Sunday, January 17, 2010

Low Tolerance for Boredom

Editor's note: This piece was written by Aaron Iba following a conversation we had where I asked he share his story with others who may themselves identify with his experience or know of a student like Aaron. It is cross posted on Aaron Iba's blog. The conversation was also inspiration for the this Martin Luther King Day tribute When "Free at Last" Means Escaping the Boring Prison of School.

Lisa Nielsen stumbled across my psychological testing results from when I was 7 years old and wrote about it. She is giving a talk about innovation in education and asked me to share my story, so here it is.

I'm 26 years old. When I was 23 I founded a software company that was recently acquired by Google, and before that I went to MIT where I got a degree in mathematics and nearly perfect grades. So if you'll excuse the immodestly, I think based on my recent history most people would consider me pretty successful academically and professionally.

None of my early teachers, however, would have predicted any sort of success for me. At Estabrook Elementary School, I lit fires and sprayed graffiti in the bathrooms. At Diamond Middle School, Sopheak Un and I stole all the mouse balls from the computer lab, prompting an all-hands meeting of the students and teachers in the cafeteria. (I believe Joey Carroll ratted me out). I was permanently banned from riding the school bus for doing something I am too ashamed of to publish on the web. In 7th grade, I sold a 3" Israeli army knife to Matt Fallon, who pulled it out during English class. These are just some of the things I remember getting caught doing. Detention, suspension, and attempted expulsion were regular occurrences in my early life.

Everything changed during the summer before high school. My dad suggested I read the book Hackers, by Steven Levy. I was already interested in computers because they provided a great source of stimulation at a pace I could control. But after reading Hackers, I had a new purpose in life. I wanted to go to MIT and be a hacker myself. In order to get into MIT, I realized, I needed good grades and a clean academic record, so I made that happen. I was fanatically motivated to go to MIT, and this created a goal toward which I could leverage my energy and learn to control my impulses.

I'm not saying it was OK that I acted like a hoodlum in middle school. I feel bad for my teachers and my parents for all the grief I caused them. But I also suffered. I had a tremendous amount of energy and a craving for challenge and stimulation, yet I was forced to try to sit still in a classroom and passively take in information at a slow pace. School was a boring prison for me, and I did what I could to bring excitement into my life in an environment that seemed designed to prevent it.

At 26, I still have a low tolerance for boredom and consider this a virtue. It's what led me to entrepreneurship and gives me a healthy appetite for risk.

I don't have all the answers for how to fix the situation for other kids like me, and I don't know how common my situation is. My message to educators is simply to keep an open mind when it comes to rambunctious little problem students. Maybe they just have a low tolerance for boredom.
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