Zac, COO @ The Future Project, NYC
Zac is Chief Operating Officer of The Future Project. He was interviewed as part of our Education Leaders series (#edleader) by RE-ENVISIONED's Executive Director, Erin. The Future Project is an amazing 501c(3) non-profit that works with schools to unlock the limitless potential of every young person in this country. Check them out at www.thefutureproject.org
The first question is pretty big and open. I would actually love to hear you talk about you, who you are, and your journey in the world of education.
I appreciate that question, because I never in a million years thought that I would be involved in education. I really didn’t. I never really cared about it. I always was good at school, so I was like “oh, of course there’s no problems with schools. They’re good, right?” But, I think that a few things gradually put the facts together on top of each other until they made this pyramid of understanding to a certain degree.
I think the first thing is that I’ve always been kind of an entrepreneur. It was always weird to me that the things I was getting praised for - you know, when I had my own beanie baby empire or whatever - were precisely not the things that were being talked about in school. It was like, if this is such a big deal and everyone likes it, why is this not being incentivized at all? So that was a thing.
I think I had a couple moments also in school that started opening my eyes. There was a time where I couldn’t major in English in college because I refused to do critical essays because I was literally working for Memphis’ largest weekly newspaper writing literary criticism. So I was like, why on earth do I need to prove to you that I can do the job that I’m getting paid for and that 600,000 people read every week. That kind of gave me this thing about the credentials. I was looking at the jobs that I was getting and the stuff that I was doing and I just thought about what I was best at and none of it was stuff that had anything to do with my education.
Why is the very system that we charge with connecting people to their greatest possibility, which is the only reason to spend all of this money and all of this time doing these things is if you can become a superior person having undergone it versus having not … why is it so far removed from what we know about what it takes to be a thriving person?
There’s got to be just a totally different way of doing this. So when Andrew and Kanya let me know that they were starting The Future Project, even then I was still like well, I don’t know about education but I can get behind fixing the system. I hate badly designed systems, and I hate wholly unintentional systems, and above all I hate when there are things that people believe are true that are just not derived from anything.
I was thinking of all of the millions - literally millions of young people - whose futures were defined by non-real things, and the just severe and deep injustice of that. And the severe inhibitor to society that this creates, because all the people that could be creating, thriving, nurturing, producing, collaborating, building and executing are discouraged from doing so because they are essentialized as not talented, capable or relevant people. You have to connect that to every single problem that we face.
Our second question is for you to take a moment and think about a kid that you care about. One single kid, and this might be a niece or nephew, or a kid you’ve worked with. When you’re ready just tell me a little bit about that child and who they are, and their strengths.
So there’s this kid in our DC schools named Andrew Lee, and he’s an amazing kid. He grew up being defined as a special needs kid with an individualized education plan that was not actually optimized for his education and development. It was optimized for fulfilling a set of requirements that allowed is school to say “okay we’ve done some stuff for this kid”. It was in no way calibrated to his genius.
Until this Dream director worked with him to ask questions like who are you? Why do you matter? What do you care about? What are you doing about that? How do you know? What’s your story? He had never been asked those questions before. In a one-on-one setting he is, not even shy, but just non-assertive. Very deferential, humble, polite. He’s well expressed, but very muted.
He comes alive in front of groups of people. He is able to come out as a persona, speaker, motivator, and framer of ideas. It’s not just inspiring but truly effective. He lacks the self-censorship that I think that a lot of traditional speakers have. He’s coming with eloquence and passion, but also just purity of intention that is just rare. It’s deeply unique, and it’s borne of his sincere convictions - his sincere religious convictions - and his experience of watching his own life transform within just a couple of years.
I’ve never met somebody as authentic as he is, and yet perpetually curious and humble. Not the convenient kind of humble, but somebody that is truly and genuinely grateful and appreciative of the people in his life, the experience he’s been able to have and the opportunities that he has created for himself and that other people have helped support him in creating. He’s a truly powerful presence to be around, especially in the context of that for so long such expectations being placed upon him, with no regard for what he himself could do.
