Wes Kao has a refreshing perspective on education and knows how to build systems that provide incredible learning experiences. Take a listen to see what Wes Kao thinks about the current methods that we use to educate as well how to build transformation...
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Srini: West, welcome to the unmistakable creative. Thanks so much for taking the time to join us.
Wes Kao: Hey Srini. Thanks. Really excited to be here.
Srini: Yeah, it is my pleasure to have you here. So I was introduced to you by way of one of our former guests, Michelle Flores. Who told me that you had worked with Seth Goden on the alter MBA.
Srini: And then I had a chance to do some more digging. And then, when we spoke, I found out we both had Berkeley in common, which is, super cool. Wanted to start by saying, what did your parents do for work? And how did that end up shaping and influence, influencing the choices that you've made throughout your life and your career?
Wes Kao: My parents were both retired pretty early. So as a kid growing up, I didn't really see them going to work in the normal way that other kids saw their parents going to work. I was very lucky in that they were able to be full-time parents for my sister or my brother and I before they retired, my dad was a land developer in real estate and also had a grocery store, one of the first Asian grocery stores in Fremont, California.
Wes Kao: And he was also an insurance salesman, so couple different things. And then my mom was a student at UC Davis studying computer science, and then she got pregnant with my brother. So she dropped out of college and she had a couple odd jobs. She worked as a housekeeper for wealthy families in the Oakland Hills.
Wes Kao: She was a bank teller for awhile. So lots of different things. But I think the path that I ended up taking in the values that they instilled in me were obviously hard work. I think that's a pretty that's a pretty basic one all say for people who grew up with parents that were immigrants.
Wes Kao: But yeah, I think the thing that I really appreciated about my. Upbringing and my parents is that they were not tiger parents. I think a lot of people assumed that they were and I'm flattered because that must mean they think I'm, I have my act together and they assume that I had tiger parents, but my parents were never pressuring or strict about, needing to do this activity or this sport, or, piano lessons or this or that.
Wes Kao: I tried a lot of things, my siblings and I tried a lot of things growing up and we quit a lot of things. So at a certain point, I was doing ballet, tap, jazz, gymnastics, horseback, riding oil, painting, violin, piano, writing lessons, math, tutoring, lessons, et cetera. And I was so grateful to have all these chances to try these different things.
Wes Kao: And some of them, I tried for one lesson and realized it wasn't for me like horseback riding. I think horses are terrifying, huge creatures in person. I feel like ponies and, calendar. I had, a calendar of horses and these little horse figurines that I played with as good.
Wes Kao: And then I went to ride my first horse. And now you just realize that they're humongous. There's just huge. And same with violin. I took, I think two lessons and realize that this was not for me. And so having the chance to experiment a lot and quit a lot, actually helped me realize that it's completely okay to quit things that you are not that excited about, or, not that committed to, or don't feel like it plays on your natural strengths.
Wes Kao: And of course there is absolutely value in sticking through something and having persisted. But I feel like a lot of times we force ourselves to continue things and this idea of suffering, for the greater good that like suffering equals progress. And it's taken me a long time to apply that to my career and to realize that suffering does not necessarily equal goodness.
Wes Kao: And in recent years, I've gone back to, okay, back then I quit. A lot of things, tried a lot of things and it was great. In recent years I've realized that I want to lean into my strengths. I want to do things that were where the process and the journey of doing it brings me joy, not some, end outcome of no being the best at, this being playing Carnegie hall 20 years later or whatever that end goal might be.
Wes Kao: So yeah, I, I'm a big proponent of leaning into your strengths, choosing things you actually like doing, and don't consider a slow. And I love seeing friends who love practicing their instruments. They love practicing the cello or the violin, or they look forward to dance glasses, or they look forward to horseback riding lessons, or they look forward to art classes.
Wes Kao: That is amazing. Like you should look forward to the thing that you do, whether it's a hobby or whether it's work. Yeah, I think actually one of my greatest strengths, which now that you asked this question makes me reflect onto the origins of it. I think one of my greatest strengths is picking battles that I can win and picking games that I feel like I have a shot at and would like playing and not necessarily just persisting through something just because it feels
Srini: yeah, I appreciate that so much because one of the things that I see in the online world, and this is something that I have set as the ultimate form of bullshit, where, you'll see some prominent person say, oh, everybody should do this. Everybody should start a podcast. And it's no, there's nothing everybody should do.
Srini: It's when parents said, when we were kids, it's like, all your friends were jumping off a bridge, would you? And I feel like so often people get caught up in that and they ignore their actual strengths. And as a result, they become average at dozens of things instead of extraordinary at one.
Wes Kao: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of it's weird because we celebrate persistence and grit and, working through hard things and. I believe that I absolutely think that those things are important. I think we apply it to broadly though. Like we apply even for things where we should probably quit that thing.
Wes Kao: If you're not that good at something and you don't really like doing it, why are you doing it? There's probably other things that you are naturally better at. And when I was starting Maven last year, one of the things that I thought about was if there is someone else on the street, like a random person on the street, they worked super hard and applied a lot of effort.
Wes Kao: If that person could start this company and do what I'm about to do, then I shouldn't do this because working hard as a, I consider it table stakes. Like everyone's going to work really hard. So that's not really a differentiator in my mind. There should be some other advantages.
Wes Kao: That I have some other edge, right? Some insight about this group of people that I want to serve or this, or a track record of doing, solving this particular problem or a special zest in wanting to figure out, this problem or whatever. There should be some edge that I bring that allows me to do this better than a random person on the street.
