Is High School Killing Your Creativity? Rajat Bhageria Has a Remedy for That

by Diana Drake

Even though hes still a teenager, Rajat Bhageria is uniquely positioned to talk about entrepreneurship and the skills that help us to succeed in our lives after high school. He is the founder and CEO of ThirdEye Technologies, a startup that helps the visually impaired through object recognition from auditory feedback. He is also the author of What High School Didn’t Teach Me, a book he wrote during the summer before his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is studying in both Wharton and the engineering school. Bhageria recently sat down with KWHS interviewer Nithya Kasi, a Wharton freshman, to talk about his business and the value of learning for the sake of learning, not just to get an A.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Knowledge@Wharton High School (KWHS): Let’s discuss your latest entrepreneurial endeavor. How did you come up with the idea to provide visual assistance to the blind?

Rajat Bhageria: The reason that we started ThirdEye is that all [our] co-founders really believe in doing something with massive impact — something that can literally change the lives of people by 10 times. That’s our metric: 10 times. We don’t want to build something or work on something that offers 10% increments and less. Just watching visually impaired people, everything they do, they’re dependent on others. They consistently have to ask for help [with] things that you and I take for granted, like recognizing between [different denominations of] money or recognizing that you’re eating soup and you need to put the spoon inside, to recognizing that this is a Coke bottle, this is a water bottle. [These are] things that we take for granted, but they’re really difficult for some people. We couldn’t imagine life like that. So we believed that changing this group’s lives would lead us to have a big impact in the world.

KWHS: How did that inspiration turn into wanting to actually start the company? And what stage is ThirdEye Technologies in these days?

Bhageria: It is a pretty simple story. We actually started at the PennApps Hackathon, [an event where people who are excited about programming come together for a weekend and work together to build new things]. It was just three close friends. We had met in some of our computer classes. We didn’t have any company idea in mind, we were just like, “Let’s build something.” We got our hands on [the wearable technology] Google Glass, and we were like, OK, let’s build something to help the blind. [Their creation is software running on Google Glass that tells the visually impaired what they are looking at.] We ended up doing really well at the hackathon. As a result of that, a bunch of investors in the Philly/New York areas, and also advisors, were like, “Hey, you guys should potentially consider doing this full time. (Well, of course during school.) Take it to the next level.”

We didn’t think there was any opportunity cost to that. We’re students. We’re paying a ton of money to go to this school already. We’re paying rent. [We figured], what do we have to lose? The only thing that can happen is [we learn something], even if we fail. That’s the mindset we had going in. It’s been a phenomenal journey. I’ve learned so much about everything and anything, [including] managing my own psychology, because it is tremendously difficult working with a team. I learned how hard working with people and managing people actually is. I’ve learned how to do basic finance accounting, and how to, of course, design more software. [I’ve also learned how] to get [attention from the press] and everything else. These are all things that will be helpful later on in life. ThirdEye’s at a really good place right now.

KWHS: So, more about your book, What High School Didn’t Teach Me. What prompted you to write it?

Bhageria: I think this will resonate with all students. I went through the [high school] system, just taking it all in. I didn’t react much. I went through the system and [followed directions]. Do well in school. Do all the extracurriculars. Get into college. And then take it from there. At the end of my senior year, I was like, “What did I learn these last four years?” I got into a phenomenal school, but is that really the point of life, just to get into [places]? Get into the next job. Get a promotion. I felt [that model] doesn’t really work.

And the more I considered it, [the more I realized that] throughout these last four years, I was just being forced to memorize, memorize, memorize. I didn’t have much say in what I was doing. It was: Take all this information in and spit it [back out] on a test. Learn new information. Spit it out again. Do this over and over again.

The first question a lot of my friends would ask was, “Is this going to be on the test?” That makes it very obvious that the only thing you care about is a grade. From a very early age, schools have conditioned us to focus on [getting] a good grade…. And then there are negative reinforcements from not only your parents, but also from the school, to do well. And because of this, we’ve become very [averse to] taking risks. We don’t want to take risks. We’ve become focused on this very small box. I feel we’re killing creativity based on that.

KWHS: What would you say are three key takeaways from your book that high school students should know?

