Structured “Stress” and a Liquid Metaphor for Education

By Max Song

I’ve been thinking about what the optimal state for my productivity is. As my good friend Adrienne reminds me, motivation comes from:

  • Interest in the material
  • Having an audience
  • Having a deadline

For the following blog post, we are going to use “water” as the metaphor for educational content.

The state that I find myself most productive is not when I am totally scott-free of obligations (in fact, experience tells me that I usually become unhappy).

Instead in states of “structured stress”. In some sense, this is the thing we are “purchasing” from institutional education: in exchange for our dineros, we receive a clearly defined audience (our professor), who assigns clearly defined deadlines. Hence, we have accountability. My peak states are when the stress and my ability to perform are matched on par with one another, and I hit “global flow” of stress.

At Brown, we have the chance to choose our classes. You can think of each class as a pipe that feeds into our obligations and scheduling to increase/decrease the amount of “structured stress” we receive from the school.

However, at the moment, there is limited feedback between the pipes (school) and the container (student). If you take on too much “structured stress”, your container will overflow. The only control you have right now is to shut down the pipe completely (i.e. drop a class), but on a week-by-week basis, you do not have much ability to control the stress you are receiving, giving a time series over a semester of ups and downs.

Finally, the contents of the pipes are different — and some mix well together, reinforcing your learning, or allowing you to study the same subject from different angles, while others are completely immiscible (they don’t mix at all, like oil and water).

Some open questions:

  1. If we think that every student has a range of “structured stress” levels where they will learn the best, and above that, they become less productive, and below, they are not fully engaged, can we dynamically adjust the “structured stress” coming from different courses?
  2. How can we design more “miscible” subjects- so that every class that you are learning is intricately connected to the others?
  3. Do we really need to pay 50–60,000 a year for structured accountability?
  4. What if we define “teacher” as someone who can create these “structured stress” accountability schedules?

Thinking about education this way, it seems like we are just at the very, very beginning of a dynamic, responsive education system.

This piece was written by Max Song. He is a data scientist, entrepreneur and community builder. He took 2 years off Brown to work as a data scientist, co-write, and set up a co-op house ( He’s really into data, learning and creating an international network of intellectual, emotional and experiential stimulation (

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