts. I call them Big Little Breakthroughs, which is the title of my forthcoming book. Those lead to unbelievable results. If we practice creativity as a daily habit and do it on the little stuff, the big stuff takes care of itself.
When is your new book coming out?
The book is coming out in 2020. It’s around building a habit of everyday creativity and it’s like creativity for the rest of us. The idea is you don’t have to be Picasso or Mozart or Banksy to be creative. All of us, regardless of our role or background, can deploy creativity to drive productivity gains if we build it and cultivate it as a skill.
I’ve talked to creativity experts. I’ve had people on the show who also studied curiosity. I remember talking to Francesca Gino about this because she had a great piece on curiosity in HBR. What do you think comes first, curiosity or creativity?
Curiosity to a degree is part of the DNA of creativity. In other words, when we ask a lot of questions, when we go deep and we’re inquisitive, that leads to creative output. I would think that if you had to choose which one comes first, probably curiosity. It seems to me that the more curious you get, the more creative you become.
I studied a lot of like Sir Ken Robinson, his TED Talk about the schools teaching creativity out of us. Some of the stuff that we do is making us status quo thinkers. I love what you talk about because it ties into what I found that there are four things that keep people from being curious, which are fear, the assumptions or the voice in your head, technology and environment. A lot of those environmental things are what he’s talking about. What you also speak about was work around how people come up with these ideas by not looking at things as not solvable. Do you think that the Elon Musks of the world do that? What do you think to make somebody like that get that sense that we can solve it no matter what?
I’m glad you said that. A lot of times we’re mere mortals, not the Elon Musks of the world. We look at those people and say, “I could never do that.” When you look at the brain science of Elon Musk or Thomas Edison, these people weren’t smarter or more creative than any of us. They develop this mindset over time and those skills were able to be sharpened. The good news is we don’t necessarily have to invent some breakthrough transformative thing, but we can all be creative. That’s the most wonderful thing. The way to do it is there are some simple techniques and tools that we can do to change our approach to creativity instantly. I love sharing those techniques and tools because they’re applicable, they’re fast-moving and they can make a big difference.
One quick example of that. I love chatting about this one. I call it the Judo Flip. When you’re about to do something in a traditional way, ask yourself, “Before I do the obvious, what would it look like if I flipped it upside down? If everybody does it this way, I’m going to do it that way.” We can Judo Flip our challenges and our opportunities. That oppositional force saying, “What would the opposite look like,” can enable terrific breakthroughs. You mentioned the fear of trying new things and fear restricting curiosity. One thing that troubles me is too often we think that the status quo was safe and trying something new is risky. We’ve got it backward. We tend to overestimate the risk of trying something new but we underestimate the risk of standing still.
A lot of people feel very safe with the status quo. I was lucky to attend an event with Marshall Goldsmith and he said, “What got you here won’t get you there.” A lot of people feel like what worked in the past is going to work in the future. With innovation, it’s always changing. That’s what you’re dealing with when your last hacking innovation. I want to touch on what you’re talking about when you’re talking about hacking innovation. You said you’re the hacker. You have the ability to unlock potential and solve the most intimidating problems personally and professionally. What do you mean by hacking innovation?
For my book which was a 2017 release date, I was looking for a different fresh approach to innovation. I didn’t want to write the same old book on creativity. I started looking around the world for inspiration and it led me to hackers. Hacking is in the media every day. It’s a terrible thing. It arguably impacted our last presidential election, but putting the right or wrong aspect aside, it’s not easy to hack into a bank. I started thinking that hackers are people that are deploying enormous amounts of creativity on a daily basis. I said, “What if I study hackers?”
I spent a few years going undercover. I spoke to criminals and law enforcement and cybersecurity experts not to teach or promote cybercrime, but more to get in their heads. How do they think? How do they act? How can we as normal people use those skills and mindsets in order to drive positive gain in the world? Hacking Innovation redefines the concept of hacking not as committing a crime, but more solving complex problems in creative ways. It’s a fun way to read like a spy novel, but we reference all these interesting criminal activities and then unpack it and say, “What’s the legit flip? What can we learn from this approach from criminals that we could then apply to our legitimate purposes?”