Wes Kao: Yeah.
Srini: It's funny. Cause I, the only reason I started a podcast was this is my first business partner. Since of art told me, he said, you're an average writer, but you're a really good interviewer. He said, so I think you should take this little mini project you have on your blog and spin it out as a separate site.
Srini: And to this day I still think he's right. I'm a far better interviewer than I am a writer and the numbers speak for themselves. Let's talk about this whole idea of your parents not being tired parents, cause that's so unusual for somebody of Asian descent. I'm an Indian immigrant who went to Berkeley as well.
Srini: And a, like I had the standard Indian kid narrative of, you want a good life, become a doctor, lawyer engineer, and it doesn't sound like you had that experience. So based on the way that you're raised, as somebody who has played a big role in kind of, reshaping the way we educate, what would you say to parents who are listening to this about the, the educational experiences of their children, especially the ones who are like, oh, this kid is going to turn out to be a total screw up, or they're not going to go to some crazy Ivy league or elite school.
Srini: Like what would you have to say to them based on your personal experience?
Wes Kao: Yeah, I would have them look at me now, which is. Moderately decent decently successful, I would say. And reveal that when I was a kid, I had a lot of trouble in school. So if their kid is having trouble in school, they can still grow up to be decently, have their act together.
Wes Kao: So I think that's very encouraging. I think even when I look back at my younger self, I motivated and encouraged because I remember being in school and having a hard time learning how to read. I remember in kindergarten or first grade when teachers would have flashcards and it would have, it would be like a picture of something like an apple, and then it would say the word apple underneath.
Wes Kao: And they were trying to teach everyone to sound out the word, ah, per apple. And. Wasn't really understanding. And I remember my teacher pulling me aside to do extra exercises with me. One-on-one in the back of the room when everyone else is doing other things. And, she had this splash guard and there was a picture of a hamburger.
Wes Kao: And she was like, okay, read this word. There's a word underneath. And I blurted out hamburger and I was so excited. Cause I thought I had gotten it right. And she was like no, read the word sounded out. She started getting frustrated and the word was button. So she said she wanted me to sound out button.
Wes Kao: And that's just one example that I can think of. There's so many where trying to learn how to read a clock, trying to count coins and like an add up coins and dollar bills, trying to understand shapes. That's just, very early on in elementary school, but.
Wes Kao: Later on math, especially algebra geometry, et cetera, right? Like trigonometry, I really needed extra support. I needed extra tutoring to get these concepts that a lot of students were able to understand more intuitively just from class time loan. So that's just, understanding what the teacher was putting down.
Wes Kao: And then on the other hand there's a whole other bucket, which is standardized testing. I was terrible at standardized tests. So it wasn't like, oh, she was bad at the classroom stuff, good at testing. No, I was pretty bad at both. So with testing I always felt like I, I did decently well, I was like, okay, I think I got this and the test results had come from.
Wes Kao: For like star testing in California and whatnot, SATs sat, twos, terrible, like terribly traumatic experiences. And the scores would always be very mediocre. And I remember one time in school, this was an elementary school. The teacher called my parents in because my standardized testing scores were so bad and they're like what's going on here?
Wes Kao: Let's talk to us as parents. And, they gave an example of of reading comprehension paragraph. So you remember those, that kind of thing, right? Where it's you read this paragraph and there are five questions that show that you understood what was being said. So it was a story about a boy on a really hot day, the boys walking home, the boy sees a cool lake, and then it was like, what does the boy do next?
Wes Kao: That was one of the questions. I was like a, B, C, D E. And I think I chose D. Goes home. And the correct answer was something like B jumps into the cool lake. So they were like, okay let's see, like what's going on at home. Why is, what's not understanding this. And in my mind it made so much sense.
Wes Kao: Like the answer that I chose always made so much sense. And I always just wanted a chance to explain to the test taker. Here's my rationale. Here's why this is actually as legitimate of an answer as, whatever you think the answer is. And in my mind it was lakes are dirty. And my parents, when we were growing up, they were like, oh, let's swimming pools.
Wes Kao: I don't know if this is like a, again, like a first-generation immigrant thing, but they're like, oh, like lakes, like there's like rocks and and leaves floating on the surface and it looks murky and who knows what's underneath their pool, see much cleaner anyway. So in my mind he was like, okay, this lake is dirty.
Wes Kao: And at home you have. Soda in the fridge and air conditioning. So come on, we're about to jump into today's podcast, but first here's a message from Queensland health children, aged five and over and now eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. It's clinically tested and proven to be safe and effective for people five years and older, having a child vaccinated will protect them from becoming seriously ill from COVID-19.
Wes Kao: For more information, talk to your GP or pharmacist or search COVID-19 kids vaccines. Can you imagine getting paid to do what you actually love doing? Tell us what those things are, and we'll tell you how you can do them in the army. Go on, get paid for doing what you love. Search, do what you love.
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Srini: If you're listening to an older episode, thanks and stay tuned for the rest of the. I laughing and smiling because I feel like you and I are kindred spirits. I struggled to tell time my parents always had to get me a watches that basically, only had, digital readouts.
Srini: Like I could never tell what the hell the time was. That was one of those weird things, much like yourself. I sucked at math. Ironically that was failing reading in fourth grade and somehow I became an author. And of course Indian parents, like your kid doesn't mean my parents yeah. He doesn't have a learning disability, just shitty teachers.
