Interview with Jeff Sandefer
Jeff Sandefer is a founder of the Acton School of Business, an innovative MBA program in Austin, Texas focusing on entrepreneurship. Sandefer received his MBA degree from Harvard University before launching five successful companies in several industries, most notably in energy. He translated that business experience into becoming an award-winning professor at the University of Texas, where he was named by BusinessWeek as one of the top entrepreneurship professors in the United States.
Kaizen: In 1996, you were teaching at the University of Texas and honored by BusinessWeek, yet soon you would be leaving to start a new business school with a very different approach. Why was BusinessWeek impressed with your teaching?
Sandefer: The BusinessWeek award was based on a survey of students, which I think is the best measure of a teacher, especially if there is a strong learning contract in place. After all, who other than students knows if a class has delivered on its promises? I believe that this is the same reason Acton wins so many honors from Princeton Review because unlike most business school polls it asks students: “Did you get what you were promised?” Of course, the BusinessWeek and Princeton Review awards really belong to all the Acton teachers, each a successful CEO who is committed to his or her students and the Socratic Method.
Our secret is that we set high expectations and hold students accountable to their promises. It helps that teachers are rewarded based on student satisfaction, after the students have been evaluated based on a forced grading curve. In other words, we have an incentive system that rewards performance, just like in the real world. No grade inflation, with rewards tied to results. It’s a system I wish more people in academia would adopt.
Kaizen: This was at UT?
Sandefer: Yes, at UT. Our band of entrepreneur-teachers made a clear set of promises to students at the beginning of each semester, graded on a forced curve, and teachers were rewarded based on student evaluations—and the lowest-rated teacher wasn’t invited back. We were a voluntary association of successful entrepreneurs, serving as adjuncts; we were paid very little. We were doing it for the fun of it and because we cared about the next generation of entrepreneurs.
We were running the entire entrepreneurship department out of my office—even though officially it wasn’t a department at all. We were setting the bar extremely high, and students were answering to the challenge—in fact, flocking to the higher standard. And we were delivering what we promised.
At the peak, eight of us serving as adjuncts were teaching close to 25 percent of all the elective hours in the school, even though there were over 100 professors in the school. I started wondering—what in the world are those other professors doing? That was the start of my interest in higher education reform.
Kaizen: How long had you been teaching at UT?
Sandefer: I started in 1990-91, at age 30.
Kaizen: You also attended the University of Texas as an undergraduate. What did you major in?
Sandefer: Petroleum engineering.
Kaizen: How did you choose that as your major?
Sandefer: I was raised in an oil and gas family, so I grew up crawling over oil and gas maps as a child. My father was a bigger than life wildcatter, like in the movie Giant.
Kaizen: At that point, what were you thinking your career path would likely be?
Sandefer: Well, right after my UT graduation I had been accepted to Harvard Business School. At an early age I saw that all the money that came from New York seemed to get into the bad oil deals in Texas. And all of the good oil deals in Texas could never seem to get money in New York. And I was convinced that Harvard was in New York, so I thought that would be a good place to apply. It took a while to realize that it was actually in Boston. But I really did see a disconnect between the money and the good deals.
Kaizen: Harvard Business School is a prestigious institution—looking back, what stands out from your experience there as valuable?
Sandefer: I love the Harvard Business School. I’ve spent 21 years on one board or another at HBS, and this is my last year. I’ve finally been term-limited out on all the boards. I loved the Socratic Method at Harvard—the idea that questions are more important than answers and being in the shoes of the protagonist, having to make decisions. I learned a tremendous amount. I also learned a lot about pattern recognition in business: after seeing hundreds of business cases you begin to have a sense of the question you should ask next because you actually see a pattern.
Kaizen: So after your MBA, in 1986 you came back to Houston and started Sandefer Offshore, an oil and gas company. What exactly did that company do?
Sandefer: Yes, I was determined to start a business. I was tempted to go to work for McKinsey, for a young McKinsey partner named Jeff Skilling [later of Enron]. Had I gone to work with Jeff, I’d likely have gotten caught up in the euphoria of Enron.
Sandefer Offshore took subleases from major oil companies in the Gulf of Mexico. At that time, oil was $10 a barrel, gas was $1.50 per MCF. The major oil companies had bought tens of billions of dollars of leases in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1980s, and now those leases were expiring. I had done a study at Harvard, in my last year of business school, on the future of the independent oil operator, and I had done another study on the Gulf of Mexico farm-out idea. It was a great opportunity because energy prices were down, and the major oil companies had offered a severance agreement to many employees. Basically, if you were over fifty years old and a professional, you could get a million dollars to retire.
So, what happened? Many of the best people retired. They had a lot of cash. We hired them and gave them a piece of the potential profits. They knew where all of the good leases were expiring. It wasn’t a conflict of interest because the majors didn’t want the leases anyway. So we looked for leases where a well had been drilled; oil and gas reserves had been found, but the fields weren’t big enough to be interesting for the major oil companies. We could give the large oil companies a slice of the revenues, develop these leases, and still make a profit.
We had a great strategy, terrific people, and were lucky on the timing. We got in at the bottom and sold at the top. It was a great run.
Kaizen: So that’s how you made hundreds of millions of dollars in about five years?
Sandefer: Yes, the employees, investors, and management all made a lot of money.
Kaizen: You then started Sandefer Capital Partners, in 1995. What was the function of that organization?
Sandefer: Yes, that’s interesting. I guess ’95 is right—I’d have to think about that.
Before I sold most of Sandefer Offshore, I was flying from Houston to Austin twice a week to teach at UT. Once I had sold Sandefer Offshore, I had all of the money I would ever need and I realized I had been very lucky. I wanted to go back and teach for one year. That was 21 years ago and I’m still teaching today.
So, I was in the process of selling, had plenty of money, was teaching for a year, and I started doing a lot of philanthropy then. I went to Russia and did a lot in Russia right after the fall of the Soviet Union. I spent a lot of time with Jim Billington at the Library of Congress on Russia with a young congressman, Newt Gingrich, whom nobody had ever ever heard of—and George Soros.
I was doing all of these philanthropic things and then I got a call from the representatives of a very wealthy New York family. After a long period of courting, I decided to go to work for them. It turned into a 12 year partnership where we invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the United States and Australia.
Kaizen: When did your interest in teaching start?