When you think about what you hope for him for his childhood - like what’s a good childhood?
For him specifically? I think a good childhood for him - and I think he graduated this year - but I think it’s a childhood where you can explore and be safe in trying out a number of identities that allow you to figure out the shell in which you’re most comfortable, and allow you to galvanize what your true values, passions and purpose are.
I think it’s a childhood where you’re free from critical stress in your family life and in your educational life where you don’t have to fight just to show up at the table. I think that it’s a childhood where it’s presumed that his opinion matters. That that’s not a surprising or rare occasion that when his opinion is solicited or plugged into his environment that’s not done in a perfunctory way, but it’s done in a way that’s respectful.
In so many ways he has to be a recipient of a lot of forces beyond his control. The way we mitigate for that, and the way we control for that, is by empowering him with meaningful agency whenever possible that allows him to exist symbiotically with the systems and forces that he’s a part of. To examine the systems and forces that he faces, structurally and societally.
I think it’s a childhood where, very straightforwardly, he’s surrounded by kind people. Because I think we all to some degree are defined by the relationships that are close to us, which requires us to have those relationships in the first place and for those relationships to be supportive, validating and strong while also being challenging and creative, with accountability, and designed intentionally. Good peer relationships and relationships with mentors, teachers and administrators.
And, I think ultimately it’s a childhood where he is presented with the kind of environment that enables his flourishing, he’s empowered to explore within that framework, and the forces that would impede his ability to explore within that framework are mitigated and controlled for and responded to such that they don’t curtail his development within this context.
You always speak beautifully. Imagine now, that he’s all grown up. Whatever path he takes from here, whether through schooling or not through schooling, maybe he’s in his 30’s or 40’s living his adult life, what do you hope for him for that life? What would make it a good or successful life?
Well, what’s interesting is that I’m not sure that it’s that different than what yields a thriving childhood.
I think that on one level it’s very important to have the bare minimum resources needed to ensure that you’re not spending all of your time trying to mitigate selfhood-threatening stress. I hope he has a place to live. I hope he has sufficient money to not be wanting of basic needs. I hope he has sufficient money to be able to connect to not just basic needs but opportunities, like having access regularly to the internet, living in a place where you can access the bounty of living in the world.
I also hope he’s connected to meaningful work and meaningful relationships - that the way he spends his time every day, even if his job is not covalent with his purpose, feels like he’s moving towards a goal that is requiring of his talents and his genius. That, supplemented with relationships with family and friends that allow us to constantly grow without feeling threatened, and hold him accountable for both his strengths and his weaknesses.
I think that he is able to perceive and express the sum total of his activities and expression as adding up to something that feels as though he matters, and as though it matters. Let’s say his job is purposeful in the sense that he’s working for a marketing company that presents him with challenges and allows him to develop solutions, but he’s also able to look beyond that and articulate that “my job, my family, my hobbies, my interests, my relationships all add up to some objective that allows me to feel as though I’m growing and experiencing meaning every day of my life.” It embodies a series of values that whether he spells out on a piece of paper or not, allowing him to feel like a contributor to the ecosystem of the world. I hope he’s able to do that in a way that is seen by people around him, and by the larger structures that play out upon his life.
Is there anything you worry about getting in the way of him achieving that life?
I think a few things. I think he’s doing good.
I think that it’s very easy to become cynical, and I think cynicism erodes people’s willingness to strive towards things that matter. I think you can catch cynicism sort of like a disease, whether it’s from mentors, from family, from experiencing failure without the support to persevere through that. I think once cynicism is taking hold, your self-confirmation is taken, or it’s very difficult to fight that cycle.