Srini: And of course, 20 years later I get diagnosed with add. But I relate to the standardized tests because I probably took the SATs three times, which makes me wonder how in the hell did you get into Berkeley if you were so bad at standardized tests?
Wes Kao: Yeah. So ironically too, I haven't publicly said this before, but I also recently got diagnosed with ADHD.
Wes Kao: So that's, I love that you are a fellow ADHD, I don't know, however or whatever. So yeah, I've been actually reading up a lot on ADHD and and it's been, so I don't know what the right way to describe it is. It's been a relief, like reading about and being like, yeah, I see myself in that, like these case studies of patients who have ADHD it's oh yeah, I see myself there.
Wes Kao: I see myself there, not so much there, that trait expresses itself a little bit differently. Me and it's really amazing to, to understand more of how our own brains work just in general. I feel like that it's it's added a different layer to how I view myself, how I process and and.
Wes Kao: Think about laying out my day and whatnot, but anyway, we can get into that later. So yeah. So how did I get into Berkeley with terrible standardized test scores? Yes, I have wondered the same thing myself and not only that my friend, I also had to apply at the end of sophomore year at Berkeley to do my last two years as a Haas school of business, undergrad business major, as we've talked about this a little bit before
Srini: I did not manage to accomplish, failed.
Wes Kao: So no, like that's I'm just as shocked. And you had to have, you had to have good a good application that showed, your leadership skills, but also your grades for different pre-recs. Micro, econ memory gone intro to accounting, finance and yeah I, yes, was very grateful that I was able to make it in tos.
Wes Kao: I think mainly I compensated in other ways I think that's probably the best way to say it is. I knew that my grades were never going to be a differentiator for me and my test taking ability was also not a differentiator and that's putting it lightly. It's it's not only not a differentiator, it's a detractor.
Wes Kao: So I needed to be so much better in other ways to prove that I could be something and that, the school should take a bet on.
Srini: Yeah. So in a system that primarily rewards people based on, academic criteria like grades, you and I both know this from Berkeley. Berkeley is a shit show of an experience to go through.
Srini: My dad had a colleague once when I was in high school, who said to me, he said, if you survive undergrad at Berkeley, everything else in life will be a piece of cake and comparison and know I've had a number of friends. Who've told me the same thing. So my sister went to medical school. She said medical school was a joke in comparison to undergrad at Berkeley.
Srini: I had a friend who's a Harvard neurosurgeon. And he said, when he got to UCLA, which is the best med school in the county he said that people who come from Berkeley find it to be really easy. He said, people who came from Stanford actually struggled with that first year. And to me, I think the big sort of life skills that come from Berkeley or how to deal with immense amounts of bullshit.
Srini: But I think I, I told you the story of my friend who went to Haas, like he didn't get in. So he took all the classes for two years. And two weeks before graduation walked into the Dean's office and said, my parents are coming on Saturday. You're going to let me walk. And at that point, she had no choice, but to relent and somebody wants it's like, what is the thing that you learned?
Srini: I was like, I learned how to navigate bureaucracies and manipulate systems to my advantage. That is the greatest skill that came from being a Berkeley undergrad. And it's funny because my grades were definitely a detractor like yours. Like you've probably seen this, right? When you go into those investment banking interviews or, Google interview, they'll ask you one of those damn brain teasers.
Srini: And if your brain doesn't work like that, you're just like, wow, this is the favorite one right there. The, how many golf balls fit in a 7 47? And now I would say, you know what, unless Richard Branson and I are going to do a bunch of ecstasy together. Why the fuck would, I need to know that? I can't imagine any scenario in which that will be useful.
Srini: So in a system where
Wes Kao: being over here for you right now yes. I want someone to ask you that question. So you could give that response because it's so true. But
Srini: when you're in a system an elite college like Berkeley and you were trying to basically compensate for the things that, typically are awarded and typically lead to progress or to, acceptance, like how do you compensate for that?
Wes Kao: In high school I started a nonprofit organization and I think that was a really huge leadership experience for me because before then I had never planned anything bigger than a birthday party before. And so going straight into, soft freshman, sophomore year of high school deciding to embark on this huge project that was.
Wes Kao: That was a transformative moment, not moment. I'd rent for five, six years. So transformative experience overall. So I think that starting packs of love was huge. The organization's called packs of love. I donated backpacks and school supplies to underprivileged kids, to foster kids, family resource centers, domestic violence centers.
Wes Kao: And it, in the beginning the way I got the idea was I was cleaning my room and I had dumped out all my notebooks, pencils, pens, markers onto the floor. And I had a bunch of stuff from, hello, kitty, Lisa, Frank all my goodies and I was organizing them. And my dad walked into my room and took one look at, this explosion of stationary and.
Wes Kao: You are so lucky, you don't know how lucky you are. There are kids who don't have a fraction of this and bubble on. And usually during his lectures, I would smile and nod and wait for him to go away. And this time after he went away, I continued organizing. And I thought about what he said and realized that I did have more notebooks and brand new pens and pencils than I would ever have a chance to use.
Wes Kao: And what if I donated some of them to kids who might need them. And so I thought of this and was immediately very proud of myself for thinking of this. And it wasn't until I tried executing a couple of weeks later that I realized that turning this idea from an idea into a reality was much harder than I thought.
Wes Kao: And I realized this because I started going around to local stores in my neighbor. To ask for donations. So I would go to long's drugs, Walmart target Walgreens, and I would ask to speak to the store manager. And I would bring this folder with me with a write-up of my proposal of what I wanted to create.