Sandefer: The whispers of it were from growing up in Abilene, Texas. My great-grandfather was president of Hardin-Simmons, a Baptist university, for 31 years. He’s buried on campus and I remember visiting the campus and reading his tombstone. On one side of his tombstone it says, from Proverbs 22:1, “A good name is rather to be had than great riches.” He died before I was born, but I can remember as a child going there and seeing and being close to education.
I also had Ben Shapiro, one of my favorite professors at Harvard and one of the best case teachers in the world, pull me aside and say, “I think you should stay here, go through the DBA program, and teach.” I was dumbfounded by that because I was far from the brightest student in his class.
Kaizen: How did becoming a professors at UT come about?
Sandefer: I’ll try to make this a short story. The dean at the business school, a man named Bob Witt, who is now the president of the University of Alabama and a dear friend, said, “You should teach. I would love to have you teach.” And I said, “Gosh, I’ve been thinking about what to do next. So, I’m in.” That was probably February. So I’m working 100 hours a week on the business and building this course on the side from all of the things I was taught at Harvard—everything I had in the course was something borrowed from one of my professors, with permission to use. I called in about July or August and asked, “When should I show up?” The dean doesn’t return my phone call. I call again and I call again.
Finally, I get so fed up that I go sit in his office. I mean, not returning phone calls, really. Bob Witt comes out and says, “Look, the faculty’s not going to let you teach, not without a Ph.D. I said, “No, no, no. We had a deal. You’re the CEO; you made the deal.” And he said, “Well, it doesn’t work that way.” Little did I know at the time, it doesn’t work that way when you’re a dean.
So I started raising hell. I went to see members of the board of regents, and finally I end up in the president of the university’s office, Bill Cunningham. And at the University of Texas, this is like going to see Oz; you could throw a football across his office. He’s in this big, tall chair, and I’m in this little, bitty chair. I’m 28 or 29 years old at the time, and he looks at me and says, “You can teach astrology for all I care. But I’m begging you to teach an undergraduate course. I’m so tired of hearing your name; I don’t ever want to hear about you again. If I have to let you teach a graduate course, I’m going to catch hell from the faculty. So I’m asking you as a favor, would you teach an undergraduate course?” Well, who was I to say “no” to the President of the University of Texas? So I saluted and said: “Yes, sir. Sure.”
It turns out the MBA students wanted the course so badly that they found the woman who was in charge of the computer to set the schedules and went in and gave her cookies and cakes. I walk in the first day of my undergraduate course and it’s filled with MBA students. They filled it before the undergrads could register because of her. That year I won teacher of the year in the graduate school teaching an undergraduate class. They had no choice but to promote me. So it was a total accident that I ended up teaching more than one year.
Kaizen: But also a lot of persistence. Was the faculty resistance just a credential issue?
Sandefer: I don’t know. From all of my experiences since then, I imagine that was what it was. But I was so naïve. I just didn’t even understand it. To me, a deal was a deal—we made a deal and you are going to follow through with it.
Kaizen: So the first year, you were teaching one course at UT but still working your business?
Kaizen: That’s still an overload.
Sandefer: Right. Well, I was gradually backing out enough time to teach. It didn’t take much time, really. It probably took 10 hours to prepare a case, so I was taking 20 hours out of the week. But I had been working 100 hour weeks, so I was working 80 hour weeks now. I was single at the time; I loved to work; I lived across the street from the office; I could hop on Southwest Airlines and be in the classroom in an hour.
Kaizen: UT is a prestigious institution, and the MBA is a well-regarded degree. What are the strengths of traditional MBA programs? I know you had some dissatisfactions.
Sandefer: Yeah, that’s funny—it’s changed so much over the last 21 years. I think there’s such a difference between the case schools for one—Harvard, UVA, Garden, Babson, Thunderbird, Acton—and everybody else. The case schools can deliver business judgment, I believe. Non-case schools, I’m not too sure. Skills? You know, that’s a place where certainly traditional schools can deliver, but you can get those at a community college or on the job.
But figuring out what to do with your life? I don’t think many of the traditional MBA schools do a good job at that. That’s not what they’re there for. So for the very top schools, it’s the prestige and the degree; for the case schools, it’s the judgment. If you’re not a top school or a case school, I think you’re becoming more of a commodity and that’s a problem.
Back in the old days, the MBA was to get your ticket punched and move up. That is diminishing over time. We see it in the enrollment numbers and the move toward shorter MBAs.
Kaizen: When did you decide to start a new college as opposed to working within the UT system?
Sandefer: Once our group decided to leave UT, we realized we had stranded hundreds of first-year MBA students at UT who’d come to take our courses. So we decided to host a one-off campus course to make it up to them. We told them, “It’s free; it’s going to take you about 40 hours a week of work; you pay $200 in materials; if you fail, we’ll give it back.” That was our way of giving back. We thought 10 people would show up. We just felt like, out of obligation, we had to do it. 130 people showed up! Students drove from Rice, College Station, Baylor, and faculty showed up from those places too. So we had this incredible following we didn’t even know about.
That went so well, we said, “You know, we already have an entire entrepreneurship curriculum. We could just start our own school.” So we did. In the first year, we had 27 students show up, pay $35,000 a year, and we won all of the Princeton Review awards the first year, out-of-the-box. It was all just a miracle.
Kaizen: Was there a formal division of labor? You already had the program, so to speak, but still there is a lot of “businessy” stuff that has to be done.
Sandefer: Yes, but we run Acton, even now, with three administrative staff.
Kaizen: What were the initial capital costs to get the school running?
Sandefer: Probably $200,000 because we were teaching in rented office space. We didn’t build a real campus until several years later. Today we get our accreditation from Hardin Simmons, where my great-grandfather served as President.
Kaizen: You have a great reputation in the Texas area. What did you formally do to recruit?
Sandefer: We’ve tried every way in the world to recruit students. We’ve got a real following of CEOs in Texas because many of their children have come to Acton as students. Other students find us because we’ve won so many awards from Princeton Review. And we have rabidly loyal alumni.
Kaizen: Do you have a formal recruiting officer?
Sandefer: Our latest innovation is our My Entrepreneurial Journey program, which allows us to deliver real world challenges all over the world. Many of the aspiring entrepreneurs try the MyEj program for a few months and then decide to come to Acton for the in-class, Socratic sessions.
Kaizen: You mentioned that your first class had 27 students …
Sandefer: Acton has always featured small classes. We’re like the Navy Seals of the MBA world. You don’t get on the A-team without being really good.
Kaizen: The Acton MBA program is a distinctive integration of methods—experiential learning, Socratic dialogue, case studies, teacher-student contracts, teaching technology, and only hiring successful entrepreneurs as professors. What are your benchmarks for what counts as a successful entrepreneur?
