Three years after founding The Spike Lab and after having had the privilege to work closely with so many incredible high school students, our raison d’être has become clear. What really motivates all of us at The Spike Lab is to Develop Purpose-Driven Innovators For Life.
Day to day we’re working to help our students identify and build out extraordinary Spikes — multi-year projects uncommon among teens, based on genuine passion and a sense of deep purpose. We’re also guiding them to get admitted into the highest quality — and best-fit — colleges possible (outcomes here). We diligently track and measure these near-term goals of our program. But behind all this work, we are driven by a higher calling: to foster a more fundamental paradigm shift in adolescent education that puts the development of purpose-driven innovators at the center instead of being at the periphery where it is today. Let me unpack what this actually means.
Anxiety, depression, addiction and obesity are all at crisis levels right now among college-bound students and alumni (especially within the Ivy League). This is in large part because our education system doesn’t teach purpose. It’s all too common for people to pursue majors and later jobs they don’t care about only to wake up one day wondering what’s the point. Research has now proved what I’d argue is common-sense; purpose is the best source of motivation for high schoolers growing up in today’s hyper-competitive world. Extrinsic motivators like being admitted to a great college, getting good grades or making one’s parents proud are understandable but, when overemphasized, they become students’ default source of motivation, which is detrimental. MIT research (popularized by Daniel Pink’s best selling book, Drive) has shown that people driven more by intrinsic motivators like purpose and mastery are much more likely to be successful and happy. We see it in all our students. When they find purpose, namely when they pursue something deeply meaningful to themselves and impactful to their communities, we quickly see increases in their levels of happiness, energy, intellectual curiosity and confidence. They also start to be regarded as leaders. But Stanford research has shown that only a small fraction of high schoolers have a sense of purpose in high school. At The Spike Lab, we put purpose at the center of everything. It’s the keystone of the first “Self-Discovery” stage of our coaching program and serves as the foundation of every Spike.
We teach students the meta-skill of developing a sense of purpose. We know from experience that if a student develops purpose early in life (and if they experience what it feels like to live with purpose), then they will continually rediscover purpose throughout their life. It might be one thing in high school, but then something else in college, and so on throughout life. Even in old age, Harvard research has shown that purpose helps people age better and live longer.
Be a T.
A “T-shaped” person is somebody who is both well-rounded* (a.k.a. generalist) and spikey (a.k.a. has expertise and/or specialized talent). Top colleges (see MIT, Harvard and Stanford’s websites) and employers (some well known examples include IDEO, McKinsey, and Google) look for T-shaped people but ironically our education system is only designed to develop generalists. I would know. I am the most over-educated person you’ll ever meet. I went to one of the best private schools in the country (Collegiate School), one of the best colleges in the country (Williams College), and one of the best graduate schools in the country (Stanford). After all the time and tuition money, while I did come out well-rounded, I had to go through years of toil on my own to develop my expertise, the “I” part of the “T”. It used to be enough for colleges to turn out well-rounded students who would then have time to develop expertise on the job but a college degree isn’t the guarantee to good employment that it used to be. Even if you land an entry level job, most companies don’t invest in their people very much anymore; and competition for jobs (and to get into college) is more intense than ever before. So you have a massive leg up if you’re T-shaped.
The whole adult coding bootcamp industry is built on this reality: over-educated recent college graduates (generalists) realize that to enter the software tech industry they need to spend another ~$12,000 to learn basic software development skills. They need to become more T-shaped! (Disclaimer: I was on the senior management team of Dev Bootcamp, the first web developer bootcamp company where I saw countless Ivy League grads, even those with computer science majors, paying us to get the skills to be an entry-level software developer.)
At The Spike Lab, we encourage students to embrace the best of today’s high schools: be well-rounded.* But our coaching program complements that with the tools and curriculum needed for high schoolers to build a Spike. Nothing is more transformational for adolescents than the boost in confidence that students experience when they realize, for the first time, that they have become an expert in a specific field and have built something that matters in the ‘real world’; when they internalize that they can set extremely ambitious goals and, with the right focus and fortitude, achieve them. After a young adult walks through that threshold, there’s no coming back!
*WARNING don’t fall into the trap of thinking well-rounded means you need to do everything. Just study hard. Be curious. Get involved in the school community, but don’t go overboard. You need to save time and energy for your Spike.
Focus on Innovation and Entrepreneurship Abilities.
