The Most Important Skill

(Steve Jain is part of the web development track at the Startup Institute Boston.)

The very first post on my personal blog explored the downsides of the American education system. In particular, it lamented the system for killing students’ creativity by requiring all students to be funneled through our narrow strait of a system with its arcanely academic style and often-outdated content—only to be thrust into the open ocean of the real world with its never-ending evolution and need for dynamic, well-rounded talent.

The conclusion was this: despite all the cool apps, websites, and devices created recently to improve the educational experience, something much greater than a single technology tool would be needed to fix such an incredibly broken system.

Lo and behold, over the past 6 weeks, I think I’ve seen a glimpse of that solution.

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No, it’s not because the Startup Institute classes are oozing with up-to-date content one can directly apply professionally. No, it’s not because the instructors are practicing professionals from Boston’s premier startups. And no, it’s not because there are no late bells, no grades, and that classes often start at 10am.

It’s because in spite of having no formal obligations, I have felt more learned but stupid, more busy but enthusiastic, and more productive but unaccomplished in the past 5 weeks than I ever have before. Why, you ask, can someone learn so much and still feel stupid?  How can someone be in class and working for 12 hours a day and still be enthusiastic? How can someone accomplish so much in a day but still feel there’s so much more to do?

It is because of excitement: the most important skill. And the Startup Institute has done a heck of a job in teaching that skill to us.

The people in this program are incredible. The people running this program are also incredible. They make this experience. They represent all kinds of backgrounds, experiences, humors, talents, and passions. People actually do stuff. They take what they know and what they’re learning, and what they want to know and push the envelope: new websites are made, new tools are investigated, new designs are conceived, new business models are explored, new connections are made. This creates pressure to do more, no matter what you’ve done already. Not unpleasant, cut-throat pressure, either: collaborative pressure. Productive pressure. Days at the Startup Institute are less ‘what will we learn today’ and more ‘what will happen today’. And, ‘what will I do today’. It’s a pretty awesome place to be.

Then I think of school, as I experienced it: lecture, homework, quiz, lecture, homework, quiz, lecture, homework, test. Go to class, come back, go to class, come back, go to class, come back. What kind of experience is that? How useful will the content you learn in those classes be if you were half-asleep when you learned it?

Am I suggesting the Startup Institute is the big solution to all of education’s problems? No. In its current form, it’s far from it. I am suggesting this: the focus of any education program should be creating an excellent experience. Everything else is secondary.

Content, teaching, and grades contribute to creating a good experience, but they don’t define it. Experience defines experience. A person’s experience—emotional, sensory, and intellectual—will also define the utility of the content, the quality of the teaching, and the value of the grades. Which one are you more likely to remember, which teacher was better, and which grades meant more: that biology teacher who took you to the stream near your school to measure pH levels or that chemistry teacher who made you memorize the periodic table with no rhyme or reason?

As one on the web development track at the Startup Institute, I won’t leave the program knowing every last bit of the Rails framework, the intricacies of the Ruby programming language, or all of the oddities of Javascript. But I will leave having learned the most important skill of all: excitement. And I think I’m immeasurably better off for it.

Apply to Startup Institute in New York and Boston. Summer session starts in June. The sooner you apply the better your chances of getting in.