Skinner Layne, the learning & problem-solving community leader

Skinner Layne, the learning & problem-solving community leader

I was surfing on Quora when I read an essay called "The Critical Point", a perspective on life, entrepreneurship, people and the world written by Skinner Layne. I did some research about the author and ended up discovering the like-minded education community he founded, Exosphere. I had the opportunity to speak with him, and interviewed him about the experiences that brought him to think and act this way

Can you tell us more about your study path ?

I went through a traditional academic career. I studied economics, philosophy and political science. One of my majors at university was philosophy. But, actually, it was completely academic and focused on the past (history of philosophy, study of what writers have written) and language games.

Philosophy at university doesn't really help people think about their lives, like the ancients used to practice it.
We don't address the most important questions, such as : How am I supposed to live ? Why am I supposed to live this way and not that way ?

At the end of my university studies, burnt out from classrooms, I moved to Texas and got involved in my first software start-up. I’d never had a normal job. Going from the traditional academic environment - which I liked and enjoyed - and then going, sort of into the real world - of entrepreneurship - it is different from the corporate world - in which you are able to avoid the pain of making decisions and owning the consequences. Being an entrepreneur is very difficult in that regard. The academic world is completely disconnected from this reality. In academia, there are clear boundaries, tractable objectives, and set expectations. As an entrepreneur, not only do you have to figure everything out on your own, in most cases you are making everything up as you go along.

After years of being an entrepreneur, I saw that our traditional institutions are woefully inadequate to prepare people - in both practical and philosophical terms - to go through the entrepreneurial life, whatever form it takes.

What kind of professional experiences have you been through ?

I worked in software startups in Texas for a while. Then, I did some financial consulting because of my economics background. Then, I did some consulting work for other start-ups. Then I moved to Chile in 2008, because I anticipated the financial crisis. I moved to Chile before the Lehman Brothers Bankruptcy. I sold everything I had in the States and came here to a new place that i thought had stability, and good macroeconomics conditions, political stability, modern institutions. I decided to stay and have been in Chile for 7 years now. I began my new life here as a private equity consultant for investors who wanted to come here, things like that. And trying to figure out what I really wanted to do. I tried to set up my own private equity fund, but it was a very difficult time for that, so I continued the consulting work for a while.

How did you come up with the project Exosphere ?

I saw that most of the people - who I guess understood that our current situation is broken - were not going deep enough to address the fundamental causes. I looked around and I said “Ok good, there are people doing something, but they are approaching everything superficially, like the problem with education is that we should do this in the classroom instead of that, or use this format instead of that format. And I felt it is like changing the cosmetics.

When you start scratching the problem, you see that behind it, there is another problem. Let’s keep going and go to the very bottom.

The very bottom of all problems is fundamentally that “We, as human beings, in order to do anything in life, have to cope with the meaningful question of existence. And if we don’t go all way down to the bottom of that, we don’t solve much of anything at all.”

How did you finally take action regarding the lack of resources ?

I always had in the back of my mind the desire to do something in education, but i was waiting to have enough money to finance everything. I thought I needed to raise a lot of money, because most of the previous projects I was involved in, I always had to raise money.

Eventually, I realized the time I have the perfect scenario for action will never arise, so I decided to take action instead, and stop postponing my life.

So in 2012, I launched the first Exosphere Website. After 9 months trying to make that happen, I was frustrated and realized I needed to do something else to start. It didn’t seems like there were many options. We tried a couple of things.

In January 2013, we tried to open a kind of a coworking space in a palace in downtown Santiago. That turned out to be a huge disaster.

In July, we decided to try doing a really intensive 3-month program. We launched the website for our first bootcamp in July 2013. By the time the program began in September, we had 28 people, from countries all over the world. That was the first successful experiment that we had run. We have kind of kept going in that direction, not especially because it works and it is something solid we can build everything else on top of.

What is Exosphere ?

We are a community of people who START COMPANIES, BUILD PRODUCTS, RESEARCH PROBLEMS, CREATE ART AND MUSIC, WRITE BOOKS, AND DIRECT FILMS.

We are an OPEN COMMUNITY OF CREATORS who are looking for people to join us and achieve their goals and dreams in life surrounded by people who are engaged in similar quests.

According to you, what in the most important in the pedagogy ?

It is the recognition that the “students” don’t need the teachers. Everything they need is inside of themselves. The teacher can only pull out what is only inside.

This is actually the origin of the word education, literally “bring out something that is inside”, “not to put in”. All of our pedagogy in modernity has been about trying to stuff as much stuff inside of the head of the student as possible. “You have to know this and that”--the opposite.

When you stuff things in somebody’s head, you are stuffing the same copies inside of everybody’s head. And at the end, it is just mllions of copies, and little capability for original thought.

