T.K. Coleman Is Teaching Young People to Take the World Head-On and Creatively

BY Catherine Yang TIMEJuly 14, 2020 PRINT

T.K. Coleman is an entrepreneur who seems to embody a Renaissance ethos of action, discovery, and creativity. He takes as his personal mission to “convince as many people as he can that they have the power and permission to be the predominant creative force in their lives,” and currently this means serving as director of education at two organizations, the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), and the college alternative program Praxis, which he co-founded.

“I think the work that I’m doing is more necessary than ever, because the world is changing so rapidly that the future is not going to belong to the people who know the right things, but to people who know how to approach everything they do as if it’s a work of art,” Coleman said. “That is the essence of entrepreneurial thinking.”

Coleman says he’s never been the type of person to not go after his dreams, though it was probably a high school play that set him on the path he’s on today.

“A buddy of mine and I, we tried out for a high school play as a joke, and the joke was on us because we actually made it. And when I went to my first rehearsal, it was such an amazing experience that I said ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life,'” Coleman said. “And I never looked back.”

He got a theater scholarship for college, headed to California, where he got a crash course in what it was like to develop and create a product by working with producers and filmmakers, and realized he was an entrepreneur and that this mindset could be a force for good.

“I’ve experienced firsthand the power that serving others and creating value can have in changing the way you see the world for good,” Coleman said.

“There are certain things in life that you don’t understand and appreciate until you experience it firsthand,” he said. “Entrepreneurship is like that. We all buy products, we all buy services, but once you take responsibility for being the person to develop a product, get it on the shelf, and get customers to it, it alters every aspect of how you understand human interaction. That inspired me to want to share that aspect with other people.”

The sort of education Coleman advocates is catching on: When he helped his friend Isaac Morehouse develop the idea for Praxis over six years ago, choosing a six-month apprenticeship over a four-year college degree was still controversial.

Coleman initially thought it would be difficult to convince business owners to take on apprentices without college degrees, but that parents and students would be enthusiastic about the prospect.

“It turned out to be the complete opposite,” he said. Parents who had prepared 18 years to send their kids to a good college balked at the idea of this “non-traditional” career path, while businesses proved to be hungry for hard-working talent regardless of degree.

But with the rise of coding bootcamps, other apprenticeship programs, and media coverage of college and alternatives, and most recently lockdowns and quarantines challenging our assumptions of education and survival, “a lot has changed,” he said. The world, Coleman says, has already changed radically. “People are starting to realize that if you want to survive in times like these, having a credential alone isn’t going to do it. You’ve got to have some creativity.”

Agency and Actualization

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T.K. Coleman on the set of his FEE “Revolution of One” podcast. (Courtesy of T.K. Coleman)

With a theater background, Coleman experienced education beyond being fed a curriculum decided by a faraway panel.

“In theater, you don’t walk into a classroom and have a professor say, ‘Open up to chapter five, we’re going to look at Shakespeare,’ nope. They say, ‘Come on up to the stage. You’re going to pretend to be a tiger, and you, over there, you’re going to pretend to be Tom Cruise trying to figure out how to talk the tiger back into his cage,'” Coleman said.

“You are forced to try to create, in an unfamiliar context, before you work yourself up into a feeling of being worthy of the task—and that’s such a great way to learn,” he said.

When he started building Praxis, working with undergraduate-age students, he realized most of them never had these experiences.

“I’d see them struggle with so many things, and I just had an ‘aha’ moment when I realized, oh wow, no one teaches these kids, when they’re in elementary or secondary education, how to approach what they do with a sense of artistry and autonomy,” Coleman said. He realized these students had learned how to follow directions, but not to think with agency, and Coleman became passionate about teaching.

Praxis is a six-month boot camp, with modules and coaching all done remotely while participating in a business apprenticeship. With FEE, Coleman goes into classrooms at the college and high school level, and occasionally secondary schools to do workshops.

As it turns out, agency is one of the most important things to learn, but also one of the most difficult to teach.

“The willingness to take responsibility for the outcomes you produce in life, that’s one of the hardest things to teach,” he said. It’s not tied to age, Coleman added, but with young people, he finds that most of them have not experienced taking that responsibility before. They’re in a transitional phase, with big dreams and ambitions, but still largely relying on their parents to bear the costs and responsibility.

“If you have a backup plan, you will always act like someone who has a backup plan. If someone else in your life is the one who bears the cost of the choices that you make, you will always behave as someone who doesn’t bear the cost of their own actions,” he said.