Bhageria: The No. 1 thing is that because the system is so focused on standardized tests … memorization thrives. But I think it’s important to focus on learning for the sake of learning. I know that is sometimes hard, because there are often subjects you don’t care about. But I’ve found that if there’s something that you really don’t think is interesting, just tell yourself it’s interesting. It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wasn’t too fond of learning languages [in high school]. Now I am. But at the time I was learning Spanish I didn’t really enjoy it. [Now I say,] I’m going to learn Spanish just for the sake of learning it, not for the sake of getting a grade. And now I love Spanish, I love to travel to Spanish-speaking countries and I actually find it useful. So, I think the first thing to focus on is learning for the sake of learning.

You should also try to make it somewhat practical. What I mean by that is [to find a way to relate] what you learn to your life experiences. That leads to [increasing your long-term potential]. Basically, you learn something and you actually apply it to your own life. Maybe if you’re learning derivatives in math, then try to take these concepts and actually apply them to something you’re doing. If you apply it to your own life, you’re going to learn it and care about it. And if you care about it, you’re fundamentally going to remember it and want to learn it. I think that’s really important. You actually have to want to learn something. It can’t be like, “Oh, she’s just making me memorize it or he’s making me memorize it.”

And I think the third thing is more important than the first two. I personally think that everyone should gain entrepreneurial experience. There’s a beauty in entrepreneurship in that you have this idea in your head — everyone has ideas. You have to take this idea and bring it to reality. Because of that, you’re intrinsically motivated because it’s your thing. And you’re going to put up with all the crap that comes at you, because there’s going to be a lot of it. You have to go through it and you have to learn how to put up with failure. You have to learn it yourself. Nobody’s going to spoon-feed you.

No matter what you do — maybe you’re interested in history, maybe you’re interested in dentistry or law or teaching, I would recommend students to do something of their own, an independent project. Take this idea in your head and bring it to a reality. In between, you’re going to learn more than school could ever teach you.

KWHS: Clearly you’ve had some great success in work with your book and your company. But what would you say was your greatest misstep so far, and what did you learn from it?

Bhageria: I had just finished my senior year of high school, and after I got into college there wasn’t much to do. It was the last summer before coming to school, the last summer with family. And I was like, what’s the best thing I can do with the summer? I didn’t really want to work anywhere. [So I decided to work on my book]. A lot of my friends were like, “What makes you think you can write a book? Who do you think you are?” But I felt that it needed to happen. This needs to exist.

The thing is, I wrote this book and I vastly underestimated how long it would actually take. I thought, I’ll get it done in a month and I’ll be done. I [planned] to write 5,000 words a day, which I thought somehow I’d be able to do. But editing took forever. Because of that, I didn’t have much of a chance to do anything with the book. I published it out, but I didn’t have a chance to set up a community or set up time for people to actually do something with it, which I think could have been really successful. Something like what Four Hour Work Week Tim Ferriss (see link below) has done. I think that’s the biggest misstep I had.

KWHS: Looking ahead, where do you see yourself in five years?

Bhageria: Ideally, I will figure out some problem that I’m deeply passionate about and I will dedicate life to solving that problem. I don’t know exactly what that problem is going to be, but I’m really leaning towards the sharing economy and the Internet space right now.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

What does Rajat Bhageria mean when he says he didn’t see any “opportunity cost” to taking his team’s hackathon idea to the next level?

How do you feel about Bhageria’s hypothesis that high school kills creativity? Do you agree? Why or why not? Check out the link to Ken Robinson’s TED talk in “Related Links” for further exploration.

Bhageria’s discussion of his misstep is actually framed within a success — the writing and publication of a book. But the point he is making about producing something that drips with unrealized potential is a good one. Today’s social media culture provides an entirely new channel for idea development and implementation, especially in publishing. Help Rajat build out his What High School Didn’t Teach Me community. How might he have leveraged his own creation better?

6 comments on “Is High School Killing Your Creativity? Rajat Bhageria Has a Remedy for That

  1. I agree that high school is killing creativity, Rajat wrote a book about how he didn’t learn anything really in high school he only remembered how to remember the information that was going to be on the test, high schools only care about the good grades they really don’t care about whether or not the kids are learning or enjoy what they are learning they are only focused on getting good grades. He said that really there’s not creativity, the teachers do the same lessons every year and they want to kids to learn how the other kids learned the year before because it might be successful in the way of getting good grades but might not be sticking in the kids brains the next year. If we changed the system and didn’t teach the same way and made things fun, then the kids would learn more and more and get good grades and also enjoy school while learning what they need to learn.