Each person has something inside that is unique. As Thoreau said, “Every man is my superior in some regard.” The job of the educator is to bring out whatever that superiority is in each student. To help the student find it inside of themselves and bring out, and give it confidence. So that we have a world of unique people and not boring, useless copies.

What do you think are the most important subjects to learn today ?

The most important subject for anybody to learn is itself.

Only when you know yourself, can you control yourself and do something with yourself that brings you joy and that is useful to other people. Once you know yourself, you say, now i know what i am supposed to do, and it becomes easy to learn.

Everything you need to know comes quite easy when you know what you are supposed to do.

In some places, people are spending hundred of thousands of dollars and years of their life studying things that people told them they are supposed to know. They don’t know why to study this. This is soul crushing.

Learning should be throwing, part of everyday life. That is why you have to start with knowing yourself. By knowing yourself, you know what you are supposed to do, and then everything else kind of fills you, who you are, who you want to become.

How do you help people to know themselves at Exosphere ?

One of the best things to know yourself is by doing something. You can’t just sit somewhere in the classroom and know yourself. That is why, I think the traditional classroom is inadequate. Because it helps to know yourself only related to the classrooms. The only way is to experiment with other things. We don’t have a method but we insist to people experimenting. Then, they can say : I know I am not interested. And keep crossing off the list.

You need to design the experiment for every new thing you want to try. For that, you also need to learn how to ask questions that are more defined and focused. And to oversee the results of their experiments.

What are your current projects and challenges?

We are in a process of reformatting our program. Each program has a certain number of defined problems or questions. A completely open format leave people to figure out what to do. We are focusing more on questions that people are asking out of the world.
We describe ourselves as a learning and problem-solving community. Identifying the problems and figuring what can you do about this problem - as a way to helping people learn about themselves.
We would love to partner with institutions, to see more people empowered to help them live a better life, we are not interested in owning and controlling what we do, we just want to see more people empowered to learn about how to live a better lives. We wanted to experiment first. We had to do experimentations ourselves to see what works.
We had to do a lot of experiments ourselves. We have enough perspective now to sell it to yourself.

What was the most challenging in your mission ?

Our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses as well.

It is a huge challenge to get out of the way of what you would want for yourself and not imposing that on everybody else.

A second challenge toward the application of my vision to reality was the limitation of resources. In my ideal vision, there are a lot of things I wish we had, and that. And coming to terms with that is pretty difficult. You see what it could be if you had this or that. You need to make it work without that is pretty tough. Especially when you've got a feedback form that writes the things that you wanted to do but couldn’t.

How do you see your life mission ?

My life mission is to help people see that they don’t need anything outside of themselves. If they are looking for their happiness out. My life mission as an educator is to help people to pull out what is already inside of themselves, seeing that is enough.

The second thing is helping them to come together and overcoming their differences so that they can do useful things together. In some way, it is equally true that each of us have everything we need and that we absolutely need other people. Helping to overcome that apparent contradiction. We have to go over ourselves to work together.

That is the other part of what we do at Exosphere : solve the problems, helping people to overcome their problems and difficulties so that they can get to better understanding of the human condition to work effectively together. It is different from team building, because, it doesn’t have a goal in itself. It is just to be and understand other people being.

How do you see the interaction of human and technology ?

I don’t see any distinctions between humans & technology. At a fundamental level, we are ourselves, technologies. We have developed in millions of millions of years, the ability to do things, that our predecessors couldn’t do. What we call technology is a natural part of that process of developing new things that our predecessors couldn’t do before. It happens that a lot of that now is widely called inorganic, but its not unnatural.
The technological development is just faster than it was 18 million years ago. People get scared of how fast it is spreading.
It is coming along faster. My view is that we have to keep going with technology : it is part of nature to want to do things better with lower energy. The development of technology is part of way to improve the quality of lives.

Technology is part of ourselves, part of the process of being human. It is not this external thing that is going either to condemn or save us. It is part of the process of being human.

But also, we should not expect that new technologies will solve all of our problems. There is a danger to rely on technology as a solution to all of our problems. We will still have these fundamental humans problems, without technology to magically make them go away.

What is your vision of talent and how would you help someone to find and express their inner talents?

Everybody is talented in a unique and fantastic way.

I think there is too much emphasis on this idea of stamping on something. “I did that and this is special.” Radio was invented by six different people in different spaces.
We should embrace our pretty unique individual talents, we shouldn’t be jealous if someone comes along with something similar.

What are the books that changed your mind ?

How can we follow you ?

You can apply to our programs Exosphere
Follow my thoughts on my blog Skinner Layne's blog

Interview led by Diane Lenne on 8/31/15