What is Education?


“The most influential of all educational factors is the conversation in a child’s home.” - William Temple

“Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.” - John W. Gardner

“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” – Oscar Wilde


When I was home in Boston last month, I asked my 15 year old niece what she's learning at school.

She told me that in math she's learning about how to find the “volume of a cone”.

And I thought: hmmm, if I'm an ice cream man and some kid asks me, Can I please have a 0.34 liter vanilla ice cream cone?” Then how am I going to figure out how much to put in that cone?

How will I do it? Do I need to take a refresher course?

So I asked my niece what she's learning in science. She said, We're learning about acids and bases.”

And I said, “That's good. Stay away from acids because you can burn yourself.”

“Well actually you can burn yourself from bases also.”

(Yes, she's right. You see, I’m a big fan of tricking kids to see if they really know what they’re talking about.)

“What about after school? Are you playing any sports?”

“Not really. I want to join the swim team but mom wants me to take piano lessons instead.”

“So...,” I said. “You like playing piano?”

“Umm, actually, I don’t know.” 

I have a problem. I've learned a lot in life. I've learned how to solve problems - like recognizing the things I’m good at and get paid doing it, how to be curious and creative, how to be healthy, how to deal with people, how to have ideas, how to know the kind of people I should be around with and who I should avoid.

And even though I know these things, it's still hard for me - sometimes - to live a steadily improving life.

Many would agree that life is difficult. It's really hard to survive every day. It's even harder to make decisions. And we constantly have harder problems as we age.

So my problem is: my 15 year old niece is learning NONE of that.

No kid will ever need to know how to find the volume of a cone for the rest of their lives.

No kid will ever need to know what a base is unless they are the one kid out of 100,000 who becomes a nuclear scientist.

No kid will ever need to know how to play the piano unless they are talented, and even with talent, they need to practice EVERY DAY for hours and hours before they have a shot of becoming the next Lang Lang. I never once touched a piano and I turned out fine, because it’s just another one of those irrelevant things people learn in life and later realized they don't have the aptitude for it.

That's my problem: how to educate kids better.

In the 1920's my grandfather started the family business after he immigrated to the United States. My father became his successor as the first Optometrist in the family. So my father had a dream of making me become an Optometrist to continue the business. And his dream came true. I became one.

Then things started to change...

A few days ago, the American Board of Optometry sent an email advising me to renew my certification license. And I replied: “I threw away my degree long time ago.”

A friend asked me, “You worked hard for that degree. It took you eight years to finish. Are you sure you want to throw it out?” And I said, “Yes. And I've worked harder for other things since then.” Society tells us a degree is a special life achievement. It isn't. It's yesterday. I don't hold onto all the things society tells me to hold onto.

Almost everyone in my family does very well in schools. I have a cousin who is a PhD., three other relatives who are dentists, an ongoing med student, and another going to Cornell. And when I asked each of their reasons for pursuing their dreams, they all funneled down to fame and fortune.

That sounds very depressing. Getting good grades and going into famous schools is not the point anymore.

The point is: find out what you are good at and what you love doing. Once you figure that out, is there an entity that will have trouble living without you when you seek to earn a living. Because if there is, you'll be able to make a living.

Kids who love solving problems should start solving them. Their problem solving skills can be learned by having good conversations at home, reading books at the library, and some practical applications. They won't get a sudden epiphany on how to solve a problem by getting a degree.

School is not a good investment like the past. Back then, very few people have degrees. Now, almost everyone is a postgraduate, so the return on investment is very slim.

I’ve done the math. A child attending the most prestigious private elementary school in the United States and going all the way to a master’s degree could easily rack up US$1 million - yes, one million dollars - in expenses. That is a huge sum of money for something to show-off with your friends and families over Sunday brunch.

The smart and hard working parent would be better off investing the money elsewhere. By the time the child becomes an adult, that money could be used to support her for life - even if she doesn’t have a job!

School gives you an outcome, a degree. Afterwards, you'll still be waiting at the HR Department for someone to pick you, and they will constantly prove you are undervalued compared to your peers.

“Competition is for losers,” said Peter Thiel. “If I compete with you, I’m a loser. It means I’m not helping anyone in a new way. Instead, you have to invent your own category.”

And even if you’ve managed to pass through all of the above, the question remains: what do you want to do for the rest of your life?

So I just told you a story and I mixed in some hard truths about that story.

Now I can make a list.

Here are the things young people need to start learning at a young age in order to be successful:

- Health

- Creativity

- Emotional connection

- Communication

- Problem solving skills

And on and on. Each skill is more difficult to learn than the last.

As I was learning each of the things on my list, I experienced much agony and horror.

For instance, from elementary school all the way to college I was the quiet kid in the class. I was uncomfortable with self-expression. And I would always have prejudice over other people's responses and behaviors. I would constantly blame myself - even for the things that didn't matter.

To alleviate my suffering, I ate horribly. And I would get heavier. I'd get more and more sick, and I wouldn't have the energy for the next day. I was nearly depressed.

I had to solve all these problems along the way towards health. Is it about the people around me? My own perception? About food? Sleep or exercise? And so on.

When I was working at my job, I’m never fond of having a boss telling me what to do. The constant drama and office politics were just some of the things I wanted to avoid. On the day that I finally quit my job, I gained my independence. It was an easy decision, and I would do it all over again.

I had to learn all of these things through experience. “Nothing that is worth knowing,” said Oscar Wilde,  “can be taught.” Nobody comes down from the sky and knows the answer to these things either. But for each thing I learned I had problems, I solved them, and then I can tell the multiple ways I solved them.

Then it all clicked together and I made a little something called “the story of my life”. And the good thing is, I'm still constantly improving.

So, what is education to you?