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Sal Khan

351: If You Want To Change the World, Educate the World

This week’s conversation is with Sal Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization on a mission to provide free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.

Since its inception in 2008, Khan Academy has helped teach hundreds of millions of students around the world through their adaptive online learning platform.

Sal has three degrees from MIT, an MBA from Harvard Business School, and most recently founded the Khan Lab School, a nonprofit brick-and-mortar private school in Mountain View, CA working to bring Sal’s vision of a mastery-based, blended learning system to life.

Sal has an extraordinary mind and his purpose is clear. In this conversation, we explore his unique approach to life, learning, entrepreneurship, and changing the world through the transformative power of education.

“We have one life to live. If you have a shot of being able to live your life as a protagonist in a movie, or as a protagonist in a science fiction book, go for it.”

In This Episode:

Delusional optimism

It all started in 2004, I was tutoring cousins. 2005, 2006 I started making software for them so that they had a chance to practice. 2006 is when I made the first videos. 2009 was frankly where all of the stuff that I had created, including the videos, were now reaching 50 to 100,000 folks. And it felt like there there. And my wife and I looked at our finances. She was still in training to become a rheumatologist, but we’re like, “Okay, maybe we could live on savings for a year?” And that’s when I quit my day job. And you could imagine I quit in fall of 2009. And anytime you do anything entrepreneurial, whether for profit or not for profit, you have to start with a little bit of optimism, some would say delusional optimism. You think, “Okay, surely people will support this or this is going to get off the ground.” But like a lot of entrepreneurs or social entrepreneurs, those first few months were really hard. I started getting a lot of rejections.

Dealing with cynics

When I encountered cynics then, and even today when I encounter cynics, the first thing I say is, “Sal, don’t be defensive. There might be something in what they’re saying. You don’t want to be delusional and ignore good feedback. But at the same time, you also have to remind yourself, you don’t have to convince this person.” Most of these people were not philanthropists, I’m trying to convince, they weren’t investors, they weren’t potential employees, they were just friends. And we always want to impress our friends and convince them that what we’re doing is a good idea, but I don’t have to convince them. And so that’s the first somewhat liberating thing. And then what made me not question myself too much is I said, “Okay Sal, what evidence do you have? This is a friend who’s smart, I respect their opinion, but what evidence do I have?” And then I would go back to, it did transform several of my cousins lives. I was already getting letters from people who I didn’t know around the world about how it had transformed them in some way, shape or form or their children.

People pleasing

I’ve realized in my life you’re never going to win trying to please everybody. And it’s so easy to get into these trying to convince people, getting defensive about things, and you just don’t feel good about yourself usually after those interactions. I’m still working on it. I do have a lot of ideas and I do try to share them with people who I really respect. And when they immediately get the devil’s advocate position or the cynical side, I do get a little defensive if I’m honest. But I’ve been working on myself as we’ve been talking about, to just say, “Okay, I don’t have to convince them, there’s probably some truth in what they’re saying. I should process it.” And also, some of it’s on me.

Determination and commitment

Most of my life I feel like I’ve done what I have conviction around, and probably to a fault. Several family members, probably if you talk to my wife, they would say, “Once Sal gets an idea in his head, he’s going to give it a shot. You’re not going to just wade him too easily.” And in my personality, that’s both a feature and a bug.

Listening to your head, but following your heart

As you can imagine in a hedge fund, every year your income is accelerating. And in five or six years I could be making what my boss was making, which could have been in the millions of dollars every year. And that’s a real big opportunity cost to give up for something that’s unproven. And there, that’s where a little bit of the heart came in where I just told myself, “Well, what is the life that you want, Sal?” And the life that I want is healthy, happy family. But I really told myself if I had a nice 2000 square foot house, which was the house that we were renting and we later were able to buy, 2000 square foot, four bedroom house, two cars in the driveway, my healthy and happy family, we’re able to go on vacations, go to restaurants every now and then, I’m able to support my kids through college, that’s all I want financially really. And if I’m able to then also get to work on something that every morning I wake up and I’m inspired to work on it and I get to work on an interesting problem and I feel like I have a sense of purpose, I consider myself the luckiest person on the planet.

