Edward Snowden on StarTalk Part 1

As many of you know by now, Edward Snowden is the NSA whistleblower who brought intrusive government surveillance into the public spotlight. Below are some sage words from Snowden when he was interviewed on StarTalk. This will be Part 1 of the installment.

Snowden dropped out of high school and then went to community college. Here's his take on traditional institutionalized education:

"There's a real distinction between schooling and learning. You're education is full of many different things. Although guided learning, traditional learning in a classroom by mentors and instructors and peers is important, there's a critical element of experimentation. The people who I think understand the concepts fundamentally the most are the ones who make experimentation a part of their daily lives continuing it outside of the classroom making it who they are and how they live.

It's a question of who teaches the untaught? Knowledge has to arise from somewhere. There has to be a fountainhead from which it flows. That can't be a classroom because the teachers themselves had to learn it from somewhere. Original research, the scientific method, the pursuit of the unknown, and the questioning of accepted conventional wisdom and probing at the unknowns. The fact that the most interesting thing for someone who's interested in how knowledge is created are the problems that haven't been solved. It's not what do we know. It's what we don't know.

One of the great grievances I have of dropping out of high school early is that I never finished chemistry. People who are contemplating dropping out of high school or college and getting an early start, they reason that they don't need this and can get through life without it and achieve my goals and I'm already an expert in the areas where my valuable skills lie. I'm not going to be a  chemist, physicist, linguist, so I don't really need those courses. And they may be right. They may never need to use algebra again, or calculus, but at the same time they may find later in life they are working on a project or independent research or exploration whether it is intellectual or practical where had they learned that, there would be some synergy there. They have holes in body of knowledge that are difficult when you aren't going through a structured lifestyle path which is what the university or public education model offers us. 

It's really a preparation, a structure to continue you're own learning. Now there are always people who can self educate and make up for the gaps but it's really rare. And I don't think we should encourage people to go out on their own and hope for the best and hope they can make it. It's very difficult when you are young to foresee the kind of decision you're going to make, the kind of topics you will be interested in 20 years from now."

Media tends to sensationalize and exalt the archetypal Silicon Valley mogul who drops out of college and spearheads a pursuit that turns out to be immensely successful. Think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. Recently, Elizabeth Holmes, who dropped out of Stanford, has been all the hype. She is the pioneer behind Theranos, a health technology and medical laboratory services company, who purports to have developed a blood testing platform that uses a few drops of blood obtained from a finger prick instead of the conventional way of drawing blood from the antecubital fossa.  This kind of naive support for eschewing traditional education reeks of survivorship bias and if anything, we should acknowledge the benefits of both the traditional education system and self-directed learning. Even more importantly in today's dynamic world, cultivating an attitude of lifelong learning and growth has never been more vital. I am currently interested in regenerative medicine, specifically stem cell joint injections for various musculoskeletal maladies. However, I am under no illusions that it won't be surpassed in the future. Quite possibly in 10-20 years, there could be a new opportunity around the corner. It could perhaps be the opportunity that supplants stem cell treatments in the same exact way regenerative medicine is currently becoming a viable alternative to invasive procedures .


Whether you are a proponent of Snowden's whistleblowing efforts or consider him a traitor who deserves to be exiled from the United States indefinitely, it's hard to deny how intelligent he is. Let's peek under the hood of how a brilliant mind like this operates. What are his incentives? It is patently clear to me the guy is just in love with learning. His words echo the sentiments of other contemporary luminaries in variegated industries such as Josh Waitzkin, Tim Ferriss, Maria Popova, Gary Vaynerchuk. Here's Snowden again on his love for learning:

"The actual process of learning, of understanding the structure of our world and the way it all fits together for me as an engineer is fascinating, I can't get enough of that. Learning something new whether it's phase changes, deformations, whether it's law. All of these things and intricate variables that fit together to give us a framework to live in that surrounds us and that we interact with is amazing not just for understanding but also for power. You have to understand how everything fits together and where the levers are before we can start to manipulate them and see what changes."  


Here is Snowden describing the timeline from the inception of his desire to join the US army to his final commitment to foisting the NSA secrets out into the public.  It's a great habit to always question your assumptions and the status quo. It may not make you popular but what is fringe today could easily be mainstream in a very short time frame.

"As things developed, as we moved from 9/11 toward 2003 Iraq period, I felt I had an obligation to do my part for society. I signed up for the US army when everyone else was protesting the Iraq war because I really believed the government was telling the truth. That this was an effort to try and free the oppressed, to liberate people living in unfortunate circumstances. It took me a long time for me to develop any sort of skepticism at all even to the most overextended claims of the intentions of programs or policies, a better part of a decade."