Today’s schools continue to over-emphasize the importance of content-based knowledge (also often referred to as explicit knowledge) and under-emphasize 21st Century Skills; skills like the “Four Cs” — critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Kids are still primarily taught and tested on knowledge learned in the ‘five solids’: core subjects like Math, Science, History, Foreign Language, and English/Literature. As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, “The US education model… was actually copied from the 18th-century Prussian model designed to create docile subjects and factory workers.” Here is a great 11 minute video on the history of education that shows just how little advancement we’ve seen in the last 120 years. There isn’t nearly enough emphasis being placed on teaching 21st century skills because it requires ripping out the subject-based model that schools are built on and replacing it with purpose/project-based learning models. It would also place a massive burden on educators and administrators who would have to adapt to a very different way of doing things. Recognizing the skills gap that our outdated school models are creating, many great teachers and school leaders already go out of their way to teach 21st century skills but are hampered by the system: subject-based classes, rigid testing standards and college entrance examinations. At The Spike Lab, we’re free of those constraints and can focus on developing students into life-long innovators and entrepreneurs.
The terms innovation and entrepreneurship have become almost meaningless buzzwords today. What does it actually mean to develop innovation abilities? What are these abilities? How do you measure a student’s degree of aptitude in each ability? These questions are and will continue to be debated ad infinitum. However, you can’t seriously teach something without defining the desired outcomes and then tracking progress, even if it’s an imperfect science. So we developed a rubric: a clear and tangible measurement system that allows our coaches to measure our students’ progress in these abilities over time. The innovation abilities break down into these four high-level categories: Initiative, Creativity, Planning and Communication. See this blog post for more detail.
Our 2nd Reason for Being is to help democratize the private college admissions consulting industry. Private college counseling currently costs families up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, but we believe it should be much more accessible or even free. This might seem counter-intuitive since The Spike Lab is perceived as a college admissions consultancy, but the reality is that we’re not. Our core value proposition is analogous to that of any private school; we are educators developing kids to be productive citizens and fulfilled people, but unlike private schools, our focus is to develop purpose, Spikes, and innovation abilities in our students. If we do a great job of that (and if their high school teachers and school administrators do their part), then our students will get into great colleges and thrive in life.
Our students usually start working with our coaches early in high school so they have time to develop themselves and their Spikes. However the typical college admissions consultant (the good ones and the bad actors who you’ve read about) starts working with high school students much later — in the Spring semester of 11th grade. This is the same time most in-school college counselors start counseling their students. College admissions consultants guide their students through an overly complex college application system and help them devise and then write the most compelling applications. Many also do standardized test prep to help students boost their test scores. These services do bolster students’ college admissions chances. While we offer most of these services too (except for test prep) we go beyond them with our Spike Incubation coaching program because, in our view, it’s much more effective for students to start early and do the hard work to truly develop themselves into purposeful innovators who seem destined to have meaningful impact in the world.
Admissions consulting is a highly commoditized service that’s ripe for technological disruption. In fact it’s already starting to be disrupted (see Khan Academy’s efforts here and here for a taste of the future). The perceived value of admissions consultants has increased in line with the rapidly rising competitiveness of selective college admissions, but the actual value is diminishing rapidly. In today’s information age, online courses and AI-automation will decimate the industry. The guidance that families pay on average $200/hour for will soon be partially or fully automated, and this will cause the costs to drop precipitously or potentially become free through government subsidies or charitable initiatives like Khan Academy’s programs linked to at the top of this paragraph. From the early days of The Spike Lab, we’ve been trying to package up and make all our college admissions knowledge (see our blog here) and tools (see our downloads page here) available to the public for free. We still have a lot more work to do on this front, but we are committed to continuing to expand on and improve on these published resources so they’re accessible to all, especially under-resourced in-school college counselors who are now working, on average, at a 450-1 student-counselor ratio.
In summary, our mission is to:
- Develop Purposeful Innovators For Life => Prioritize Purpose, Be a “T”, Focus on Innovation Abilities
- Democratize Elite College Admissions Consulting => Make the information and tools accessible more broadly.
Please join us in reforming education so our kids can reach their full potential. Things you can do include:
- Educate others. If you liked this post, please share it on social media and especially with educators, high schoolers and parents.
- Like our Facebook page.
- Invite us to speak. We love PTAs or other parent-focused groups.
- Invite us to do workshops at your school.
- Find your own way to advance the cause!