Alternative Schools

A Krishnamurti School concerns itself with education of the total human being. Knowledge and intellectual capability alone are not sufficient to meet life’s challenges. Learning to enquire, to observe oneself, to relate with other people and the earth, is the core intention of the school.

Towards the end of last year, Uttara asked me to share my thoughts on my early education in India. We both went to Krishnamurti schools which are Alternative/Progressive schools in India that were really ahead of their time and she wrote an incredibly detailed blog post about the landscape.

I didn’t have a lot of time since I was just starting my crazily intense graduate program, so I sent her a quick note which she reproduced in it’s entirety. Here it is –


– sense of self; not defined by the crowd. they really encourage this. it is awesome

– respect for authority, but a good amount of disdain for it as well. they used to allow us to walk out of class if we wanted. it goes to #1 as well.

– learned in a non-traditional way – going and examining leaves for science class. walking outside. unheard of in the traditional sense.

– exercise. daily instead of weekly at most regular schools.

– arts and craft – also a lot of exposure to this and very non-traditional stuff. i used to learn how to model in card board, papier mache, photography (at 7/8 years old). i mean, seriously, they made this part of the education, not something that was tacked on because it had to be.

– singing – lots of singing. singing classes, singing bhajans, singing carols. it was awesome.

– it just felt free and enjoyable. i used to love to go to school. i used to cry if i couldn’t go. now, there’s a reversal if there ever was one.


– unfortunately we live in a world where competition exists. where public exams exist. where there are, in fact, losers and winners. so, in this regard, the school was like an unreal bubble.

– it was really bad at preparing students for exams. i finally got taken out of my alternative school at the end of the 6th grade – when the first batch went through their public exams and things didn’t go so well. I went to a regular school with lots of mid-terms and test. i was paralyzed and had no clue how to take these simple little tests.

in retrospect, leaving KFI when i did was the perfect right thing. just like spending my youth there was also the perfect right thing.

I still agree with everything I said to Uttara. In fact, since September, we’ve had to go through the ridiculously gruelling pre-school process for our twin boys in New York City and as I went through the process, I’ve had occasion to think more about my own experience and about a progressive/alternative education. My time at KFI till the 6th grade was the most enjoyable time of my life. I loved school, played every day, had science class under the trees, lived life, loved life. We were really children without a sense of pressure.

I also feel that KFI enhanced my creative side. My love for photography was born there. An incredible teacher taught me photography and made me fall in love with the power of the image. He pushed me, he challenged me and he didn’t treat me like a 3rd grader. It was amazing. I am in film school today in part because of him. So, Damayan Anna, if you are out there somewhere reading this, a huge thank you!

The lack of pressure of academics and constant mind-numbing deliverables is something that you can never find in the real world or in a regular school. If childhood is to be enjoyed why not let children actually have a life where they don’t have to be “realistic” for a the first few years of life?

But herein lies the rub. When do you do the shift and how do you do the shift? Because at some point, whatever said and done, the real world has not come around to seeing things the way of the Progressive educational system. My sense of self and sense of confidence took a real beating when I changed schools. I moved in the 7th grade and went from being carefree and not thinking about “my worth” to being graded in a system I had no clue how to survive in. But fortunately for me, it was early enough before the public exams in the 10th grade. I learned to cope and, slowly, to do well. But in a system that grinds that students, that values different things. Sure you can excel at debates and writing and extracurricular activities, but you also have to be a scholastic machine in a way that the system expects. IF you can be both, you are a super-star. But purely being creative is not enough.

This is not an issue just in India. I recently saw Gotham Gal’s post about her daughter Emily’s angst around the SATs. Emily goes to LREI, a progressive school in Manhattan. In the US, if you go to a City and Country or an LREIs of the world where you are happy and creative but want to go to a college that requires the SAT, the reality of the process hits you because the school so far hasn’t been focused on students learning that way. It’s hard and horrible and Emily articulates the problem well. Fortunately for Emily once she gets through the SAT, she can go to a college that values her abilities and evaluates her the way she’s used to.

