Welcome to the Join Up Dots business coaching podcast interview with Kenny Felder
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Introducing Kenny Felder
Kenny Felder is todays guest being interviewed on todays Join Up Dots business coaching podcast.
He could well have been created specially for a programme called “Join Up Dots”
His life has been….well unplanned at the best of times.
But I suppose it is having this freedom of choice which has allowed him to experience many things, that probably wouldn’t have seemed likely if he had planned.
Leaving University with two degrees “Physics” and “English”, which he quite openly admits have been about as useful as a chocolate teapot, and certainly less than helpful to getting a great job, Kenny Felder found himself at a crossroads.
His enthusiasm at a low point, his choices equally low, he stumbled into computers, and despite no interest in either them or programming ended up building a software company on his dining room table, that was bought by a long forgotten company called “Microsoft.”
Whatever happened to Microsoft I ask you?
Well that is just the beginning of his story, and with additional chapters entailing teaching maths to hundreds of students for over 16 years, writing a forthcoming book with his brother “Math Methods in Engineering and Physics”, and I can only guess lots of other clever stuff, we better get going.
But before that, one more thing, did I tell you that to this day Kenny has no educational certification or credentials to his name either.
Well let’s bring onto the show to start joining up dots, as we discuss the words of Steve Jobs with the one and only Mr Kenny Felder.
During todays show we discussed such weighty topics with Kenny Felder such as:
Education shouldn’t be simply about choosing subjects that lead to a career, but instead choosing subjects that ignite your passions!
How Michael Jordans career highlight has to be playing basketball with Bugs Bunny!
How sometimes life is a series of stumbles and choices that can take you in directions you could never have planned!
How pizza is the thing that ignites all Americans!
How To Connect With Kenny Felder
Of course if you want to hear all our amazing shows then jump over to the podcast archives to hear thousands of interviews by simply clicking here.
Audio Transcription Of Kenny Felder Interview
David Ralph [0:41]
Yes Hello everybody and welcome to another show. Today’s guest really I’ll be honest with you could well have been created specially for a programme called Join Up Dots. His life has been well unplanned at the best of times. But I suppose it’s having this freedom of choice, which is allowed him to act experience many things that probably wouldn’t have seen likely if he had planned, leaving university with two degrees physics and English, which he quite openly admits have been about as useful as a chocolate teapot, and certainly less than helpful to getting a great job. He found himself at a crossroads is his enthusiasm at a low point. He’s choices equally low, he stumbled into computers, and despite no interest in either of them, or programming, ended up building a software company on his dining room table that was bought by long forgotten competitor called Microsoft. Now whatever happened to Microsoft, I asked you, well, that’s just the beginning of the storey. And we’ve additional chapters entailing teaching master hundreds of students for over 16 years, writing a forthcoming book with his brother math methods in engineering and physics. And I can only guess lots of other clever stuff. We better get going. But before that, one more thing did I tell you about To this day, he has no educational certification or credentials to his name. So welcome to the show someone who when I was at school, I would have probably try to keep out of the way of today’s guest, Mr. Kenny Felder, how are you, sir?
Kenny Felder [2:11]
Doing fine. Thank you, David.
David Ralph [2:13]
So where were is doing fine. You’re you’re in you’re in the United States. But I’m
Kenny Felder [2:19]
Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
David Ralph [2:21]
So for anyone who doesn’t really know where Carolina is, give us a sort of overview. If you were going to come for a visit to Carolina, what would be better to draw you in other than yourself?
Kenny Felder [2:35]
Well, North Carolina’s part of the southeastern part of the United States, so part of the South Capitol Hill is a small college town built around the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, probably best known for having a many time award winning basketball team, also known to folk song lovers as the home of James Taylor, who sang in my mind, I’m going to Carolina but who graduated from the university or first famous historically for tobacco, although that’s not such a big part of the state now famous for having some politicians both on the far left and the far right over the years.
David Ralph [3:17]
So it sounds like a place to come for a holiday.
Kenny Felder [3:21]
Well, I’ve lived in North Carolina most of my life, and I absolutely love it here we’ve got relatively warm temperatures. It’s very nice. It’s very beautiful. We’ve got mountains on one side of the state and the ocean on the other side of the state. And in the middle of it is this area called the Research Triangle, which has three major research universities University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University in Raleigh and Duke University in Durham. So there’s a tremendous high tech community and a tremendous academic community Chapel Hill, in particular boasts the highest percentage of PhDs in the country. So it’s a very academic and very intellectual area, in the middle of a southern state
David Ralph [4:06]
is a huge competition between the different sort of universities or do you do you all get on really
Kenny Felder [4:13]
primarily focused on basketball, college basketball is the sport here. And there’s a tremendous rivalry between the universities, if Carolina beats Duke in a basketball game, the entire population of the university rushes out to Franklin Street, and stays there all night, jumping on things and setting things on fire and causing mayhem, which the police help with by closing off the streets because it’s just assume that’s what’s going to happen. I find
David Ralph [4:40]
this part fascinating about Americans, I’ve travelled to America sort of extensively over the years, and I come from the United Kingdom. And if we have a college football team, you’d probably would get three moms and and and some person who’s just sort of walked past the pitch come to see, but um, you know, over there you go, man, don’t you have stadiums, like 50,000 people, we’re going to see what I would say, are not proper professionals. They’re just like kids. Would that be fair? Or am I being harsh?
