Alan Watts On Education For Unreality
Alan Watts was a prolific philosopher, absolutely light years ahead of his time especially with the predictions he made about the education revolution before his death in 1973.
Philosophy is something that keeps popping up on this journey — those who dive into it seem to find the ability to really see things.
The episodes we did on Alan Watts on the With Joe Wehbe Podcast, (episodes #203-#211) are some of the most powerful episodes done to date, and go deep to unearth some tightly held assumptions we have about work and life.
Luke Smith, my high school friend and co-host of these episodes — who is fresh to most of the ideas we discuss and thinkers we deconstruct, has been noting his personal transformation as we go through them. I can’t tell you how rewarding that has been to see.
I guess there is hope — that we can get people thinking more deeply about the errors they’re making. I hope Alan Watts is a useful thinker to do that for you, and I’ll be delighted if I’m the first person to really introduce you to his thoughts.
Unpacking Alan Watts’ ideas about education and life
The below ideas break down what we talk about on this mini-series on Alan Watts, which follows series on Nassim Taleb and Peter Thiel.
It unpacks the cruelty of our stage-based system, the erosion of the family unit, how we’re educated for unreality, how we abandon ourselves, and ideas for a better world for all.
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The cruelty of the stage-based system
Watts summarises our social conditioning of young people by comparing them to a donkey with a carrot strapped onto it’s head with a stick dangling it out in front — no matter how hard the donkey chases, it will never catch the carrot. But it always feels like it has something to chase.
This creates a sort of conveyor belt we go through that makes it feel like there is always some magical ‘salvation’ that is coming.
To quote Watts himself (from this very, very powerful Youtube video that remains one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen):
But we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our conduct. We have a system of schooling which gives a completely different impression. It’s all graded and what we do is put the child into the corridor of this grade system with a kind of, “Come on kitty, kitty.” And you go to kindergarten and that’s a great thing because when you finish that you get into first grade. Then, “Come on” first grade leads to second grade and so on. And then you get out of grade school and you got high school. It’s revving up, the thing is coming, then you’re going to go to college… Then you’ve got graduate school, and when you’re through with graduate school you go out to join the world.
Then you get into some racket where you’re selling insurance. And they’ve got that quota to make, and you’re gonna make that. And all the time that thing is coming – It’s coming, it’s coming, that great thing. The success you’re working for.
Then you wake up one day about 40 years old and you say, “My God, I’ve arrived. I’m there.” And you don’t feel very different from what you’ve always felt.
Look at the people who live to retire; to put those savings away. And then when they’re 65 they don’t have any energy left. They’re more or less impotent. And they go and rot in some, old peoples, senior citizens community. Because we simply cheated ourselves the whole way down the line.
Because we thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at that end, and the thing was to get to that thing at that end. Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead.
But we missed the point the whole way along.
It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.
How to overcome the stage-based system of school (and life)?
Firstly, there is nothing coming.
I need you to read that sentence very slowly and carefully — in the episodes we go over this paradox of future achievement and present living, an idea I find very hard to communicate to people. We so often fall into this trap of living today so that we’ll be ‘better off’ at some superficial point in the future.
But what future is that? Everyone had plans before COVID, and no single person has the guarantee that they’ll be alive next week.
I look back now on years of unlearning my own social conditioning and pattern of thinking this way — very fortunate was I to have this experience on the Nepal Project I so often reference on the podcast and in writing.
The Minimum Viable Lifestyle, the Audience-of-None and the Thousand Doors emanate from the new ways of thinking I built for myself. As a metaphor, each Room of life is something we are here to enjoy — at no way along that journey do we need very much at all to be at peace, and at no stage are there any good excuses not to be pursuing and acting on intrinsic interests.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t somewhere else to go or a new Door to open. That doesn’t mean we sit in the park and live only to smell flowers. But it does mean that we must, on our journey, stop to smell the roses.
How school creates overgrown children — destruction of the family unit
Watts points out that the family unit is not surviving industrial life ****— children used to work with their families, and begin life by following in the work with their parents. He shares a story of seeing this on his travels to rural parts of Mexico and it reminds me of what I saw in Nepal. This was the old way.
But now the stereotype is that the Dad goes away to earn money and then comes home — the family doesn’t care how he earns money, only that he brings it back. When he returns, he’s meant to be all energetic and caring, appreciative of his wife, playing with his children and having superficial interactions with them like reading them stories… all instead of actually having his children participate in his work.
