Unlearn: There is no distinction between entertainment and education

Twelve years ago, I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I’d just read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning on an elliptical machine at 24 Hour Fitness and it really struck a chord. In high school, I’d DESPERATELY wanted to go to Harvard. That had helped focus, structure and organize my life for me. Harvard inspired me when I didn’t want to study. Harvard pushed me to do higher quality work. Harvard got me to do extra-curricular activities that I probably would have avoided otherwise. Harvard did all that for me BEFORE I even got in. I didn’t pay them a dime and I got a way better education in high school because of them. And then, I got there and I was massively disappointed. At the time, I didn’t understand that my FANTASY of Harvard was never going to match the REALITY. Harvard could never have lived up to the fantasy. That disappointment meant that I stumbled through college without purpose. And then, I found myself on that elliptical machine at 24 Hour Fitness and I realized that humans need a sense of purpose to survive. And so, I decided to devote my life to education.

Why education? Well, the default job for people who have a fancy degree and don’t know what to do at the dawn of the 21st Century is tutor. I was paying my bills tutoring. Why not align what was paying my bills with my life’s purpose?

To be honest, I didn’t like education at first. Education is not glamorous. It’s not cool like tech or movies or music. It doesn’t come with the huge financial rewards of investment banking. It doesn’t offer the power of politics. Education feels sad. And we all know the old saying about teaching.

And yet, I believe that’s all about to change dramatically. I think educators are about to become humanity’s biggest rockstars because the central challenge for humanity is now what humans think, believe and feel. That is the big commonality between all of humanity’s challenges.

Terrorism. It’s about what people believe. The root issue is education.

Jobs. In the information economy, getting a job is increasingly about what you can do with your brain that a machine can’t.

Politics. Alternative facts and fake news. You need more educated voters who know how to fact check, understand statistics and can not get fooled by plausible ideas that aren’t grounded in reality.

Climate Change. The climate is doing its thing. Pollution is doing its thing. The question is what humans believe.

Everywhere you turn, how and what to think is the issue. Everyone, everywhere needs a massive educational update. We just need to be MUCH smarter than people needed to be fifty years ago and the need to raise our mental game is only going to get greater and greater. This much more challenging information environment is going to drive the I.Q. Revolution. We will adapt because that is what we have always done when the stakes get high enough. And that’s what big goals do. You are raising the stakes on yourself so you have no choice but to up your game.

As an educator, you compete for attention. You have ideas you want your students to get. There are books you want the kids to read. There are ideas you want them to internalize. There are skills you want them to focus on. And then, there’s Kim Kardashian’s butt. And that new TV show. And the fact that some rapper just said something crazy on Instagram. And the disaster porn that is the 24-hour news cycle. And actual porn. And on. And on. What chance does a play in Elizabethan English or a stuffy science book stand against all that entertainment? It doesn’t. And that is the central problem of education worldwide. It’s that we believe that important ideas should be delivered in a serious manner. We deliberately make education boring and then wonder why no one pays attention and the job is unglamorous and doesn’t attract the brightest and best. It is insane. And it is humanity’s greatest self-inflicted gunshot wound. I’ve come to realize that to actually fix education you have to bridge the utterly arbitrary gap between education and entertainment.

To be clear, this is a function of Western culture. As members of the Mixed Mental Arts community know, one of the major cultural biases of Western culture is that it favors atomism. It likes to break things down into lots of tiny pieces. And so, somewhere along the way, one thing (story) got split into two things (entertainment and education). Entertainment evolved into mindless entertainment that is utterly lacking in substance. Education evolved into boring but important information. It’s like salad and salad dressing got separated. Most entertainment is like drinking salad dressing. It’s cloying and unsatisfying. Most education is like eating salad without dressing. It’s bland and dry. They should never, ever have been apart.

To really see the power of story at its finest, you have to look at other cultures. Literally, almost any other culture. Jesus told parables. Short, interesting stories that have a lesson inside of them. The Buddha did the same. Hunter-gatherers do it too. The Ancient Greeks did it with the Odyssey and the Iliad. And if you want to look at the power of that when our culture does it intentionally then look at what Pixar did with Inside Out. They took the latest science on emotion and turned it into an awesome, animated kids movie. Pixar kicks butt at the box office not because they are doing something new but because they are doing something old that we forgot. Telling stories that move the best ideas is not something we have to learn. Rather, we have to unlearn the idea that education should be serious and that entertainment must be mindless. We have to allow ourselves to be human. Humans transmit values and beliefs through stories and conversations not lectures and textbooks.

For the last few years, I’ve co-hosted a podcast with a stand-up comedian named Bryan Callen. We’ve had on 200 scientists, academics, authors, economists, mathematicians, quantum physicists and more. And the overwhelming takeaway from all of that is that it’s not that the answers don’t exist; it’s that they do exist but no one has bothered to piece them together into a cohesive worldview and make those ideas engaging enough to move. As Bryan likes to say, “The answers are trapped in books.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told “No one reads anymore.” Exactly. The answers could be sitting on Amazon and ready for order with a single click and humanity wouldn’t even know it. In fact, that’s exactly where they are. For a long time, I’ve tried to get people reading with limited success and then, at a certain point, you realize that if you can’t bring Mohamed to the mountain that you have to bring the mountain to Mohamed. If people aren’t going to look up from their phones and look at a book, then you’d better figure out how to get those ideas into a form that can be consumed on their phones. We’ve defined the problem: the cultural norms around education and entertainment set both up to fail. And so, we either respect those cultural norms and fit in or we intentionally violate those cultural norms and fix the problem. I’d rather fix the problem even if it upsets people in the short term because long term I think people will be glad the problem got fixed. It’s often easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission. Personally, I don’t think any of us should even have to ask permission to be human.

Bryan Callen and I represent mirror images of the arbitrary and counterproductive divide between education and entertainment. Bryan makes his living entertaining people but is both fascinated by the ideas trapped in books and often bored by the mindless nature of a lot of entertainment. I make my living educating people but am painfully aware that the problem with most education is just how boring so many of the textbooks and the Professors in it are. What we both want is what humans CRAVE. Engaging stories that contain powerful life lessons buried within them.

You’ll often hear people in education circles talk about edutainment as if we’re mashing two separate things together. But what happens when you split story apart into entertainment and education and then put it back together? Don’t you arrive back at story? You should. The problem is that most edutainment is this horrible, awkward hybrid. It’s like a salad with chocolate on it. It’s the worst of both worlds. To make a truly great salad with just the right amount of dressing on it takes skill. And it takes skill to tell truly great stories like the ones Pixar tells. In the end, the storytellers who do this whether in the classroom, on the internet, on TV, the movie theatre, the game console or on Spotify won’t have to ask for respect. We will be so in awe of what they achieve that we will give it freely. You can be one of them but you have to unlearn the distinction between education and entertainment. There is only story. It’s just because culture binds and blinds so strongly that we didn’t see what was there all along.

Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we’d run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It’s exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O’Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan’s #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let’s the world see that there are no wizards…only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.

One Comment

  1. Chris Abbey Reply

    Like this Hunter. And wonder how much timing and context play into learning. Timing in that the person is wanting or needing to learn a tidbit because of some answer or passion that they are following. And the context in delivering interesting content at a level that is appropriate for the individual; a story for 6-year old and a 36-year old on how emotions and thinking are intertwined are two different contexts.

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