Wes Kao: And I would wear my only button-down shirt and some black Capri pants to look a little bit more professional. And I would go around and ask to speak with these store managers. And pretty much every single manager laughed in my face and said, you are a kid trying to get some free stuff. I see you.
Wes Kao: This is a joke goodbye. And it was very demoralizing. And at the same time, I was okay, yeah, I can see how me showing up in your store asking for free stuff. Could, could be interpreted that way. Like I didn't have any credible. I was a single random person. I wasn't part of an organization or, a school club or affiliated with anything.
Wes Kao: I really was just a random kid asking for, pencils, notebooks, and backpacks. And so I understand, I understood their skepticism. I ended up trying a bunch of different things. I wrote a bunch of letters to to different corporate offices, back then I really did not have a single clue what I was doing.
Wes Kao: So I would address a letter to one Microsoft way do who it may concern. And the Microsoft campus is like a mini city with multiple departments, multiple like thousands of people. I wrote it to like the lobby or something like who knows where that letter goes probably directly into the trashcan anyway, sent out hundreds of letters.
Wes Kao: I also wrote to backpack companies, backpack brands like Jansport eastbound. To try to get donations to Pentel and a bunch of other stationery companies staples and anyway none of it works so kept getting rejected. It was all great. Cause I learned, okay, this is hard. And I should keep trying.
Wes Kao: And okay. Like I now know what doesn't work. Anyway, that first year that I was there was doing packs of love. I ended up needing to use my own money to buy backpacks and school supplies, to donate to a shelter that I had already promised I was going to get them 50 backpacks. And I felt so bad about it.
Wes Kao: I was like, okay, I'm just going to, I'm just going to buy this. And and keep trying. The one thing that I did do that was pretty clever was after I donated those initial 50 bags. I called the local newspaper and I told them, Hey, here's what I'm doing here. Here's the donation that I just made. I'm trying to build this charity.
Wes Kao: And if you think this is something that could be interesting to share with the community, let me know. And a reporter replied and was like, yeah, like this is super cool. Your 15, 16 year old trying to do this, like this is random and neat. So yeah, I'll cover it.
Wes Kao: And I ended up getting on the front page of the local newspaper and this was a huge win and probably the first wind out of, months of effort. So I bought 50 copies of a newspaper and I then went around to all of the same stores who rejected me and mailed this newsletter newspaper, clipping to all the companies that replied saying, sorry, we're not able to donate.
Wes Kao: And the same places that rejected me, all of a sudden we're in. Now I had a little bit of credibility and I also dangled the possibility of, Hey, if you donate all mentioned it to the reporter the next time that I'm interviewed that, the store manager at Walgreens in this local store was able to donate and and that'll make you look good, it'll make you seem like part of the community giving back.
Wes Kao: And I basically did this cycle and worked up the ladder over the next five, six years until I was getting backpacks boxes of backpacks shipped to my house and talking to district managers who managed dozens of stores statewide to offer donations and was negotiating these deals every summer in preparation for the fall donations.
Wes Kao: And in God, other students at my high school involves and expanded into donating more and more backpacks every year. And this ended up being one of the most formative periods of my life. And it showed me that I could make change happen. It showed me that I could take an idea from being an idea and turning it into something that was real, something that that other people understood and change something in the physical world.
Wes Kao: But not just in my own head with an idea but something actually in the physical world that I could build something. And it also taught me the importance of marketing. I didn't really know what marketing was until this. Until I realized that the way that I tell my story, the way that I position this charity, the way that I describe the impact, the way that I align incentives with the people that I am trying to get donations from the way that I celebrate the behavior that I want to see.
Wes Kao: All of this I realized was marketing. And that was really what planted this initial seed of wow marketing is so incredibly powerful. It is literally the difference between people closing doors in your face and saying that you are a joke to people signing thousand dollar checks and mailing you thousands of dollars worth of product, because they believe in you.
Wes Kao: And because they believe in what you're able to do, they believe in your vision.
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Srini: Wow. Okay, amazing. So let's shift gears a little bit. How do you go from Berkeley to working with Seth and talk to me about the experience of working with Seth? Cause I've had probably half a dozen people who have all basically said it's completely insane. It pushes you to your limits. And what he proposes often sounds impossible.
Wes Kao: Yeah, that's very accurate. Now I know that you actually talk to people who work with that because before I was okay some people will meet Seth, they'll come by our office in Hastings on Hudson and sit with him for for an hour and talk to him and be like, oh, I worked with Seth on this and this.
Wes Kao: But people who really worked with that would say something different, which is yes it's fricking intense and completely bonkers and extreme in many ways. And so yes, like the way that you describe it, just there Pretty much what it was like for three years.
Srini: Yeah. I think it was really Jackson or even Seth may have told me that for the domino project, like on, I think he told them he was going to fire everybody if they didn't do something
Wes Kao: that sounds about right.
Wes Kao: That's hilarious. I think
Srini: the thing that I find so insightful and I think also is so challenging with his material for a lot of people is he doesn't give people a map. He gives them a compass and he basically forces you to figure things out on your own is one of the things that I've observed in the way that he teaches and, the negative reviews of any Seth Godin book, the one common complaint, I feel like you see, as he doesn't actually explain how to do this. And I realized that is by design, based on the conversations I've had with him. So I think that makes a perfect segue into talking specifically about designing transformational learning experiences, because you and I are as I would like to joke failed byproducts of a traditional education system, like we've been able to accomplish what we have, not because of Berkeley, but in spite of it.