Sandefer: We want our graduates to start, buy, or work their way to the top of a successful business. That’s what Acton is all about—learning to run a successful business. But it’s even more important that our graduates learn to lead meaningful lives too.
Our entrepreneur-teachers all serve as CEO’s of successful businesses, but more importantly, they try to lead meaningful lives, with healthy families too. They’re really servant-leaders and humble. I’m thinking of Ed Perry, one of our teachers. When I met Ed, he told me he’d always struggled as a leader. Then I found out he had started five or more successful businesses and had a handful of black belts in different martial arts.
That’s what we look for in a teacher. Someone who has been successful and still wants to learn. Someone more interested in asking questions than giving answers.
Kaizen: You’ve mentioned the case study method. Why is that foundational and not other methods?
Sandefer: We’re training students at Acton to run real businesses—to stand between Sales and Operations and make the tough decisions. The Sales VP always wants to sell; he will price low and promise to customize the product for each and every customer. The Operations VP wants to make one product, paint it black, and price it as high as possible. As the owner of a business, you have to stand between Sales and Operations, decide what to make and how much to charge, and try to keep both Sales and Operations happy.
At Acton, you learn to make decisions by making decisions. Class after class, you stand in the shoes of a real entrepreneur facing a real dilemma and have to make a decision and defend it.
Kaizen: A typical case study, then, is you try to put yourself in real time with the information available to the entrepreneur at that time?
Sandefer: Yes. Sometimes it’s too much information. Sometimes it’s not enough information. Sometimes the data you have is conflicting. The student says, “Well that’s not fair. It says this on one exhibit and on the next page another.” We say: “Welcome to the real world. You don’t get pure data. You get messy data.”
Kaizen: Also, you focus on successful cases as well as failures?
Sandefer: Yes. Absolutely. Failure cases are harder to find because people don’t like to tell the stories as much.
But in general, you don’t know what happens next and students are forbidden from looking it up. So you really have to stay in the moment because often what happens next is someone else is retelling the story in hindsight. Or it was luck. And you can make the wrong decision—and often the right or wrong decisions are 51/49—I mean they’re nuanced. So we don’t encourage or even allow hindsight.
Kaizen: “Experiential learning.” What does that mean at Acton?
Sandefer: Selling door-to-door. In the early spring students are given a set of children’s books and a geographic sales territory. Then they have to sell door-to-door. If they don’t make quota, they don’t come back.
The real goal there is not to teach them sales skills—I should say we don’t teach them anything; they learn a lot of stuff—but it’s not to even teach them sales skills. It’s to have them learn to be told “No” 99 times and to knock again. They just have to stay out there. And over time they actually learn a lot of sales skills and techniques and things because they have to to survive.
Other examples of experiential learning include: the students putting together or building assembly lines and running a real service-delivery business. And factory tours. Students do a lot of behavioral economics. And they have a problem they’ll have to rapid prototype a product for.
As much as we love and revere the case method, we’re moving toward more experiential.
Kaizen: For the Socratic element, what’s the role of the professor?
Sandefer: Two things. The main one is that our entrepreneur-teachers can only ask questions. The teacher is literally forbidden to make a declarative statement during class. You are on video all the time, and if you slip up, you will see it on the screen in the teacher’s meeting. We are committed to only ask questions so the students have to make all the decisions. That’s the best way to prepare them for the real world.
The second thing—the really important role of the teacher—is to provide a hero. Students come in and we make them three promises: learn to learn; learn to make money; and learn to live a life of meaning. No matter who the students are, many come because they want to get rich. Most of us have been very successful so they think we know the secrets. But of course, the real secrets are hard work and perseverance.
By the end, Acton graduates realize that Acton teachers are like the Wizard of Oz. We’re not wizards, just normal guys standing behind the curtain. It’s the 100 hour work weeks that deliver the lessons.
Kaizen: Except it sounds like the lesson isn’t magic, but special, real people who make real decisions.
Sandefer: Absolutely. There’s no magic. Students struggle with real world problems. They learn to use tools. They learn to ask the right questions because they struggled with an Acton framework for 10 hours, trying to apply it to a real world problem.
We have an Acton framework for each class—for example, Sales, Operations, Harvest, or Opportunity Analysis. Each framework includes the questions a successful entrepreneur would use to diagnose a serious problem and make a decision. If you were an operations expert and you walked into some plant and tried to diagnose the problems, what are the questions you would ask? In what order?
The students use these frameworks as they try to make decisions in the cases and what happens is a magical “learn to learn.” The questions begin to become an imbedded habit—you don’t even know that you are going through them. Just like an expert in anything, you’ve got a pattern of questions you use to diagnose a problem. Our frameworks are a powerful tool that arms students with a pattern recognition system to attack any problem.
Kaizen: Your courses fall into three categories courses—Integrative courses, Tools courses, and Life of Meaning courses. What’s the purpose of the courses in each category?
Sandefer: Integrative courses are the most complex. You have to stand between Sales and Operations and make very complex decisions as you move through opportunity analysis, launch, growth, harvest. You move through the Entrepreneurial Journey course just like an entrepreneur moves through the life cycle of a business. Just like a beginning entrepreneur, you’re thrown in the deep end with no help. And this starts immediately, the first day of class.
The Tools courses focus on one function like Sales, Operations, or Finance. We teach you not only the tools, but how to use them to make decisions about messy problems. And we teach tools in the same way entrepreneurs learn them, which is very different than the way courses are taught in most business schools. For example, we combine accounting and finance into a course called Cash and Valuation. It moves from the simplest of problems, like selling one glass of lemonade at a time, all the way to dealing with multi-stage leveraged buyouts.
The third type of course is called Life of Meaning. It’s about finding your “calling” in life.
In the first semester, you take the Entrepreneurial Journey course, Customers (sales), Operations, Cash and Valuation, and Life of Meaning.
The second semester, you have four Integrative courses. You go deep into each of the four stages of a business: opportunity analysis, launch, growth, and harvest. Then there are two additional tools courses—People and Raising Money. We don’t teach you how to raise money until the end because we think first you need to know how to build a profitable business.
Kaizen: Other MBA programs may have courses in business ethics, business history, business writing, political economy, and so on. You don’t include them or they get folded in?
