My personal notes from Sal Khan’s interview with Michael Gervais on the Finding Mastery podcast.
How did Sal mentally manage the risk of non-venture backed entrepreneurship?
Early on in the Khan Academy journey, even when, let’s go back to 2004 2005, I started tutoring my cousin’s 2005, I started writing software for them. That’s when I got the domain name Khan Academy. And I started writing software for my cousins. And I said, “Hey, if it’s just my cousins who are using it, it’s worth doing this, it’s helping them”. But obviously, as you start writing software you’re like, but maybe people who are not my cousins could use it. But I kept trying to keep myself from getting too attached to the big ambition, just saying, hey, just put one foot in front of the other, but keep the door open to the big ambition. I didn’t want to close that door either…
Even before I had quit my job, I would show my friends, “Hey, I’ve got this hobby. I’m tutoring my cousins.” My friends, out here in Silicon Valley, their natural inclination is “why are you doing this?” And I’m like, “oh, because it’s helping my cousins.” They’d ask, “How are you going to monetize this? I don’t see the business plan. Someone else’s is doing what you’re doing.”
I’m like, no, no, no, this isn’t a business. This isn’t anything. I’m doing it because it’s helping my cousins. And hey, if it helps other people, great. So that was one form of protection.
Dealing with cynics — who do you need to convince and what evidence do you hold?
Even today, when I encounter cynics, the first thing I say is, “Sal, don’t be defensive, there might be something in what they’re saying”. You don’t want to be delusional and ignore good feedback. But at the same time, you also have to remind yourself: you don’t have to convince this person.
We always want to impress our friends and convince them that what we’re doing is a good idea. But I don’t have to convince them. That’s the first somewhat liberating thing. And then what made me not question myself too much, I said, “Okay, so what evidence do you have?” This is a friend who’s smart, I respect their opinion, but what evidence do I have?
Well, I did transform several of my cousins’ lives. I was already getting letters from people who I didn’t know around the world about how it had transformed them in some way, shape, or form or their children.
Look, my well-intentioned friend is probably trying to save me from “wasting time” or getting distracted, but they haven’t even tried it out. They just did classic MBA-type thinking of “Well, I heard some other companies are making educational videos and doing software that creates questions. You’re like the 10th person to do this, so what makes you think…”. That’s their natural, competitive analysis type of thing.
I think there’s probably a lot of people who want to do entrepreneurial things. And when they meet a friend who’s doing something entrepreneurial, part of their brain wants to help the friend and wants to be constructive for the friend, part of their brain wants to help their friend. If they think their friend is going down the wrong angle, maybe protecting them from that a little bit. But some of it is also protecting their choices. “I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I’ve been afraid to and now my friend is doing it…maybe it’s comfortable if I convince him to stop doing it, and do what I’m doing.”
The main thing is just what just keep reminding yourself, “Why are you doing it? What gives you confidence?” And remembering “Who do you really need to convince? And who do you not really have to convince?”
Where did Sal learn to focus on evidence and focusing on who he needed to convince?
He lightly responds: Probably is a coping mechanism for a bunch of things that happen in life…I’ve been described by even some of our early board members as a “pleaser”. Like I want people to say, “Good job.” [Me: Oh man, this hits hard]
I think I realized in my life you’re never going to win trying to please everybody. Trying to convince people, getting defensive about things, you just don’t feel good about yourself.
I’m still working on it. I have a lot of ideas. I do try to share them with people who I really respect. And when they immediately get in the devil’s advocate position or the cynical side, I do get a little defensive if I’m honest. But I I’ve been working on myself. “Okay, I don’t have to convince them, there’s probably some truth in what they’re saying, I should process it.”
And you know, also some of it’s on me. I realized that when I get excited about an idea, I go into “sell mode” almost immediately, like “this is all the reasons why it’s good, isn’t this exciting?…” And that almost automatically puts people into that devil’s advocate position. “But what about this? What about that?” And so now when I introduce ideas, I’m going against my stereotype, where I’m showing that I’m also looking at the risks and how this could go wrong.