You learn the most unusual things from places you don’t ever imagine. I remember writing about Norman Hospital in London and how they found ways to improve their mortality rate by looking at race cars. How they’d take them apart and put them together efficiently. To look at something outside of what we traditionally look at is such a unique way of thinking that I don’t think a lot of people would naturally go there. What can we do to help people think more that way? You talked about having five mindsets of innovators. I want to talk about them if you don’t mind because I think that they’re important. You talk about every barrier can be penetrated. You have something you call Video Killed The Radio Star, changed the rules to get the jewels, seek the unexpected and fall seven times and stand up eight. Can you give an example of what you mean by every barrier can be penetrated?Human beings are hardwired to be creative. When we don't develop those skills over time, they can atrophy like a muscle. Click To Tweet
When you look at people that we admire like Elon Musk and we say to ourselves they must be some superhero with divine intervention and it’s not so much. One of the things that the biggest innovative and successful people do differently than most is they don’t focus on what can’t be done. They focus on there’s got to be a way. It’s the inherent starting point. It’s the core belief that no matter how difficult an obstacle may seem or how insurmountable the challenge may feel if you throw enough imagination in it, there has to be a way to crack the code. It reminds me of a famous Chinese proverb, one of my favorites. It simply says, “The man who says it can’t be done should not interrupt the man doing it.” That’s the core principle. It’s this belief that there’s got to be a way, so let’s not waste any time or energy saying it can’t be done. Let’s figure it out.
A lot of people have figured it out and worked around and different things, but then everybody wants to hide behind Video Killed the Radio Star. You say that there are ways around things that people could come up with. What’s an example of Video Killed the Radio Star? I like the St. Regis Hotel, if you want to give that example because I thought that was great.
For those that didn’t know, that’s the 1979 song which was the first song ever played on MTV. The principle is that we must look for ways to put ourselves out of business with a new version. It’s almost like planned obsolescence. How can we elevate what we’re offering to customers or to our team members such that the old version becomes obsolete? St. Regis Hotel is a fun example of that. Like many of us, they’re looking around saying, “How can we better serve customers? How can we grow our business?” They started looking around the hotel and it leads them to the empty closet. That’s the same closet in every hotel room around the world.
The people at St. Regis in DC said, “Maybe there’s an opportunity here. Maybe there’s a Video Killed the Radio Star approach.” Here’s what they did. They partnered up with a luxury retailer, Neiman Marcus. Now as a guest, before you arrive, you sent an email survey asking about your size and your fashion preferences. When you walk into your hotel room and open up that closet door, it’s not empty. It’s filled with hand-selected goods for you. The deal is you try them on in the privacy of your room. If you like it, walk off with it. It’s auto-billed to your hotel invoice. When you think about what they did here, they activated at dead space. They created a new revenue stream. They drove a competitive differentiation. They did it with no capital since they partnered up with Neiman Marcus.
It’s an example of how a little fresh thinking, when staring at something that everybody else in your industry does all the time in a different way can make a huge impact. I would challenge the readers to say what the empty closets in your business are? What are those things that you shrug your shoulders and say, “That’s the way we do it in our field. That’s the way we’ve always done it.” I would say with great respect that it’s a wonderful opportunity to confront those norms, to look for a Video Killed the Radio Star approach to the future.
It’s hard for some people to see things. Sometimes it takes fresh eyes and I’m sure that’s why there are a lot of consulting going on out there. You say to change the rules to get the jewels. Were they changing the rules in that case too? What’s an example of changing the rules to get the jewels?
You’re right when you say it’s hard and we need a fresh perspective. I believe that often perspective is inside of us if we’re able to unlock it. This ties into that change the rules concept. There’s a wonderful technique. I studied brainstorming techniques a lot. I’m fascinated by them. Classic brainstorming is a perfectly designed exercise to yield mediocre results. The reason is fear. Not a natural talent, fear is the single biggest blocker to creative output. It’s that poisonous force that robs us of our best thinking. Think about all of us. We’ve been in a brainstorming meeting and we’ve all done this.
You have some cool crazy idea but instead of sharing it, you hold it back because you talk yourself out of it. You say, “I don’t know. What is my boss going to say? Who’s going to fund this idea? What if I look foolish?” Brainstorming helps us share mediocre ideas and high cores. Here’s the way to solve it. It’s a change the rules to get the jewel’s approach, which is called role storming. Role storming is brainstorming but in character. You’re pretending that you’re somebody else. Imagine you were doing a regular brainstorm. You might share your safe ideas. If you were playing the role of Steve Jobs tackling a real-world challenge, nobody’s going to laugh at Steve for coming up with a crazy idea. They might laugh at Steve for coming up with a small one. Now you a.k.a. Steve Jobs is totally liberated. You can say anything you want with no fear at all.