Kenny Felder [5:11]
Well, some of them are professional calibre athletes, and they leave in the middle of college to go to the professional teams, but many of us prefer the college level athletics, to the professional athletics. And certainly in the area that I grew up in, in this Research Triangle Area in North Carolina. No one pays as far as I know, a whole lot of attention to professional sports, or to football and by American football, which in many college towns is the big sport. But in this area, it’s all about basketball. So about college basketball, and we have some legendary coaches and legendary players, Michael Jordan, quite possibly the greatest basketball player ever was at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill during his college career,
David Ralph [5:56]
and he’s open to highlight was Space Jam, wasn’t it that film?
Kenny Felder [6:02]
I don’t know if I think of that as a notable moment.
David Ralph [6:06]
Did didn’t he? Didn’t he play with Bugs Bunny? You can’t get better than that.
Kenny Felder [6:09]
Indeed. That’s the guy.
David Ralph [6:10]
Yes. Box been a he’s always a legend in my life. Now, if we step away from sports, because I could talk about sports all day. Let’s get right back to because in the intro, I was saying that you’ve you’ve really had a life that could have been designed for this programme, Join Up Dots, because there has been a certain amount of should we say stumbling around, obviously, you are successful. You’ve had a career for the last 16 years. But how did it all start? Or what can you go back to the very first fault? Oh, this is what I want to do with my life. Did you do remember ever happening?
Kenny Felder [6:47]
Well, I’ve had two major careers in my life and a lot of sort of sub careers within those. But both of them I completely stumbled into neither one was planned at all. As you mentioned in the intro production when I graduated from college, I had no interest in computers, or software and new knowledge of them. And I just had no idea what to do. Well, I was going to college while I was earning my degrees in physics in English, a friends of mine from high school, had dropped out of college to start a software company. I did not know that at the time. But after I graduated, I wound up in contact with them. And they said, we’re looking for somebody to write a user’s manual for our software product. And I said, I don’t know anything about computers, but I can write. And they said, Well, that’s what we’re looking for. We want somebody who will write a manual for the rest of us a manual that’s easy to read and use for non computer people. And I said, I’m your man, it was a contract job, it was not a full time job. But so I want to working for them to write this manual. And during the few months that that took, I fell in love with their company, and they really liked working with me. And at the end of that period, they said, We want to hire you full time. So I wound up in the software industry completely by accident. And I discovered that I really liked the software industry. And I also discovered that I really did not like writing users manuals, it was incredibly boring. And so I got someone who was there to teach me how to programme computers, which I had never done. And after about a year, I came to my boss and I said, I don’t want to be a writer anymore, I want to be a programmer. And he said, Okay, so then I was a programmer. And and did that for a number of years. at that company and then a with some other employees there, we left that company and started a different company. And so then I was a businessman. And, and so I was in software for about 10 years as a manager and doing marketing and doing programming various things within the software industry. And I got to be a after 10 years of that I was at Microsoft, I was working 10 or 12 hour days. And at that point, I had two or three little kids. And I had the thought one morning that my kids are going to grow up, and I’m going to miss it. I’m working all the time. And I have this very limited time. So I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to work these hours anymore. And so I quit Microsoft, and moved back to North Carolina because that’s where my family was my parents were in North Carolina, my wife’s parents were in North Carolina. And I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do at that point. I wasn’t
David Ralph [9:30]
at that point, Kenny.
Kenny Felder [9:32]
Uh, that would be, I guess, I gotta do the math 32. Because they’re 18 years old. Because I
David Ralph [9:40]
find it fascinating with everyone I speak to that my son, for example, he’s just going into seniors go as we call it over here. So it’s the age of 13 to 17. And at the age of 13, he has to choose he’s options. And that is what lessons he needs to study. But he’s career He’s lying. Now, bear in mind, you’re at the age of 32. And you didn’t have a clue what you wanted to do. I’m at the age of 43. Now, which I openly will say I’m still trying to find my path. Why do people always think that I need to know the answers so early, when it’s quite obvious that it can happen at any time in your life? It doesn’t have to happen at 13. It doesn’t happen that happened at five years was 32. When you saw the light, why do you think that was? That’s the case?
Kenny Felder [10:25]
I’m really glad you brought that up. Because this is a conversation that I have very frequently with my own high school students, a lot of them come in with the belief that they are going to choose the right college. And once they get there, they’re going to choose the right major. And that’s going to set the course of their entire life. And conversely, if they don’t get the good grades in high school, what you would call marks, I suppose. And if they don’t get into the right college, and if they don’t choose the right major, then their entire life will be a disaster. And I try to tell them that in the modern world, it is fairly typical to have four or five different careers. By the time you’re 30 years old. That’s not an aberration. Now that’s normal. And for the most part, a lot of the careers that many of them are going to have before they are 30 years old, are careers that don’t even exist in the year 2014. I think of the number of people who graduated with me from college in 1988, with degrees in physics, who if you ask them today, what do you do for a living, they say I’m a web programmer, there was no such thing as a web programmer in 1988, it didn’t exist. So what I tell them you want what you want to get out of an education, what you want to get out of high school, what you want to get out of university, is the ability to think the ability to be adaptable, the ability to learn the ability to do critical thinking, the ability to work hard. Those are the skills that are going to stand you in good stead when you get into a career market that none of us can envision right now. Whereas what they think they’re doing is learning specific vocational skills, that will be a specific career that they will have for then 40 years and retire with a gold watch at age 65. That was a very typical career path in my father’s time, it no longer is that’s not how it works today.