Srini: So when you look at you, education is traditional format. Also, how people learn online what is it that leads to the kind of transformation that presumes produces? The outcomes that people who come out of creative MBA or alt MBA get, I know this is my cousin. Rama was thinking about an MBA and I told her not to do it.
Srini: I said, it's a business. School is a complete waste of time and money. It doesn't teach your shit about how to run a business. And so I referred her to all to MBA and she got like a massive promotion afterwards where she's now like one step down from the CEO of her company. And then she ended up starting to.
Srini: And so one of the things I am very curious about is typically what I've seen when I look at the way that. Consume content, particularly on the internet or take online courses. Something like 80% of people never even fucking log in. They spend like a thousand dollars on something and they never opened the damn course.
Srini: I've seen this, with my own students I've seen it in myself. Something changed at some point where I just learned how to do this. But the thing is that I think that there's also. Responsibility on the part of the person. You create something to create a design experience that actually facilitates real learning because you I think now about college in particular, and I think back to things like econ 1 0 1, which was the course that you and I took, right?
Srini: And this is one of those sorts of realizations I came to as I was reading the wealth of nations, which I would have never been able to do in college. And that is you go into, an econ class at a place like Berkeley. And what do you do? Highlight and underline the shit out of a textbook.
Srini: If you go and pick up a use textbook, you'll see that somebody is like piloted the entire book as if that's going to be of any use. And then you do problem sets and you think you understand something and then you get to the midterm and they present this idea in a context that you've never seen before.
Srini: And that's when you realize you didn't actually learn it. So anyways, given the role that you have played in all to MBA what is it that needs to change about the way that we design these learning experience? What are the foundational elements that lead people to have transformative experiences, which I realize it's a question we could spend three hours talking about.
Wes Kao: Yeah. I think the biggest thing is a mindset shift. So right now, and pretty much throughout history, if a student doesn't learn something, we blame the student. We say, you weren't paying attention. You weren't focused. You are, are slower than everyone else. You need to try harder. So it's the onus is on the student to understand.
Wes Kao: And in the meantime, most professors, I would say are in a position where they are one of the lines. Bastion of content creators. If you want to, use content creation kind of broadly, professors are one of the few concentrators where their audience is chained to their desk and they can't leave.
Wes Kao: So no matter how good or bad you are of a professor, your students have to stay and listen, they have to attend your lectures. They have to attend the discussion sections. And the whole education system is very stick driven. If you think about carrots and sticks, like sticks, being punishments and carrots being rewards, it's usually sick driven.
Wes Kao: It's saying, you won't be able to pass this course. So you won't get the credits. You'll have a dark smudge on your report card or on your GPA, or you won't be able to graduate with this major. And that'll look, that'll be looked down upon if you ever applied to grad school or, future employers won't like that.
Wes Kao: So it's very stick driven. And it's not carrot driven enough carrots, meaning how do we encourage students to want to pay attention? How do we make the material more engaging, more relevant, more timely so that students can see how this fits into their daily life or how it shapes them to become a more critical thinker on a more macro level.
Wes Kao: So I think this mindset shift, this philosophical shift of instructors embracing that they are responsible for their students' transformation and embracing that in today's day and age, you have to be 50% instructor, 50% entertainer. Yeah, you have to, you can't just spew facts because first of all, if you were just viewing facts and someone goes to watch a video of you doing that and probably a more engaging.
Wes Kao: A video of mortgaging professor doing that. And so if you're teaching live thinking about, how do I embrace that? I am both sharing knowledge and content and information, but also thinking of myself as someone who wants to keep their audience entertained. I think that's increasingly important, especially if you are not a professor, like just, I was using higher ed as an example, but especially if you are teaching a core based course or a self-paced you to meet course, and you don't have those sticks your students are taking your course because they want to improve themselves out of their own free will.
Wes Kao: They're not doing it because they get punished. If they drop out of your crypto course, if they drop out of your, leadership and management course, right? So it's even more important for the majority of us who are. In the traditional education system, core teaching outside of it to embrace this idea of 50% instructor, 50% entertainer.
Srini: It's funny you say that because that literally is part of the reason that I'd ask all these completely irrelevant questions to start a podcast, because this is something that I realized a lot of online marketers overlooked. I was like a podcast is a storytelling mechanism. First, like audio is an entertainment medium first and an information medium.
Srini: Second, like nobody wants to hear 10 tips on how to grow your Facebook following on a podcast. That'd be fucking mind numbing.
Wes Kao: Yeah, exactly.
Srini: Yeah. Those are my three pillars is entertainment, education and inspiration. Like those are people as is there a criteria for how you choose is if we can accomplish those three goals, that's a perfect guest.
Srini: And they're not mutually exclusive. Sometimes it's just entertaining, and not necessarily educational, but but I think if you can get that trifecta down to me, that's like how you create really emotionally resonant content. So one thing that always struck me about the concept of old MBA was that there are no homework assignments.
Srini: There's no lessons, there are no lectures, which, is so different than anything out there. And I remember one of our copywriters said, what, if we're going to teach this writing course, let's do it differently. He said, instead of having you come and, have people watch you present slides to them, make them watch all the lecture material before they come there and just use, the hour that you have with them for discussion that ended up being invaluable.
Srini: And it was a hell of a lot more fun.
Wes Kao: Yeah, I think when you have live experiences, you really want to spend it doing stuff that you can only do live. So with first-time course creators, I always recommend that they aim for having 75% of their workshop be interactive. So discussions, debates, critique, each other's work, giving each other feedback, doing demo days, pitching something.
