As a follow-up to my previous piece, “Unschooling Rather Than Highschooling”, I want to bring you up to date on my two kids’ unschooling sagas as they continue to choose to chart their own course as young adults. Neither Eric or Emma has chosen to go to college (though Emma has taken several community college and university extension classes). Instead, they have continued to launch their own projects, some successful and others significant failures, but all profound learning experiences moving them along their developmental paths.

It’s ironic that neither has chosen to enroll in higher education given the family pedigree. Their four grandparents all have college degrees, including one PhD. Their mom has two Masters, one in public health and a second in marriage and family therapy, while I have two Bachelors, one in speech and the other in computer science. Aunts and uncles are highly schooled as well. Certainly their parents and the entire extended family had the expectation when they were born that they would go to college. My partner Sally’s parents even starting significant college funds for them when they were born.

Trying and failing… some people say there is no better way to educate oneself. Yet we have a conventional 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 on the job.

Both our kids have chosen not to go with that program. Here are some of the projects they’ve undertaken during what would conventionally be college years for many of their peers.

Deep Learning 7 – Building a Game Design Team

He 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 computer programmer, a graphic artist, a digital musician, a business savvy person, and himself as the creator of the game world and its back-story and the operational “glue” of the team and the project. Eric made it clear to all his recruits 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 and have something for their portfolios and resumes.

Eric and his team members were busy for weeks completely rearranging our guest house (where Eric lived at the time), including setting up its little living room as a workroom with folding tables to accommodate computer work stations for all participants. The whole effort played out over many months, given that all of the participants were either in school (some high school and others college) or had jobs during the day. Eric did not have a job at this point, which gave him the time to play the main organizing role.

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 of the needed gaming programming experience. On later reflection Eric 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.”

Deep Learning 8 – Entry Level in the Game Design “Salt Mines”

So when the game design project was put on indefinite hold, Eric, still 18, took an entry level job as a video game tester for the burgeoning computer game industry. It was his first “real job”, a full-time position that paid perhaps twice the minimum wage, which seemed like a heck of a lot of money to a kid who had just had allowance before.

Game testing may seem like an easy job to some, just getting paid for playing games you would otherwise pay to play yourself. But it is very hard exacting work, moving through every possible permutation of game play looking for mostly little glitches and filling out numerous “bug reports”. Eric, worked mostly testing cell phone games, staring at very small cell phone screens for eight to ten hour shifts. The job featured mandatory overtime (at a time-and-a-half hourly rate), which made it particularly grueling and wore him down.

Eric learned that if one could hang in there for a year or two as a successful tester (mainly by turning in well documented bug reports), that there was the possibility of moving up to be a “test lead” and then a “producer”, that led an entire team of testers like him.

After a couple years working as a tester for several game companies, and having made friends and contacts along the way, Eric decided that though he was still interested in game design, this work for the big companies was not the path forward for him. He would look again for a more entrepreneurial path.

Deep Learning 9 – Starting a Real Business

In 2007 the next plan to hatch was a collaboration between Eric (now 21) and two of his closest 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 startup’s Chief Operating Officer. A fourth partner was brought in with sales experience, and plans started to come together to launch their company, dubbed “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 the company’s 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 succeed. 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 in Los Angeles 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 autodidact 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 future and perhaps other entrepreneurial endeavors.

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 another entrepreneur, who respects and leverages Eric’s logistical and project management skills, along with his ability to conceive and manage projects.

Deep Learning 10 – Working in and Managing a Restaurant

Emma, had just turned 17 in 2006 when she started her initial job hunt. Some of her friends already were working as baristas at Starbucks and other chain coffee places, but none of them were having good experiences. A consistent issue was with what I would call “the governance process” at these corporate-run businesses. Who were the decision-makers, what role did the worker-bee baristas have in that process to at least give feedback, if not be decision-makers themselves.