Sandefer: We don’t have a business ethics class and this is one I feel pretty strongly about. Business Ethics, even at HBS was taught as “Thou shalt do this because corporations should do this.” It was not human, personal morality and choices. It was ethics from afar. I found that to be ineffective. It just didn’t get to the heart and soul of me making hard decisions. So Life of Meaning is all about us putting students in really difficult life situations and arming them with the tools to make the right choices to lead a productive and meaningful life.
Kaizen: It sounds as if you are doing business ethics, but it is reconceptualized.
Sandefer: Yeah. In Life of Meaning we put the students in these incredible dilemmas and the students say “But there is no right answer.” And we say, “That’s what a dilemma is.” The phone rings, you promised your daughter you would go to the dance recital and you’ve been promising for weeks—but that’s your biggest customer on the phone. And then whatever decision they make, it escalates. “Well, I have to go to the dance recital.” Oh, did we mention that it’s your only customer and 130 people are going to lose their jobs? Did we mention that you’re in Appalachia, so there are no other jobs? So there’s no “Well, I’ll go to the other factory.” Oh, did we mention that this is the third dance recital that you missed? That you are a widower? Did we say dance recital? We meant wedding. And so all of these dilemmas, whatever you choose, they ratchet up.
And then the students, in this part of the course, they have to pick and declare a moral framework—are they utilitarian? Do they use justice, fairness, or virtue as a guide? We ask the students to declare which one they are going to be consistent with in this part of the course. And then we ratchet up the intensity of the dilemma until students abandon their chosen framework. Then we ask, “Why? Why were you forced to abandon your utilitarian approach?” And that’s how they learn.
Kaizen: That’s a much healthier approach to business ethics.
Sandefer: It’s more personal. It’s about your life.
Kaizen: Turning to technology, you mentioned that all of the classes are videoed. Is that for quality control purposes?
Sandefer: We video classes so students can see themselves in action. You can critique your performance or ask someone for help. It is really like grading football plays on film or watching your golf swing. By seeing yourself on tape and making adjustments, you can improve much more quickly.
Kaizen: We’re starting to video our classes as well, and it really is revelatory for people to see themselves. So that is wonderful; it is nicely integrated as a self-evaluation, educational tool.
Kaizen: I saw the classroom. It’s impressive—the layout, all of the white boards and projectors available. And students also use clickers?
Sandefer: Students can vote in two ways. Students have the right to mark comments with the clickers. They can also vote on how good comments are.
We also use them when we are teaching Behavioral Economics—we do some Friday Behavioral Economics—and they may vote on a Behavioral Economics question or something and it will immediately display up there. Our whole goal there is to start a fight between this side and this side or you and you. Often the votes will help us to pick a fight because you have to make a stand and defend it.
Kaizen: Is there a typical class size?
Sandefer: The best size for a Socratic class at Acton is between 20 and 40 students. I’ve taught as many as 50 at a time and I was, of course, in a class at Harvard where the average class is 90. (I was in classes as big as 220.) I think the Socratic Method, as long as the learning contract is really tight, certainly works as well with 90 as it does with 50. It works pretty well at 200, but you can’t have as close of a personal relationship. And our teachers at Acton really like to get to know our students.
Our teachers know everything about each student. But we only ask questions. No answers allowed. A student cannot even approach a professor about a problem until they worked it with their study group and their study group has given up; and then they’ve gone to the student advisor and worked the problem and the student advisor’s given up; then they come to us. I think in the last three years we’ve never had a student come to a professor about anything.
We basically send them back and say, “Figure it out. You’ve got the tools. Figure it out.”
Kaizen: What size are the study groups?
Sandefer: The study groups are four to five students. Those start at 6 a.m. every morning. And they are not to work the case. You come ready to open. You are there for mock debate. The study group of four is a preparatory debate for the larger debate because with four you get lots of air time. They are preparing their arguments and winning their arguments before they go into class.
Kaizen: Separating wheat from chaff.
Sandefer: Yeah. But not saying, “Hey, let’s figure out what the net present value of this is.” You come to the study group with your net present value and you defend it. So study groups are for practice.
Kaizen: You mentioned the student-teacher contracts that are used for evaluating the professors. What are the general terms there?
Sandefer: Our general promises are learn to learn, learn to make money, and learn to live a life of meaning. Again, those are for the program; those are set out. Each student has what most people would call a syllabus, but we call a covenant—that is, both sides say “I will show up on time. I will be prepared. I will participate.” So there’s a set covenant. I can get you a copy of one. And we each sign them in a big ceremony. Each professor signs one with each student, and it is a handshake, a look in the eye, game-on. There’s a lot of symbolism around here that you are involved in. They are ruthlessly enforced—I mean in a kind way. But I can’t remember the last time we had a student be late for a class. The students are very, very … we have to make them leave if they’ve got the flu or something. And if you are one minute late, you are out of that class, that discussion. So people just are on time, they are prepared. It really works well.
Kaizen: When you developed your program at UT, the lowest rated professor was out. Do you continue that practice?
Sandefer: Yeah. We get evaluations every week. Every comment is public; every rating is public. Every class is rated. And we all read all of them. These are every week, so there’s noise; there’s venting; there’s emotion. After you’ve done it long enough, you can pick out where there is a real recurring problem. Maybe the students didn’t understand; maybe it’s something the teacher did—it gives that away. All of us can look and work on them individually and say, “Can I come observe you? Is there something going on?” That’s real time feedback. And at the end of the semester, there’s a final form, that 0 – 5 rating, and I think if you are below a 4.2 and you are the lowest rated one, you have to sit out and basically get to the end of the line and get back in. That applies to everybody. There are semesters in years where everybody is above a 4.2, so it doesn’t apply.
Kaizen: Yes. Well, it should be.
Sandefer: Yeah. And it works. We’ve had teachers leave here and go teach at other places. It’s a very friendly—it’s not like you’re voted off the island or you get a scarlet “A” on your forehead. People go through divorces, they get into mergers. I mean, these are busy people and sometimes your attention slips. If it does, you need to take a time out and come back. We love you—you’re not a bad person because of the rating. You need to work on something.
Kaizen: The typical MBA is two years. Yours is a compressed, one-year program.
Sandefer: Acton was one of the first schools in the country to offer a one-year MBA. But now, because of the success of our My Entrepreneurial Journey in delivering real world challenges to students all over the world, we’re about to make another leap.
We’re going to compress the program to make it even more intense, but you’ll be able to do the first half of Acton from anywhere in the world, while you work. Then you’ll come to Austin for a grueling five months in the classroom. And the first half isn’t like an online program where you sit in front of a computer screen—it’s like being an apprentice, being sent on a quest with real problems to solve, to earn the right to come to Austin. And all along the way, you’ll have a successful entrepreneur as a guide, to inspire you and hold you accountable.