In Industrialised society we are living further and further apart from our families. We spend less and less time with them, we get other people to raise them, and we discard the elderly because let’s face it, they’ve become a burden. Caring for them is too much when we have to work so much and pay down that mortgage — this is most true in the West.
We have family courts, childcare, social workers… we are outsourcing more and more of the traditional roles of the family to service providers and the state.
How school creates overgrown children — the exclusion from adult affairs
Watts talks about the change in children’s role in society — in the modern age, our whole interaction with them is about keeping them at arms length, saying ‘you’re not ready yet’.
The child wants to participate in the work of its parents, be it outside or around the house, but it is not allowed. Instead it is given plastic toys like a plastic stove, a plastic barbie and plastic guns, and it’s ultimately an insult (this brings back memories of my younger brother Oscar being bought a toy vacuum cleaner because he wanted to vacuum the house).
We patronise the child.
I reflected on this — centuries ago, we married at younger ages and took on more responsibility from early teenage years. What happens when you challenge someone with the responsibilities of life? Well, if you remember the lessons from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile, challenges are like reps in the gym… they make us grow!
What are we doing now? We have removed these stressors, putting our young people in this strange alternate reality called school. We’ve lost that.
When I was studying psychology at university, we were given this theory on teenage delinquency to read — it was very illuminating, pointing out that adolescence gives us all the physical maturity of adulthood at a time where we are being held back from the full freedoms and responsibilities of adulthood. Teenage delinquency and rebellion, the article speculated, could be linked to this holding back. It makes sense! When you hold something down, it fidgets and fights.
But now more than ever we can see the potential of young people — children who learn how to code and teenage entrepreneurs, people trying to change the world ‘before they’re supposed to’, still being fed through the stage-based system, even when they’ve already transcended its usefulness.
Of the most socially useful things that young people can learn in my era, none of them can possibly be taught at school or university.
How we create overgrown children — education for ‘unreality’
Our solution has to then drum up across a whole population the idea of all these things that a child ‘should learn’ at school, and proceed to educate them accordingly. But this becomes an ‘unreality’ as Watts powerfully puts it — it’s nothing like the real world, it doesn’t even make sense when you look at the real world.
It’s all about putting people in this holding pattern… yes they do learn stuff, a portion of which becomes useful in some situations, but when you reflect on reality of the outer world it barely scratches the surface.
As one friend said to me recently, he looked at university as the final extension of a drawn-out childcare system, allowing the person to delay this maturation and be in the adult world. He looked around and saw immaturity and a lack of intentionality everywhere.
This is what I see so many young people doing, what I hated myself for doing at that age… not even living simply, but just dicking around, devoid of any motivation to really grasp life. We’re not participating in the world. I’m not even talking about professional endeavours, just living. Because what happens in this time is the cementing of this ‘existing’ rather than living, that becomes the default for most people across their entire lives.
In these young years it’s a cycle of drinking, gaming all the time, and letting things pass for people like me! No, it’s not everyone, but it’s so common, and our education systems facilitate and prolong it.
We can relate this idea to Taleb. Taleb teaches us the world is random, has risk, understanding that is more useful than the literacy or math we are so concentrated on for thirteen years in schools and beyond.
Education should be a progressive letting into adult life… not preparation
This line from Watts is so powerful!
Our whole concept of education is based around the idea of preparation. Return to the donkey and the carrot — there is always something to prepare for, and so we’re sold more and more preparation (more and more education). Once everyone else has a degree too, now you need the Masters or the PHD, and you’re not qualified to do something until you’ve been given permission by some sort of gatekeeper.
It’s a major problem in the world right now, I see it day-in, day-out with young people who are wired to think they need permission and approval to go and do something, like work on their own idea.
It reminds me of Luke Skywalker at the start of Star Wars IV — A New Hope, brimming to leave his boring home planet but he’s held back by his Uncle Ben. We keep these incredible young people held back.
We should not be selling people the idea of preparation, when the truth about learning is that it happens best when we are doing. This is why Watts says that this ‘education’ thing should only be about progressively letting children into adult affairs.