Half the time, the next morning, I wake up, I’m like, “Yeah, they were kind of right.” But sometimes I’m like, “No, I still have evidence that this was worth this is worth pursuing.”
How did Sal frame the decision to leave the hedge fund path to start Khan Academy?
There were some basic mechanical, left-brain considerations.
Did I save up enough money? I was an analyst at a hedge fund, I wasn’t a hedge fund manager. So I was able to save up some money, essentially a healthy downpayment for our house in Silicon Valley. We were saving up for, you know, several hundreds of thousands of dollars not like independently wealthy money. We don’t have big expenses. My wife and I grew up quite poor so we know how to economize. That was a mechanical thing.
Even more was the opportunity cost of the [hedge fund] career. Every year your income is accelerating. In five or six years, I could be making what my boss was making, what could have been in the millions of dollars every year. And that’s a real big opportunity cost to give up for something that’s unproven. That’s where a little bit of the heart came in. I just told myself “Well, what is the life that you want? And the life that I want is a healthy, happy family. But I really told myself, if I had a nice 2000 square foot house, which was the house that we were renting, and we later were able to buy — a four bedroom house with you know two cars in the driveway. We’re able to go on vacations, go to restaurants every now and I’m able to support my kids through college. That’s all I want, financially, really. And if I’m able to do that then also get to work on something that, every morning, I wake up and I’m inspired to work on, I get to work on an interesting problem, and I feel like I have a sense of purpose then I consider myself the luckiest person on the planet. I’m not saying this now just to sound you know anything, that’s literally what I told myself. I’m like, if you are able to have that lifestyle, that’s a really good life. And so that liberated me a little bit from the golden handcuffs.
A lot of times when I’m making some of these decisions like even “what Khan Academy should be” I do go a little bit into what inspires me. We have one life to live. If you have a shot of being able to live your life as a protagonist in a movie, live your life as a protagonist in a science fiction book, go for it! [Me: this is the type of thinking that doesn’t show up in a spreadsheet. This is an example of how “accounting” fails us…not everything that matters can be measured and vice versa]
He fills in the details:
Even in the early days, there were a lot of VCs who reached out who wanted to write a check and Khan Academy be a for-profit, and it was tempting. But then when we start talking about monetization, and how you’re going to exit and all that I was like, “Oh, this isn’t what I want to do I want to”
Then I thought about what is the homerun is for a for-profit. And then what’s a homerun for a non-profit. A homerun for a for-profit, we all know those stories quite well. But I was also thinking, “How’s it going to change the world? And how’s that going to change me?”
And then I thought about a home run as a non-profit. I’m like, “What if Khan Academy can be the next Smithsonian, the next Oxford, or the next, whatever. In some ways, it’s bigger than all of those because even in 2009, when I was thinking about these things, it had bigger reach than some of these hundreds-of-year-old institutions. And we were, there’s no reason why we couldn’t grow another 100 fold or not 1000 fold from there. So for me, it was like, “Wow, maybe it’s worth swinging for the even higher fence.” That’s a hard thing. The head kicks in and says, “Okay, is that at all reasonable?” And as ridiculous as it sounds, it isn’t unreasonable. If you just extrapolate the growth, if you just look at what Internet technologies allow us to do, if you just think about the scale of other people on the internet, for the most part for-profits…Google scale would have seemed like science fiction 30 years ago for what it does. But it’s not. And so couldn’t Khan Academy be that same thing, but as a social institution?
Going back to our earlier, I’ve realized that there’s certain contexts where you’re this type of conversation is going to be welcome. But the conversations where I’m talking to my friend who’s talking about how you’re going to monetize this, he’s not going to be in a headspace where I’m like, Well, what do you really want out of your life? And what do I really want in my life?
And do I need his approval for me to be able to do it? Now, I did talk about this with my wife, and I kind of do need her approval because this is “how do we want to live our life”.