I’m guiding 13 people all over the world now. We are getting 90 percent completion rates on six-month courses. Students are coming out of the MyEj program with a rich portfolio of experiences that allow them to prove to others what they can do.
Kaizen: That’s impressive. To ask a philosophical question—can any student do your program and succeed? Can you make entrepreneurs? Or is there a preset character trait or personality?
Sandefer: I don’t know is the answer. I know less about that than I did when I started this. I will say from Life of Meaning work, we seem to find that once students are here and in their 20s or 30s or 40s, they fall into one of three buckets. There’s one group: they’re angry at a parent for some reason. Usually if it is a male, it’s their father. There’s just some father-son deal going on or mother-daughter thing. And, by God, they are going to prove something. That group—they’ve got issues to work out, but they are proving them going forward in the world. It’s a driving mechanism. So we can help that group. We can help them make better decisions and trial and error. They’ve got this “push forward.”
The second group shows up, slightly smaller, but we attract a lot of them. These are people who have had life changing, threatening things. Loss of a parent at an early age, car wreck, lost a sibling, dire poverty—I mean they have gone through something that you and I would think is horrific. They actually are the easiest because they will go try lots of things, “Because what could it hurt? I’ve already been through the crucible. You’re not going to shake me up.” We get Navy Seals and fighter pilots and other people who tend to fall into that category. They’re just, “I’ll go try it. I don’t have any ego at stake.”
The third group is the most interesting. They are the students who have been straight-A students, captain of the football team, never made a mistake. Their parents have never let them make a mistake. I have never been able to reach one of those students—ever. We can get them to start being humble and asking questions, but we can’t get them to take the risk of identity of image to go out and take a really major risk. I mean, it’s not a major risk to lose a lot of money—we’d encourage somebody to do that. It’s the risk to lose face if this doesn’t work. And so, my current theory is that I don’t know how to fix that group, except to get them earlier, or to get them younger.
Kaizen: I heard in Guatemala you are experimenting at Universidad Francisco MarroquÍn (UFM) with setting up a MBA program there. Is that true?
Sandefer: Yes. It is no longer an experiment. The Acton MBA at UFM has been incredibly successful.
Kaizen: I understand that UFM has its traditional MBA program running and in parallel they are running the Acton MBA. Is it a competition?
Sandefer: I think so. To hear them explain it—and they are so brave down there—they have purposefully set up a skunk works, competitive thing. And either they both co-exist or one will devour the other and let the best program win.
Kaizen: How actively involved down there are you?
Sandefer: We provide any help we can, but all the credit for the success belongs to the teachers and students at UFM.
Kaizen: Are you saying that you don’t think this is something that can be taken to existing MBA programs—the entrenched interests and traditionalists will make it not work. So it has to be a start-up each time?
Sandefer: What’s happened is that our materials work. The problem is it works too well. It grows quickly; there’s more adjuncts. But adjuncts are cheap. The students love it. But then it reaches a mass—it seems to reach a scale where it can draw in donations and the tenured faculty take over and ruin the programs because few of them know how to run a real business or teach students how to do so.
Kaizen: So the politics are complicated?
Kaizen: The Acton name. What’s the significance?
Sandefer: I had served for six years as the Chairman of the Acton Institute to train seminarians in free market economics and CEOs.
Kaizen: In Grand Rapids, Michigan?
Sandefer: Yes. I was Chairman of that for six years—they did all of the work; I was the Chairman. So I was familiar with Lord Acton from that. We needed someone to name the program after—that was a dead white guy who couldn’t hurt us. So I called Father Sirico and Kris Mauren and said, “Do you mind if we use the name?” They said, “Well, anybody can use it.” I said, “No, no, no. We wouldn’t use it unless you let us use it.” They went: “Sure. Of course.”
“Absolute power has the power to corrupt absolutely” is a good reminder for our students. So it has worked well. Father Sirico and I are, in fact, coming out with a book. We don’t have the title yet, but it’s something like “A Priest and an Entrepreneur: Your Guide to a Hero’s Journey.” It’s higher reflections of each step of the hero’s journey within classic readings. You get a reflection from each of us and so we are going to see if, I don’t know, anybody will buy it. So we’ve all stayed good friends and work on projects together.
Kaizen: Were you involved with their “Call of the Entrepreneur” video project a couple of years ago?
Sandefer: No, other than being a fan.
Kaizen: You have been critical of the current higher education system. What are your major criticisms there? Is it a cost issue? Do you think undergraduate education—easily $100,000—is not worth the cost?
Sandefer: You know, I’ve evolved on that in the last couple of years after thinking about it a lot. My root objection is that most universities—particularly research universities—are not being honest with their customers. I see their customers as being students and taxpayers, that’s who’s paying the bill—and funders, if you want to throw funders in. It is not negative what the school’s mission is. But when you study the school’s mission, it is really a factory to create more scholars. And when you look at the way they are set up—they will take a lot of undergrads in and flunk a lot of them early so they don’t have to spend much time teaching until they get to upper division undergraduate courses. They will pick the most intellectual graduate students and recruit them for graduate school and encourage them to become academic scholars.
The problem is that we now have an oversupply of scholars, with six new PhD’s for every new chaired professorship.
I’m a big fan of productive research. After all, I’m an engineer. But far too few of these PhD’s turn out to do any research that advances science or creates new technologies.
I think it’s wrong for university administrators and tenured professors to mislead students, parents, and taxpayers by telling them that they care about undergraduate teaching when much of the effort is being poured into creating PhD’s that can’t get a job when they graduate. It’s dishonest and it has to stop.
Today, far too many undergraduates are being taught by low-paid adjuncts who aren’t trained very well at teaching. So the quality of teaching isn’t very high in most universities. And many tenured faculty at research universities are teaching so few students that college is getting increasingly expensive and it’s reached a breaking point where many families just can’t afford it anymore.
Kaizen: Private liberal arts colleges try to solve exactly those problems. So, your target is research institutions with large student-teacher ratios?
Kaizen: Are the large universities starting to rethink themselves? I mean state governments are cutting back; people are aware of the technological revolutions, online universities, and so on. Do you think they’ll reform themselves?