The technique is simple. You take on a real-world business challenge but instead of being yourself and being responsible for everything you say, pick a movie star, a film hero, an author, a villain or a sports figure. Pretend that you’re that person attacking the problem. This completely shifts your mindset. It gets rid of the fear and allows you to generate unbelievable ideas. I did this with a group of executives at Sony Japan one time. I met this guy. He was the stiffest human being I’ve ever met in my life. I’m talking stiff as a board, dark suit, white shirt, tie. We got him role storming as Yoda and I got to tell you, I’ve never seen a personal transformation like this.
After he put himself in a new role, this guy was totally liberated. He’s jumping around the room and the whiteboards are filled with ideas. The amazing part is that he didn’t need some external consultants to tell them what to do. He had the answers inside him all along as do all of us mostly. The difference is that he was in a role that forbids creative output. He put himself in a new role and he was completely able to shine as can all of us. I love finding ways to solve problems with internal resources rather than requiring external ones.
I’m curious after he did that, did it change his demeanor afterward? Did he lighten up a little bit?
He did lighten up but when we went back to a lunch break, he instantly shot back into his normal self. It’s not a criticism, we all do that. He’s been trained for years and years to act a certain way. He’s a senior executive after all. That’s why techniques and putting some structure and scaffolding around the creative process becomes powerful because it liberates us from our previous notions.
The more often you do something like that, the more likely it’ll have an impact. That’s such a great exercise. I want to talk about seeking the unexpected. What does that entail?
There’s an expected approach that each of us takes to solving a problem or seizing an opportunity. Yet the expected approach is generally not what makes history. It’s quite the opposite. Seeking the unexpected is pushing our creative boundaries a bit. Instead of doing the obvious thing and going ahead, challenge yourselves. What’s the unorthodox approach? What would the unexpected approach look like? When we do that, it’s unbelievable what we can uncover. You mentioned this concept earlier. I love this notion instead of choosing A, B or C because we quickly know the field of choice when making a decision to a very shortlist. I like to say before you choose A, B and C, ask yourself, is there a D? Is there an E? The term used earlier, which I love, is there an option X? Option X is these bold, provocative, unorthodox ideas that make all the difference in the world. Those option X ideas are inside all of us. We don’t need to go on a hunting mission for them. They’re there. We may need to dust off the cobwebs a bit. The more we can look for those unexpected approaches, the more we will win in both business and life.
You do give some great examples of all these things on your website. I love the example of BMW and Audi doing the billboard back and forth and some of the different stories. They are important. The fifth thing that we talked about was to fall seven times and stand up eight. Obviously, that means never give up. Do you think people give up? Is there a time to throw it in and say this isn’t working? How do you know when to give up or should you never?
I wouldn’t say you should never give up. If you continuously attack a problem in lots of different ways and the data or essentially the output isn’t coming to life, there are times when you need to make a judgment call and move on certainly. However, most of us fall into the trap of the opposite. We try something once and if it isn’t perfect, we quickly retreat. This principle, “Fall seven times, stand up eight,” is a Zen proverb. The idea behind it is creative resilience. It’s using creativity once you have the inevitable setback because let’s face it, adversity is part of life. We’re going to find ourselves on the canvas. You get back into the fight and ultimately win by taking more creative approaches, more creative shots, using more imagination to carry the day ultimately. That’s what the principle is all about.If we practice creativity as a daily habit and do it on the little stuff, the big stuff takes care of itself. Click To Tweet
All of these things are important. Sometimes we hear this and we go, “That makes sense.” We want to try it but a lot of people forget to do stuff. I love that you say to do something once a day a little differently to be more creative. I’ve said the same thing for curiosity. Sometimes just reading a different section of the newspaper or taking a different route to work, little things that get you out of that routine that you constantly keep going to naturally. When you’re writing your next book about big little breakthroughs, what breakthroughs are the big little breakthroughs that you’re going to share with us? I’m curious about that.
It’s the idea of instead of us shooting to create the Mona Lisa, we shoot for high velocity, high volume everyday innovations. The little teeny stuff like how you change the way you interview a job candidate or how you adapt in a more creative way the manner in which you send an email. I like to say if you feel like you’re not the next Thomas Edison, great but we can all be. That’s no problem. Let’s all be creative in our own ways. That’s what the book is all about. It’s establishing creative output as a daily habit and that the principle is, first of all, a series of small breakthroughs that lead to much more productive outputs than waiting around for the big one. The mere practice of creativity on a regular basis is what in turn leads to your Mona Lisa or your Da Vinci type work. That’s what the book is about. I’m excited about the principle because it makes creativity and innovation accessible for all of us, not just the fancy-pants CEOs or propeller head inventors. We can all be creative.
