Polymaths, bumblebees and the ‘expert’ myth

Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG - Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, looks through documents before a Senate Finance subcommittee hearing on fiscal responsibility and economic growth in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011.

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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.

Finally, many experts have learned to make confident proclamations because it raises the likelihood that someone will follow their advice. But sometimes they are too confident. As “Black Swan” author Nassim Taleb infamously tells us, “It’s not a good idea to take a forecast from someone wearing a tie.” One may find Taleb’s take overly glib, but psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman also says, “organizations that take the word of overconfident experts can expect costly consequences.”

In short, recent years have shown so-called experts to often be too narrow, too vested or too confident.

Today, let’s learn

Meanwhile, the dynamics of learning and innovation are shifting, expanding and extending democratic power to more people. A key reason for this is that open, free curriculum and learning materials are becoming more widely available.

Start with Khan Academy. If, over three years, Sal Khan can create nearly the entire math curriculum and start covering French history and biology by himself while making it available to anyone for free, imagine the possibilities of the next decade.

Then, imagine what those people could do if they worked together. After all, the cost of experimentation and creation is going down. Couple this with the fact that occasionally crowd sourcing produces a more expert solution than a celebrated expert. Therein could lie a recipe for grassroots educational success.

Polymaths and bumblebees

We need to lighten up and stop vigorously defending the status quo.

Today’s interdependent world demands polymaths, bumblebees and boundary-crossers. We need people who can collaborate wildly and freely, remixing ideas and then turning them into real experiments. Our experts are not infallible and, in fact, have contributed to some of our nation’s greatest failures. In Oct. 2008, as the global financial system was starting to crumble, former Federal Reserve Chairman and go-to economy expert Alan Greenspan famously admitted that he was wrong about deregulation – one of the central tenets of his economic philosophy.

We need a new kind of expert — one whose expertise is hard-won through direct experience and whose point of view is both flexible and principled. We need people who have a deep sense of the world’s inner workings and interdependencies and who are comfortable in multiple settings and speak multiple national and disciplinary languages. These should be people who can absorb new material very quickly, and then improve it as they share it with others. We need to rely on people who are more than just an “expert” on any one topic, but across topics

We don’t need to do away with experts entirely. Instead, let’s update and refine what it means to be an expert in the 21st century.

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