Healthy and unhealthy “imposter syndrome”
I think some of that impostor syndrome, I actually want to retain. I never want to forget how, like, there, there was a time not too long ago that I would pass on the organic produce. I think it lets you just appreciate the world a little bit. And we all know about hedonic adaptation and the hedonic treadmill. I don’t claim that I’m immune so I don’t want to sound like I’m some guru here. I live in Silicon Valley. We live in that same house, and a lot of our friends have now moved into houses that are multiple of the size of our house. Every now and then it’s “maybe it would be nice to have two saunas.” But I always remind myself, “well imagine their electricity bill, or like, the gardening bill or the water bill or whatever.” But, yeah, I think it’s healthy imposter syndrome.
A healthy one keeps you grounded, allows you to enjoy it a little bit. Like every now and then I get invited to meetings with people or conferences with people, where both healthy and unhealthy impostor syndrome could be at play. The healthy imposter syndrome says “Wow, you get to meet your childhood hero, or someone that you thought you could only read books about, and you’re meeting this person, and they are interested in what you have to say, and they’re supporting Khan Academy.” That’s kind of fun. I don’t know if that’s impostor syndrome, or that’s just remembering yourself when you’re younger. And you’re like, “Wow, how is little Sal in this meeting right now? That’s kind of wild.”
The little less healthy imposter syndrome is that if that goes to an extreme, where like there’s a discussion and I’m like “Who am I to say something?”
There, I try to remind myself that everyone here is literally just a person, like everyone here. And that’s another, I guess, coping mechanism. I just treat everyone as if they’re my childhood friend. And there’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy there as long you’re respectful. Some people who have been great supporters of Khan Academy are household names — I’m gonna treat them as my friend. And I think they appreciate that too, because so many other people treat them with such reverence, and I respect them a ton, but I get to joke around with them a little bit. And that’s how I deal with that other potential imposter syndrome.
A resonant story: college can give you a safe space to explore things you have suppressed because you grew up perhaps in a narrow place
MIT was like heaven for me. I think when you are in high school in a fairly mainstream high school, you have to suppress certain instincts. You have to suppress how much you get excited about learning certain things so you don’t get beat up, you don’t get ostracized.
Why Sal wanted to dedicate himself to education
- First, I’ve always enjoyed teaching. Multiple times in my life, either informally, even when I was very young, I found that I had a knack for it. In a lot of cases where a classmate might be struggling to understand what’s in a textbook or a teacher, and I’m like, “Oh, this is how I think about it”. And my friend was like, “Oh, man, that’s so cool. Yeah, that makes all the sense in the world”. I guess I have a knack for this thing. So that kind of built confidence in my ability to do that. [Me: importance of knowing yourself in helping determine what you should be doing!]I was the president of the math club and one of the things we did was math tutoring. We created such a legitimate program that the school then made it a formal part of the school. It made anyone who had below a certain grade in any of their math classes go to this math tutoring, that I was essentially running with a bunch of other students who are in this club. And I saw time and time again, a lot of students who were struggling, barely passing a course, or thought they hated math, if they just had the opportunity, the incentive to fill in gaps, had things explained to them the right way, a chance to practice, they were off to the races. Some of them joined the math Honor Society. A month ago, they were about to fail their algebra class, and now they’re going to math competitions with us, because they started to get excited about it. So that also gave me confidence.And that’s all about mastery learning. The opportunity, incentive to fill in any gaps to finish any unfinished learning.
- The other thread is I think every young person who’s even vaguely idealistic, and I think this is all young people, look at the world and say, “Oh, there’s so many problems in the world. How do you solve it?” You think about climate, you think about inequality, think about whatever you pick, you pick the issue. Conflicts, when you really keep peeling the onion, it’s just what’s going on in people’s heads. Everything else is almost just a side effect of what’s going on in people’s heads. Okay, so then we got to change what goes on inside people’s heads or improve or remodeler? Well, what does that? Education. Education is the single highest leverage point.
A quote pulled from Sal’s writing:
If you believe in trying to make the best of the finite number of years we have on this planet, while not making anyone worse think that pride and self righteousness are the cause of most conflict and negativity, and are humbled by the vastness and mystery of the universe, then I’m the same religion as you.