You said creativity couldn’t be outsourced or automated. I agree with that. I did interview Jürgen Schmidhuber who created artificial intelligence and one of the main guys in that. They were there working on artificial curiosity, which I find fascinating. They’ve got these computers that can try doing Mario Bros. different levels without even necessarily giving them extrinsic rewards. They’re curious to find out what’s on the next level even. Do you worry about what automation is going to do?
I don’t because I still think that the human mind is the most powerful computer on Earth. If anything, if we use technology in a proper way, it can enable our creativity rather than strict it. I wrote a piece years back called What If Mozart had a Mac? It was posing a fun question because Mozart wrote every single note by hand. If he’s writing out a symphony, that means every single instrument, he had to sit there painstakingly penning every note with a quill or whatever. The question would be this, if he had a Mac, would it save him a bunch of time and its creative output would have been 10X? Would he have taken shortcuts and relied on the technology and did things for technology’s sake rather than for the sake of art? In turn, his creative output maybe would have suffered.
There’s not a right or wrong answer. The reason I wrote that piece is to say let’s not have technology lead. Technology should follow our art. When we think about art, it doesn’t mean oil on canvas. It could be being an artist in a customer service role, a sales role or a manufacturing plant. Let’s put the idea first of how can we better serve, lead and contribute and then let’s use technology to support that art rather than restrict it.
Speaking of art, you’re a jazz guitarist as it says about you. I’m curious, what’s your favorite jazz guitar song of all time?
First of all, my favorite jazz guitarist is a guy named Wes Montgomery. He wasn’t the most technically proficient, but he was a beautiful lyrical player whom I adore and have studied for years. My favorite song of all time is hard to say because there are many wonderful songs, but I love this song by John Coltrane called Giant Steps. It’s been considered the most feared song in jazz. It’s largely because he completely broke the harmonic structure of tradition. There’s a traditional approach to letting the chords underneath the song. He completely shattered it. What he did is he pushed the boundaries so far, he did the most forbidden thing to do with his chord structure. That led to this incredible art and that became his signature song. I love it not only because I liked the music personally, but also what it stands for which is breaking free from traditional barriers to discover something new.
My dad played drums in a jazz band. I was wondering, did you like Sweet and Lowdown because that was how jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt did? I’m curious if you ever saw that movie.
Anything jazz, I’m a fan. A lot of times, we jazz musicians say, “We are jazz musicians. We’re creative or something.” Jazz musicians are no more creative than anybody else. It’s that they build it as a habit. I would say to anyone reading, whatever your muse is fine. You may hate jazz, which is fine. You might like drawing or dancing or going to a theater. For all of us, let’s discover the muse that excites us, that recharges our batteries, that gets us fired up and whatever it is. It could be walking in nature or playing rock music in your garage. Who cares? Do it because we need to refuel our creative souls with a nonstop barrage of negativity that exists around us.
I can’t think of a better way to end our show with that because that’s such a great message. I know you do a lot of speaking and you have all these books that are amazing bestsellers. How can people find you? What’s the best way?
If anyone wants to visit my website, it’s JoshLinkner.com. I’d be delighted to keep in touch. I’ve been writing a weekly blog for many years. That’s all there, books, audio stuff and we’re launching a podcast ourselves. We’d love for you to check it out.
You’re also a regular columnist for Forbes, Detroit Press, Inc., Wall Street Journal, HBR, your work is everywhere. Please check out Josh. His stuff is great and I hope everybody watches your main video on the video section of your website because you have many great examples of stories there. I love that. Thank you so much for being on my show, Josh. This was so much fun.
Thank you for leaving such a positive impact on the world. You’re doing great stuff and I congratulate you on this terrific show.
The Immersive Online Learning Ecosystem With Yash Tekriwal
I am here with Yash Tekriwal, who was the Founder and Chief Ruckus Maker at LifeSchool. Yash is rethinking the way we prepare students for the future. LifeSchool is an immersive learning ecosystem designed to make learning fun again, to get students working on projects and to get people solving problems. It’s nice to have you here, Yash.
