The upside of adversity in life

Last Wednesday at Unreasonable Institute’s final presentations, Roberto Carlos Rivera shared a deeply personal story. As a child, Roberto was involved in gang fights; he created hip-hop songs; and he had been kicked out of school – twice – because he stirred up emotions in his classmates. 

Now, years later, Roberto is nominated a Top Young Change Agent. Roberto was selected as an Unreasonable Fellow and leads The Good Life Organization. In his own words: “I went from a dope-dealer to a hope-dealer”.  

Listening to Roberto, a thought came to me: challenging moments in life are necessary opportunities to become a great person.


Looking at close friends and distant heroes, every single person I see as a leader has overcome big challenges in their life. I have friends who recovered from life-threatening accidents or convinced hundreds of people to join a cause before officially being a teenager. Gandhi was able to develop satyagraha because of his inhumane experience in South Africa; Jay-Z developed incredible perseverance because of his tough youth in the Bronx. 

This idea – that life challenges are necessary to develop character – triggers two observations. First, shielding children from pain may not be the best way to raise happy, fulfilled human beings. Brene Brown echoes this in an On Being podcast (mins 31:30-35:00). According to Brene Brown, American parents can be overprotective, a missed opportunity for their children to build character. “Hope is a function of struggle”, Brene Brown says, “I see students who have never experienced real adversity. How that shows up is hopelessness”.

Second, when children with seemingly dark futures ahead of them can break out of destructive patterns there is great hope for them. The struggle for life has given them the opportunity to build real character. These kids have the rough material to become diamonds. 


Have you experienced adversity in your youth? Which were the moments that define you as you are? Do you know great leaders who have not struggled with adversity? 

A quest for learning – summer 2013

This summer, I embark on an epic quest. With 8 students from MIT and UC Berkeley, I’m cycling 4,000 miles from San Francisco to Washington. Along our journey, we will teach hands-on science classes to a total of 1,000 high-school students on topics we deeply care about, organized as “Learning Festivals”.

Classes range from “How to build a heliostat solar panel?” to “How does the brain work?”. Each Learning Festival will end with a session in which we invite students to work on their own ideas. The goal of our journey is to let children experience the joy of learning and the power of turning ideas into reality.


For email updates of the highlights of our journey (2x per month), please leave your information here. I keep another blog during the summer, please find it here. 

A demo class in Amsterdam

A demo class in Amsterdam

How can you help? 

Thank you for taking the effort of reading this page! There are several ways in which you can help:

(1) We are looking for teaching locations across the country (see the map below). Are you in touch with school teachers, librarians or summer camp leaders along our route? Please introduce us, spokes [at] mit [dot] edu!

(2) We will be camping all the way. Do you have friends who live along the path, who are happy to host 8 students for a meal or a night? Please introduce us, spokes [at] mit [dot] edu!

(3) This journey will lead into a structural organization to support children in developing their own ideas beyond summer. Do you want to work on or fund the future of hands-on learning? Definitely reach out, spokes [at] mit [dot] edu!


Along our journey, we are supported by a large team of web designers, educators and funders. During our trip, we will be 8: 6 MIT students, 1 UC Berkeley student and myself .

Our team of 8

Our team of 8


1. COMPUTERS, ART:  The algorithmic beauty of plants

Do you like computers, plants, or art? How about the intersection of all three? In this course, we explore the recursive structure of plants and learn how to make pretty pictures of trees, flowers, and abstract fractal-like patterns using a clever technique called L-systems. Everyone will have a chance to create their own computer-generated works of art inspired by life.

2. NEUROSCIENCE, GAMES:  EyeWire: a game to map the brain

EyeWire is a puzzle-meets-coloring book online game that enables its players to contribute to the brain mapping initiative, which was announced by President Obama in March. Developed in part by one of the Spokes teachers in the Seung Lab at MIT, the game teaches its players how to trace the “branches” of neurons through 3D reconstructions of brain tissue. To do this task, players “spot check” computer algorithms, with the ultimate goal of obtaining a connectivity map with synaptic-scale resolution of the “connectome.”

3. ENERGY, CONTROL SYSTEMS:  Build your own solar panel heliostat

Through assembling their own solar panel heliostat, students will gain insight into the fundamental working or energy from renewables. This class combines knowledge in mechanical engineering (designing a technical system), computer science (programming an arduino) and electrical engineering (soldering the board).

4. FOOD, GARDENING:  How to grow your own vegetables: inside, for free!

Don’t you wish you know how to make your own delicious food? With a few old plastic gutters, a handful of plant seeds and a bit of daily care, you will grow your own veggies in no-time! Add in a few quick and easy recipes, and you will be the most popular chef in your high school – period.

5. MUSIC, PHYSICS:  The Science of Music

Music has been called the universal language. In some sense its building blocks of rhythm, harmony, and melody arise from the nature of the human mind. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions! Come learn about the math, physics, and psychology behind the music we love and how to take a scientific approach to solving its mysteries.


Our route from San Francisco to DC

Our route from San Francisco to DC



My class

The class I will teach is called: “Grow your own vegetables – the joy of making what you’re eating”. I have created an entire outline of my class (using pictures, very few words) here.

See you in DC!

See you in DC!

Why do solutions cluster around a handful of problem areas?

Education is a popular problem-area for start-up founders these days. I see friends build companies that assist you in learning a language; help you with your dyslexia or allow you to train for your final exams online. Is the problematic state of education today the explanation for the surge in ideas? I don’t think so. I think education is a popular area for start-ups now because types of solutions are becoming possible that can address the problems in education. It is not a bigger problem that leads to new ideas; it is a more appropriate set of solution building blocks.

I believe education is popular today because of the adjacent possibilities. A jump in computer penetration in classrooms; the possibility to stream videos from one brilliant teacher to every schoolgirl with access to internet; and advances in video games and visualization have enabled solutions for problems that existed for years or decennia.

To come up with brilliant solutions, you don’t dream up future scenarios out of thin air – you use building blocks that are (becoming) available.