The issue is larger in India. In India, when a kid trained in a progressive school meets reality, reality is in the form of the public exams – the national exams that grade students across the country. A huge deal. And then college, where there are no real progressive colleges that I know of. So even if a child goes to a progressive school, at some point, they have to shift their learning method into the “regular” mode. Maybe the progressive schools in India have morphed since I went there to cope with having to deal with the “evaluations” that exist outside. That would be the smart thing to do.

J&G are still very young but it’s something we think about for them. What is the right answer? To me, there’s no question that at a young age, Progressive is the way to go. We managed to get them into a progressive pre-school. But do we shift at some point? Or do we hope that they are natural test takers? Or do we say, “ok, fine, struggle with the SAT, but enjoy school” and that’s that? What if they want to go to college in India? More questions than answers. Will the world move to a more progressive model? Here’s hoping.

How not to “do innovation”

A case in point

Back in 2003, a small team made the recommendation that eBay should offer blogs to buyers and sellers on the site to enable them to share their experiences on eBay and also make eBay more of a home than just a selling location. The idea was rejected.

Around 2006 (not sure of the exact date), eBay decided it was time to offer blogs. These blogs were not integrated with the seller’s experience. It was a separate place, off to the side, something random and clunky.

In 2009, eBay decided to close the blogs since they were merely a distraction from the core business (I am extrapolating this from the language in the announcement seen below).

eBay Blogs Announcement

Let’s assume for a moment, that closing the blogs was the right business decision. But I was taken aback by the sentence “we encourage you to print out or save your blog entries before we close this section of our site”. Print or save? Do people even know how blogs work? How about offering a very easy xml export?

This kind of thinking has been the issue at eBay and likely many large companies trying to “do innovation” for the sake of it.

Large companies and the innovation circus

In most large corporations, a small team is tasked with innovation. But they are not empowered in any real way. The buy-in is limited and they run around trying to convince people of “little” ideas that seem “far away”.

When someone is finally is convinced, the implementation is usually an issue – “Oh, this is cool and hot, let’s throw it on there”. No thought on how it can be different or game changing. No new thinking. Copy, slap on. And, very late. After everyone else in the world has already done it. Of course the original team that came up with the idea is not involved…

It continues with the ongoing execution – “This is not core, don’t waste time”. Pushed off the side, no integration, no support.

It finishes with the end-of-life decision – “Told you this was going to fail. This is not what we do. Close it down”. And the customers, who had no idea the execution and ongoing management were going to be so poor are left even worse off than if they hadn’t invested the time and effort in the new product.

Frustrating for everyone involved and it reinforces the idea that innovation can’t be done.

At some level, having a team focus on innovative ideas is acceptable (versus the dream goal of every person being empowered to innovate). But the issue is how this team is empowered and enabled. And the real tolerance for trying things. The first idea may not be perfect – but which startup has the perfect first idea?? The team has to have the time and ability to morph the idea just like a startup does. And the powers that be really have to believe this is worth it. Not just pay lip-service to the idea because then they’ll seem cool and hip. And every large company that wants to stay relevant has to solve this problem.

It is frustrating and depressing to think of the ideas that were “out there” and therefore not invested in – like digital goods in 2002/2003. And where is eBay today in the digital goods space? The space that’s seeing explosive growth? No where. This one still causes physical angst when I think of the opportunity lost. Most people in other large companies could probably list their pet

Yes, eBay probably has to focus on the core business. But it can’t be at the expense of all other innovation. The companies that survive for decades and keep innovating don’t think like this. eBay needs to change the way it thinks or it will remain a solid e-commerce site which milks the core business. Not a bad thing, but a terribly uninteresting place for anyone interesting driving innovation. And every large company that wants to stay in the lead and keep its best people has to figure out how to do more than just “bolt on” innovation for the sake of checking a box.

Willing to pay

nytlogo153x23There’s some chatter about the New York Times survey to their customers on whether they’d be willing to pay $5 per month to access the content. They also asked if $2.50 would be acceptable. I didn’t get the survey, but as a long-time NYT reader, my answer would be an unequivocal “Yes, absolutely”.

What’s interesting is that this debate comes on the back of the larger debate around Wired editor Chris Anderson’s book, Free. I haven’t read his book (although I have read reviews) and I also read Malcolm Gladwell’s retort. When Chris Anderson says “free”, he means free to the consumer – but the reality is that nothing that takes time or effort to produce is ever free – someone is paying. Either the producer is paying for her own costs and giving away the end product or advertisers are supporting the product.