What is the state of education today?
The good news
If I compare the State of the Union of education to what it was 250 years ago, it’s awesome. 250 years ago, even in more literate countries, 30-40% of the of the population was functionally illiterate. Free public school, or at least a high-quality public school was not a mainstream thing as recent as even 30, 40 or 50 years ago. Because of things like segregation even in places like the US, you did not have respectable access to education. I think it’s still not perfect, and there’s still a lot of inequality but for the most literacy rates are much, much better than they were for most of human history. Even in the last 10 years, as I’ve been on this journey, things like access to technology, to the internet, to high-quality instructional materials, etc. That’s all actually gotten better, even in the last 15 years.
The bad news
Even in affluent neighborhoods or fancy prep schools, you still have a model where a lot of kids are still falling through the cracks. And those are the places where they’re not resource-constrained. Imagine in the places where they are resource constrained. I mean, there are still schools, my school in fact, which is a suburb of New Orleans which was pretty mainstream, it wasn’t a gold-plated school by any stretch of the imagination. It was a normal Louisiana public school. But I remember even when I was growing up, there were schools in New Orleans and kind of urban corridors that didn’t have air conditioning. Can you imagine not having air conditioning in New Orleans?
The disappointing news
Let’s just assume that you have all the resources…the model of education is not mastery-based. Kids are moved ahead at a fixed pace. They cover some material, they get a test, some kids get 100 on it, some kids get a 90, some kids get a 70 on it, even though that student didn’t know 30% of the material that happened to be on the test, the whole class will move on to the next concept, and then build on those gaps. And then the next concepts are going to be that much harder to learn. And then those gaps just keep accumulating. [Me: In my own tutoring I see this at the elementary level. Kids that are 2 to 3 grades behind. There’s no concept of being left back. Just push them through the system]
At some point, kids hit a wall. It hits their self-esteem, they’re not able to move any further. And this isn’t theoretical, you just look at the graduates of a fancy prep school, it’s happening. It’s definitely happening on a nationwide basis. So I think that is the biggest problem.
60% of kids who to 2-year colleges and about 30% of the kids who go to 4-year colleges (and college-bound kids are in the top half of already) exhibit giant gaps in learning, many unable to learn algebra yet — a 9th grade course. The majority of kids attending college would need to go back to middle school-level learning to fill in gaps.
On American universities
American higher education is the envy of the world. Our research is the best in the world. American universities have very nice facilities, and they have very nice programs. So what are the problems?
- They’re very expensive. Partially because of the landscaping and the facilities and the programs that they have.
- They can be very rigid. What’s magical about four years, whether you’re gonna be a software engineer, or art historian? It’s always 4 years. Clearly no one has said “Let me just work on the stuff that you need to learn. And not just to learn to be that career, but like learn to be a human being or participate in democracy.” The opportunity cost isn’t just in dollars, although those are significant. It’s also in lost time, the fact that in the US to become a working doctor, and I observed this with my wife, and she’s not even a surgeon, You have to keep going even as a rheumatologist. She was 32 before she was really a rheumatologist and she never took a break since kindergarten. You’re losing a lot of talent that could help serve a more diverse community because they were the ones that said, “Hey, I gotta get a job fast. I can’t sit in school until I’m 32 years old, or 35 years old to become a surgeon or a professor or whatever else.” Those are the problems that I think we need to address.
On the stress of college admissions
I actually think our system is culturally broken in a lot of ways. There’s always been a Lord of the Flies aspect. I remember reading that book in middle school, I’m like, okay, yeah, you just described the locker room or the playground — bully or be bullied. Unfortunately, it’s part of the culture and in many cases, it happens more in some of the more affluent neighborhoods, the stress and anxiety. Here in Silicon Valley, Palo Alto, I can’t afford to live in those neighborhoods that go into those high schools — they have the highest suicide rates in the country. I talk to educators there. The stress, the anxiety, the depression, there is off the charts. So that’s another thing. Talk to anyone in higher education. Roughly a third of all students are in some way dealing with some of these things.