I am worried that he’ll become part of an insular environment, whether that is family, community, whatever it is. That it’s hearing the same ideas, the same things and the same possibilities, the same places, the same routines and the same tasks repeated over and over again until his experience becomes like groundhog day. It’s not going anywhere. I think that we all recognize the dread and turmoil of that, and mitigate for it either by pursuing artificial amusements and entertainments that distract us from the bore of that, or by falling into addiction or distraction in order to substitute and experience for something that feels utterly lacking. So I’m always worried about that.
And I’m straightforwardly worried about the climate and the economy, I don’t think those are abstract. I think that they’re really big things that are really easy not to take seriously because they’re not problems now - but, like present existential risks to humanity.
And, you know, I’m worried about violence, whether from the community that he lives in or from the state. He lives in Washington, D.C. and you know, you can be playing life correctly and that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even have to be malevolent - it could be a car accident. We accept a degree of ubiquitous violence as part and parcel of our existence in the world. That’s a threat to every one of us, and it’s especially a threat to people who are younger and still developing and I think to young people of color in the United States.
I think that his trajectory is looking good, but I think that people are often most vulnerable when they have had successes that have gotten them through hurdles in early adolescence but then have to go figure out life on their own without the same kind of support structure and without the implicit structure of exceptionalism that creates most young people in American life. I think it can be really self defeating when you’re sort of plummeted into a place that’s significantly less structured and you’re expected to thrive within that place and it’s not really clear what to do if you are struggling. Especially for someone for has been defined as a special needs child for so long, I think the risk - and he and I have talked about this and I’ve talked to a lot of scholars about this - the very level 1 default when you encounter a really severe challenge is to say well everybody else is right and you’re not. I really don't matter enough to be worth this. And that’s just an exceptionally hard shackle to break free of. I’m not sure that it ever goes away. I think we have to train ourselves, our muscles, to live and move through life dealing with it. That’s always a risk .
When you think about your ideal world - what is the role that school would play in helping him achieve that good life?
The first thing that school has got to do, and it’s not something that school focuses on now, is help you understand how the system of the world works and what avenues you can play in that, and how you best fit into that superstructure, in a ludicrously honest way.
I think that you can’t have a purpose unless you understand your context. You can’t understand your context or your purpose unless education views it as part of its charge to help you make sense of that. The most charitable I can be about our current education system, and I don’t think this is true but let’s say I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt, it starts by equipping you with a certain set of knowledge and skills without doing the work of helping you evaluate whether those are valuable knowledge and skills, and whether those are in accord with an identity that you want to embody.
It takes a lot of effort to learn these things. I think there are some things obviously that everybody needs to do. They need to read, they need to write, they need to be able to communicate, they need to understand how to interrelate with other people to be successful, and they need to be literate in numbers, statistics and in the relationships of these to one another.
I think that way beyond that, it’s assumed not to be the point to grapple with the true questions of what matters. I don’t view that as values. I don’t view that as character. There are facts about how the world works. We know what tends to make people happy. We know what tends to cause people harm, we know what the given state of the economy is in a given year. We know what groups tend to be advantaged. We need to say that! We need to say this is how you make sense of this world. This is how you fail it. Let’s be on alert for that.
And then spend some time helping people develop the practice and the skills to move successfully through that space. But we’re in a world of ubiquitous knowledge. The amount of knowledge that we’re going to be able to cram into people’s minds in a classroom... we already know that people forget the overwhelming majority of it, overwhelmingly quickly.
So, why are we spending time on content that may or may not matter when we could be reinforcing habits, practices, mindsets, orientations and frameworks that are impossible to forget because all knowledge builds on them?
If you spend every day learning how to talk to the people around you in a way that is not marginalizing them then you don’t just forget that skill because it’s how you engage with people. Why have I never taken a class that’s like “Here’s how to not interrupt a woman when she is talking”. I would have loved to learn that skill 18 years ago. It’s not like that’s a values thing. There’s no reason for that to be a controversial thing to cover in terms of how people can relate to one another.