Our book is titled 18 & Lost? So Were We… what is it about the age of eighteen? If school finished at fifteen in its current format, it would be 15 & Lost? wouldn’t it… there is nothing magical about the age of eighteen, it’s just the age we arbitrarily decided to end the big part of the education for unreality, creating this steep drop-off into the real world that frightens people so much.
But what if education did not isolate our young on an island of unreality for more than a decade? Where would the difficult transition to adulthood, the shock of seeing the real world be? It wouldn’t, in fact, it would cease to exist, much like the rural and tribal communities we originate from.
Parents should live for themselves, not their children
In Industrial Society, the stereotype of this parental figure going away to work just to bring back this money thing is done under the pretense that it will make their children’s lives better. We tell ourselves that we are creating a platform for them to have something better than we have.
But Watts tears this to shreds. He says that if parents do this, then the most likely outcome is that their children will copy them and repeat the cycle.
Instead, parents should pursue that thing that looks like a dream, that intrinsically interests them. Then the child will follow this example and do likewise… so it’s this reversal, where parents shouldn’t live for their children, but really live for themselves.
Faculty people cultivate a studied mediocrity
Watts says that the reward for studying French should be speaking fluent French, and interacting with French culture… but it doesn’t seem to be that way. The point of being ‘studied’ seems to be the study itself, which is circular. It’s what Peter Thiel refers to as this abstraction away from reality.
‘Faculty people’ is used in a pejorative way by Watts to refer to the warped echo chamber of bureaucrats within their disciplines. It’s this game of one-up-manship and signalling that extends from education and universities into many of our professions, where ‘being educated’ is this thing to be revered or respected, even if the ‘educated’ person hasn’t done anything in society.
For Watts he talks about his discipline, philosophy, and that when you’re recognised in philosophy there is this club you join full of elites, but when they gather they don’t speak about philosophy! Instead they speak about politics, and the same happens in religions. Clergymen don’t meet up and talk about faith, they normally talk about politics.
Watts uses another example — he says it would be meaningful to setup a clothing company, because you can take pride in the clothes you make and create something. But if you create the company to make money, you’ll compromise the clothes for the money — then even if you make your money, you won’t enjoy it.
Watts predicted the education revolution over 50 years ago!
This from Watts is particularly mind-blowing, considering he died in 1973. I don’t know when exactly he said this, but it is just so powerful.
This guy, more than most other people, was able to look at things from a high level and see where things would go.
He called for it:
We need an education which brings us back to nature in the sense not of the birds and bees and flowers… but of being focused on the material present… this is where you live and this is what you have to deal with… to be able to live richly… in that situation.
Then he talks about the time we’re in now…
People are looking for ways of living whereby they don’t live this fragmented abstract work life that is completely cut off from all the rest of their truly human associations. So we are facing a very big revolution… in which our young people want to return to reality and even though what they do may make very little money it will at least have the satisfaction of being an actual relationship to the real world in which we live now. I don’t know what is the detailed answers to all that, but this is what is coming. It will be very disruptive of things as we know, but better by far, better by far… live in contact with the actual here and now, than to live a life of perpetual suspense waiting for a gorgeous thing… that is going to turn up, but never, never does.
This quote opened up a huge conversation on the podcast episodes and an impromptu additional episode.
It taps into things we’re seeing now like the major lying flat movement in Asia, and the dynamics of 18-28 year olds in the West who are no longer married property owners in their early twenties, but think more broadly about their options.
With technology to come with the Web3 wave, cryptocurrency and blockchain, passion-based income and the gig economy, the tools to earn less (initially mind you) and live more are developing. Though you can’t see them right now, they are developing.
We are a generation that will tear apart the old social structures and create a new narrative, as we move into what I call ‘the Exponential Age’.
Watts on why we should let some people quit the game
Watts appreciates diversity to a greater extent than many of our business leaders. He says we should let some people quit the game because it will never be the case that everyone wants to participate in the ‘game’ of society.
They might not want to pursue the things we think everyone should pursue, but there’s great value to that. As I say on the episode, looking at hippies who don’t have material possessions or property weighing them down, and seeing their carefree nature is a reminder as to why sometimes our anxiety to achieve is so non-sensical.
They give us a perspective to help us check our reality and see when we’ve gotten off track, or begun taking ourselves too seriously.
Watts on a better life and society
Watts uses the metaphor of the dance, and music. The point of the dance is not to get to a particular spot in the room, the point of music is not to get towards one chord or the end of a song, it’s to enjoy and participate in it.
