At the end of every year I perform an “annual review.” It includes a series of exercises and questions designed to close out the previous year and help me plan for the new one.
I decided to do it differently this year. Under the guidance of my friend Ting, I took on a process of looking more deeply into my desires, dreams, and hopes for the future. It was a longer, much more embodied and introspective process than I’m used to. It included “vision quests,” guided meditations, spontaneous artmaking, and sharing our learnings in real time with a small group of people that Ting brought together online. Instead of my usual analytical checklist, laid out in a neat grid in a spreadsheet, I took on a process that was more about discovering the future than planning it.
I started by collecting my favorite photos, music, and videos from the year, reliving memories already half forgotten. I summarized my projects and milestones, including the outcome and what I’d learned from each. I listed my biggest disappointments, trying to just be with my grief over a reality that never came to be, despite my efforts. I started to feel within myself a space full of thoughts and feelings that didn’t have a clear purpose, and yet were as real as the chair I’m sitting in.
A few weeks into this process, I was hired last minute by a client to give a presentation at a company learning event in New Haven, Connecticut. I didn’t relish making a cross-country trip just a week before Christmas, and was a little annoyed at having my “process” interrupted. But a client is a client, and I went.
I gave my talk at a hotel at the edge of the Yale University campus. The following morning, with a few hours to kill before my flight, I decided to walk the grounds. It was 7 in the morning, and freezing, as I walked briskly toward the old part of campus.
Seeing the centuries-old buildings dedicated to learning and scholarship, I started to get in touch with something that had been dormant for a long time: the power of place for learning. Starting in the fifth grade, I went to a different school every year for five years. I continued this trajectory in college, bouncing between two U.S. universities, a community college in California, and two foreign universities, while switching majors at some point in between. These experiences had given me a strong sense of self-reliance, but had also left me without a strong connection to any particular place for my formal education.
In recent years, I’d joined the Silicon Valley bandwagon denouncing traditional educational institutions as archaic and outdated. Even looked forward to their demise. But walking that venerable campus, where so many great thinkers and leaders had been formed, I came face to face with the power of situated learning. I saw what was possible in an immersive environment where everything was designed and optimized for acquiring knowledge.
I visited the main library as it opened. It is designed like a Gothic cathedral, with arched windows and towering columns framing cozy study alcoves. The stained glass windows depict famous scientists and philosophers, instead of saints and apostles.
I strolled through the public collection, my eyes catching on suggestive titles, like clues to hidden worlds. It reminded me of a place that had impacted me deeply: the Laguna Niguel Public Library, where I had spent countless hours as a kid wandering the stacks. So many of the most influential books in my life had jumped out at me from the shelves unexpectedly, catching my eye as I scanned the titles.
This serendipity is what online education is missing, I realized. The random chance, the sense of destiny, and the lucky accidents that come from exploring a space that is full of opportunities, but that you do not fully control. Instead, we are targeted and sorted into carefully designed sales funnels online, each click making it less likely that we’ll encounter anything we don’t already “like.”
I walked down the street to the rare books library, a severe, modernist glass cube suspended in mid-air. In a glass case in the corner was a complete Gutenberg Bible, one of only 21 surviving in the world. Examining its pages, my face pressed up against the glass, I was humbled by the gravity of what this simple bound document had unleashed: modern civilization as we know it. From the most mundane of inventions had sprung unimaginable human potential.
I went back to the hotel, got my bags, and headed to the airport in Hartford for my flight back home. As I sat in the terminal waiting to board, I downloaded Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind. I had seen it on a few different recommended reading lists, but it wasn’t until my recent conversation with Allison Andrade about “ecstatic experiences” that I decided to give it a read.
The book is about psychedelics, with an emphasis on two substances derived from mushrooms – LSD and psilocybin. It is a sweeping tale of their history, culture, politics, usage, and practice, plus a series of the author’s personal experiences. Pollan is extremely well known for his best-selling books on food, plants, and cooking, but this book is an outlier. It documents his journey not only to learn about an interesting new trend, but to indulge his curiosity about what these substances had to offer, and just maybe, to help him find a renewed sense of purpose after a long and dazzling career.
I devoured the book on the flight back to L.A. The mix of history, science, and self-reflection is my kryptonite. I’ve had a handful of experiences with psychedelics, which have been some of the most profound of my life. But I had never studied much of the background of where they came from or how they worked.