Emma, on the other hand, was determined to find a work environment on a more human scale where she would have more of an opportunity to participate in the “governance” of the store. Checking out all the neighborhood coffee places, she focused in on a funky little one called “Perks”, and chatting with the young baristas there, found out that it was owned by a woman named Gayle and was a nice place to work. Emma filled out an application and went back several times to follow up and after several months finally got an interview and was hired.

Perks differed from Starbucks or The Coffee Bean in that besides the typical range of coffee and smoothie type drinks and pastries; they also served a small selection of Paninis, Crepes, soups and other cooked foods. This made it a bit more challenging since it was a small place and the barista had to double as a short order cook.

I remember it was frustrating at first for Emma to get up to speed (literally) on the job, initially having trouble blending the drinks and grilling the Panini sandwiches fast enough. It was about six weeks into the work before she started to feel like she had the routine down to an acceptable pace.

The big benefit for Emma was that being such a small place with a small staff, she had the opportunity to learn every aspect of the business, including ordering, stocking, cleanup, and cashing out. Gayle the owner would also have regular meetings with her small staff and took their suggestions on improvements in the work process. Toward the end of her year there she was even doing a few shifts as the manager and helping with the training of the newer staff.

I recall my own experience some thirty years earlier at age twenty working as a cook at “The Cottage Inn”, a family owned restaurant in my home town of Ann Arbor where I worked side by side with one of the owners in the kitchen and was treated more like a colleague than just another worker-bee. Besides learning how to prepare and cook food and clean a kitchen from top to bottom, I learned the basic “critical path” skills necessary to have a table’s food all come up about the same time (by analyzing the order and starting the items that took the longest first), skills that would serve me well later in my project management work. Being comfortable and effective working in a kitchen is a useful and self-esteem-building skill for just about anyone, and certainly was for me and for my daughter.

Life takes on a much more promising and positive complexion when, as a young person, you reach a point when you are no longer intimidated interacting older adults in real-world situations. Emma’s confidence and self-esteem soared during that year working at Perks, earning the respect of the owner and her mostly older colleagues.

With that experience under her belt, Emma researched on Craig’s List and found her next job working for another woman-owned business, “The Baker”, a very popular small bakery restaurant. This time she was waiting on table, a challenging job mixing organizational and people skills along with physical stamina. With tips, she was taking home some real money, twice as much she was making as a barista.

Perhaps six months after going to work at The Baker, Emma started to do an occasional shift filling in as the manager when the regular managers were not available. With her growing poise, confidence and communications and logistical skills, Emma took to the job and became the regular manager the two days a week that the main manager took off. The work included managing the rest of the non-cooking staff, including the clean up and cash out at the end of the day.

I’ve been to the restaurant and seen her at work. She manages generally a couple servers, a barista, and a bus person. Since the restaurant is small (holding about 50 people) she has to function as the host (greeting and seating people) and taking any to-go orders over the phone, plus doubling as a server, barista or busing tables herself to give her other staff their breaks. She also has to deal with all customer issues, including at times very difficult and picky regular customers. There are times she has had to ask unruly customers to leave, and even occasionally has had to call the police. Given that, at least when I’ve seen her on the job, she runs the place with grace and aplomb. And based on all the stories she’s regaled me with over her years there, she has rarely lost her cool.

Where Are They Today

Ten years from the date we pulled Eric out of school in eighth grade, and six years after Emma parted company with high school, both kids are now earning their own livings, paying their own bills, and moving forward with their lives, building their own communities, and continuing to seek opportunities to learn and grow.

Though Eric has had much love and support from parents, grandparents, an extended family and a large circle of friends, he has been responsible for charting his own course and steering his own ship. And to continue the metaphor, there have been plenty of rough seas and dangerous shoals along the way. But he has made it through, and I now think I can finally exhale, and realize that this seemingly crazy unschooling idea actually worked.

Emma now lives in her own apartment with her boyfriend, and continues to make her living working as a manager at “The Baker”. Besides that “day job”, she continues to write and hopes to publish her now young-adult science-fiction novel. She continues to participate in her writers group, and take writing classes at UCLA extension, towards that goal.

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