Learning How to Innovate

Most entrepreneurs will say that the skills necessary to be an entrepreneur and innovator cannot be taught. This may well be true, but that does not mean that those skills cannot be learned.

We should find it a bit remarkable that for all of the talk of hands-on learning and practical learning in the past ten years, that we still do very little of this in school, whether in grade school or university. Worse, what does tend to pass for hands-on learning is usually just some arbitrary simulation of something in the real world. Universities in recent years have specialized in an attempt to re-create reality in the cloistered confines of their Ivory Towers, in spite of the fact that few of their personnel have any experience outside of the academy.

Consequently, practical learning in the university tends to be a representation of reality, through the lens of an academic who in any case is mostly concerned with her own research far more than teaching, and certainly more than student learning (which is not necessarily aligned with teaching). Of course it is not the professor’s fault. Her incentive structure does not promote student learning and real-world experience. Indeed, the professor herself is actively discouraged by the institutional framework of the university to do much that resembles real-world activity.

Changing the institutional mandates of the university would be insufficient to meaningfully reverse this situation. Professors would at best come up with arbitrary simulation activities, as long as their principle motivations are the publication of academic research and teaching evaluations. They might make the course material more fun in the process, but it would merely be dressing up academia to look practical.

There is a growing body of advocates for “un-schooling,” encouraging university students to drop out and for high schoolers to forgo university altogether. PayPal founder and billionaire Peter Thiel is not only one of the most prominent voices in this movement, he has literally put his money where his mouth is, starting the Thiel Fellowship  which gives 20 young people under the age of 20 a $100,000 grant and 2 years to pursue their passion, travel, study, write, and start an entrepreneurial venture.

This is a first and fundamentally necessary shot across the bow of the self-appointed institutional gatekeepers of the modern credentialing cartel.

The challenge now is to take the premise of un-schooling and systematize the life long learning & entrepreneurial ethos without attempting to institutionalize it. This is the paradox my colleagues and I are taking on in Chile with Project Exosphere, which we are launching later this year. Our goal is to create a scalable model for exponentially expanding the entrepreneurial & innovative potential in developing countries by providing a systematic alternative to a formal university education.

Thiel Fellow Dale Stephens, whose non-profit UnCollege is another leading voice in the alternative education crowd frequently discusses the concept of “hacking your education.” This is an appropriate metaphor, and we would describe Project Exosphere as a sort of “educational hackerspace.” We believe that innovation & entrepreneurship can be learned by anybody within the right environment. Such an entrepreneurial learning ecosystem can be characterized by:

  • Community (cohesion, mutual respect, interested interdependence)
  • Problem Identification
  • Solution Process Thinking
  • Action-oriented learning (that is, learning because one needs the knowledge or skills to perform tangible actions toward their passion-goals)
  • Non-disciplinary approach to learning (that is, a unified concept of knowledge, rather than it being broken down into fields of study)

Further, innovation-learning must incorporate three essential pillars of entrepreneurship into all activities:

  • Invention (i.e. solving technical problems)
  • Aesthetics & Design (i.e. making technical solutions apparently desirable)
  • Sales & Marketing (i.e. commercialization of solutions through direct customer contact)

These general skills must be learned alongside specific knowledge required to solve particular problems faced by “customers” in the real world. Consequently, we must abandon the traditional distinction between professor and student in favor of a model of co-discovery, whereby more experienced innovators coach less experienced innovators on how to learn, how to adapt, and how to develop their passions into solutions to problems in the world. This means the coaches must be actively engaged in entrepreneurship themselves while they are coaching.

In the coming days I will be writing further about learning and the philosophical framework from which we are working as well as the radically de-centralized and non-institutional approach we are developing to systematically produce a culture of forward thinking and innovation, especially in developing countries.

At Exosphere we are going to raise up a new generation of innovator-entrepreneurs that are going to re-create and renovate the world as we know it.

Stay tuned to this space for more information and for the coming launch of the Exosphere website.

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The Power of Passionate People

A comprehensive survey of employee satisfaction in 2009 showed that only 14% of respondents were extremely satisfied with their jobs. Among Millennials, only 35% were even somewhat satisfied, with over 62% of Millennials responding that they intended to intensify their search for a new job in the following 12 months. Such high levels of satisfaction show a fundamental problem with the current division of labour.

People are simply not doing what the are called to do.

In the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II, career began to take center stage in American life. What a person did defined who they were. We need this to be reversed. Who a person is should define what they do. This is the beginning of revising our understanding of vocation, but it will be a long and difficult process, for the mere acknowledgment of our poverty of passion does not begin to undo the numerous institutions, norms, and cultural expectations that have ingrained the careerist mentality in our collective psyche. For this reason, we must start at the beginning, at the root of the problem.

Our schools and universities are factories. Indeed, the modern schooling system was developed in the age of industrialization, the heritage of Prussian military organizational principles applied to production and then modified yet again for public education. The division of students into age-based ‘grades’ and the division of learning into rigid disciplines, with each teacher consigned and labeled “a physics professor” or “a literature professor” has all the trappings of a factory. Each cog has its function, and the output are uniformly educated ‘graduates’ who have been bequeathed a common body of knowledge. That product is then shipped to factory-like corporations who can plug these cogs into their own machinery.

As we are witnessing the twilight of the era of mass production (and with the advent of 3D Printing, we are truly near a revolutionary time in decentralized, small-scale production), this model of education could not possibly be more archaic.

Universities regiment students into pre-defined disciplines, and although there is lip-service paid to the value of “interdisciplinary studies,” the emphasis continues to be on high degrees of specialization in these pre-defined disciplines. The innovation economy at once demands a more generalized body of knowledge (in order to connect the dots between different disciplines) and a higher degree of specialization (in order to produce a specific product or service to meet customers’ demands). The university is not merely poorly equipped for this task, it is intensely counter-productive.

Our learning environments need less structure, less testing, fewer arbitrary metrics for assessment, and more emphasis on embracing the chaos and rapid change of the innovation economy. More than teachers we need learning coaches, who help people equip themselves with the ability to continually learn and adapt, and most importantly, to discover their own passions and calling.

Moreover, we must embrace the fact that people can have multiple passions over the course of life, and that they may be substantially different from each other. Today if one wants to change careers he must take 2-4 years (or sometimes more) out of his life to go back to school and get a new degree and then start at the bottom of some new ladder. Lifelong learning communities should supplant the university model. Participation in research, study & discussion groups, and other forms of learning should become part of our daily lives.

We attend the gym for our bodies, and church for our souls, why do we not dedicate similar attention to the expansion of our minds throughout adulthood?

If we embraced a more fluid, flexible model of learning that embeds it as a taken-for-granted part of life, we will not only have happier, more satisfied professional lives, having discovered our passions and then equipped ourselves to dedicate our work to pursuing them. We will also unlock vast creative resources locked in the minds of people who currently live for the weekend because they hate their job. These creative resources will propel society at-large past our current boundaries in innovation and could just solve some of the seemingly intractable problems that plague our world.

Passionate, driven people have given the world the automobile, the airplane, the Internet, antibiotics, the Human Genome Project, and so much more. Imagine if that tiny minority of people were expanded to all of us. In less than a generation, this little blue planet would be unrecognizably better. We cannot allow inertia, vested interests in the status quo, and a “that’s just the way things are / have always been done” mentality to deprive us of such a future.

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