I learned that we are currently perched on the edge of a “psychedelic revolution.” After several decades of stigma and prohibition, psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin are making a comeback. Hundreds of studies at prestigious institutions around the world have slowly been confirming their potential as a “miracle drug” for conditions as diverse as PTSD, depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, trauma, and existential despair in the face of terminal illnesses. Research from the 1950s and 1960s on thousands of subjects that showed unprecedented rates of effectiveness are being unearthed and replicated. The psychedelic winter is coming to an end.
But what really got me was the history. I read about the Spanish Inquisition, how it sought to suppress and destroy any trace of the indigenous medicinal practices centered on what the Aztecs called teonanácatl, or “flesh of the gods.” The power of these experiences were too great a threat to the religion they sought to spread.
I was deeply moved to learn how a handful of Mexican villages in the far south of the country, so remote that they were unreachable by vehicle, had somehow preserved the tradition for centuries. Generation after generation, they had passed on the knowledge of how to make the “medicine” they knew was so effective in helping people.
In 1952, a Manhattan banker and amateur mycologist named R. Gordon Wasson sampled the magic mushroom in the town of Huautla de Jiménez in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Two years later, he published a fifteen-page account of the “mushrooms that cause strange visions” in Life magazine, marking the moment when news of this new form of consciousness first reached the general public in the United States.
After a couple decades of intensive experimentation showing spectacular results, psychedelics were banned in 1972 because of the fear that they would “corrupt the country’s youth.” From then on, a small underground community of enthusiasts, advocates, doctors, shamans, artists, writers, scientists, and therapists kept it alive. In recent years they have emerged as the leaders of a movement that is gaining force every year.
I was unexpectedly moved to tears by this matter-of-fact history. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude that all these people, over so many years, had preserved this practice, at such great risk to their careers and even their lives. They had kept the secret alive so that I, someone they would never meet, could have the privilege of swallowing something that opened the doors to a vast inner world of wonder and love inside me.
Cramped in a tiny economy seat in the back of the plane, I felt for perhaps the first time ever that I was a part of history. That I was in the flow of something that extends far before and far after me. Reading about this movement, I saw a place for myself. I saw that I am part of a lineage of healers and truth seekers and teachers who believe in a better future for humanity. And who are willing to give our lives to it even if we will never see it fully realized.
There is something called a “contact high” in which you can feel some of the effects of psychedelics just by being around people who are taking them. I didn’t know it was possible to get a contact high from reading, but I think that’s what happened. As I read account after account of people’s psychedelic experiences, everything started looking brighter and warmer. I felt expansive, connected to everyone around me. Everything seemed imbued with sublime meaning.
As I put the book down and started journaling what I was experiencing, something started to take shape in my mind. Like an electric arc connecting parts of my brain that didn’t normally communicate, I started to see the closest thing to a “vision” I had ever experienced while sober.
I saw a school building, nestled in the Serra da Mantiqueira mountains of Southern Brazil. I knew it was there, because it was surrounded by araucaria trees native to that region. Their tall, slender trunks shot upward, each one topped with a crown of thorny branches arcing upward and outward like a spiky umbrella. It is a region familiar to me, because it was there that my family lived when I was 14 years old, in the most pivotal year of my life.
It was called Escola Pura, I somehow knew. “Pure School” in English. There we would teach everything they didn’t teach in normal school: productivity, effectiveness, organization, and project management to start. But also yoga, meditation, breathwork, and emotional intelligence. I would share everything I had learned in exclusive, expensive programs in Silicon Valley, like Landmark, Tide Turners, and Vipassana.
The students would be young people – from teens to 20s and 30s – who wanted to make an impact. On their own lives, on their families, on their communities, on their country, and on the world. They would come from the favelas and the bairros nobres, from the country and the cities, from the North and the South, from the coast and the interior, from the privileged and from the disadvantaged, from creative fields and from government, from business and from non-profits. We would equip them with the very best the world of self-development had to offer: the tools, the skills, the methods, and the wisdom necessary to excel, to make things happen, and to realize their goals, but also to heal, to contribute, and to inspire.