Wes Kao: Then then you know, people reviewing each other's pitches breakouts, and then that 25% is lecture or anything that, you really can't think of a way for people to learn this in a more active way. Then you put that as lecture. Whereas, the majority, the default that most instructors do is think, okay, it should be 75%.
Wes Kao: That, I have a lot of material I want to get through. I want to tell you all these things. So it ends up being very lecture heavy, and I've never heard a student after a course say, gosh, I wish there had been more lectures. People usually say, I wish I had more time to meet other students.
Wes Kao: Are I wish we could have done this breakout for longer because was giving me really insightful advice that I just hadn't thought of before. Or so, our group was getting into this really heated debate and I w and it was changing the way I was thinking about a couple of things and that, that kind of pushing that you get from working with peers, from working on a project hands-on and really needing to get into the nitty gritty of it, not stay at a high level theoretical level but really get into it.
Wes Kao: As a group, when you're working on a project together, Is so much more impactful and teaches you so much more about how to think and helps you reflect on even what you think then having a lecturer talk at you for the majority of the time. No.
Srini: I know that you've played a role, not only in all-time VA, but also with Tiago forte as building a second brain, which yeah, that, that has been one of those concepts that's been life-changing for me.
Srini: And, a lot of people who truly understand it. So it's funny because you're making me think about the course that I created recently. I have a course on mem the note taking app and people are in it, but what's funny is the best parts of that course are when I interact with memes, slack channel and the people who are there, some of who are new students, some of them are employees of mem it's not necessarily lecture and it's making me rethink the design of the course, just talking to you.
Srini: But yeah. So starting with this idea of, 75% live in, twenty-five percent lecture, let's just say we're starting from the ground up with something or even using Tiago as an example, what is it that, he does differently that you've seen than anybody else that makes the course so much more valuable than say other learning experiences?
Srini: Because, I was thinking about this last night, I was writing about this idea of taking smart notes and Eric Wall, who we had here years ago is our graffiti artists. He told me something that I have never forgotten. He slide music has keynote engaged participants, keynote speaking has passive consumers there's room to be explored and how you bridge the gap.
Srini: And that had a huge impact on everything I did from the way that I planned events to now thinking about it, even in the context of how you take notes and how you create an online course, I realizing that really is a huge differentiator.
Wes Kao: Yeah. If you look at evergreen self-based horses on demand courses, they're basically a series of videos and that is a passive content consumption activity. That's pure passive content consumption. Whereas you look at a core based course or anything with a live component it's much more interactive.
Wes Kao: That's why your students are picking a cohort-based experience over a static. Async experience is because they want that community. They want that interaction. They want to talk about ideas and have other real humans listening and reflecting back, and they want to hear other real humans ideas on this topic.
Wes Kao: And yeah, I think that the passive versus active piece is a really key difference between MOOCs versus corporate courses. And it's one of the main reasons why corporate courses are growing in popularity because MOOCs it's, people tried it and the completion rates are super low, anywhere between seven to 10%.
Wes Kao: And a recent MIT study said even lower at three to 6%. So I think a lot of us have had that experience where we try doing something on our own. Like it's, if it could work, it would be pretty great. If I could get myself to watch a bunch of these videos to learn a thing and motivate myself and keep myself accountable, I totally would.
Wes Kao: But it's the fact that that's hard and I can't do that. I've attempted it. And I couldn't. Instead of committing to a course where there is a start and end date like that even that immediately creates a sense of urgency and creates a sense of focus of all right. This course is two weeks.
Wes Kao: Once this two weeks is over, can turn back time, can't get my money back. Like I should focus during these two weeks. Even that alone helps me prioritize, learning the thing, long enough for me to actually stick around and learn it. I think that accountability piece is something that I think all of us need when we're learning something new.
Wes Kao: And when things get hard, it's just so easy to to give up if no one's watching. But if you are if you've already committed to doing your course and you know that your fellow students are going to be disappointed, if you just dropped out, that's often enough to keep you.
Srini: Yeah. I love the idea.
Srini: You're making me think I could condense a six week course into two weeks and still deliver the same value.
Wes Kao: Yeah. I think with core based courses, the exciting thing is that there are so many different ways that you can lay out a course. And the experimentation is part of the the it's a feature of court based courses. So with with a mood, for example you put a lot of effort into recording everything, scripting, everything, polishing it, editing it, and then once it's done, it's there and it's hard to go back and change certain things.
Wes Kao: But when you are live, the live modality lends itself to experimentation. It lends itself to going with what your particular group of students in this particular cohort is. And it might be that you went in with you go in with a hypothesis that, this part I can go over quickly because people get it or they're not gonna be that interested.
Wes Kao: And then when you're actually, when you're actually sharing, it turns out that your students are very interested in this topic and they want to spend the rest of the workshop on the topic. So you have that option when you're doing something live to cater that material to your audience. And I think also with what you said with with doing a six week course in two weeks, potentially.
Wes Kao: Yeah, absolutely. I think the way that Maven teaches course building is very modular. So I see different modular components and parts of a course. And then once you have these components, if your course is six weeks, if you wanted to create a condensed version of that, you don't have to start from scratch.
Wes Kao: It's not like you burn everything from your six week course, and then start from scratch with. You can reuse a lot of stuff from your six week course, and you put it in a different container where the constraint is now a shorter length of time, let's say two weeks. And then you think about, all right, how do I rearrange these different components to make it something that is shorter?