Yes, it goes somewhere, just like our lives take us through certain achievements… but the achievements are not the point. They are just pit stops!
We are so obsessed with notions of control and certainty — when we get anxious about succeeding or making something of ourselves in the world, we look for the path there, but this always constrains our perspective.
Watts gives us a great thought experiment about our desire for control and the ability to make things the way we want them all the time. It’s called ‘the dream’:
Let’s suppose that you were able every night to dream any dream that you wanted to dream. And that you could, for example, have the power within one night to dream 75 years of time. Or any length of time you wanted to have. And you would, naturally as you began on this adventure of dreams, you would fulfill all your wishes. You would have every kind of pleasure you could conceive. And after several nights of 75 years of total pleasure each, you would say “Well, that was pretty great.” But now let’s have a surprise. Let’s have a dream which isn’t under control. Where something is gonna happen to me that I don’t know what it’s going to be. And you would dig that and come out of that and say “Wow, that was a close shave, wasn’t it?” And then you would get more and more adventurous, and you would make further and further out gambles as to what you would dream. And finally, you would dream … where you are now. You would dream the dream of living the life that you are actually living today.
Unpacking the dream
This one threw Luke a little on the episode, so what are the takeaways?
To me this passage means that we don’t really want all the control and certainty we think we want. The joy of life is the surprise, because without the surprise we get bored and lose interest.
But what about all the difficulties we face and bad things that happen? Well, answer this — how interesting is the story about someone who is born perfect and has everything go perfectly for them their whole life… well, it couldn’t really go ‘perfectly’ because the bumps and the bruises are the learnings they need, and they enable them to relate to and uplift other people.
If you’re never felt self-doubt, how can you relate to and help other people who have had self-doubt?
And if it’s about making things easy, then why do we get bored by and lose interest in games that are too easy? Don’t we want to win? Then why wouldn’t we want it to be as easy as possible to win?
Perhaps it is more true to say that we want a story.
Finally — planning for the future
‘There is no point in making plans for the future if you’re not capable of living in the present’
This is the point I want to finish on. It’s so powerful. Watts makes us realise that we can’t really plan for the future if we’re not content with the present, because even if we realise our plans and goals, we won’t enjoy the outcomes.
If you want to be specific, you can refer to the examples in my book 18 & Lost? So Were We. Here we see examples of people who were rushing to figure things out in life who ended up making compromises (myself included).
I didn’t believe in myself enough to chase a career in film, so I created a multi-year plan. I was told I needed to spend years preparing so that’s what I went away to do, locking myself in a convenient pattern of delaying and delaying the dream because I had something productive to do — finish my degree. But the degree did not fulfill me. I hated it.
Implications for Watts’ philosophy on education and life
As is the case with all the modern thinkers we’re unpacking here, the conversation about education must go much broader than education and discuss the life that we’re meant to bring people into.
A lot of people understand this, but still fail to think about life deeply enough. This makes no sense — it’s why we need people like Alan Watts who think Without-The-Box enough to clarify the picture of what a real life looks like.
The truth of it is, it’s not the things that many of our bright entrepreneurs and business leaders think, even though they are incredibly progressive. It transcends that.
Really living is this metaphor of the dance, of the music — life lived not to get somewhere, but to ‘just be’ in the experience. We must start from this reality and work backwards — you can’t have this reality if the point of education and school is to spend away one’s youth incorrectly preparing young people for the adult world.
No, we don’t need better literacy, math scores, design thinking workshops or entrepreneurship classes for young people. That’s still Outside-The-Box! It’s still not a solution built from first principles.
None of those things hurt, none of them are bad, but they cannot be the priority.
No system makes sense other than that which enables people to think and be freely — to be afforded responsibility and autonomy for their own life, and to then decide what it is they’re interested in and want to learn.
After that, we can make things available to them through flexible systems like the internet, optional classes, optional workshops, things that are marketed and presented well to our young (and to all), by people who are themselves passionate about the things they share and teach.
The value of one’s life is in the simplest of things — being present, being with good people, being able to pursue one’s intrinsic interests and connect that to value creation in the real world. The obsession with intellectualism in our schools is precisely a distraction of the cruelest kind from what are actually the most small-noted and simplest of things.