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Skinner Layne

Founder & Chairman of Exosphere

US → Chile → Spain

Mentoring is a form of education, a word that derives from the Latin "educare", meaning "to draw out". The role of any teacher or mentor is to discover what the student does not yet see in himself, both the positive and the negative, and to help him draw it out, analyze it, and then make use of these discoveries in navigating his context of problems and opportunities.


Because each individual is unique, and his context unique, and his calling unique, advice must be sparing, and carefully crafted for the particulars of the individual case, recognizing the individual's internal and external resources and limitations. Better yet is to offer no advice at all, but rather to help the student frame his options as realistically as possible.


Perhaps the highest purpose of the mentor is simply to help the student make the implicit explicit, to pull out every unexamined assumption, and when required, force the student to the crisis point of deciding between incompatible options, while resisting the temptation to make the decision for him. In other words, a mentor is tasked with helping his student to be radically dedicated to reality, both his own subjective reality, and the objective reality which makes interpersonal collaboration possible.


Out of this process, the student should emerge with an enhanced capacity to accept rather than escape from his responsibility for the totality of his life and problems, while becoming better-equipped to move forward to solve those problems.

What do you do today?

Today I'm in a transitional period. I founded an organization called “Exosphere” 7 years ago. We have been operating during that period. We are in a transitional period where we stopped our active operations, and we focused exclusively on building out some permanent infrastructure ina form of physical campus because it is an educational institution. We are in this long process now in Spain. I was living in South-America for 11 years, and I just moved to Spain a few months ago. So I am in fundraising and infrastructure building mode.

The other side of my daily life is writing a book. It’s research I've been working on for the last 7 years. It’s a psychological model that I’ve been developing and doing research about. I am writing a sort of the first book that will precede a series of studies that we plan to conduct. These are the main two things that I do today.

How did you get there?

From childhood through the end of university I have wanted to go into politics. That was my goal - go to law school and then to politics. I was very active in politics and then, at the end of university, I decided that this is not what I was going to do for a variety of reasons.

So I went to software startups instead. Then I decided that this was also not as advertised.

In 2007 when the yield curve converted to the US bond market, I was studying economics, and I knew that things were about to go bad. So I sold my first startup stocks back to my partners and left the country.

Then I went to South-America. There was no startup ecosystem at that time - it sort of started to grow while I was there. I started to work on the financial part in renewable energy and agriculture startups and projects in South-America. I did that for a few years, and then I decided that was also not what I wanted to keep doing.

I spent a couple of years in a sort of hermitage, living in the mountains more or less in complete isolation. That is what sort of unlocked conclusions that led me to find excess here and go into the path of psychological research and practice. It has been a very long, interesting and winding journey.

Why are you doing what you are doing?

I think that we have solved almost all key humanity problems that are purely engineering problems and we have almost hit the limit of what we could do with just pure physical engineering of solutions.

Now some of the big problems that we face have partially technical solutions (for example in biotechnology and medical technology). But now we mostly have psychological, sociological, and political problems. I think the reason why we can’t solve a lot of these problems is that we simply don’t have accurate maps of human nature.

It’s hard to solve problems in chemistry if you don’t have the Periodic Table of elements. That foundational level of chemistry allows you to dissolve a lot of problems. We don’t have it in psychology.

I also think, objectively, that the last 30 years of psychological research have not been replicable. Less than 40% of psychological studies have been replicable, which is very low. I think the field is completely broken and can’t be fixed inside academia.

We need to demedicalize psychology. I think this is one of the big problems – medicalization psychology is just labeling “You are sick!” rather than “You have this set of patterns, and some of these patterns cause problems. Some of them are helpful”. Then solving communication problems between patterns of behavior is the only way we are going to get to the major solutions for climate change and international political situation, global cooperation.

If we don’t do them, then life is probably not going to be great for our children and the next generations, probably even the end of our life-spin. If we just try to keep solving purely technical problems, we will keep making progress, but we keep getting these diminishing returns now.

So, we need to build from the ground up the mechanisms to coordinate on a wide scale again, which we have lost in the last 30 years or so. I try to add what I can to build up the capacity for humans to coordinate and solve problems at higher levels of scale.

Where are you going? What’s your vision?

My personal and also organizational mission is to build institutions of the next century. All of our current institutions in society are built on social assumptions that are not true now - church, state, university, schooling system, medical systems - these are all broken institutions. We don’t have a single functional institution that I can find.

Consumerism is the default if you don’t have functional institutions. You just revolt to people optimizing for their own preferences at the margin and this is a certain way to the death of everything because, at the margin, people use more resources than they produce. That is just the way the margin makes sense – to take more than you put out.

Those incentive structures have only ever been modulated by institutions. But we don’t have functional ones. And at this point, I really don’t have hope that we are going to fix the ones that we have. I think these are just going to decay more and more. If we haven’t built up from the grassroots new institutions, by the time these completely collapse, we are even more so.

I see institution building as the frontier we have to explore to try to figure out how we build institutions that are relevant and functional and sustainable that are not just going to be wiped out by the next wave of technological change.

I think these are problems that require large scale coordination and change in mindset like what is a good life, what do we owe to one another as far as that good life is concerned, how do we organize that? How do we implement these systems to assure this is the outcome and not the status quo which is definitely not optimizing for the good life, not by most people’s definition?

My future is continuing to build, and I don’t expect that I will finish. I expect that I have to build something that hands off the process.

When I look at the construction cycles of the great architectural buildings of human history – beautiful churches took centuries to build – and I think this is the same with any kind of institution. You need to have intergeneration coordination, which is particularly difficult. And even harder in the age of smartphones that almost try to prevent us from doing anything in time and raising our preference of operation to the immediate second of present and nothing beyond that.

That’s what I think my future looks like.


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