Blessed Are the Disobedient...

  Note: this post originally appeared in the January 2018 newsletter of Leadership + Design.

Note: this post originally appeared in the January 2018 newsletter of Leadership + Design.


If you can’t live without Netflix, you should probably thank Barry Diller. In the 1960s, when Diller was a young professional at ABC, he did the first of many things that would alter the way that we consume stories on TV.

On Reid Hoffman’s podcast, Masters of Scale, Diller tells the story of his arrival at ABC, where he seized the opportunity to purchase rights to broadcast Hollywood movies on TV. He quickly learned that the movies that studios wanted to sell were not the movies that Diller wanted to buy.

Which got him wondering…

Why did Hollywood producers get to decide what stories become movies in the first place?

Then he wondered something else…

Why did stories on TV operate outside the world of time?

As Diller tells Hoffman: “I started to think: All television at that time were series, either comedies or dramas, and in both forms, everything was present-day. In other words, those series would go on for seven years, Lucy [from “I Love Lucy”] still lived in her same apartment. She never moved. Everything was in present time. There was all middle. There was no beginning, there was no end. And I thought, ‘You know what? Why don't we tell stories that have a beginning, middle, and end?’ Like they do in movies. And why shouldn't television do that?”

As it turns out, conventional wisdom abounded about why TV didn’t do it. But for Diller, “conventional wisdom” meant “compliant thinking.” So he exercised some creative disobedience and pitched the idea of a “movie of the week.” The made-for-television movie had been considered impossible until Diller pioneered it. Not long after, Diller invented the mini-series form (“the novel for television,” as he called it).

Movies and miniseries made originally for television, not the big screen--where would Netflix be without Diller’s disobedient thinking?

This episode of Masters of Scale highlights the many ways in which Diller was disobedient and non-compliant as an “infinite learner” (which is the title of the episode). His disobedience is beautifully captured in his favorite questions:

Questions & Answers.png
  • What if…?

  • Why don’t we…?

  • Why couldn’t you…?

In schools, such questions can be disorienting and upsetting for students and adults who have been conditioned to expect a culture of compliance.

In Whiplash, MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito says, “In order to maximize the creative output of each person in the Lab, people often have to be deprogrammed from needing to know what the ‘right’ answer is, what is being asked of them, what they need to comply with in order to ‘pass.’ Sure, there are guidelines, and as part of a large institution, there are some rules that people must follow. The point is that these rules are not the focus. It’s the freedom to act without asking permission.”

That sounds great, but isn’t that easier said than done? Isn’t Barry Diller on Masters of Scale because he is an outlier (and an exceptionally successful one at that)? Doesn’t MIT Media Lab promote disobedience over compliance because they admit only the most elite learners? Why would a typical school want to create an environment in which teachers and students are encouraged “to act without asking permission”?

Here we can learn another lesson from Barry Diller. In his time at ABC (and later Paramount, then Fox), he knew exactly what success looked like: provide compelling stories to audiences. He achieved that goal time and again precisely because he practiced the art of “disobeying” the conventional thinking around how that could be done.

Venn Diagram.png

Schools also need to be crystal clear about what success looks like. During my time at Malvern Prep, we thrashed (creatively) for a long time before distilling our Vision for great learning into a Venn diagram.

That Venn diagram operates like a target. Teachers know that the ideal learning experience will hit the bullseye by asking students to be Augustinian in their hearts, Globally Literate in their minds, and Entrepreneurial in their actions.

Not only does that Venn diagram make it clear where learners ought to go; it also functions as a rubric. A teacher can look at any learning experience and ask, “Are we hitting the bullseye? If not, how might we move from the perimeter to the center?”

For example, imagine that a Math teacher has developed a project-based learning experience about the school’s overcrowded parking lot. The learning experience clearly asks students to be Globally Literate (e.g., apply algebraic thinking to a real world problem) and Entrepreneurial (e.g., collaborate on a prototype solution). But what about the third element of the Venn diagram? How might the teacher move the experience into the bullseye by redesigning the lesson to include an Augustinian element?

The school’s Augustinian mission calls upon the community to attend to the needs of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. A crowded parking lot might present a genuine human need at her school, but it is not an Augustinian concern. By contrast, trying to solve for the peaks and troughs in the food supply at a local food desert, where low income families shop, gets right to the heart of Augustinian concerns.

How else might this teacher redesign the lesson? To borrow a page from Barry Diller:

  • What if... the teacher were to invite students to co-design the lesson to hit the bullseye?

  • Why don’t we... ask students to design their own learning experiences aligned to the bullseye?

  • Why couldn’t you… celebrate the most “disobedient” learning designs that hit the bullseye?

It is easy to “comply” with the expectations of, say, the AP curriculum. But how much more powerful is the learning experience when teachers and students are encouraged to exercise freedom in getting to the bullseye creatively?

In our age of “Whiplash,” promoting disobedience over compliance is enormously practical. The world no longer rewards compliance. In the industrial mechanical era, compliance was a reasonable way to achieve job security. Now, doing what you are told to do, exactly as you are told to do it, marks you out for replacement by a machine, which will be compliant more cheaply and reliably.

By contrast, exercising your creative freedom--your “disobedience”--to journey toward success will ensure that you are an “infinite learner.” And infinite learners are perfectly positioned to thrive in an age of accelerating change.

Blessed are the disobedient, for they will inherit the future.

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