David Ralph [12:20]
Do they listen to you, though, when you when you’re saying this? Or did they go? No. This is the path I’m on? This is the
Kenny Felder [12:27]
fair question. Yeah, some of them more than others. Some of them I have developed a rapport with and they have more respect for what I say. Some of them are more open minded, in many cases, the tape that they are playing in their head that says you have to do this, you have to do this, right, you have to make these decisions right now, that tape has their parents voices. And it’s very difficult to override those parental voices, or telling them very explicitly, you have to pick a job and prepare for it right now your entire life is on the line.
Unknown Speaker [13:00]
Kenny Felder [13:02]
Yeah, yeah. And and in many cases, the parents tell them that very explicitly, right in front of me, a lot of the parents, I’m going to say something that you may edit out if you consider it racist, but in particular, a lot of the Asian parents, a lot of the parents from India, a lot of the parents will try to tell their kids, All that matters is that you get a degree in science or math, there are no other available options for you, you must get a degree in science or math, and then you’ll be set and happy for the rest of your days. And if you don’t get that great degree in science or math, you’re doomed. And some of these kids are not math people, they don’t like math, they’re not good at math, they’re very, very good at some other things. But that’s not their thing. And their parents, in many cases are unwilling to accept that possibility.
David Ralph [13:46]
It’s such a shame, isn’t it? It’s such a shame that sort of dreams are dictated by parental beliefs as on one side of that, and peer pressure, and not being able to believe but you’re able to achieve amazing things. So many people seem to settle at an early stage, and particularly once they had their first child or whatever, then it’s all know that my days of dreaming over. But it’s never the case is it you can change direction whenever you want, which is one of the things that I want to get from these shows if somebody is out there listening to this, and might just have that sort of little niggling doubt in the back of their mind, but the career that they’re in is one that they want to stay in for the rest of their lives, then they might hear your your voice, or my voice or any of the guests and think now actually, I have got options. I can change direction. I don’t need to do what was dictated to me either by society, my parents, or just because I felt like doing the right thing that everyone expected.
Kenny Felder [14:49]
That’s absolutely right. And And part of what I want these students to hear is that the idea of a safe long term solid career path is not entirely a myth. But it’s by far the exception rather than the rule. We’re seeing more and more people in today’s economy, who thought they were playing it safe, they got the job training for a specific job that was going to carry them through. And all of a sudden, that job doesn’t exist anymore, or that job requires all kinds of credentials that it didn’t use to or that job is being shipped overseas. And they’re being thrown out. The people who have developed the ability to do critical thinking, the ability to learn something new the ability to take a risk. And above all the people skills are the people who land on their feet in this economy. So ironically, what seems like the very safe path is very often the disaster path. And what seems like the wild crazy hippie path is very often the path that leads to the best jobs in a in an quickly changing economy.
David Ralph [15:51]
So do you consider yourself a risk taker?
Kenny Felder [15:55]
I really don’t consider myself a risk taker. If you were to watch me on a date a day basis, you wouldn’t probably describe me as someone who takes a lot of risks in my life with my children. But if you were to watch my career path, from the time I graduated college with absolutely no useful degree and no idea of what I wanted to do next. To the time that I quit, my company that I was working for to start a company in my dining room with two friends. to the time when I quit a very stable job at Microsoft and moved back to North Carolina with absolutely no idea of what the next step was. Some observers would have described those as risky steps to take in my life, especially at that third one when I already did have three children. I have for now, but it did not feel risky to me. At no point during that process did I feel like I was endangering myself or my family that I wouldn’t be able to land on my feet financially, and find a job that not only paid the bills, but that I was excited did about something that made me want to get up every day and go to work, I had complete confidence the whole time that I would find something even though I didn’t know what it would look like,
David Ralph [17:10]
is that because you’re an action taker, or you just have an inherent belief system, that something good is always going to happen.
Kenny Felder [17:18]
Probably more of the second, I think it’s just been my natural predisposition in life. When I went to college, I did not apply as your as you’re always told to do, I did not apply to six different colleges, including a reach school and a safety school and so on. I knew what college I wanted to go to when I applied to it and no other. Somehow, at every point in my life, when I needed something the universe has put in front of me what I needed. That doesn’t mean I’m not a hard worker. I’ve worked very, very hard at every job I’ve ever had. But I haven’t worked hard to get those jobs. They’ve just sort of landed there. And then I’ve worked hard once I had them. When I realised it doesn’t.
David Ralph [18:01]
No, sorry, sorry.
Kenny Felder [18:02]
It doesn’t work that way for everybody.
David Ralph [18:04]
No, it doesn’t. It really doesn’t. And it seems to me. And this is bizarre, even though I’m saying it now that the easier my life gets, the more successful I am. And it doesn’t seem to make sense to me in any shape, or form. But I have gone through huge struggles in my life, where I’ve been working 6070 hours a week, and really killing myself and never had the success. But that effort should have given me. But the times when I have been almost coasting, I think it’s because I was playing totally to my own strengths. I found it easy. And that is where my success came from. Which would you say the same thing.
