Eric in 2009
Trying and failing… some people say there is no better way to educate oneself.

Yet we have an education system for our youth built around externally orchestrated programming for success. Educators and savvy parents collude to prepare students for successful testing to get into the best possible college to guarantee the best possible chance for success.

Our son Eric chose at age 14 to abandon this programmed path of schooling for success in favor of his own self-directed path that some critics of unschooling would call the road to failure. It did turn out to be the road to failure, failure of a major self-initiated project, but in terms of real learning, a bonanza for our son. We called it his “unschool graduate school”.

Eric reached age 18 in 2004 after four years of unschooling with the inklings and instincts of an entrepreneur. It was his goal to launch a successful game design business and using his people skills and wide circle of talented friends, pulled a team together to cut their teeth on designing a first-person shooter game based on cold war sci-fi kitsch. His team included a programmer, a graphic artist, a digital musician, a business savvy person, and himself as the creator of the game world and its back-story. Eric made it clear that this initial effort was not to develop and sell a commercial product, but just to develop an initial game for all of them to learn the ropes.

After some months of sessions on weekends and late into the night their effort ran into a number of problems, including a programmer with not enough the gaming programming experience. On later reflection he told me that, “None of us knew what we were doing, and those of us leading the project were unable to move past the obstacles we were presented with.” So the project was put on indefinite hold, and Eric took an entry level job as a video game tester and worked in the “salt mines” of the burgeoning game industry for a couple years, making contacts along the way, but not finding his career path forward within these large companies.

In 2007 the next plan to hatch was a collaboration between Eric and two of his close friends. His friends were involved in setting up and maintaining Apple computers and computer networks for businesses in the entertainment industry, but felt the company they were working for did a poor job of customer service. They envisioned starting their own company to compete, having Eric, with his people and organizational skills, managing their operational and logistical issues as the small firm’s Chief Operating Officer. A fourth partner was brought in with sales experience, and plans started to come together to launch their company, “Techies”. They opened for business in April 2008, of course not knowing that the deluge of the “Great Recession” would soon be upon them, their customers, and everyone else. All the partners had borrowed or invested significant amounts of their own money to try and make this dream a reality.

Though their company eventually suspended operations, after a little less than two years fighting to stay in business, the nearly three year life cycle they went through from conception through dissolution was a transformative learning experience for all the partners, and particularly for Eric. He started as a talented and thoughtful young man full of big ideas and dreams and a handful of yet unproven skills. Three years later, though the business ultimately failed, his mom and I watched him become a talented small business executive, with a burgeoning skill set and experience, and the confidence to tackle any sort of crisis or new challenge thrown at him.

At its zenith, Techies employed its four partners, plus two other employees (one handling the front desk and phones, the other doing pick-ups and deliveries) and a couple other contractors to help with the technical work. They had a dozen businesses and a number of individuals as customers. Their shop in Hollywood was a beautifully designed space built out by one of Eric’s other friends who was a talented contractor. I am no small business expert, but from everything I could see they had a good business plan, talented staff, and were doing everything right to be successful.

Eric, the math-phobic kid who six years early had written “Fuck Math” as his only answer on a math test, successfully managed Techies accounts payable and receivable, purchasing, payroll and personnel. He worked with their accountant and lawyer, including managing their response to being sued at one point by one of their competitors (a suit apparently with little merit but designed to try and force them out of business). He also wrote most of their procedures and marketing materials and played a critical role wrangling his other partners and resolving issues between them.

This kid who I could barely drag out of bed in the morning to go to middle school worked nine to ten hour days, five or six days a week for two solid years to do his part to make Techies run. This unschooled young person, who some would write-off as an “eighth-grade dropout”, orchestrated everything with grace and forbearance (at least as far as I could see), and I think the fact that the four partners and the two laid-off employees are all still friends today is a testament to the quality of his skill and efforts.

That made it doubly tragic when their trend of growing monthly sales reversed in the fall of 2008 when the financial crisis and a festering potential strike by the actor’s unions ground their clients’ businesses to a standstill. Securing some additional loans from family and friends, they managed to hang on for another year, waiting for the recession storm to finally pass. It was Eric who had to layoff their employees and the partners one by one (including himself) and then make the final call to pull the plug on their enterprise. He also had to orchestrate the shutting down of the business, including working with their customers to transition them to another vendor and liquidating the company’s assets.

Eric turned 24 the month after Techies shut its doors. I recall myself at that age, having graduated a year earlier with my university BA and moved to Los Angeles, stumbling around in Hollywood doing minimum wage film business “gofer” jobs. He was way farther along in his development than I had been at that age. For a young person you could not pay to sit in a classroom, this had truly been his “unschooling graduate school”, and he had the loans to repay to prove it!

Liberated in the middle of eighth grade to be his auto-didact self, he had focused all his “unschooled” learning on this business, presenting his own culminating “thesis” of sorts struggling to hold the new enterprise together in the economic storm of a serious recession… and ultimately failing to do so, but learning so much for the next go.

From a young age, the kind of work they invented for him to do at school (of no consequence to anyone except his teacher in passing who graded it) was not the kind of work that was of much interest to him. He longed to live a real life in the real world, roll the dice and see what he could do. Neither his mom nor I had had the entrepreneurial gene, talking him out of his childhood hair-brained schemes, including collaborating with his neighborhood friend to draw pictures and go door to door selling them to the neighbors. But finally liberated from the at times arbitrary constraints we put on our “youth”, he finally took his first real opportunity to go for it.

Real learning is not always pretty, and at times can be some of the most uncomfortable “sausage making” you could ever bear to witness, and particularly so for a parent when your kid is involved. You long as a parent to somehow step in, pull some strings and make everything a success… proud and happy. But any fears we might have had that the failure of Techies would crush a fragile young spirit were quickly proven to be unfounded. Life goes on and so does Eric. He has a new job (working for someone else, at least for a while) and takes every opportunity to bring his new wealth of experience to bear in this latest undertaking.

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