Sandefer: That’s a great question. I’m actually encouraged. I think the ones that are being threatened with extinction will. I don’t know if they can or not because I think there is a serious governance-financial issue. But they certainly are thinking about it and I’ve been really encouraged. Once you get beyond all of the political rhetoric in the press, it’s amazing how many department heads have emailed me.
I spoke to all of the chief academic officers, or provosts, of Texas state universities. I gave a really tough speech that basically said, “You’re all doomed. I mean the economics are, you’re doomed. It won’t work.” Two guys in the room got mad and screamed at me during the questions—“Your data is not true. You’re a liar.” Really … but I kept saying, “Well, which cite’s not right? Let’s go through … .” “All of them,” they said. “Well, can you pick the one that is the most wrong?”
Later people came up to me and said it was clear those guys were just mad. The rest of them kept saying, “We agree. What do we do? I mean, we’re trying to teach online … what do we do?” I think their governance problem is … if 51 percent voted, a tenured faculty governs, and there is a tendency to kick the can down the road. You know, as long as I’m in the top 51 percent, well, “We’re going to keep this going.” So how you would create a sense of crisis enough to really change the structure? I don’t know if they are going to be able to do anything to prevent it or not.
Stanford—the things I see Stanford doing—I think they will be the Google of universities.
A very close friend of mine (who I think is the wisest guy I know in higher education) is the president of a large university, and is a very thoughtful and very quiet guy. I said to him, “What do you think happens in 10 years?” And he said, “I think Harvard makes it and I think some of the better, specialized, small liberal arts schools make it.” And I said, “Oh, you mean they don’t have to change.” And he said, “No, no, no. I mean they exist.” And I said, “Now come on. Michigan, USC, A&M … I mean, really?” And he said, “They are locked into a cost structure escalation they can do nothing about. They’ve reached their breaking point. They’re not offering a very high quality product.” And he said, “They can’t be disrupted by a lot of the other things going on.” And he said, “Unless there are continued, massive federal subsidies, I think you will see thousands of—not Chapter 11 bankruptcies—but Chapter 7 bankruptcies.” Now, I think that is too extreme. But the fact that this guy I know said that makes me go, “Wow, that’s interesting.”
Kaizen: On the positive side, that means that there are lots of entrepreneurial opportunities in education.
Sandefer: Tremendous. I spoke to faculty recently about this topic and it was surprising. They were all down-in-the-dumps. About 40 tenured faculty members and it was friendly—I was invited—just friendly guys and we did a case on the future of the business school; it was a really cool case with the stuff that we had written and we discussed it. I found myself cheerleading, they were so down. They were saying, “We’ve got to get rid of tenure. We’re not delivering … .” One guy raised his hand, he was about 50, and he said, “I know lecturing is finished; it is all I know how to do.” And I wanted to cry. They were all so sad. And I said, “Guys, you’ve got a great brand name. You’re here. You want to change things. Be a skunk works.” And they said, “But we’d never win a vote with the faculty.” And I said, “You will someday. Start doing cool stuff. I mean … the school’s got a great brand.” So I found myself pumping them up. Of course it’s a great opportunity. If I had a brand—if I had the Stanford brand, I think they are so smart for spending it on quality stuff. But, Stanford has an online high school now. Did you know that?
Kaizen: I did not.
Sandefer: Stanford Online High School and they say in the materials, basically, “We’ll prepare you for a top college.
Kaizen: It’s exciting, all of this stuff. To come back to the Acton MBA in particular: Suppose—I’m a young person making a decision. Should I take $50,000 a year, which is your going cost, and go through the Acton program? Or should I just pick up some business skills courses that I need in community college so I can jump into my business? What advice would you give to a young person?
Sandefer: Ninety percent of students ask me, “Should I get an MBA at Acton or Harvard or anywhere?” My answer is, “No.” If you’ve got a way to do it in the school of hard knocks and you can go pick up the skills at a community college, and you’ve got an entrepreneur who will be your mentor, and you know what you want to do, then I’d say no. Ninety percent of the time I say no.
I think our program is for someone who is a real high achiever and who really wants to go places fast. We can take 10 years of pattern recognition at the school of hard knocks and compress it into a year. When our students come out and you ask them, they are incredibly satisfied, and one of the things they’ll say often is: “Look, I learned 100 things that will save me $100,000 each. They are mistakes I won’t make now.” So the trick to that is you have to be playing at a game where you can be making $100,000 mistakes. If I’m running a small, start-up, lifestyle business, should I really take $50,000 and come here to learn lessons? You have to be in an arena where you can make bigger mistakes to make the $50,000 worth it, I think. My goal, by the way, is to get the $50,000 down to about $5,000. That’s why we’re moving to a shorter and even more intense program and delivering real world challenges to your doorstep.
Kaizen: You’ve been a successful entrepreneur, professor, and founder of a college, and we could also talk about the elementary school you started with your wife. And you are still relatively young.
Sandefer: Getting older every day.
Kaizen: What’s on the horizon for you?
Sandefer: I want to figure out what the new educational model is going to look like. I think the educational world is about to be turned upside-down—in a very good way.
Kaizen: Tell me more about the elementary school. It’s a joint project with you and your wife?
Sandefer: Yeah. My wife Laura runs the Acton Academy. She’s the life, the spirit and the energy behind it. I just help out on the curriculum. The school is centered around the idea that each and every child is a hero on a hero’s journey; each child is a genius who is going to change the world. That doesn’t mean every child is going to be Henry Ford or Albert Einstein—but you can run a plumbing company with 10 people or be a ballerina and change the world too. But our goal, our belief, is, literally, that every child is a genius.
The curriculum is interesting: everything that happens within a year is centered around one central question. Next year the question is: Does the past determine the future? This year the question was: Does power corrupt? So there is an overarching question. The students will work during the year with all of the latest game-based, adaptive software. So math is done that way, and reading to the extent it can be done that way—physics, chemistry, and anything we can adaptively we do that.
The students are gaining, by the way, two and a half grade levels every 10 months. They’re not spending more than an hour a day on reading, writing, and arithmetic. And so incredible—particularly math—the things that those courses can deliver when they are fun and game-based and adaptive. And you can track it.
Oh, and it’s a one-room schoolhouse. So kids of all different ages are in the same room doing the same thing together. That works incredibly well it turns out—incredibly powerfully. The rest of the time they’re not doing—the adaptive stuff is just a small piece—they are doing one of two things. Project-based learning, but they’re on a quest. So, it’s not a project. It’s something you are doing with your hands: making, creating, solving. But it feels like you’re Sir Lancelot and the Holy Grail or Harry Potter. There’s a cost-benefit to what you are doing; there’s a bigger, overarching question as you go through these different experiments.