Kenny Felder [18:49]
I would say it a little differently for my own life. Like right now, I’m, I’ve still got four kids. So a fair amount of my life goes into parenting. I am a high school teachers. So a fair amount of my life goes into making lesson plans and grading and being in front of the classroom. And while all that is going on, I’m also working on writing a math textbook, I work a lot, I work a lot of hours every week, I don’t have a lot of time to sit back and watch a TV show or read a book for fun or something like that. In that sense, I’m a very hard working person. But I love all of those things. All of those things I’m doing that doesn’t mean I love them every minute of every day. But I’m really excited about teaching high school math, even after 16 years, I’m really excited about the textbook I’m working on. I absolutely love spending time with my kids went to a college visit with my son yesterday and another one today, it was a great time with my son looking at perspective colleges for him. So the things I’m doing are not a grind that I have to get through. They are exciting, even though they are a lot of work. And that’s always been the way of my life. And when it no longer is that way, when it stops being exciting. That’s when I knew I know it’s time to look for something different.
David Ralph [20:10]
How many of your students do you see excited on a daily basis?
Kenny Felder [20:15]
I would say some, it’s certainly a minority. The the majority of my students are not excited about math. They, in many cases, they’re good students who feel that they have to get good grades to get to good colleges, like we were talking about before. And so they’re willing to work hard. But what makes it fun for me is that in every class, I have a few students whose eyes open wide, and who say, Wow, that’s really cool. These are the students I want to be teaching. These are the students who I think are really going to get something useful out of learning algebra or learning calculus, as opposed to the ones who are simply doing it, because they feel they have to do it in order to get into medical school.
David Ralph [20:57]
Because I think but i’m i’ve been a trainer all my life, and I’ve been a coach. And the majority of times, but I have got people excited in my lessons was the moment that they realised that there was a relevance to them, not because the information we was presenting. But as soon as that moment when they went, Ah, yes, I can actually use this. Bang, bang. Now, when you’re going through school, it’s almost better that you go through school in reverse. I imagine now, if we’ve all come out on the other end, when we went back as students, we’d really knuckle down because we kind of know what real life is all about. But when you’re going through school, it’s just a drag, isn’t it? Really, it must be really difficult on a daily basis to keep that excitement up with those individuals, when there’s three quarters of the class not feeling that way.
Kenny Felder [21:47]
Yeah, yeah. And and again, what makes it what makes me love getting up every morning is that remaining quarter of the class or fifth of the class, or however many it is. And in some cases, it’s because they said see that the math is going to be useful in their lives, because they want to be engineers, for instance. But the people I’m really reaching are the people who see the math as beautiful. And that’s a rare breed of person, to be honest, but they’re out there, the people who if they’re not thinking, I’ll be able to use this someday when I’m designing circuits, they’re thinking, This is amazing. This is beautiful, who ever would have thought of such a thing. And in every class, I’m going to have a few students who see it that way. That’s the way I always saw math, not as a practical thing. But as a beautiful thing. And and reaching those students is what gets me up in the morning. There’s always a few of them
David Ralph [22:41]
is intelligent. So Kenny, based on being able to learn one subject very, very well. And I was saying is I read this a few years ago, and a professor in Cambridge, said that he wished that he could get rid of all the tests and the examinations at the end of the year. He said, and just basically great people on general knowledge, because he’s, he’s idea of it was but by sitting there and studying really hard on a subject, the majority of people that apply themselves could learn that subject. But the people that just generally pick up stuff all the time, because I walking around and I see on telly and they watch films, and it’s that general knowledge, that is the true definition of intelligence. How do you feel about that? Is that off the off the wall? Or is that something that you can feel, you know, a connexion to,
Kenny Felder [23:33]
I’m very influenced by the idea of multiple intelligences, which has gained a lot of currency in the past 10 years. Some people are very naturally drawn to math. And they are good at math, they pick up math very easily and quickly. They love math, they think math is beautiful. Some people are very drawn to the study of history. And they see the storeys and they learned these storeys, and they remember the storeys and they see Connexions that the rest of us don’t see between historical events and how they apply to the current world. Some people are brilliant about literature. And they can sit down at 12 years old and read Shakespeare and Tolstoy and dusty ski and say, Wow, this is great stuff when the rest of us are reading comic books. I’m not saying it to me the roar, I’m not saying if you’re good at math, then you’re bad at literature, or if you’re good at history, and then you’re bad at foreign language. But I am saying that these are separate kinds of intelligence and different people have different kinds of intelligence. Again, one of the very unfortunate things I see in many of my students is that they have gotten the idea that the only true intelligence is mathematical intelligence. And if they don’t happen to have that, then they feel stupid. Whereas in my experience, some of them are absolutely brilliant at other things. And so what I think we want to be doing in our educational system, is helping students find the aspects of intelligence that they have, find the subjects that they find exciting, that they learn quickly and easily, that they want to go further in and develop that instead of telling all of them that they have to be good at everything. We don’t expect that of adults, but we do expect it of our 16 and 17 year olds, and it doesn’t work for many of them.