  2. 1. When Bhageria says he didn’t see any “opportunity cost” to taking his team’s hackathon idea to the next level he meant that he did not see any potential gains from what he passed up within his teams ideas.
    2. When Bhageria mentioned the hypothesis that high school kills creativity, I agreed. I agree because when he mentioned the fact that all students do is learn to the test and to memorize, I related because as a student myself, all I do is memorize what is said to be on the test in order to get a good grade. I don’t feel that I am learning to purely gain knowledge and experience, I am learning to see an A in my grade book. Specifically when he mentioned language, and learning Spanish. I took Spanish and French for multiple years, and especially in French did I only learn to the test, the teaching was rushed and the class was no longer about learning the language for me, but only about getting a good grade in the class.

    3. With such expanded resources such as social media in today’s world, Bhageria could have easily shared his ideas of his book on a social media account, or blog in order to introduce his book and opinions into society before it was published. Since he mentioned the book took so long to be edited, during that period of time he could have had updates and advertisements on his book’s release to build anticipation for potential readers.

  3. Bhageria mentioned several points in this interview with KWHS, and I will concede that I resonated with many of the points he made. Especially as a student that is extremely academically motivated, I did find myself in a position just like Bhageria’s in my freshman year of high school, when I would memorize information and learn concepts just the day before the test rather than making connections with the concepts that are being taught in class (as they were being taught). We are in a system that thrives on memorization as it is one of the easiest ways for the vast majority of students to take in the information that is necessary to do well on tests provided at school.

    However, I do believe that it is important to qualify Bhageria’s statement and acknowledge that his hypothesis of high school “killing creativity” should not be presented as an absolute. While there a majority of students do rely on memorization to learn concepts, the incentive to do well on tests and the fear of getting a lower grade is only half of the story. Students are not being taught how to make connections with different concepts in life and other subjects at school in order to see the value of what they are learning (this is a point Bhageria implicitly makes). However, this does NOT mean that ALL students make this same mistake. For example, at my school, there are a decent number of students that do take it into their own hands in order to discuss concepts in class and take them into account when discussing real-world scenarios and events. This can range from conversations about politics and social movements and relating them back to similar events that we had learned in US History, to combining the practical information that we had learned in Medicinal Chemistry with Biology, to even pondering the systemic use of Calculus, Physics, and Economics to determine trends that can be found in both nature and the economy. There are students that enjoy talking about information that they are learning in class and relating them back to real-life. The beauty of this situation is that, at least in my school, we take the initiative to have a conversation about these same ideas with other students and cause them to ponder these same thoughts and stimulate more thought-provoking ideas that will incentivize their own learning (whether it be by asking questions in class or finding the information themselves through reading or the Internet). I know that from personal experience, as I delved more into real-world applications and discussion with my friends, I was more curious to learn about HOW to complete processes rather than memorizing WHAT steps needed to be taken in order to get an answer. This perspective, that I share with a few other students, allows me to learn concepts and look at trends in worked examples that will provide me with the tools necessary to understand how to work through different scenarios with the information that I am equipped with; it would not matter if I am given a “trick” question on a test because the depth of knowledge that I have on the topic, and the connections that I had made while internalizing the information and relating it to other concepts, would allow me to solve the question with confidence. This form of ACTIVE LEARNING, which is basically a process of learning that requires students to THINK about what they are learning, is definitely being spread around as a couple of students take it upon themselves to discuss information outside of class and eventually create an exchange of ideas that spreads through the student body and causes a surge of curiosity that requires the pondering of what students are learning in class. This, in and of itself, bolsters creativity and really primes students for more success in the future, as active learning is not only a better way of processing information, but younger generations are also engaging with real-world issues, scenarios, and possibilities that can turn into more opportunities in the future.

