Austen Allred

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Austen Allred joined David Perell to talk about Lambda School. Come to school for free and then pay us back a part of your salary for a set period of time. The repayment dollars and days are limited.

Lambda School is a great idea, a great option, and a great risk. But it doesn’t need to dominate, it just needs to work. Education should be like sports, do what suits you.

On this blog, the Lambda model is like the XMBA (eXperiential Masters in Business), though it applies to much more than business.

Mike Lombardi wrote that he got his Ph.D. in football from professors like Walsh, Parcells, and Belichick. Jerry Seinfeld studied at the school of comedy stores, even writing a forty page paper about his experience. Stewart Butterfield said his XMBA was at Yahoo. There are so many options for learning.

But we don’t usually see them.

Or can’t do them.  In the podcast, Perell professes his lack of preparation for anything like this. At nineteen, he says, I was not ready. At nineteen he probably wasn’t even aware.

Ben Thompson’s points out that every strength forms a weakness and every weakness forms a strength. This applies to our point of view too. Apple and Amazon, Thompson writes, are different companies because of their point of view. College is great for one way of learning, terrible for another.

For Elizabeth Willard Thames, a focus on careerism meant ignoring financial independence. Thames’s point of view/ mental model/ approach to living was the rubric model. Check these boxes and collect two-hundred dollars as you pass go and climb the career ladder. She wrote:

“I’d assumed that was all I needed to do in order to ensure lifelong success. The formula for life as I understood it was: you go to college, you get good grades, you graduate, you get a good job and you live happily ever after; right?!”

Elizabeth and her husband, neé boyfriend, had a philosophical awakening and then tactical restructuring. They answered two questions: What do I want out of life? What are frugal analogs that lead there?

Their imagination increased. It took a mental shift. Live like this, not like that.  Everyone’s normal is different.

Nick Bilton wrote about Silk Road, “Even though all these people were dealing in illicit activities, they each had a moral sense that their particular outlawed product was more just than another.” Drug dealers rationalized that their fix was safer. Gun sellers rationalized that their weapon was less dangerous. Semi-affluent, semi-intelligent, semi-ambitious young people rationalize that college is the best education.

In the podcast, Perell says,  “We have this idea that you go and learn for four years and then you go into the workforce.” And considering a new path is an “abrupt shift” and “difficult”.

Allred said the first question they get at Lambda School is, “will this be on the test?” Students land at Lambda like Mrs. Frugalwoods, with a rubric mentality. It’s this mindset that Seth Godin warned against. When asked what school should teach, Godin said that schools should teach students how to lead and how to solve interesting problems.

This is what entrepreneurs do. Jim DeCicco wondered, can coffee be better? Tariq Farid wondered, can I sell fruit arrangements? Katrina Lake wondered, will someone rent the runway?

Another way to look at this is to think like a world builder. In Ezra Klein’s interview with N.K. Jemisin the duo talk about path dependence, creative choices, and alternative histories.

Marc Cohodes warned, “don’t let school get in the way of your education.” Traditional school is one way to do things. Lambda school is another. Education is like world-building, only instead of a book, it’s a life.

First, we find new paths, then down them, we stride.

We can start with this question, What job am I hiring for? Education does a lot of things. Allred said:

“One of the difficult things to define about a university style education is what is it. There’s the social aspect, the networking aspect, the skill training, the signaling (even getting in). We said, ‘We’re going to take the one element that we feel is most important, the skills training.’ If you’re a software engineer you don’t have to have a degree. Nobody cares what your educational background is like if you can write code.”

Allred and Perell don’t address it but here’s a clarifying question; do looks matter? Sweet selfies and sharp suits mean that signaling is important.

Campaigning Congressmen and Instagram Influencers need to look good on camera. Vanessa Selbst wears jeans at Bridgewater (and has a Yale law degree) but I’d wager her office conversations matter more than her professional presentation.

From suits and selfies, we proceed down the spectrum to professors, comedians, coders, plumbers, and robots. Sometimes signaling through diplomas or souls is important.

It’s as Harvard (🚨signaling 🚨) professor Clayton Christesen wrote, and said, “Jobs arise in our lives. When we realized that we have a job to do we have to go out and find something to get the job done. Understanding the job is what we need to understand, not the customer.”

Coders, plumbers, and robots all have jobs where verdicts trump transcripts.

When signaling matters less there’s our always adapting XMBA curriculum. A new addition is to think about it not as education, but as an adventure.

Story, Robert McKee writes, “is a metaphor for life.” Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.

Campbell’s book or Netflix interviews are worth watching. And calling the XMBA a quest matters. The IDEO brothers wrote, “Language is the crystallization of thought. But the words we choose do more than just reflect our thought patterns—they shape them. What we say—and how we say it—can deeply affect a company’s culture.”

The hero’s journey is part of our DNA like two eyes or hairlines. And if we’re going to make a quest we may as well equip ourselves well. Allred said he spends a lot of time thinking about this:

“How can I eliminate all the other distractions for people? The first way is making tuition free upfront…how can we take all the distractions away to help someone get from point A to point B? Because we know you can, but lives are complicated and messy.”

Think of friction like a dial. Turn it up for things we want to avoid, turn it down for things we want to do.

Annie Duke prescribes Odyssian precommitment. Ted Sarandos said, “What it takes to get you out of your house if you’re on episode four of Stranger Things is pretty high.” Sam Hinkie said about communicating with one coach, “We’d feed him the information in a way that he liked and could consume.” That meant tactile, not digital. Evenings, not mornings. Big font, not small.

The hero’s journey is our own adventure and unlike YouTube summaries or Campbell’s book, it won’t be linear. It won’t be short either. This said Allred, is one challenge of one form of education:

“You have to have a long-term view for that (training or apprenticeship) to really make sense. If you have to hit your quarterly numbers you’re not building out an apprenticeship.”

The hero’s journey will lead us to places we aren’t ready. That’s good. Mike Reiss was the showrunner for the third season of the Simpsons and wrote he was trained in none of the jobs he had to do. John Elkann was invited to the Fiat board at twenty-one. Jerry Kaplan started a startup without ever having “managed squat.” In the early days of Amazon they “made it up as they went along.”

Sometimes we’ll get lucky, but we only notice that in hindsight. Jenna Fischer‘s first job out of college was as a secretary. That training, helped her get a roll (many years later) as another secretary, this time in The Office.

 If you want a bit more, check out Cal Newport. As always, thanks for reading.


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