I’m excited to be here, Diane. Thank you for having me.The more curious you get, the more creative you become. Click To Tweet
I was excited about this. I love anything online education-based. I was one of those people who’s wanting to shoot themselves if I had to sit through a lecture. I’m excited to see that you don’t have lectures on your website. I’m like, “I love that.” I think there’s a place for certain amounts of lecturing and different things, but I love online education. I’m fascinated by the future of it. I want to get a little background on you before we get into what you do at LifeSchool. Tell me how you got to this point because you’ve got all kinds of interesting education. You’ve got even Seth Godin’s altMBA. You have an impressive background. Why don’t you tell me a little more about how you got here?
I appreciate the flattery, thank you. It’s been a journey for sure. One that has not been anywhere close to linear. For me, the journey started in college. While I was in college, I studied computer science and business, the furthest things you can imagine from education. Along the way, I started a data science class of my own because that was a field that I had picked up. I noticed that there were a lot of other people that wanted to learn data science and there was a big need before the big higher education data science movement started to happen. That class I taught through an organization at the University of Virginia called HackCville, which at the time did a lot of entrepreneurial education, nontraditional teaching styles for skills that weren’t offered at the university. That blew up.
It became big, more so because of the nature of the field and less so because of the nature of the fact that I was good at it. There were a lot of people interested in data science. I ended up teaching that class more or less full-time while in school for about 2 or 3 semesters. I went on to go and manage all of the educational programs at HackCville and see from a higher level how people were teaching the skills that we offered like graphic design, software engineering, web design, data science, you name it. That was where I started to discover this love that I had for learning and education because while I’d always been good at taking tests and doing what I needed to in school, my love for learning had died by the time I got to college because everything becomes focused on achievement, GPA, networking, grades, that you miss out on it’s exciting to learn new things.
That ties into what I learned when I studied curiosity of how we have our curiosity taught out of us through our experiences, through education, through whatever. I saw on your LinkedIn, you said how we as kids learned and in the K through 12 system, we lose all that. We’re very wrapped up. Sir Ken Robinson talk about how we’re educated out of our creativity. You get into class and if everybody’s asking questions and things, there are a lot of reasons why people can’t answer everybody’s questions because there’s no time. Love of learning is something I would like to re-instill in people who maybe have had it beaten out of them through the system. I’m interested to hear how you’re doing with that or how you’re achieving getting it all back through your system and what you do at LifeSchool.
A lot of what we’re doing at LifeSchool has been relatively new. It’s been developed in a few months. A lot of that inspiration comes from a previous ed-tech company that I founded with a couple of friends, which was called Radify Labs and then to my experience with Seth Godin’s altMBA and being able to serve as a coach after that. To take the Radify experience, that was a company we had launched right after college, which provided a lot of completely online internship and skills training. We got a feel for how do you put students in groups, create an interactive and engaging online environment and get real work done completely online. When I took Seth Godin’s altMBA, I started to see how you can touch on some of the soft skills, that personal development, that leadership fulfillment and all of the things that you would consider hard to teach in general, let alone online.
That was done amazingly in this immersive sharing vulnerable environment that they had created there. Where LifeSchool is trying to take both of those experiences is say, how can we provide some of that formative soul searching, a little bit of personality, mission and curiosity at an earlier stage for people? Because the altMBA does a great job of hitting career transitions or people who are attending fifteen years down the line. A lot of those people come out and say, “I wish I had this when I was coming out of college or in my first job.” We’re trying to say what are the purposes, the passions, which is an overrated word, but a useful one that you can start to embed and think about as you embark on what is increasingly a nontraditional career path because it’s no longer normal to work 10 or 15 years at the same company.
I was at one for twenty years. I can’t even imagine that now.
The game has changed.
It wasn’t fun at the time to do that, anything that’s overdone after awhile. Even the best situations, you don’t want to do for twenty years sometimes. It’s interesting to look at what you talked about a lot of things. Soft skills are something that I speak about quite often and a lot of companies are freaked out that they’re hiring people for their knowledge, but then they’re firing them for their behaviors. You mentioned courses that they dealt with soft skills now. They still deal with all the MBA type situations. Did you learn financials and everything else or was it something different?
It’s definitely something different. Having studied business in undergrad, I got a little bit more of a financial grasp there. I wouldn’t say anything from Seth’s altMBA tackles financials, but they do cover a lot of business concepts. I would say things like opportunity costs, sub costs, messaging, marketing, that’s much more of their wheelhouse.
