Some of the smartest people in the world economy are twenty-somethings who dropped out of school. But if you ask politicians and policy wonks on both sides of the aisle, dropouts are synonymous with “lost opportunity” and “failure.”
The conventional wisdom, after all, is that the only person who should tackle an important problem is someone who has made it successfully up the educational fish ladder. This includes 12 years of an excellent grade school, 4 years in, preferably, an Ivy League undergraduate college, two to six years of post-graduate work for some extra initials after their name, and then, hopefully, a little pragmatic experience.
Meanwhile, household names like Zuckerberg, Jobs, Dell and Gates belong to college dropouts who founded multi-billion dollar companies. There is also a growing crop of largely unknown entrepreneurs who are opting out even earlier thanks to opportunities such as the Thiel Fellowship program, which awards high school students $100,000 to skip college for at least two years.
Not only is the innovator’s track often counter-intuitive to conventional wisdom, some of the things they create run counter to linear thinking. Not many people would have predicted Wikipedia’s success given a description of how the project was supposed to work. But the site is so widely used that, in January, when it went dark in protest of anti-piracy legislation (which some argued was tantamount to censorship), it was reported on by nearly every major news outlet around the world.
The role, importance and meaning of “expertise” in the new economy are evolving rapidly. There is a growing trend towards focusing more on what you know — wherever and however you learned it — rather than where you went to school (or how much it cost). This means that fundamentally important attributes such as common sense and curiosity are starting to take primacy.
The self-critical expert
Against this backdrop, it’s useful to take a fresh look at what experts are (and are not) today.
Say, for example, you are trying to solve a complex problem such as the global financial crisis. Do you ask an economist, a sociologist or a political scientist? Each of them individually is too constrained. The more multi-faceted the problem, the more forces intersect and the more challenges one must face within a siloed system.
Also, experts usually get their reputation based on a big idea or thesis they have presented. After that, most, although not all, tend to interpret nearly everything through that lens. It’s the rare experts who can really flex, learn and change their deeply held beliefs.