David Ralph [25:18]
But why? Why do we expect that
Kenny Felder [25:22]
the idea, at least in the United States that I encounter all the time is that they are too young to specialise, too young to decide. Whenever I talk about helping students find what their particular passion is, someone will say, well, you don’t want a European style system where they get tracked by the age of 11. Do you that would be terrible. But if they discover at the age of 20, all of a sudden that they really are math people, which might happen once in a while. But by and large, I think by the time they’re in high school, they actually know it’s fairly obvious. This kid is a math kid. And that kid is not a math kid. This kid is a history kid and that. And again, it’s not an either or I majored in physics and English. I loved both disciplines. To this day. I love physics, and I love literature. On the other hand, I was abysmal at learning French, I was terrible at learning biology. It was very obvious even in high school that there were subjects that I found fascinating and excelled at, and other subjects where I was a disaster. And what I wanted to do was pursue the things that were exciting to me and what I want to do is enable students to find what’s exciting to them and help them pursue it.
David Ralph [26:30]
Are you a rare breed in your Is it a university or college or your study? high school high school? So I teach
Kenny Felder [26:37]
I teach at a high school,
David Ralph [26:38]
right? Okay, at your high school? Are you a rare breed? Because you seem for a math teacher? You seem incredibly passionate. Now I I’ve known a lot of math teachers in my life. And when really dreary. Now, I think I would have loved to be in your lessons because it’s just coming over big time on the microphone. But you are, you’re in love with your subject you you love teaching, when you see your other college and high school teachers walking around, there must be some of them that you feel like shaking and saying, Do you realise what you’re doing to these kids? Because you’re not inspiring them like you should do in that one moment. In those few years that you’ve actually got them? Are you in rare breed?
Kenny Felder [27:20]
I Well, I’m fortunate to teach at a very wonderful high school where I think we have a lot of excellent teachers. But in my own career as a high school student, I did have a lot of those very dreary, uninspiring uninspired teachers, and I had a few excellent teachers. My English teacher in particular, I always say that she is the reason I did not drop out of high school. I think that’s a fairly typical storey I think most of us looking back on school had a lot of dreary uninspired teachers, and one or two that maybe really touched us, then the at the risk of sounding political. I think what i’d love see in the United States, I don’t know so much of how it works in England, but in the United States, I think we could do a much better job of having much better teachers. But it requires the political will to find and fire the mediocre teachers, which the republicans want to do, but the democrats don’t, and the political will to pay enough money to get really excellent teachers, which the democrats want to do, but the republicans don’t. So I don’t think anyone has the political will required to actually try to get us schools full of excellent inspired teachers.
David Ralph [28:33]
Because it seems lunacy, if you was in corporate America, and you was in a job, and you were just going through the motions, it’s going to be hard push to stay in that job for a long time. But when you’re a teacher, you know, I’ve seen teachers that basically come in at the very last minute, and they leave before the students do. But they remained those jobs for 40 years. Now, that seems madness, that you can’t wait all those ones out and replace them with people really want to be there. And a probably a closer age to the students who are actually being taught at that time.
Kenny Felder [29:07]
Well, I agree with you completely. As I say part of the problem is there are very strong teachers, lobbying groups and unions in the United States, who try to make sure the teachers cannot be fired, or at least can only be fired if they commit a crime but can’t be fired if they simply are mediocre teachers. At the same time, if you’re going to fire all those teachers, you also have to do something to attract really excellent people. And it’s very difficult to do that, when they are making literally a third of what they could make an industry. And and and I’m there I can speak from personal experience, I’m making less than a third of what I made 10 years ago, when I was in the software industry, I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can do that. And I’m passionate enough about what I’m doing that I want to do that. But I think a lot of otherwise excellent teachers are lost simply because they literally can’t afford it.
Unknown Speaker [29:57]
Could you have dreamt it may be getting too political know it.
David Ralph [30:00]
So as I said before, this sort of interviews down the how the conversations go, the conversation is going we just let it sort of record. But when if we sort of went right back to the beginning, if somebody had said to you as a sort of a 12 year old, a 15 year old, do you know that you’re going to be a teacher in your 40s? Would you have laughed at them?
Kenny Felder [30:17]
Very much. So I would have laughed because I hated high school. I absolutely hated being there as a student. And I thought that would be the last place in the world I would ever come back to I hated being treated as a second class citizen in the way that we do to high school students where you have to ask someone else’s permission to be in the hallway or go to the bathroom or go to the water fountain. It’s a very degrading position to be and I wanted out of there as soon as I possibly could.
David Ralph [30:51]
Do you think everyone feels that way?
Kenny Felder [30:54]
No, they really don’t. And I’m always surprised I talked to my high school students about this. The things that bothered me so much about being in high school, don’t bother them that what bothers my students is the pressure. They, they have a tremendous amount of work and a tremendous amount of pressure to get great grades. And that’s what’s worrying them. Not the things that I hated about high school, those things, those don’t seem to bother most of them. Occasionally I find one who feels the way I did, but it’s unusual, which always surprises me, but it is the reality.
David Ralph [31:27]
Because Because the reality of education is and you know, I’ve got a responsibility. I’m on the mic here. And these words are going out. And I don’t know where they’re landing. So this is only my personal opinion. But I came out of my education system with qualifications. And the majority of those qualifications, I can barely remember while I go. I learned about how an oxbow lake was formed. I knew about algebra, I knew all these things. I never use them on a daily basis. And my kids are going through education now. And we’re sitting there and waiting mixed fractions, and we’re doing algebra, and we’re doing all these kind of things. And you kind of think, well, you really aren’t going to use this. You know, I’m really know anyone who can, you know, recall how to do binary, for example, but we used to spend hours and hours and hours doing binary. And it’s such a shame, but they do focus in on the things that really might be good for the curricula, but you don’t use?