And that’s what is important to realize. The cost to produce something is not free (even if the cost to transmit and disseminate it may be close to free). So what happens when the producer has to get paid?

Let’s come back to the NY Times. Everyone is jumping up and down saying newspapers are dead. Agreed – I haven’t bought a printed paper in over 8 years. But journalism is not dead. Not even close. Today, I cannot go to one place and get the incredible breath and depth that the Times offers me. I can’t find exceptional political insight and funny technological coverage in a blog. If you point me to the Huffington Post (a site I was addicted to during the elections), I’d say, yep, great example of online journalism.

The journalists at the Times are fabulous at what they do. And they have to get paid to be able to continue to do what they are good at. So what’s the solution? It appears that advertising revenues online cannot cover those costs. It comes down to having the consumer pay something.

My recommendation is to allow consumers to get a certain number of articles free each month – say 10 articles. After that they get charged the $5 fee and they can read anything they want, including all the archives, for the rest of the month. For a frequent reader, like myself, I’d rather just have them autobill me. Forget the 10 free articles a month. I’ll blow through that on day 1 or 2 at the latest.

For the customer who comes to the NY Times site very rarely, their experience doesn’t change either – they can read their one or two articles and leave without feeling any pain.

The middle section – the group that reads maybe 20 articles will dither. But, $5 is about 1.25 Starbucks coffees. At $2.50 it is less than a Starbucks. Quality content written by journalists who are the best in their fields, edited by a top team of editors, across an incredibly wide range of topics for an entire month on one hand. One cup of coffee on the other. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

The issue is that we’ve been trained to expect content on the internet to be free. Retraining ourselves will be hard, but not impossible. If it is a question of not reading the NY Times or paying $5, I’d gladly pay the $5. I think they should offer a family rate too – so for something like $10, up to 5 people can read the Times.

Now for some caveats: I’m willing to pay to sustain the journalists and editors that bring me the content. I am not, however, willing to pay to sustain high-cost printing technology and all the infrastructural and organizational fat that is needed to support the print side of the business. As a consumer, I can’t really make that allocation, but I hope the Times will do the math and when paying print consumers stop supporting the cost of print, the print section gets shut down. Please do not make the eco-friendly online users support the dinosaurs’ tree-killing addiction. Oh, and while I’m at it – if I do pay, I really want the ability to embed the NY Times’ photos and videos. They are awesome and by allowing bloggers to embed them (with links back of course), the Times will actually get more traffic, not less.

Finally, the Times has to consider if someone else will fill the gap they leave with a great product that is free. The asset is the journalists. Unique individuals with unique voices. Not so easily done. And even if someone could do it free for a while, they’ll hit the same economic issues as the Times.

The Times seems to have explored a number of options – a couple of years ago, they had people pay for Times Select (and yes, I paid). I’m sure they’ve come to this after a lot of thought (I hope they have, although their decision to disable embeds gives me pause). To term paying for things online as old-school and therefore unacceptable is silly. And I, for one, am willing to pay.

The carcinogen-free store

In the past couple of weeks I’ve had several people say to me “Is it me or am I hearing the term cancer more and more?” Knowing a clutch of people who have or are dealing with the big C, I’ve had the same thought in my head for the past several months.

What’s going on – is it our lifestyles – what we eat, how much we sleep, how much we drink? Is it environmental – the chemicals in the everything, the air we breathe? Is it that diagnostics are getting better – technology is catching tumors that might have gone undetected in the past? Is it that I’ve reached an age where my friends are just entering the zone of risk and the parents are firmly in the risk zone?

It is probably a combination of everything.

But as I think about what I can control, I would love to be able to consume “safer” products. Of course every product is made of chemicals and not all chemicals are bad, but we know there are some which are or could be carcinogenic. I’d like to avoid those.

The only way for me to do that right now is to read a ton, educate myself on which chemicals are dangerous and then read every single label to ensure it doesn’t contain any chemical on that list.