It’s interesting to see what we need to be successful. I’ve talked about this for years. I can remember many years ago talking to an expert in education about how he thought that education was going to become more of à la carte thing. You didn’t go to one school only for everything. You might pick this class from here and this class from that school. I’ve even talked to people on my show about maybe using the blockchain of how to track, how to keep everything in one spot. It’s fascinating what they’re thinking of doing. The only thing I worry about in any of these things is that we lose the glue that holds it all together. I think of soft skills and even humanities as that glue. If you pick and choose things, you might leave out the things that you don’t even know you need. How do you know what to teach? How do you know what’s being left out?
I don’t know if I have the best answer but my gut feeling says that if you can tackle the core problem, which we discussed that love for learning new things and being a generalist in some ways. There’s a great book I’m sure you’ve heard of or read called Range. In that book, it talks a lot about the power of people who explore lots of different areas. To go back to what you’re saying with the humanities, having been someone who at a former point in time was a pre-law student, I took a lot of classes in history and philosophy. I saw a lot of that knowledge carry over into the work I did in computer science, in building algorithms and how you can develop a program that makes sense rather than just functions.
It’s interesting what you can learn from the courses you don’t even think. I always mention Steve Jobs taking calligraphy and how that impacted fonts and changed Apple. How do we know? It’s such an interesting thing. I know you do different programs on your site. I was looking at it. You have a Jumpstart program. You give out outlines and some of the stuff. You teach a lot of stuff that I find interesting because it ties into some of the books I’ve written on personality, changing careers and different things. I’m a personality expert. You’re focusing on a lot of personality strengths and that type of thing. What can they learn from your Jumpstart program? What does that prepare them for?
The Jumpstart program is more so the beginning of the process. The way I like to describe that is by imagining students that we’ve talked to in person. In that case, the best fit is a student who can be anywhere from their first through the third year of college and they’ve checked all the boxes. They have maybe decided on a major. They’re getting good grades in class. They might be studying most likely liberal arts, humanities, philosophy or psychology. They don’t want a career in one of those areas because the immediate thought and the way that we’re trained is, “If I study history, I could become a historian. If I go into foreign affairs, I can go into the UN or into politics.”
The way we think about careers is limiting. A lot of those students have a lot more potential than they ever realize. Our majors now, as we know from all the stats that we read, don’t matter to the first, third or fifth job that we work. There is more so a degree that shows we can think a certain way. That program, in particular, is a lot of rapid exposure. It’s a lot of, “Here are a lot of options that you’d probably never heard about or never considered. Here are a lot of different ways to learn. Pick and choose by trial and error and figure out for yourself what it is that starts to make you excited about the work that you’re doing.” It’s a little bit more about giving students the toolset to develop those skills on their own because that process itself changes every couple of years in the modern career.
You brought up thinking in a certain way, which brings to mind something for me. I remember when I went through my last education process, the only thing that kept me from a 4.0 was I didn’t have my APA properly done. I was torched by that. As I got into the writing of the dissertation, it taught me the importance of APA in such a weird and different way. Being able to know how to have structure and following guidelines, they get so nit-picky when you write a doctoral dissertation that if you have one extra space after a period, it’s not going through it. It’s intense. The editing process that it made me appreciate it more and understand the structure, following rules, being able to understand what a report could look like. When I got into the working world after that, I’d been in it already but when I went back, I started to see how you communicate matters of how people perceive you. How much of structural things are you teaching?We tend to overestimate the risk of trying something new but we underestimate the risk of standing still. Click To Tweet
We’re teaching a little bit of the basic core structural things in all three of the programs because regardless of where you are in the career process, you need to know what I call the three core competencies. The first is you need to know how to communicate. That’s over email as well as via voice. We would both probably be shocked by the number of students who are confident in their interview abilities and then are not able to carry that through in a working environment once you’re there. The second big one is how to tell your story. That to me is a resume, covering letter, LinkedIn. It’s understanding what your own personal brand is and how you can start to develop that because it’s an ongoing process, not a stop and start type one. The last one, which is probably the most nebulous but also the best to gain is an understanding of how to network without networking. Building that group of people that you can rely on by doing things that are inherently interesting to you, that will naturally create a network as opposed to letting me reach out to X because it would be a tactical move to get positioned Y at company Z?