Kenny Felder [32:27]
Well, that’s right. I again, I think the theory is that there are tremendous amount of engineering jobs for people who have those skills. And we want to make sure that by the time kids get to college, that they have that choice available to them that they don’t close that door too early. I myself do not subscribe to that theory. But I think that is the theory behind making all these kids learn all this advanced math that most of us certainly never used in our daily lives. I you. I’m sure we all had math teachers back there who tried to convince us that we’re going to need to know how to solve quadratic equations if we wanted to figure out how larger pizza to order, and it never quite holds up very well. These are skills that are specifically for a few engineering jobs, whole pizza lovers. I know
Well, we’re all pizza lovers,
David Ralph [33:17]
when I’ve travelled to America. And yes, you are pizza lovers. I’ve never seen pieces as big as you can get over there.
Kenny Felder [33:25]
It’s one of the things that unites us all I like to think as Americans is the delusion that somehow we’re eating something Italian. Absolutely be completely unrecognisable to anyone from Italy.
David Ralph [33:37]
Now, I’m Kenny, in 2015, you’re really tying up your your whole life, you are connecting your own dots. You start off with a degree in physics, you then go into writing manuals, which you stated you found very boring at the time. And now with your brother, you’re writing math methods in engineering and physics. And that’s interesting how your previous life has come back to actually progress you into the future. How did that come about?
Kenny Felder [34:07]
Well, it’s a funny, it’s a funny storey just because it’s so typical of how my life works. Because it was not something that I planned in any way. My brother is a physics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts. And he was teaching this course, which is a very standard course to teach, not to math majors, but to physics and engineering majors, called math methods. And he was dissatisfied for a variety of reasons with the textbooks available on the market. And he decided to write his own. So our family gets together and twice a year Thanksgiving and Passover, and he was here in North Carolina. And he was telling me, Hey, I’m going to write this textbook. And I said, I would love to do that, can I join you? It was a completely spontaneous decision that just popped out of my mouth, I would love to do that with you. And he said, Sure. And so we became co authors. And in that moment, and for the past four years, writing this textbook has been the dominant work activity in both of our lives, neither one of us has ever done anything like it. Certainly, it’s very different from writing software manuals, it’s very different from teaching a math course, or but although it does, as you said, it uses many of the skills that I developed going all the way back to my two degrees in physics and English, both of them come into play here. But we’re having a great time with it, we both thoroughly enjoy trying to come up with a really clear simple explanation of a concept that we feel that the other books are not explaining clearly. And so in the fall of 2015 professors around the country or the world will start teaching from our textbook in this course. And then over the ensuing few years, we’ll find out if a lot of them like it. And if a lot of them use it, we will not know that for another couple of years to see if our book is really a success or not.
David Ralph [36:00]
And how do you write a book like that? That can, you know, how do you make that differ from all the hundreds of other ones that have come before?
Kenny Felder [36:08]
Well, as I said, what we felt is that a lot of those other books, explained things in ways that we didn’t find clear. And I think if if my brother and I have a gift in life, it’s clearly simply explaining things so that people can understand them. That’s something that we’re both good at. And it’s something that we both really enjoy. At the same time, we’re also trying to make it a textbook, which is not just explanations that you read, a lot of it is oriented around what we call exercises, where you actually work through a process before the process is explained to you and learn by doing. I think that’s very much on the cutting edge of where people see education going at the university level. And we’re trying to make a book that makes it easier for a professor to do that to get his class actively engaged in the process rather than passively receiving information
David Ralph [36:58]
your whole life from so the introduction that that I went through earlier, it seems to be based around the fake it till you make it sort of scenario. It seems to be so many of these things, I would have said if somebody had thrown at me, I would have gone Oh, no, I can’t do that. I’ve never done that before. But you kind of go in and you start programming, and you’ve never done programming before. You write manuals, and you’ve never done that before you create your own company, you’ve never done that before. Did you find that that is invigorating, being challenged that way? Or do you just not sort of have any fear about or hang on, somebody can spot me and even the fact that you say openly, you haven’t got actually any educational certification, but you’re standing up there, teaching these students all the time, it’s um, that that that must be daunting, at some stage in your life to think Hang on, somebody’s going to catch me out here.
Kenny Felder [37:53]
I think I have a really good sense of what I’m good at and what I’m not good at. And, and teaching and explaining in math and physics kind of things, is something I’m good at. I think if I had decided that I wanted to go in for a career as a working scientist in a lab. No matter how hard I tried, and how much I tried to fake it, I just would have been completely incompetent. If I tried to become an engineer, if I tried to be someone who fixes cars, I would have been a complete disaster. There are all kinds of areas in life where which I know are my personal areas of incompetence. And then there are a few key areas which I know are my areas of strength. And I’ve always played to those, they overlap. And as with me, as I think with most people, there’s a tremendous overlap between the things I’m good at and the things I enjoy. And I think so I’ve always gravitated towards the things that whether I know a lot about them or not, or the kinds of things I’m good at, and the kinds of things I enjoy. And then I’ve also always been willing to work very hard. And I think that’s a key piece that a lot of people when they say oh, follow your bliss, let’s all be Joseph Campbell lovers and follow our bliss. I think one of the key pieces that they sometimes miss is that sometimes in order to follow your bliss, you have to be willing to put in those 60 and 70 hour weeks. It’s not just a matter of lying around blissfully and waiting for things to happen. But at the same time, it has to be something that you find exciting and something that you are passionate about. It’s that combination that has always worked well for me
David Ralph [39:23]
cause and effect.