What is the university tuition actually buying?
Universities study everything, except some very obvious questions, like what you just asked, “What are you paying for?”You can conduct a very simple study here. Go to the upcoming Harvard graduation, and go to some kids who have some debt, “Hey, graduate, I will pay your $200,000 right now, whatever, however much debt you have, you get to keep all the knowledge you got from Harvard and all of the experiences, but you can never tell anyone that you went to Harvard University, will you take it?” I’m guessing very few people will.
On the other hand, if I were to go to a lot of people, and say, “You can pay $200,000 right now and the whole world will think that you have gone to Harvard for the rest of your life. There’s no way of proving it. You get no new knowledge.” A lot of people will take you up on that. So I think that tells you something about what people might be paying for.
I do think there are other things. Like if I offer you $200,000 but all your memories of the great conversations and friendships go away. That also would be hard for people to take. And look, I think the knowledge matters as well. But I do think the credential and the brand and the halo is a big, big, big piece of it. You absolutely can learn some of the more tangible skills at a lower cost alternative or even online.
And for the experiential, maybe the less tangible skills. You also could learn in other ways. Some people say, “Oh, well, it’s just an important coming-of-age experience, you learn how to learn.” I don’t disagree with that. That happened to me in college. I had a great college experience. I met some of the best friends in my life, I met my wife in college. But I could imagine other coming-of-age experiences that are just as powerful. The military is one. I could imagine traveling through Europe with a cohort of students while we get jobs while we do online learning at the same time. I imagine doing internships and co-ops I’m learning, whether it’s in person or online, and getting work experience. And if I’m able to have a cohort of people my own age, that could be a great coming-of-age experience.
A not-so-great coming-of-age experience that I’ve seen happen, including people in my own family, is you have this great experience, and then you hit reality. You’re 21 years old, you’re no longer living on the well-groomed Country Club of a fancy university you attended. You have $200,000 of debt or more. You realize that in that economic seminar at the Ivy League school they treat you like you’re going to be the Federal Reserve Chairman but that’s not how the world is treating you now. You’re having trouble getting that job in economics. And if you do, it’s not paying you enough to pontificate about interest rates. We have to think a little bit more holistically outside of even just those four years.
Sal’s desire for Khan Academy
We have all the components for school in the cloud so to speak (via Khan, sister orgs and partners, through schoolhouse.world, a free online tutoring initiative) but I don’t think we’re going to be a mainstream use-case.
I’m doing what I’m doing because I want the whole world to change. I want the people who have access to school for that school to be that much better and personalized. I want for kids not to fall through the cracks and all the associated stress and mental health issues and self-esteem issues. I also want Khan Academy and the related organizations to be like the shadow school system, the strategic education reserve, the shadow safety net, for the world, where if you don’t have school, if your school is crappy, you have, you have a safety net.
Personal resonance and reflection on Sal’s takes
- When you take risks, cynics will be constant. Sometimes they will be right and sometimes not. But you need to focus on 2 things:
- Who do I actually need to convince?
- What evidence do I possess that says the risk is worthwhile?
- When making a decision separate what you need from what you think you want. Then don’t be afraid to chase what inspires you (”a protagonist in your own movie”). I think of it as shedding to build.
- Imposter syndrome can keep you grounded
- Sal’s north star is personalized mastery learning because it increases self-esteem and well-being. It’s the maximum leverage point because our largest problems and conflicts stem from what’s in our minds. This is highly adjacent to my own “agency” argument.
- Sal is courageous because he is trying to demonstrate that there can be a better way. He is consciously trying to be a role model through his actions and while I understand that many believe this is nudgy or righteous thinking I have argued the same point. We are suffering from a lack of healthy models and have settled into a forest of Molochian equilibriums. The “lord of the flies” broken culture around college admissions Sal uses is but a metaphor for what I see everywhere — the type of competition that is unhealthy and eats its own competitors. The people who feel on top now cannot outrun it. If it doesn’t eat them, it will eat their children.