Wes Kao: And, or you can even, you can go the other way. You can make it longer. Let's say you wanted to do an extended version a 12 week a 12 week course. You can also rearrange these different components to stretch certain things out, condense other things. So I love approaching approaching courses and, projects and products in general with this modular mindset where you have that flexibility to change up certain constraints, but still reuse a lot of the great stuff that you already created for your
Srini: It's funny. One thing that I wonder is what is it going to take to make this a more predominant narrative in traditional education? Because I remember talking to slim his mail here we're talking about singularity university and this is probably the thing that struck me most in our conversation.
Srini: He said, we can't get accredited. You know why he said, because we update our curriculum in real time. I was like, so let me get this straight. You're actually teaching people to adapt to current times. And for that reason you can't get accredited. And he said, yeah, accreditation is a giant mess that prevents, like this kind of stuff from actually becoming more predominant in traditional education.
Wes Kao: Yeah. Accreditation is a whole other beast that I don't know very much about because our core base courses, mavens. And the ones that I've worked on before that. So ultra MBA Tiago is chorus build a second brain, right of passage. All of these courses were non-accredited and were geared towards adult learners who are upskilling, retooling, improving themselves on their own volition.
Wes Kao: So the whole accreditation piece with, getting college credits to go towards a degree or, to go towards something more formal is not something that I have a ton of experience in. And I also don't really know if I am a huge proponent of that idea. When I started the author MBA, we talked about accreditation and we talked about credentialing and there are pros and cons of credentialing.
Wes Kao: There's some instructors and courses who where it makes sense to go that path to give us certificate or Document of completion of some sort. So that totally makes sense. But with the ultimate BA we didn't want to do that. And it actually felt antithesis to the whole point of the MBA.
Wes Kao: It's the ultimate, his philosophy was if you are doing a course, you should measure the results of that experience based on how you change afterwards and how your behavior is now different, how your mindset is now different and the results that you get, because you are now an improved person. It's if you take a sales course, are you, is the certificate that you took this sales course, the important part, or the fact that you can now close sales and half the time.
Wes Kao: You're way more confident going into pitches it's, I think it's really the latter. So I see both sides of that piece. And I think more and more professionals are seeing that they don't need to go in the traditional education system and get accredited, et cetera, et cetera, to or get a certificate, to see the result and value that they want to see from taking a course.
Wes Kao: They can measure the worth of that course differently.
Srini: It's funny you say that cause that Alison has this course on Rome and I went in and I took the whole course and I was like, all right, I'm still terrible at using the room. But because of that course, I was able to create my note taking course.
Srini: I used all the concepts and just applied them to another tool.
Wes Kao: Wow. Yeah.
Srini: Let's talk about one final thing which should bring us full circle. And we started out talking about moving towards the things that you were naturally good at. And I think a lot of people ignore that advice constantly because you have this sort of, thing where social influence plays a big role.
Srini: Like personally, I think the biggest bunch of bullshit to ever come out of any online marketers mouth is everybody should start a podcast. And I'm like, no, if you're an introverted visual artist who doesn't like talking to people on, you're amazing at doing that, don't start a podcast. If you suck in front of the camera, don't start a YouTube channel.
Srini: And yet the problem is that if somebody who's highly influential says this, people treat their word as gospel, instead of guidance without thinking about this or questioning it in the context of their own lives, how do they actually develop the capacity to consider context? And when it comes to prescriptive.
Wes Kao: Oh, man, this is a really great question. I often think about this when I tweet something. And then the comments are, people who are pointing out an edge case or, a different situation. And th they're reasonably applying what I'm saying to literally. And usually I agree with those comments, it's yes, I had 280 characters but otherwise I agree with what you're saying too.
Wes Kao: There are multiple ways of looking at something. I think developing that sense of judgment is very important. I've thought a lot about how to help people develop this, the sense of judgment and intuition around. How do I tell if a piece of advice works for me? Because if you think about it, we get conflicting advice all the time.
Wes Kao: We simultaneously here, patience is a virtue and good things come to those. And then we also hear that, you have to go out and get the things you want, or, if you wait too long, life just passes you by. And it's okay both things are true, but applying it and having the wisdom and judgment to apply the right piece of advice to your own situation is a skill ended up itself.
Wes Kao: So I think that this is, yeah, this is a pretty, pretty big issue and going to, going to the that's the macro point, but going to your immediate question of certain people shouldn't start podcasts or certain people shouldn't do certain things. Everything takes longer than you think this is one of my mantras and I am on a, at least on a weekly basis, reminded that everything takes longer than you think.
Wes Kao: So the reason you want to do stuff that you are good at and actually like doing is because everything takes longer than you think. If you thought this was going to be an easy peek at piece of cake over. Success then. Yeah. If this were hard and you didn't really like it, but you were going to see the light at the end of the tunnel right away then it might make sense to do, but because everything takes longer than you think, even for something that you are good at, in doing there are going to be rough parts where you don't really feel like continuing and where you questioned, whether any of this was a good idea at all.
Wes Kao: So leaning into your strengths and doing stuff that comes more naturally to you where you have an edge makes it all a lot more joyous of a process, which means that you are more likely to stick with it long enough to actually see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Srini: I appreciate that more than you can possibly imagine, because I just, when I see people follow a prescriptive advice, They don't consider context, and part of the problem is that our, almost all our sort of role models are outliers.