The other thing they go through is history, which is—at the elementary level, at least—some projects, but mostly reading along the history of the world. But also they are identifying heroes and, again, everything is always centered around this central question. For example, for “Does power corrupt?” they are studying the evolution of power from gathering sticks to nukes and doing all sorts of science experiments. For example, where does combustion come from? You know, there’s two or three old theories about that. Well they’re actually studying the old theories as well as the chemical theory. They’re learning how hydrocarbons dissolve … how hydrocarbons re-form in a chemical reaction. And you wouldn’t believe what they can explain to me. I mean they really get it. All of this from game-based projects.
The other thing is they run their own classroom. They vote on the rules. We engage them every year—they have a contract with themselves. If there’s a problem in the classroom—if somebody throws a dodge ball at your head, you can put it on a white board. If there are three problems, there’s a town meeting. The town hall meeting adjudicates the problem and issues the consequences, which become part of the common law of the classroom.
Kaizen: They’re doing a democratic-republic right there.
Sandefer: Yeah. It’s just a fascinating thing. As they go through middle and high school, we are training them to earn a series of badges from “Independent Learner” to “Running Partner” to “Socratic Guide” to “Project Leader” and then they have to learn to actually create a skill-based learning sequence, create a quest—a series of projects for quest—and create a productive learning environment. As they earn these badges, they can move up. But what we’re really doing is trying to teach back to the earlier, meaning the middle school children will go back to the elementary school and teach. We actually have a goal to eliminate the teachers altogether. We think we can actually become a place to train teachers, but the students won’t need teachers. They’ll become the teachers.
Kaizen: Just for the record. What’s your wife’s name?
Sandefer: Laura Sandefer.
Kaizen: What’s the name of the school?
Sandefer: Acton Academy.
Kaizen: Is there a website for it?
Sandefer: Yes. ActonAcademy.org.
Kaizen: Great. You also mentioned a middle school.
Sandefer: We’re launching a middle school in August. The high school will start either a year or two years after that.
Kaizen: Are you planning to franchise out in some way?
Sandefer: Yeah. We don’t know how yet. We’ve got one group that wants to build 100 in Latin America—the guy who started one in Guatemala. And he’s an expert in franchising. And we’ve got another group in America talking about building 100 here. We’re more likely to offer people: “Here’s what we’re doing; here’s a kit; you’re welcome to it and use it as you want.” I don’t have any grand schemes to open 1,000 of them, but it does appear that at least some of the concepts we are using are going to spread. I mean the MBA school is terrific and fun; the elementary school is just mindboggling … what these kids can do. It’s changed. The last two years changed my total view on teaching, how it works, and what people can do.
Kaizen: Let’s come back to the Life of Meaning and your life, in particular. When you look back, is there one thing that stands out as the thing that is the most significant and meaningful, the most rewarding in what you’ve done?
Sandefer: The absolute best thing I’ve done, which is a pure stroke of luck, is: my wife is a real superstar. I mean, I love having … our kids are wonderful, but she does the work of about eight people and she’s just terrific. That’s seriously the most significant thing in my life was finding her. I had a failed first marriage—still good friends with my ex-wife. We have a daughter that we love that goes between us and, you know, because of the houses, we live three blocks away. But how I convinced Laura to marry me was the greatest thing that’s ever happened. Everything else has just been a series of just getting up and trying, getting knocked down, and getting up again.
Kaizen: Your business career, in particular, anything there that stands out as an especially satisfying accomplishment?
Sandefer: You know, probably that I was lucky enough—I’m convinced now that there are different archetypes of people that have different sets of business schools. And there are different archetypes of opportunities. One of the ways we think about the archetypes—there are several ways—but at Acton it is “bootstrap tortoises” and “asset foxes” and “MBA hares.”
A bootstrap tortoise is someone who builds a business one customer at a time—Gates and Microsoft or anybody that starts in a garage, basically. An asset fox is someone who traded baseball cards as a kid. They are a trader of assets. Warren Buffet, a venture firm, real estate, oil, and gas. The MBA hare chases the hottest fad—dot com kind of group.
I have all of the characteristics of an asset fox. I’m contrarian—I don’t really care what people think. I’m good at sensing markets and summing things up very quickly. I was lucky to end up in an asset fox business. You know, somehow I got to that pretty quickly. So I think that match of archetypes has been—however that happened—was a really fortunate thing for me.
Kaizen: Looking back over your career, is there anything that you found yourself struggling with, something that is actually challenging for you?
Sandefer: Yeah. The biggest struggle for me is that I do not have the patience to develop people. So my preference is to get a bunch of very smart, very committed people in a room and let’s go get it done. That has held me back; it continues to hold me back. And I’ve got lots of people who work for us who go out and do great things, but I think I’ve missed a lot of opportunities. To slow down and invest in people over the long haul—maybe take someone who has gifts, but they are more hidden. And I’m really struggling personally now with: “Do I want to make that change?” It’s a deep personality change in lots of ways. Or do I want to continue to, in that sense, skim and select the people who are already predisposed to be that way?
Kaizen: Because if you are going to be in education—that’s long-term people development.
Sandefer: Yeah. At Acton, we skim. We skim the people that want to work really hard, are going to get it done, and are smart. We haven’t done that at the Academy and that is what is so interesting. We didn’t do anything like that. We have gotten parents who were involved and we aren’t starting out with inner city kids. But I’m developing a new sense of patience and appreciation for multiple gifts. I need to balance that, though—if I’ve got a business and I need to get something done, I’m better off to attract the people who already have those gifts and see their mission. And so that is the one I personally struggle with the most because I think as a human being I need to work hard on the patience and the development.
Kaizen: There is a large set of skills entrepreneurs have to either have or acquire: the willingness to take risks, perseverance, being able to fall on your face and get up again, and so on. Is there anything that strikes you as the most important trait that entrepreneurs have to have?
Sandefer: Well, I think persistence is number one.
