Thiel Fellow Closing Ceremony: Questioning the Experiment

Thiel Fellow Closing Ceremony: Questioning the Experiment at

As a parent of a  2011 Thiel Fellow, I was excited about attending the closing ceremonies for the group.

This first group of fellows were guinea pigs–quite fortunate guinea pigs–who had forged the program along with the foundation staff.  They had been supported financially, skillfully mentored, and emotionally bolstered for two years. Most importantly, they had all learned so much about their own projects, about persistence, and about the business world. Would closing mean losing much of that opportunity for dramatic growth?

 Family, friends, foundation representatives, mentors, and current finalists gathered in the Yerba Buena Center Theatre in San Francisco. The room, alive with energy, emotion, and excitement, quieted as Foundation program director and representatives took the stage.

As I sat in the audience, I thought about how I had been in my son’s audience for the last two years, watching from a distance as he grew in leaps and bounds. Onstage the speakers talked about guiding the first Fellows through challenges and about the gifts they’d given each other in the community they created. The Thiel Foundation representative explained that the Fellows were encouraged to continue to participate in this community of support, with Thiel and each other, even though their official fellowship, with the very helpful monthly stipend, was over. The foundation didn’t see this closing as severing ties, he explained, rather it saw it as a transition in their role within the community.

I heaved a parental sigh of relief. Okay, no more money and no degree, but continued  access to a network of support and community. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that losing the network was what I feared the most for Dale.

Representatives of the class of  2011 Fellows spoke to express their appreciation for the Thiel Foundation, staff and mentors. Each fellow spoke briefly about his/her journey. I was fascinated by the individual stories.  I didn’t expect to need kleenex, but I did.

Next came the questions from the audience. You could hear curiosity and trepidation from the finalists, as well as questions, concern and skepticism from some of the parents and other attendees.

 What next? What about? What if? Many were expressions of fear and concerns that there were “no guarantees.”

There are no guarantees.

There are risks, opportunity, choices, and challenges. There is the possibility of growth, success, failure, and learning. And this is true every day of every child’s life. We like to pretend that it isn’t, that getting into the right college, or onto the sport’s team, or into a job means the end of risk, but it doesn’t and more importantly, it shouldn’t. So my questions are for the parents reading here.

Are we  brave enough to let our children try something that did not exist when we were our kids age? Can we let go of our fears? Our sense of how life “should” look, what goals are “worth” achieving?

Are we open and trusting enough to support them while they try something new? Difficult? Unknown? Different? Remixed?

Can we navigate this new territory of parenting passionate young adults? Can we help them learn to balance  pursuing new experiences and exciting demands on their attention with taking care of themselves?

The world is different for them than it was for us. The choices, costs and opportunities make it seem like a new universe. The speed, intensity and demand on our children’s time and attention barely compares to the demands of our college experience.

The Thiel Fellowship,like other alternative learning experiences that take place in the real world, demand more of our kids than following a neat, well-trodden path. The increased responsibility and access to a high-powered network of mentors speeds up the process of learning and maturing. Suddenly our babies are fending for themselves. And, yes, It is scary.

As parents can we let them go?

Even though we wonder if what they are choosing–usually choosing instead of college–provides the kind of structure yet freedom that will support personal development as well as academic and professional development, can we let them try?

Can we collaborate with rather than control our children?  Can we encourage them to define success in a way that includes all aspects of a fulfilling life?

The closing ceremonies ended and I looked around the room abuzz with people making connections, sharing their dreams, giving advice.

I smiled and raised my imaginary glass of bubbly: here’s to the experiment!

Don’t Forget to Go Outside!

Dale Stephens and his grandpa on a hike. Sond't Forget to Go Outside at Photo copyright JP Stephens

Dale and Grandpa hiking. Grandpa’s most recent backpack trip was at age 90.

Here is one of my core beliefs: to improve parenting, learning, and taking care of yourself, make sure you go outside everyday.

Let nature nurture.

Fresh air, sunshine, feet and hands in the dirt help cure a lot of what ails us.  

Need help with stress? Sleep? Moods?

Take a walk.   Continue reading

Learning Projects that Work: Learning by Earning

Homemade fruit stand. Learning by Earning

Dale’s homemade fruitstand.

Two different questions I have been seeing lately that can share an answer:

“ What kind of things could my kids do if unschooling or homeschooling high school? ”


“How can I make money for the things I want to do -travel, attend a program or conference, buy the supplies I need…?”

Learn to earn and manage your money!

I think this is a worthwhile project for kids of any age. Sometimes those of us who are young at heart need to relearn these skills if we find ourselves in different circumstances than we expected.

Obviously the devil is in the details and the details will vary hugely based on who you are, your skills, your location and circumstances. It will be much more difficult for some than others. That’s reality. It’s not fair.  Dwelling on that fact will not solve your problem.

Figuring out how to earn the money for something you want to do and how to budget that money is a valuable life skill that will solve problems.  And it is very beneficial to learn this skill, if possible, BEFORE you are out on your own with out a safety net.

Here are some questions and  possible answers to spark your imagination. Many of these examples are real from yours truly and family, but I trust you can come up with better ones!  Continue reading

Do you take advantage of liminal learning?

Liminal learning photo collage and blog post at

Oh I wish I could paint that scene from the  night in Thailand when we were out in the ocean and dusk was falling. There was 100% humidity and no horizon – no line between water and air, no distinction just an opalescent, blue-grey sheen fading into the distance as far as the eye could see.

The only interruptions in the color were the dark masses of the 5 islands, a bathing water buffalo and one small fishing skiff  being paddled kayak style into the distance. It was eerily blue and quiet, and I wondered how they could tell where they were, how far from shore, or how to get back.

It made me think about the liminal spaces in our learning and how we have to let ourselves become familiar and at ease with the discomfort of transitions and uncertainty.  We have to hang in there when we aren’t sure where the edges are, or where we will end up.

It’s interesting—the way in which one has to balance life—because you have to know when to let go and when to pull back…. There’s always some liminal (as opposed to subliminal) space in between which is harder to inhabit because it never feels as safe as moving from one extreme to another.      Bell Hooks

 It  felt as though we were suspended in time and space. Continue reading