So you started answering this a little bit, but do you think that schools have or will do this for Andrew? And it what ways, or how not?
When I rail against schools I’m not railing against a lot of the people who are working with them. I’m not saying there’s zero percent chance of success. I’m just saying in a world where at least arguably 130 years have not produced an equitable society or a society that is not going to be burnt to a crisp in 50 years, I don’t know what success is until we’ve solved that problem.
So for Andrew, I think he had contact with a lot of really loving adults. I think that he was able to find a conduit, and I’ll give his DREAM director a lot of credit for this, for the talents that he needs to cultivate - speaking, organizing thoughts, language, communication, telling his story, self-reflection. I think that this happened within the context of a school, because his school was able to take a risk on a DREAM director, and promote a leader within that school who was extremely gifted principal and someone who really took personal responsibility for the thriving of their students.
And I don’t want to seem too cynical about this - but in terms of the classes that he was taking, I think it’s really hard to make an argument that he got a ton of value out of it. He didn’t learn how to be a writer through English class. His mathematics skills are not great. Probably because we’re teaching people abstract quantitative reasoning without trying to say ok here’s a graph, what the hell does this mean. I don’t know what he learned about history, but I don’t understand how you’re supposed to cover 300 years of it in a single year. How do you give a week to the revolutionary war? How do you give 2 weeks to slavery? It just doesn’t make sense to me.
So, I really don’t think that academically - and no one has been able to tell me what academic learning is, I have no idea what the correct definition of that term is. I think probably his elementary school education did it, where you learn formative concept development and how to be present around other people but even there I think he was abused, bullied, marginalized, discriminated against. It’s really hard for me to think of an aspect in which school didn’t earn more than a D in terms of what it could have done with very easy fixes.
Why do you think - and this can be about Andrew’s learning experience or you can think more broadly, but - why don’t schools do those things that you want them to do?
There’s a basic answer and then there’s the true answer. I think the basic answer has to do with incentives and the fact that the near term incentives render most of the actors powerless or perceived to be powerless in the way that CEO’s who are imprisoned by short term stakeholder value and short term shareholder value are not incentivized to do things in the long term interest of their company.
I think that you can solve things by changing incentive structures. I think that part of the incentive structure is how we reward people for being excellent within these positions.
I think there’s another answer that’s just like - public school is a government institution. We have deeply cynical attitudes toward government initiatives here in America. At least when we know they’re government initiatives. No one is cynical about the internet, but no one understands the role of the government in building it. I think if we did we’d probably be more cynical about the internet.
I think the fundamental issue is really simply that the way everybody in America has learned to think and learned to learn, and learned to interpret information is itself shaped by school. So it’s uniquely hard to turn an analytical lens on it, because the very way that we’ve learned how to do that is shaped by the school system.
So it’s excruciatingly challenging to really break down all of the core assumptions in order to get to a place where we’re actually designing a system from scratch. Because every layer has it’s own series of “of course it’s got to be like that. Of course it needs to all be in a building and of course there needs to be subjects” Every one of those assumptions has essentially no bearing in reality. It’s so hard to get part of the way down and say, “okay, I can’t question any more assumption because I’ve already blown up like 19 different ones”.
Even the idea that school has to be a physical place is a fascinating idea to me. It reminds me a bit of how it took way longer than it should have to train surgeons to wash their hands, because they were like “Oh of course that’s not how it works. I’m a surgeon I don’t have to wash my hands”. There were all of these inventions waiting in science, ways to create environments but none of it mattered until they were like “Hey, wash your hands”.
I think we’re in a similar situation where there’s so many things we can do on the margins that are not bad ideas, but that if you’re not attacking the core challenge of hand washing, or in this case that designing from first principles what the human brain needs to develop habits and models that cause people to thrive, you’re not going to get more than a couple of percentage points of success.