Srini: Cause they're the people who write books. They're the people who appear on shows like this, they're the ones who are in the covers of magazines. We had Justine must care. And probably one of the things that struck me most that she said about Ilan is just that I don't want to get all deterministic, but I don't think this is something you can learn to be like this, to think like this that's something that is innate, and yet you see all these articles on, sites like media, it's oh, 10 ways to be like Elon Musk. And it's yeah, but you're not a fucking genius. So maybe that's not going to work for you.
Wes Kao: Yeah. You can do those 10 things and any list of things and not still be hit. I think that's something that struck me a lot when when I was working with Seth, because a lot of people were.
Wes Kao: Admire Seth and want to imitate him. And they would try to write in a style. Short, daily blog posts, right? If you look at what's, what does that do? Okay. On the surface, he does short daily blog posts. And so a bunch of people would start doing short daily blog posts and it wouldn't really work.
Wes Kao: Like it, it just, it didn't land the same way. And the reason is because the short daily blog blows, it's but beyond that, it's, that's the tactical expression of a deeper underlying skillset, principle, personality, et cetera. That's is uniquely set that if you just copy the tactic, you don't, you're not replicating the other stuff.
Wes Kao: The other stuff is the important stuff. And that's the underlying stuff, which is set is incredibly insightful. He sees things differently. And is able to capture and articulate those insights in a way that feels mind-blowingly breakthrough, but also weirdly obvious at the same time, like you read it and you're like, oh God of course, why didn't I think about that's like the best way to say this thing that I've been feeling all along, he's able to distill complex ideas into really simple impactful concepts. And he's an amazing writer. I think that's the other thing is you know this cause you're like, okay, he's an author by trade. Is there an 18 bestselling books? So you on the surface, you intellectually understand that he's a great writer, but I think when you read his posts, He's so good that you don't think of him as a writer.
Wes Kao: You think of him as an insightful person. It's like a great salesperson. You don't think oh, that person's a great salesperson. You're just sold. You just love them. You just want to buy from them. You just want to move forward. You don't think oh, they're so good at sales, so when you read that stuff or any really good writer stuff, you don't think, oh, they're a great writer.
Wes Kao: You just think they're a smart person or they're an insightful person, or they're, they're a thought leader or whatever. So I think when people mimic and replicate surface level tactics, without understanding the the underlying constraints and assets that the original person is working with then you, that, that's where you get in trouble.
Wes Kao: I think what you need to do is assess your own assets and constraints. What do you bring to the table? What are you good at? How do you think, see things different. What are the things that that are constraints that you want to work around? Cause Seth has constraints also. He's not good at everything.
Wes Kao: You just don't really know them or see them because he has designed his work around that. And so similarly, we all need to look at ourselves, stop looking so externally trying to copy other people's service level tactics, and instead look at ourselves and take stock of your own assets and constraints.
Srini: It's funny because this is literally the ethos of everything that I've built unmistakable around. My book was called unmistakable. I only is better than best and I've always joked when he said we could have also titled that book. Everybody is full of shit. We wouldn't publish it, but that's effectively what I said.
Srini: I was like, I just said it in a really polite way because you point out mimicry and I, that was, what I saw over and over again. I, to this day, I still see it, like I, I had a friend send me about 13 potential podcast guests. And I remember, and I probably share this in trouble for, I put up all of their websites, in one browser, all tabs.
Srini: And I looked at all 13 of them and I emailed her back and I said, I don't want any of these people because I don't know what the hell any of them do. And it sounds like they all do the same thing. And I saw this in, particularly with certain groups, Marie Forleo's, B-School being one of them where people basically, try to copy her style, her business.
Srini: And then they wonder why they're not getting the same results. And it's go, take a deeper dive and to, to your point, like they ignore context.
Wes Kao: Yeah, great example.
Srini: I feel like I could talk to you all day about this because I'm clearly you and I are on the same page about a lot of this. This seems like a really deep rabbit hole. So I want to finish my final question, which is how we finish all of our interviews at the unmistakable creative.
Srini: What do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable?
Wes Kao: Ooh, what makes someone unmistakable? I think their ability to turn bugs into features I think all of us are dealt a certain hand and have certain personality traits. A lot of times that we wish were different. I, for example, spent many years wishing I were less introverted and lament.
Wes Kao: About how that wasn't beneficial in the workplace. Wasn't seen as a positive thing necessarily as leader. And it was really only when I embraced the idea of turning bugs into features that I thought about how a lot of the reasons I've been successful is because of my more reflective nature.
Wes Kao: My self-awareness my my instinct to think about something and want to process it instead of just, blurting something out. And this applies to products too. I think a lot of times we have a product and we think, oh, I wish this were different. Or I wish this were better.
Wes Kao: Or, it didn't have this, or, this product is too complicated or this product is too simple. But if you turn a bug into a feature, there are people who are looking for a solution that is very. There are people also looking for a solution that is more complex, more robust, more customizable.
Wes Kao: I see this as something that, that I apply to myself as a person, but also to any product that I'm, responsible for selling for marketing. And this idea of turning a bug into a feature, I think is something that can really take every leader to the next level.
Srini: Amazing. I can't thank you enough for taking the time to join us and share your insights and wisdom with our listeners.
Srini: Where can people find out more about you, your work and everything that you're up to?
Wes Kao: I have a firstname.lastname@example.org and a newsletter that I send out every once in a while. I am on Twitter at west underscore Kao, and then Maven email@example.com.
Srini: Amazing. And for everybody listening, we will wrap the show with.