    Now that I have finished explaining my perspective on this topic, I will also say that this does not mean that I completely disagree with Bhageria. While there are highly competitive and curious students who are taking it upon themselves to make connections with the subjects they are being taught and then spreading them throughout the student body, I agree with Bhageria on the point he made about students being taught to place a heavy emphasis on memorization from a young age. And this is where I think a change should be implemented. I believe that students should be taught how to actively learn concepts from a young age in order to bolster this manner of THINKING about what they have learned in the future. An example that I can give is about note-taking. From a young age, whenever the teacher would tell us to take notes from a book or a powerpoint, my peers and I would always copy down the words verbatim from the source. We were forced to write them down because the ACT OF WRITING simply made the information “more” retainable. Teachers would also set a restriction on how long our notes could be in order to make sure that we weren’t copying down a lot of information, but, given that students in elementary and middle school weren’t taught how to effectively process this information, we responded by writing down words in an even smaller size. It was not until my freshman year of high school, when I started reading more studies and books about learning and processing information, that I learned how to effectively take notes. Rather than copying down words verbatim, one should first read a section of the textbook, close the textbook, and try writing down the information in his/her own words while covering the depth and breadth of the knowledge (referring to the textbook as necessary). This method of learning took me a LONG time to become comfortable with, but in the long term, I was able to learn information more quickly, think about the information in the grander scheme that is the realm of academia and current events, and reduce the stress I felt the day before tests and exams. I learned that typing some notes is actually beneficial for me to save time and become more productive as my learning process would not be curved if I internalized the information I had read and expressed them in my own words. All of the studies placing a greater emphasis on writing down notes instead of typing them placed a greater emphasis on writing because those subjects wrote at a slower pace than of those that typed out information; this forced the subjects that wrote information to use their own words and abbreviations in order to record the information necessary in order to learn the concepts. As long as this conscientious effort is being made, however, it does not matter how one records and saves external information. As soon as I made this discovery for myself, and found its efficacy, I immediately told my friends who also took it upon themselves to try this way of learning, and also reciprocated similar positive feelings about the process.

    The reason as to why I am explaining this personal experience is to show how if students are taught from a young age (elementary school years) how to THINK about what they are learning, whether it be through case studies, think-pair-share activities, peer teaching, active discussions, and/or providing examples how HOW to demonstrate processes, analyze concepts, and apply them to the real world, the huge learning curve that I had to go through my first year of high school can be avoided (as well as the rather slow rate of this information spreading throughout the student body) and students will be more primed to creatively think about what they are learning.

  4. I still remember my middle school teacher. He was in his seventies when he taught my class. He always played basketball with the students during lunch and went home with his huge motorcycle. Most of the students who did not take his class didn’t know his name but knew him as “the grandfather teacher.” I was very close with him. Mostly because my best friend, who was close with the teacher, took his class a year before I took it. So I got to know the teacher faster than my classmates.
    After I left my middle school for high school, I occasionally visited my middle school and had brief conversations with the teachers. Of course, I always went to the grandfather teacher’s office too. We talked about different topics every time. One day, we talked about practical things that the school does not teach us. One of them was entrepreneurship. Bhageria’s interview reminded me of the conversation I nearly forgot.
    I have a few strings with entrepreneurship. I have a family member who owns a company, a friend who owned and renewed his company, and a dream to own my company. I have seen my father working in his company several times. He was always busy and sometimes didn’t have much time to eat lunch. My friend had to start up his business three times due to failure. My dream has not been in action, so I have no idea how it will go ten years from now. However, I would face many hardships and accomplishments. After the conversation I had with my middle school teacher, I thought how nice it would be if schools actually teach entrepreneurship to teenagers. Therefore, some students would be able to know which course they should pursue, if they do not think that a normal education is a right path for them.
    I appreciated this interview, and I want to know more about entrepreneurship by maybe trying it.

  5. When I started high school, I was in a similar situation to what Rajat discussed. I felt like I was putting course material in my short-term memory and then forgetting everything right after the tests. I would only be studying for good grades, and I didn’t actually pay attention to the significance of what I was learning. Around the end of freshman year was when I fully realized that I’m so lucky to be able to learn. I was being taught so many different topics about life, the world, and so much more, and I realized that I should be grateful for the incredible opportunity that I was given. School stopped feeling like it was a chore to me, and instead, it became what it really was: education. I began getting into topics that interested me, such as heredity and human body systems. I also really got into French, not because I wanted a good grade, but because I wanted to visit Paris in the future and genuinely waned to be able to speak it fluently. I realized that school is a spectacular way to truly learn about things that are interesting to you, rather than a way of showing your intelligence to get into a good college.

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