Do you think people agree with you on what a good life is? I realize you don’t know what everyone thinks but do you think that generally people agree with you?
Probably not. I think that largely that is because we cloak what a good life is in these moralist terms that are laden with a lot of baggage and we train ourselves to think that that is a question of opinion and not fact. We can have our opinions about what living good is for us but we know, when we look at the set of all people, what things are correlated with better outcomes.
If you take a million basic postulates like life, and the ability to not be crippled, and are you addicted to a physically addictive substance and do you have enough money to function basically, and do you have what you would define to be one or more healthy human relationships - very quickly you can start to see patterns that emerge in terms of how to get there.
I think that answering the question from like a set theoretical way regardless of our own opinions about that is the challenge that we don’t approach. Everybody has different things: I think that character matters, or I think that citizenship matters, or that believing in a higher power matters, or whatever. We’re just ideological about that question because the intellectual history of how to answer it is so grounded in either philosophy or ethics or religion, all of which are abstract nouns and in my opinion are obsoleted by the discipline of design and observation.
Obviously, that’s a controversial statement, but I think that we could answer that question similarly if we allowed ourselves not to feel a type of way about how we have to approach that question, and have to ground it in absolutes and in belief systems.
Do you think people agree with you on the role school should play in getting us to a good life?
Again, I don’t think so but I don’t understand why. If you work backwards from why are we spending all this money if we don’t have to? Why are we spending all this time cause we don’t have to - learning. That’s not an ordinal thing. It’s not clear that it’s good to accrue more information, so why do that? I think you very quickly get to a place where you’re like because you want people to do things that they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. Then, ok, all you have to do is this…
So why do you think we have schools as a society? As in why does our government make everyone go to school? Why school?
Because I think that society as a whole is unable to function absent a few critical things.
First of all, it’s people need to basically collaborate and inhabit space with one another without killing them. So we have to figure out what is the dynamic in which we all get along.
Second of all, our economy is predicated upon people being able to perform tasks excellently and learn and adapt to changes in the world. So we’ve got to be able to have some system, assuming this doesn’t happen naturally.
Third, we’ve got to agree upon a set of basic terms that we all agree is reality that we can operate within. This is the history that has brought us to this place. They are these really complicated ideas that you’re not just going to figure out by yourself. Like, here’s how to read. I think we’ve got to equip people with those basic understandings to that they can emerge organically beyond that. I think that if you fulfill those three functions you’re really doing most of the work to allow people’s intrinsic motivation and the intrinsic systems of which they’re a part to fill out a lot of the rest.
We’re wasting a lot of other time. I’m sure maybe there’s 4 things, but again I think that like 3 smart people thinking about this time for a very short amount of time can get to a very high competence on what the actual answer is.
Given your understanding of the purpose and problem of school, how is the work you’re doing at The Future Project working to solve these issues? What are the changes you’d like to make to our schooling system through TFP?
The biggest contributions of TFP to school writ large and individual schools specifically seem to be:
1) Establishing relational primacy between school staff and young people--in other words, placing as ordinal the need to have authentic, nourishing relationships with EVERY YOUNG PERSON at the school.
2) Creating schools' accountability around engaging young people and supporting them in discovering who they are, what matters to them, and what they are doing about it.
3) Integrating behavioral rather than purely 'academic'/'content' learning models, and incentivizing them through autonomous motivation.
4) Delivering outcomes that are actually correlated with the outcomes that lead to a good, extraordinary life.
What are challenges you’re facing to making the kind of change?
Well, we need a lot of money. We need to figure out how to leverage humans' time maximally so that we maintain the relational dimension while garnering more scalability within the business model. We have to crack the nut of 'training the trainer' to adopt not just skills or behaviors but MINDSETS and ORIENTATIONS.
What is a success that you're particularly proud of?
I'm proud that all of the alumni we've hired into our organization--and there are five of them to date--are consistently among the organization's highest performers.
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