But there has to be a better way – couldn’t there be a store that did this research and only carried the products that fell within the bounds? Since I’d want these safe products in every category, it would have to be a really broad selection – cooking utensils, clothing, accessories, etc.

Think of Amazon, but with a layer on top of it “carcinogen free (CF)”. This entity would do the research and identify the products in several categories that are safer. It then sets up it’s CF Store. All the items are on Amazon, this is just the CF Store’s selected short list. When a user shops at this store, the transaction is completed on Amazon and the CF Store gets a cut. There are no guarantees with this stuff, so the CF Store would do a to-the-best-of-our-abilities thing. But that’s a heck of a lot better than what I can do right now.

The CF store doesn’t just have to be the CF Store alone. It could also be the CF and Green Store that also picks environmentally friendly products. That would just be another slice of what’s available on Amazon.

Or what if on Amazon itself, there were filters- CF, Green etc., in addition to the Brand, Material and Color filters that already exist. I do a search and check the filters that are important to me. As I check more filters, the number of products reduce, but hey, I’m willing to deal with less choice for being more picky.

Does something like this exist? If it does, let me know and sign me up.

Here’s to the crazies

The crazy people will change the world for the better. The people who hear they are insane, it can’t be done, it’s silly to do it *now* and still go ahead and pursue their dreams – these are the folks that will have a positive impact on large groups of people.

The crazy people are special in many ways – most importantly, they are super-smart, very capable, confident, and almost universally acknowledged for their capabilities (unless you are an emerging crazy, in which case you have yet to be universally acknowledged)1

The people who rely on the status quo, have never earned a job or title on their own, and skate along trying to fool people might be fine now, but average is all they’ll ever be. These people look down on the crazies. They may secretly want to be one of the crazies, but only for the glory that will eventually await the crazies – they don’t want to do the hard, grinding work that it will take for the crazies to succeed. And therein lies the core reason they’ll always just aspire to mediocrity.

The truly bold ones – the ones who may fail big, the ones jump off the treadmill of safety – are the most likely to win big too.

This wonderful piece talks about how young crazies from Yale are pursuing their dreams.

it’s refreshing to know that the world keeps minting idealistic young people who are not waiting for governments to act, but are starting their own projects and driving innovation.

I know of a couple of others who had the courage and capabilities to walk away from secure, stable jobs to venture out on their own. To those crazies, whether you are in Madras, London or New York, my most sincere good wishes. May you soar. May your hard work and your idealism be rewarded. I’m rooting for you – you’re inspirational.

  1. My “crazies” are different from Hugh’s Crazy  Deranged Fools in some ways. CDFs seem to be creative or artistic, my crazies can be pure business folks although successful business folks have to be creative too. And my crazies may not pay the bills for a while – they will live without if they have to, they will adjust their lifestyle downwards. CDFs could work alone but my crazies want to start companies/ventures/projects. I am not quite a crazy, but I am a CDF. 

Give away stuff that makes your product easier

I bought a big jar of hand cream a while ago. I love it – it works great, it smells good, my hands always thank me.

But it comes with a screw-on lid. Not a big deal, right? I thought so as well. But I noticed that the jar has lasted me a long, long, long time.

Last week, I ordered more cream to put around the house. One of the options was to order a pump lid for an extra $1.50. I wasn’t sure it would work since the cream is really thick, but on a whim I decided to try it.

Two days after I screwed on the pump lid, I’ve gone through the rest of the cream and have transferred the pump to a new jar.

Happy Pump Lid

Amazing how something small like that can increase usage so dramatically. I think back as to why the old jar lasted me so long – it was because there was always an easier option around – a tube with a pop lid, a dispenser, something that was easier even if it wasn’t as good.

Imagine being the producer of a great product, a product that was clearly superior to everything else out there, but it was always a second or third choice because of how it was packaged and dispensed. The packaging and the dispensing is the user interface for the cream. And it was really holding the core product back.

If the cream manufacturer had given away the pump lid – something that probably cost less than 50 cents to manufacture – I would have gone through three jars instead of just one in the same time, increasing revenues and customer satisfaction at the same time.

When you build accessories/add-ons that make your product easier to use and increase usage, give that stuff away like candy! Your main goal is to get people to use and love your product. Anything that makes that easier is only a good thing.