Networking is a real skill. I’ve taught a lot of marketing, networking and different courses in my time. When you’re networking, a lot of times it’s what you can do for somebody else. It’s being the person who connects people without wanting anything in return. That’s why this show has been successful for me because I did it for fun. I wasn’t doing it like, “I want to meet this guy because it’ll give me a customer or this gal because she can get me in here.” Those things naturally happen and you don’t even think about it. They’re like, “We should do this together thing afterward.” If you have that mindset, you open up a lot more doors. What do you think?
I absolutely agree. One of my favorite pieces on this topic is Adam Grant has a podcast on networking for people who hate to network. That podcast in general, one of the concepts he brings up is this reciprocity or generosity circle where people simply go around helping each other obtain some progress on a wish or a goal that they’ve had never embarked upon. That process via in and of itself creates this compounding networking effect because you start to get to know people, you feel grateful for their experience and you understand what they have to offer you and vice versa.
His stuff is helpful. I love his work. You listed some people who have a lot to say that’s important. I was looking at how you’re working with what you’re offering. I was thinking about all the LMS I’ve worked on in the past. Before they call them LMS. We were in Outlook originally. That’s how long I’ve been doing this. I started in 2006 working in a lot of the courses. It was back when it wasn’t even something that anybody knew how to do. Now, they have Canvas and Blackboard is passe now. Some of these things are getting sophisticated. I noticed you’re using Slack, Zoom, Google Drive and different things. Is your thing synchronous so everybody’s on at the same time or is it asynchronous when people could do it when they want?
It’s a blend of both. One of the big reasons that we’re not using a traditional LMS, the go-to one would be Teachable. I’ve played around with Teachable a bunch and develop some courses there. This is a project I have in mind at some point in the future. The problem I have with the modern LMS economy is that they’re all structured on this same preceptive online learning, which doesn’t fit the bill of what we’re trying to do very well. It’s very much like a course for one person. It’s founded on the videos. It’s founded on like I, Yash Tekriwal, can go forth and digest the material. There are discussion boards built into some places, but it’s more like a pro feature than it is a useful integrated feature. On top of that, this goes to show how difficult it is to create a project-based online course.
None of the LMS, Teachable included has any effective way for students to turn in work. Canvas and Blackboard have that. That’s more educational institutions than it is online peer learning. Even then, those structures are a little bit outdated. Slack provides that semi-synchronous use case for us where students can chat in a way that’s more direct than email but not quite requiring constant communication. Zoom is the truly synchronous part. You’re meeting live with people and then Google Drive is the most asynchronous. We’re still looking at whether or not we would use teachable for something like that where it’s just the content that you can work through on your own and that provides the flavor for your Zoom hangouts.
From all the courses I’ve taught, I’ve done it in many different ways. One of the things that I didn’t like when I was in college, to be honest with you, was to be on teams because there are a lot of people that have degrees because of me. I wrote all their team papers because I couldn’t stand waiting for people to do the work. I would end up doing it by the time they’d ever show up or if they showed up. When I was teaching teams later, I started to look to see who’s doing the work and who are not doing the work. The one team thing that I thought was the best for seeing if anybody was doing what they were doing was I taught teams on a Wiki once, which was challenging because you had to know the code, which I didn’t. I had to learn. It was an HTML-like, I don’t even think it was HTML but whatever. It looked like HTML and you had to be able to look on the backside like in a Wiki to see who’s posting when and how much. It was a pretty cool thing. It was at a technology school, at the University of Advancing Technology in Arizona. I think teams can be challenging in the business world and people need to learn to work on teams. Do you think we’ve managed to teach people how to be good team players in online classes?
In a traditional online class, there is close to zero elements of team play because it’s much like, “Can I go through each of the steps? Can I finish my check marks and get a degree or certificate?” or anything else that comes along with that. The first time that was changed for me was when we attempted it with the Radify experience because we had teams working on internships. We saw there exactly what you’re describing like one maybe two people carry the team through on the internship work and so that was a hard circle to square.
Seeing it in the altMBA, that was the first time I’d ever seen teams in person or online provide above and beyond value to the learning experience. I would say the somewhat high-level observation of why it works there is because the team is not necessarily the product of the work. There are one or two truly team projects and those come later on in the course. The team is focused on helping you push your own individual work further and making it deeper and more interesting, providing the blind spots that you would otherwise never see because someone else is discussing your work with you.
You talk about projects. I was looking at you have four weeks, eight projects, twenty people. I was looking at some of this stuff. When you talk about 100% project-based and if they’re not all team projects, what projects are you doing?