Following inspiration

A lot of times when I’m making some of these decisions, even what Khan Academy should be, I do go a little bit into what inspires me. We have one life to live. If you have a shot of being able to live your life as a protagonist in a movie, live your life as a protagonist in a science fiction book, go for it. I remember in the early days there were several VCs who reached out and angel investors who wanted to write a check and have me be a for profit. And it was tempting. But then when we started talking about monetization and how you’re going to exit and all that, I was like, “Oh, this isn’t what I want to do.” And then I thought about what is a home run as a for-profit? And then what’s a home run as a not for-profit? Home run as a for profit, we all know those stories quite well. But I was also thinking, “Well, how’s that going to change the world and how’s that going to change me?”

Discerning what’s actually important in life

We both [my wife and I] grew up below the poverty line. For us to have, even at that stage we were in our early 30s, a four bedroom house in a nice neighborhood, we had two cars, I already had a job. We had paid off our debt already and it was significant debt. We had paid off our debt. We felt like we were living the dream and we were living the dream. Our first child was born. Well he had, knock on wood, he’s outgrown it, but he had childhood epilepsy. And there’s a way of putting your life in focus when you realize that you really don’t give a crap about anything else as long as your son can stop having seizures because that just freaks you out every time it happens and it has all sorts of implications. I think that type of thing wakes you up about what’s important in life.

Imposter Syndrome(s)

Look, honestly I think some of that imposter syndrome I actively want to retain. I never want to forget how there was a time not too long ago that I would pass on the organic produce because it was twice, even still sometimes today it is. Because by retaining it, you appreciate the fact that, “Wow, I can go to a restaurant these days and for the most part order what I want on the menu and not care too much about the price,” although once again, my conditioning is still there. So I think it lets you just appreciate the world a little bit… there’s healthy imposter syndrome and then there’s unhealthy imposter syndrome. The healthy one keeps you grounded.

Treating everyone as a childhood friend

I try to remind myself that everyone here is literally just a person. And that’s another coping mechanism sometimes, I just try to treat everyone as if they’re my childhood friend. And there’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy there. It’s respectful but even some people who have been great supporters of Khan Academy, they’re household names, I’ve always said, “Hey, I’m going to treat them as my friend.” And I think they appreciate tit too because so many other people treat them with such reverence, and I respect them a ton, but I get to joke around with them a little bit. And that’s how I deal with that other potential imposter syndrome.

Childhood

I was up to no good a lot in an innocent way as a young kid. I had not great conduct grades in school in certain classes. But I did have a few teachers that I think even at a early age, I’d like to think, they at least made me believe, that they saw something in me and that helped give me some confidence. It’s interesting in high school was probably the low point of some people’s impressions of me where they might have thought that I was getting in with the wrong crowd and this and that and not showing… But then by the end of high school and college, people probably started saying, “Oh.” Interestingly, I think they would’ve thought that I would’ve gone very aggressively for profit route, I think what most people would’ve thought. If anyone is going to try to become on the top 10 Forbes 500 or something, Sal’s going to try to do that. And obviously all the way until I was working at the hedge fund, it seemed like I was going on that path. So I probably had a little bit of that stereotype.

Discovering a buffet of learning opportunities

MIT was like heaven for me. I think when you are in high school, in a fairly mainstream high school, you have to suppress certain instincts. You have to suppress how much you get excited about learning certain things so you don’t get beat up, so you don’t get ostracized. And I had found my people. In high school sometimes I was on the state math team and we would go to compete in national forums. So I’d found some other young people in the state who I could really be myself with, so to speak. But then to go to MIT and to have a whole community of people like that, I felt like I was in Hogwarts or Disney, whatever metaphor you want to draw to it. And then once I was there, I learned that they actually allow you to take as many classes as you want to take and they don’t recommend you take more than four or five. But there was a certain element of, I’m a kid in a candy shop and you pay a fixed amount of tuition and you can take as many classes as you want. And so I thought, “Well, this is an all you can eat buffet. Let me see how much food I can eat.”

Why learning? Why education?