Kenny Felder [39:25]
Yeah, and luck. And I don’t want to dismiss that either. I’ve been tremendously, tremendously lucky all my life. And there’s a danger in sounding too smug, which my last quote probably did. And in that sense, not acknowledging the fact that a tremendous amount of it has been luck, or to use another word that some people may find defensive grace, that that has been visited upon me that is not visited on everyone. And some people who are just as talented as I am, and just as hard working as I just have not had the same breaks that I’ve had. And I think it would be distinctly ungrateful or arrogant of me to deny the huge role that that has played in my life so far.
David Ralph [40:05]
Now, I think I’ve been saying this to sort of guests, and I’m saying it literally on a sort of daily basis. But the harder you work, the luckier you become. And if you sit there in a room, just talking to yourself, you’re not going to get anywhere. But by building a network and actually working harder than anybody else. Amazing things will start to occur to you. And the harder that you actually work, you will then start saying, Oh, it’s because I’m lucky. But that’s not the case. You’ve actually just outperformed other people and put yourself in a position to receive what is bear, you’re saying that the universe is giving it to you. You’re saying that it’s Grace? I don’t think it is, I think it is just that you have found an opportunity or you’ve seen an opportunity, or you’ve made an opportunity due to your hard work. I have coasted for years and years and years. And I’ll put my hand up, I was earning good money. I went in, got my salary, and I came home every day. But now every day that I’m being absolutely proactive and trying different things. I tell you why it’s amazing. I can’t believe the things are happening. And I could almost say it’s luck. But is it didn’t happen before. But now I’m doing things on a daily basis. It’s happening more and more often. So no, I don’t think it’s luck. I think you put yourself in that position.
Kenny Felder [41:19]
Well, I there’s a paradox here because I think you’re absolutely right. And I think that people will be much more successful in their lives if they believe that they can make their position better by working hard. And at the same time, I’m also known to insist that there are lots of people in the world. And by lots, I mean literally billions, who can work as hard as anyone in the world and will not have the opportunities that you and I have been lucky enough to have. my great grandparents lived in little Jewish ghettos in Russia and Poland, they came to this country with nothing but the shirts on their backs. And they work incredibly hard to put my grandparents in a better position, who then grew up incredibly poor through the depression and worked incredibly hard to put my parents in a better position. And I was born the recipient of literally four generations of gradual building that I did not earn. So that I had a middle class education, I had good nutrition, the entire time I was brought brought up, every time I needed a doctor, there was a doctor, I had a perfectly reasonable opportunities to meet people that many people in the world don’t have, and I didn’t earn those things. What’s up to me is what I do with those things that I would give was given that were given to me by my parents and their parents and their parents.
David Ralph [42:41]
But I think by You worked hard in in isolation, you know, they didn’t have the opportunities as we do to connect with so many people that can help us and can, you know, pave the way for us because they’re already there. You know, I’m talking to people in San Diego, I’m talking to people in Canada, I’ve never met these people, now your grandparents, they would have known their boss, probably their next door neighbours who were all in similar positions. So I think nowadays, just by being proactive, you can make things easier. And I think you can and I don’t think it is as much down to, you know, the hard work, but your grandparents and your your digital generations past have had to put in, I think it’s a different type of hard work. But I do believe that that leads to the luck that we can get.
Kenny Felder [43:29]
One of the as I said, there’s no doubt that that’s a huge element of it, as I say, I think being honest with yourself about what is it that you get excited about and where do your talents lie, and then being willing to pursue those avenues with a lot of hard work is is the formula in any position in life, that’s the formula to get further than somebody who isn’t willing to do those things. At the same time, as I say, part of what I tell my students over and over is what you want to be learning is not how to do one specific job and work hard. And that way you want to be learning how to think you want to be learning how to network, you want to be learning how to learn new things. Part of the formula is being open to new opportunities that you can’t anticipate when they happen. As as I say, certainly everything in my life has just sort of manifested at the right time. somebody saying, Hey, I’m starting a high school, do you want to come teach math there, my brother saying, Hey, I’m writing a textbook, these things happened. I wasn’t expecting them. I wasn’t planning for them. But I was willing to jump on them when they came.
David Ralph [44:34]
Richard Branson has a phrase, screw it, let’s do it.
Kenny Felder [44:41]
And he certainly doing a lot of it.
David Ralph [44:42]
And he is and he says, you know, somebody will come along. He may not know how to do it at that time. But he takes that opportunity. And when he finds out how to do it, or he finds somebody who knows how to do it. And he says, that paves the way for a lot of the success, because he’s taking in more opportunities when because he’s not fearful of saying no, hang on. This is beyond me. I’m not going to do that. I think you’re very similar to him. And I think you’ve got a beard like him as well. So there you go. Right. Okay, Kenny, I think that’s brilliant, what you just said. So you think there’s a formula that everyone should adhere to? That gives them a fighting chance for success? Can you just I know you’ve just said that. But can you just go through it a little bit clearer. Because I think that’s the sort of the power message of the episode.