It depends on the program a little bit. I like to give you one from each of the three. Let’s say for Jumpstart, a big project that we work on is we’ll have everyone in all three of the programs take a StrengthsFinder assessment to start to understand what their personality tendencies are. That itself also changes and evolves drastically within this time period of our lives, but then keeping some pinpoint on this is where I am now. This is how I think I feel. This is what I might want to work on and to write a whole page or two about how that’s shown up for you in past experiences, how you see it showing up for you in future experiences and where you want to maybe work on that or build a process for yourself. That’s something that comes from the Jumpstart set of prompts.
Quick similar but written-based development ones from the plan. Part of it will be figuring out what careers you’re interested in different career fields. What are interesting examples of projects that you would want to work on in each of those fields that can develop your portfolio? Enhance your learning on whether or not that field is right for you and go back to what we were talking about with networking generously. A very similar prompt falls into the standout category. That one’s a little bit more, “Let’s work on this now. Let’s figure out exactly what the non-traditional path to the job that you’re interested in looks like. How can we start to build that process from ground zero?”
Do they have a way of showcasing what they created? I remember when I was an MBA program chair at Forbes, I added Portfolium as a way for people to recognize what they did. Do you connect to something like that or do you have something you recommend that they showcase what they can do afterward?
We don’t have a single site like Portfolium that everyone will go to because the way we’ve seen projects develop, a lot of the content is built from coaching work that I’ve done individually with students and so a lot of those projects can be different. Some people can create mini podcasts, some people will create websites, some people will create guides and write articles. The medium through which they publish is up to them. We’ve got options for all of them. Medium is popular, literally the site. Some people post on LinkedIn. You can publish your podcast and share it. All of these ways of talking about it are how we’re encouraging students to put their work out into the real world.
Are you talking to organizations about putting their employees through this? Who are your customers?
That’s something we’re figuring out as well because the winter program is going to be our first official LifeSchool program. The three programs that we’ve got going are targeted primarily at college students and somewhat recent grads who haven’t yet found the job that they’re interested in. That seems to be our interested audience. I do think ironically, through promoting the program and talking about it, we’ve had interest from employers talking about employee training or pre-candidate training. That’s an idea we’re exploring for summer 2020, partnering with some potential companies that I can’t name yet, but I’m excited to talk more too.Fear is the single biggest blocker to creative output. It's that poisonous force that robs us of our best thinking. Click To Tweet
Are you going to do anything with internships or anything like that?
Absolutely. That’s the big plan for summer is that this program ideally is our smaller beta test because we’re only taking twenty students per class in order to make it that high quality. Can we see where the gaps are? Can we do well and individually tailor it? Jumpstart’s plan ideally is also to help the students figure out how, why and where they’ll be spending their summertime and how to best use that summer in some way to prepare to either get an internship the next summer, that following winter or something else along the line. In that summer program, we’re hoping to use some of those company partnerships again to provide that remote skills-based internship work.
It sounds like you’re doing some fascinating stuff. This was definitely right up my alley of things I’m interested in. I was looking forward to having you on the show. A lot of people reading this might want to know how can they find out more, where do they find your site and that type of thing? Can you share that?
Yash, thank you so much for being on the show. This was fascinating and I hope it works out that this is something that people find out about and can gain from. It sounds like you’ve got a unique idea.
I appreciate it, Diane. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been such a fun conversation.
I’d like to thank Josh and Yash for being my guests. We get many great guests on the show. You can hear us on all of the places where they play podcasts. I hope you enjoyed this episode. I hope you join us for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.
- Josh Linkner
- Francesca Gino – past episode
- Hacking Innovation
- Jürgen Schmidhuber – past episode
- Radify Labs
About Josh Linkner
Josh Linkner – who started his career as a jazz guitarist – has been the founder and CEO of five tech companies, which sold for a combined value of over $200 million.
He is also a deeply experienced business leader, venture capitalist, top-rated keynote speaker, and author of four books, the New York Times bestsellers: Disciplined Dreaming and The Road to Reinvention, as well as his latest book, Hacking Innovation. And yes, he still plays a mean jazz guitar.
About Yash Tekriwal
Yash Tekriwal is the Founder and Chief Ruckus Maker at LifeSchool. Yash is rethinking the way we prepare students for the future.
LifeSchool is an immersive learning ecosystem designed to make learning fun again, to get students working on projects, and to get people solving problems.
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