You look at the world, you try to say, “Oh wow, there’s so many problems in the world. How do you solve it?” You think about climate, you think about inequality, you think about whatever, you pick the issue, conflicts. When you really keep peeling the onion, it’s just what’s going on in people’s heads. Everything else is almost just a side effect of what’s going on in people’s heads. Okay, so then we got to change what goes on in people’s heads or improve or remodel. Well, that’s called education. And so my head told me that education is the single highest leverage point. You can try to cure cancer, which by itself is a very strong leverage point, I encourage people who are inclined to, to try to cure cancer. But what if you can educate a million people and some subset of them can then go on and help cure cancer?

Modern day schooling

The stuff that’s still really weak is, even in affluent neighborhoods or fancy prep schools, you still have a model where a lot of kids are still falling through the cracks. And those are the places where they’re not resource constrained. Imagine the places where they are resource constrained. My school in Metairie, which is the sub suburb of New Orleans, it was pretty mainstream. It wasn’t a gold-plated school by any stretch of imagination, it was a normal Louisiana public school. But I remember even when I was growing up, there were schools in New Orleans in the urban core of New Orleans that didn’t have air conditioning. And you can imagine not having air conditioning in New Orleans. That’s harsh. So imagine some of the fancy schools, kids are still falling through cracks, imagine those schools without air conditioning?

Modern day learning

Let’s just assume that you have all the resources but the model of education that’s there, where it’s not mastery base, kids are moved ahead at a fixed pace, they cover some material, they get a test, some kids get 100 on it, some kids get a 90, some kids get a 70 on it. Even though that student didn’t know 30% of the material that happened to be on the test, the whole class will move on in the next concept. And then build on those gaps. And then the next concepts are going to be that much harder to learn. And then those gaps just keep accumulating. And at some point, kids hit a wall and also it hits their self-esteem. They’re not able to move any further. And this isn’t theoretical. You could look at the graduates of a fancy prep school that’s happening, and it’s definitely happening on a nationwide basis. So I think that is the biggest problem.

Schooling and mental health

The other problem is the chronic stress and anxiety and mental health issues that are going on. I actually think our system is culturally broken in a lot of ways. You read Lord of the Flies in middle school and I remember reading it in middle school, I’m like, “Okay, you just described the locker room to me.” The playground. That is Lord of the flies. It’s bully or be bullied. That is a lot of times unfortunately the culture. And in many cases it happens more at some of the more affluent neighborhoods. The stress and anxiety here in Silicon Valley, some of the local high schools, Palo Alto High School, Dunn High School, I can’t afford to live in those neighborhoods that go into those high schools. They have the highest suicide rates in the country. I talked to educators there, the stress, the anxiety, the depression there is off the charts.

What are we paying for at school?

Go to this upcoming Harvard graduation and go to some kids who have some debt and say, “Hey graduate, I will pay your $200,000 right now of whatever debt, however much debt you have, and you get to keep all the knowledge you got from Harvard and all of the experiences but you can never tell anyone again that you went to Harvard University. Will you take it?” I’m guessing very few people will. On the other hand, if I were to go to a lot of people and I say, “You can pay $200,000 right now and the whole world will think that you have gone to Harvard for the rest of your life, and there’s no way of disproving it,” I think a lot of people will take you up on that. So I think that tells you something about what people might be paying for.

We have to think outside of just those four years of college

A not so great coming of age experience that I’ve seen happen, including people in my own family is, you have this great experience and then you hit reality and then you’re 21 years old, you’re no longer living on the well groomed country club of the fancy university you attended, you have $200,000 of debt or more, and you realize that when you’re in that economic seminar at the Ivy League school and they treat you like you’re going to be the Federal Reserve chairman, that’s not how the world is treating you now know. You’re having trouble getting that job in economics. Or if you are, it’s not paying you enough to pontificate about interest rates and things like that. So I think we have to think a little bit more holistically outside of even just those four years.

Why did Khan Academy create a brick-and-mortar school?

I’m doing what I’m doing because I want the whole world to change. I want the people who have access to school, for that school to be that much better and personalized and actually for kids not to fall through the cracks and all the associated stress and mental health issues and self-esteem issues.  And I also want Khan Academy and the related organizations to be the shadow school system, the strategic education reserve, the shadow safety net for the world where if you don’t have school or if your school’s crappy, you have a safety net. I wanted to show how these pieces could be put into place holistically to create a new type of schooling.

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