Having 12 or so years of developing the habit to follow instructions has an impact too. “Helping them make that transition of going from a student (‘someone else is responsible for my life’) mindset to an adult mindset that says, ‘Nobody will ever care about my dreams more than me, and if I don’t make it happen, it’s not going to happen’ … that’s hard, that’s exceptionally hard.

“Because, well, that’s probably one of the most brutal, harsh lessons that every adult is going to learn,” he said. “It’s about having experiences that challenge you to assume responsibility for things, because those experiences will help build up your self-confidence, and help teach you how to be decisive.”

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When Coleman realized that students had learned to follow directions but not to think with a sense of agency, he became passionate about teaching. (Courtesy of T.K. Coleman)

Agency is so important, Coleman says, because there is no such thing as safe advice.

“There is no piece of advice, no matter how good it is, that isn’t fully capable of making your life worse, if you don’t apply critical thinking and agency to your application of that advice,” he said.

“I don’t care what it is I tell you, it’s possible you can find a way to destroy yourself with that advice. And then you come back to me like, ‘Ah, TK! This didn’t work!’ Advice is like any other tool—if I give you a hammer, if I give you a knife, if I give you a chair, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can hurt yourself.

“Agency is so important because it’s what allows us to get the best results out of the ideas that people give us, with an attitude that says, ‘At the end of the day, it’s my responsibility to figure out how to make this work. I don’t have to know everything, I’m still free to ask for help, I’m still free to admit that I’m struggling, but at the end of the day, nothing is going to work for me unless I assume ownership of being the one who actually makes it work.’

“Everything is just undermined by a lack of agency. I think the most important question is not ‘What do you want?’ The most important question is ‘Who owns the outcome?'” Coleman said.

Broaden Your Understanding

People hear “entrepreneur” and they think it’s about being the next Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, and Coleman tries to pull it back to a less intimidating scale for people.

“Most of you are never going to even think of starting a business, but there’s a way of thinking that all entrepreneurs have, and all human beings can have it too,” he said.

“Most people, when they go to their jobs, that’s one of their main sources of stress, that’s one of the main environments where they feel powerless, where they feel pushed around,” he said. “Many people feel disempowered in their personal relationships, when they turn on the news, and they worry about politics.”

Praxis allows Coleman to address this in the career realm and reclaim autonomy, and his work at FEE is similar in a broader context.

“I want to help those people see no matter who’s in office, no matter what’s going on in the world, there is always something that you can control, and if you focus on what you can control, you can always move the needle in the right direction bit by bit. You do have the power to make a difference,” Coleman said. He also hopes to see more people doing the work he is doing.

“I want to reach a greater number of young black people with this kind of thinking, and I want to train more young black people to do the work that I’m doing,” he said. “I believe that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in black communities, but in many of those same communities, we just don’t have the same amount of highly visible mentors that might give us a reason to believe that these things are possible for us too, and that’s something I want to change.”

Life is about creating for Coleman, who writes music, immerses himself in nature, reads only what he loves, and still seeks out theater when he’s not working. Relaxation is also part of the creative process, he says, and what he teaches really does require constant creativity. He’s thankful his students keep him young.

“If I didn’t spend so much time around young people, I think I would probably be set in my ways, and I probably would have a much more difficult time imagining all the different ways that other people can struggle and succeed,” he said.

“If people aren’t buying into my ideas, I don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘Oh, the kids are crazy, they never listen.’ I have to figure out how to more effectively sell it to them,” he said. Teaching means being a student too.

For instance, one of his favorite lessons to teach is one he didn’t realize had to be taught.

“I teach young people to pursue the kind of experiences that will increase the amount of leverage that they have over time, and don’t focus too much early on to get all of your preferences met,” he said.

“I think that’s super important for this age. Interestingly enough, at first it’s confusing to them,” Coleman said. He saw that young people would come to job interviews with a list of demands and not get hired, because they were demanding more than they were worth as people with no professional weight or reputation. Start with jobs that help build your skill set and social capital, and you will have more negotiating power next time.

Coleman’s learned to take a story-based, project-based approach to teaching, because stories are what guide us to truth.

There is a Native American proverb Coleman takes to heart to do so: “Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”

“You can transfer concepts by speaking to people provisionally, but the only way you transfer conviction is through the power of a story,” he said. “Stories and stories alone give us the power to give context to truth.”

You also have to teach with experiences, giving students “something that requires them to make choices, and has an actual risk involved,” he said.

We all have things and experiences we avoid in life, but learning to meet these head-on creates invaluable learning experiences.

“You have to be willing to let go of whatever concept you have for yourself, and I think that’s true of professional success too,” he said. Being true to yourself means not boxing yourself into just the familiar, the things you have already done, and a narrow slice of limited understanding of who you are. “You want to be true to a broader understanding of who you are.”

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