The school will be in a physical location, but it will be born digital. Technology skills – including coding, design, marketing, media production, and many others – will be part of every class. Technology is modern alchemy, and our students will be taught to wield it from the start.
The school itself will live with one foot on the ground, and one in the cloud. Class content will be available online in a flipped classroom; discussions and collaborations will seamlessly move between online and offline spaces; classes will incorporate tangible projects that are shared online with the world; instructors will conduct classes remotely when they need to, as they pursue their work across the globe. The dichotomy between “online” and “offline” education will be completely collapsed, just as it has collapsed in the real world.
Escola Pura will train a new generation of Brazilian leaders, equipping them with every practical superpower mankind has to offer, in service of whichever cause they care about. Eventually, we will invite others from different countries to see what we’ve done. We will license it, or franchise it, or sell it, or open source it, or just give it away. We will bring back Brazilians from abroad who have lost hope in their country. And then send them out again as ambassadors of light and hope.
That is all I know. It doesn’t seem right to say I “thought of it.” It’s more like I received it, fully formed. It was shocking to discover this plan already in my mind, like a perfect memory, except of something that hasn’t happened yet.
At the same time, this idea is me through and through. It’s not so much a metaphysical destiny as the sum of my life experiences.
My experience at Yale was an influence. I had to let go of my dismissal of physical places and institutions as essential for learning.
The Peace Corps was an influence. I saw that I could have a big impact in a short period of time, teaching young people how to define goals, make plans, and use their skills to serve their communities. I saw how little it takes to set a young person on a completely different trajectory.
GTD was an influence. I had to see that it was possible to teach people a framework that helped them be more responsible, organized, and effective. I needed to see that integrity could be taught.
My work with MESA was an influence. I had to see with my own eyes what it looked like for a Brazilian company to do work at a global standard. To come up with something new and revolutionary completely from Brazilian roots. I had to let go of my Brazilian cynicism about Brazil.
My experiences with coaching were an influence. I needed to see that there were forms of instruction far more powerful than mere content. To understand that true breakthroughs happen only when we are witnessed by another human being.
My experiences in Brazil and other parts of Latin America were obviously an influence. There is a saudade buried deep in my heart, for a homeland that I was not born in but always long for. It was planted there as my mother sang me to sleep with Portuguese lullabies; during long afternoons in my grandmother’s kitchen in São Paulo; at jubilant after school soccer games in Campos do Jordão where we lived when I was 14; and later in college as I partied the weekends away at universities in Curitiba and Rio de Janeiro. What I long for most of all is for Brazil to thrive. To reach the potential that always seems just out of reach. Brazil gave me everything it had to offer, and then sent me overseas to a country where I would have more opportunity and security. And it feels like it’s time to come home and give back.
The world badly needs what Brazil has to offer. Their resilience and courage in the face of adversity. Their creativity and adaptability under the most difficult conditions. But also their joy and their optimism over what they do have. Their social bonds and community life that can survive anything. It is an incredibly rich culture that the world has only begun to appreciate beyond the postcard images. Brazilians could be the leaders of a new world. They could teach us a new way of being in connection with our hearts, our bodies, our spirits, and the Earth
But Brazil also needs help. It is a dark time of deepening poverty and entrenched corruption. A new political regime proudly declares its racism, sexism, homophobia, climate denial, and opposition to indigenous and civil rights. And a majority of the voting population agrees that such measures are necessary for order and progress. It seems like everyone with a way out of the country is getting out. The minds and hearts that the country needs are fleeing for better opportunities elsewhere.
I have no idea what path Escola Pura will take. Maybe it will be a small-scale experiment to validate a model for others to use. Perhaps it will start online to build an audience, and only later find a geographic home. Maybe we will start a pilot inside existing schools using government funds, or build a network of private schools independent of any institutions. For now it is just a web address – escolapura.com – that redirects to this post.
What I do know is that this path will take many years, will require resources and skills far beyond what I can supply myself, and will draw on a vast number of people whom I haven’t met yet. It might not happen within my lifetime, and probably won’t ultimately look like what I’m envisioning. But I am ready: to let go, to push through, to expand beyond my beliefs about what is possible, so that Escola Pura and what it represents has even a small chance of becoming real.
It is the most meaningful idea I have ever conceived of. If this isn’t a life purpose, then I don’t know what is.
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