Kenny Felder [45:29]
So I think my advice to my students, if they want to be successful in life, is, first of all, you want to use education, not simply as a vocational vehicle to learn a specific trade, but as a way to learn how to learn to learn how to be a critical thinker, to learn how to take advantage of unexpected opportunities to learn how to be adaptable, to learn how to network, build yourself into a success machine, as opposed to simply confining yourself to be good at a particular task. And that will open you up to opportunities that you cannot currently foresee. Once those opportunities arise, the key steps are, first of all, make sure that you’re working on things that you personally find exciting, and that are the sort of things you are naturally good at. That doesn’t mean that they are the things that you’ve been trained to do or the things that you’ve learned to do. But they play to your natural strengths, rather than two things that you find just a grind and just a boring thing to have to work through and always have the greatest difficulty with. And second, once you’re in that area, be willing to work really hard, expect to have to work long hours to have to go through incredible difficulties. And by the way, this is my advice for a career or a set of careers. But I think it’s also my advice for, for instance, a family, you want find the right person who is naturally compatible with you, and works well with you and things like you do. But you do not want to go into a relationship thinking it’s always going to be easy. You want to be ready for it to be difficult at times, you want to be ready for there to be times when you want to quit, and you want to be willing to work hard through those times to create a successful relationship exactly as you have to in a career.
David Ralph [47:25]
That’s brilliant advice. And I think everyone listening out there should really sort of focus in on that because it is absolutely true. And you will come to a point in your life, when you will look and go yes, I totally understand that. At the moment, you might be going, that’s madness, I’m in a job that I don’t like and and whatever whatever your situation is, but there will come a time. But you will come back to Episode 18. And you will go, yes, this is the first time in my life, I can understand that. And that is the moment when you’re starting connecting your dots, and you’re moving on to your future. Now bringing us to the end of the episode, Kenny, what I want to do is really just take you right back to the beginning, and give you the opportunity to give advice to your younger self. This is the thing that we call sermon on the mic, I’ve got a nice little tune for this. So once it finishes, I’m going to hand over the presenting duty to yourself, and just tell us what you would actually say to yourself about the opportunities that life can give. If you had the chance to go back and speak to yourself again.
Unknown Speaker [48:35]
With the best of the show.
Kenny Felder [48:51]
When I worked at Microsoft, I worked with many different people at many different levels from the bottom, all the way up to management, the upper management, people make more money, and they’re considered a bigger success at Microsoft. Why? What is it about them that makes them more successful, more important to the company make more money than the people at the lower level. It’s not because they’re better computer programmers. In many cases, they’re not or better marketers or better salesman or whatever their job is. It’s because they see a bigger picture than the people lower down. Somebody low down who is a really good programmer working really hard to write a good loop inside one particular feature of a programme doesn’t make as much money as his boss who sees how that feature fits into the entire programme. He doesn’t make as much money as his boss, who sees how that programme fits into the entire Microsoft Office Suite or the long term strategy of Microsoft. The people who are the most successful at Microsoft are the people who see the big picture of where the company fits into the industry in the future, and see how the small details fit into that bigger picture. Interestingly, when I would speak to those people, and I would ask them to take it one step further and say, how does that big picture of Microsoft fitting into the world of technology? How does that fit into your life? How does that fit into what’s really important to you? Why do you care about it so much? Most of them had no coherent answer to that question. They were completely incapable of thinking about it to that next level of how is this thing I’m doing right now? Part of what I actually care about. If I were to speak to myself in college, I would say to myself, many of the things that eventually Augie Tareq said to me, that I say now to many high school students, don’t just think about your life as a career, a way of making money, a way of not starving to death, a way of being quote, unquote, successful in the high school reunion centre of that word. Think about what you actually care about, what are the goals that are most important to you? And how do your smaller day to day goals fit into those bigger picture goals? These are questions that become philosophical, they become religious, they become spiritual, they become different things to different people. But if you’re constantly keeping your eye on that big picture, and working hard on the details of your life right now, as they fit into that big picture, you’re much more likely to end up where you want to go.
David Ralph [51:31]
Okay, Kenny, obviously, you would have been inspired masses, thousands of our listeners out there, if I want to connect with you, which is the best way of doing it.
Kenny Felder [51:42]
Well, if they go to WWW dot Felder, books.com, forward slash, Kenny essays, they’ll see a series of essays that I’ve written on political topics and personal topics and educational topics and spiritual topics. And I would be delighted if they wanted to look over some of those find somewhere that are interesting. And then at the bottom of each essay is a link that they can click to send me an email about what they read there.
David Ralph [52:10]
And I will put that link on the show notes as well, so people can click it there. Kenny Felder, it’s been an absolute delight to have you on the programme today. I really like to thank you for being so generous, open and of course targeted, and I wish you the very best for the future. And of course, the door is always open to return whenever you want. And continue to join up those dots because joining the dots is the only way to build your futures. Thank you very much for your time.
Kenny Felder [52:37]
Thanks very much, David. It’s been a pleasure.