I think the rarest one they have to have—and this comes from my friend Amar Bhidé. It’s his idea, though I’ve written about it, of a tolerance for ambiguity. What Amar says is that entrepreneurs can look at a hill and say, “That’s the hill. That’s where we’re going. Let’s take off.” And so you can rally people to that hill, you know, all of the vectors line up in that direction. But a real entrepreneur, the first step they take, will say to themselves: “You know what? That’s probably not the right hill.” Now, they’re not lying. Because at this moment the data suggests that’s the hill and they’re saying that out loud. And they know they can’t say aloud, “No, that’s probably not the hill,” because people won’t follow them. But they also know their information is imperfect and their judgment is imperfect and they just want to move further ahead to get a better view. And for most people, he said, that feels like a lie; they can’t keep both those concepts in their head. But entrepreneurs can. So, most people would do one or two things. They would either charge out in that direction and would never change and go off a cliff. Or they would just mill around—never being able to pick a place because they couldn’t set a vision. But entrepreneurs will both charge ahead and be immediately skeptical, looking for data suggesting you need to change.
Kaizen: The two traits you’ve identified—persistence and toleration for ambiguity—how do young people cultivate those in themselves?
Sandefer: I don’t know. The biggest mystery to me right now is if incarceration and diplomas aren’t going to be our primary form of motivation for education in the future, then what is? There has to be something better.
I mean, I don’t think that’s working very well. And this idea of “If we just get a college degree, everything will be okay.” I mean, that’s kind of what the model promises, and “We’ll incarcerate you if you get one.” If that’s not going to work, what motivates people to develop this sense of persistence, the deep difficulty to really learn something? You know the game-based adaptive stuff can do it for skills because it’s kind of fun and you can build up. But this is where I think the “guide” relationships, as we use that word, and the running partner relationships of face-to-face people within relationships are important. If we can figure out how to do that, I think you’d build a Wikipedia of people who are helping—almost like the Boy Scouts. You could build a whole new way to think about education that’s much more distributed. And it’s those relationships—either wanting to be like that person or wanting to have what they have. We go back to the master-apprentice system that worked so well in the US in the 19th century. And I think we have the technology now to do that, if we can convince people that they need to do it and make it easy for them, make it really easy to be a guide or a master, not hard.
Kaizen: The tolerance of ambiguity—it’s more of a cognitive trait. So how should a young person, teachers, or parents cultivate that?
Sandefer: To be clear, in the elementary school, we’re not trying to create entrepreneurs. But if we say that entrepreneurs tend to be independent learners and we want to kind of create independent learners in both, then I think it’s learning to fail early, cheaply, and often. I mean, it’s … it’s really getting knocked down. I noticed our two boys, who are just wonderful and they do ju-jitsu and it’s just a really tough sport. And I wasn’t tough as a kid. I mean, I didn’t like getting hit, you know. They get hit and get a bloody nose and they’re like, “Cool, blood.” It’s because, really, the fear of being hit is a lot worse than being hit.
Kaizen: That’s true.
Sandefer: Getting hit … I mean, you know, it hurts; but it hurts for that long (snaps fingers) and it’s better; you get a bruise or you can even knock out a tooth. So I think in protecting children from not being “hit” in life, you know, not being knocked down, we’re doing them a disservice. This whole idea of free range kids … .
Kaizen: Love that book.
Sandefer: Yeah. I love the book. I think that’s what we’re doing at the Academy. And I think you train kids not to get into cars with people and not do stupid things, but if we coddle them too much to not make mistakes, they’ll never develop the tolerance for ambiguity because it is basically pride in many ways. It’s fear or pride or a combination of the two—“I don’t want to do something, I’ll look foolish. I don’t want to promise something to people and have it turn out to be wrong.” People forgive you. If you honestly make a mistake, people will forgive you.
Kaizen: You mentioned a number of people from whom you’ve learned. What stands out as the best advice you’ve received from a mentor?
Sandefer: I think there were three. The best advice I got all through my life was from my Uncle Buck, who’s still alive at age 90 and he’s a crusty, Archie Bunker kind of guy. And I’ll never forget being nine years old and we were watching television. He was in this big, brown reclining chair and it was 1969 and the hippies were protesting the Vietnam War, and they had all these signs that said: “The war’s not fair.” “The administration is not fair.” And I’ll never forget, he turned off the TV and he turned to me and he cursed and said something like: “Who ever told them that life was supposed to be fair?” And that just stuck with me as a little kid. It just stuck with me that, you know, life’s not fair and I should be grateful for—and I’m very grateful for what’s happened to me. And you should be caring for people where it hasn’t been fair. But it’s not going to be fair.
Then at Harvard I had three professors—Ben Shapiro is like the Michael Jordan of case teaching. And learning to ask questions instead of being the smartest guy in the room; that was the gift he gave me. Bill Sahlman was one of my entrepreneurship professors and he really gave me the gift of the four rules of cash and how incentives work and entrepreneurship worked. I knew a lot of that instinctively, but the cold, hard facts of incentives and money and the skepticism Bill delivered. And then Howard Stevenson—the other founder of entrepreneurship at HBS—most of my Life of Meaning ideas have come from Howard, his idea about it being a journey. And, you know, Howard is a crusty, old, mean guy … he’s got a heart as big as the world, but he’s kind of crusty. But his work on Life of Meaning really changed me.
Kaizen: Last thought. Is there a piece of advice that you would give to younger people as they are launching themselves, perhaps entrepreneurially?
Sandefer: There are two things … well, three things. The first one is never take advice from 52-year-old guys because most of them want to relive their life through you and that’s not the right thing. So I really try not to give advice. I think … I wish someone had told me when I was that age: “You’re worried about being successful. You’re worried about things working out—do you have what it takes?” And they are worried about all of the wrong things. Because, if they will go out and work hard and look for their gifts, then that part’s going to work out. And, you know, being rich is about spending less than you make. It’s not about how much you make. So the things they’re worried about are going to work out.
And so instead—there’re three questions I just keep coming back to. As part of Acton, we send students out and they do these Stars and Stepping Stones interviews. You have to do 10 interviews to find, two hours each, someone you think you want to become in life. It’s probably one of the most powerful things we do. Three of them have to be between your age and 40, three between 40 and 60, and at least three over 60. All of the students come back and they tell us the same thing in different words—The people over 60 say there’s three questions you’re going ask when you’re my age: “Did I contribute something meaningful—is there something I did that mattered?” “Was I a good person?” and “Who did I love and who loved me?” If I were starting again, I wish I had those three questions on the wall because I’ll make lots of mistakes. But if I can come back and answer those three questions: “Yes.” And the meaning of the questions would change over time. “Was I a good person?” When I was younger, it was “Am I perfect—morally perfect?” Later, it’s more “Am I becoming who I am supposed to become?” It’s a different question. But I think those three are really good guide questions I wish I had had in my pocket.
© 2013 Stephen R. C. Hicks. All rights reserved.