Want to do work that matters? Don’t go to college.
Motivation plays an important role in a person's life. It is those incentives, techniques that cause a person to take certain actions.
As his chauffeur strode to the front of the lecture hall, Nobel Prize winner Max Planck quietly donned the chauffeur’s hat and took a seat in the audience.
None were the wiser.
The audience listened, captivated, as the chauffeur delivered a masterful presentation of Planck’s work in physics. Having listened to Planck deliver the lecture so many times, he was able to recite it practically word-for-word.
Then, upon concluding his presentation, the chauffeur received an incredibly difficult question from the audience.
While he could easily recite the lecture from memory, he couldn’t answer the question because he didn’t actually understand any of the material. Careful not to expose the charade, he thought quickly on his feet and retorted: “I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply.”
While this story is almost definitely false, Shane Parrish points out that Warren Buffett’s billionaire business partner Charlie Munger often uses it to illustrate the distinction between pretend knowledge and real knowledge — or what I like to call static knowledge and dynamic knowledge.
It’s a distinction that has drastic consequences in today’s world, and it comes with a very important warning — but I’ll get back to that in a minute. First, some context.
Static versus Dynamic Knowledge
Static knowledge is what people generally think of as knowledge. It’s the raw information: the facts, the figures, the names, and the dates.
It’s the knowledge of textbooks and multiple-choice questions and standardized tests.
It’s reciting an entire lecture word for word, not necessarily because you understand it, but because you’ve committed it to memory.
Static knowledge is the knowledge of Max Planck’s chauffeur.
Dynamic knowledge, on the other hand, is not raw information but the process for discovering it, understanding it, and applying it.
It’s the knowledge of experience and freeform writing and project-based learning.
It’s being able to answer a nuanced question about a complex topic in an ambiguous context because you truly understand how all of the moving parts interact.
Dynamic knowledge is the knowledge of Max Planck.
One type of knowledge isn’t necessarily better than the other. In fact, each has a very important place in both our own lives and in society at large.
Static knowledge vastly speeds up concrete, determinate tasks. Basic geometry, washing dishes, memorizing the elements on the periodic table, pouring a great cup of coffee, and knowing how to use Microsoft Word are all examples of static knowledge. (Could you imagine how inefficient it would be if we had to relearn the steps to these tasks every single time we wanted to do them?)
Dynamic knowledge, on the other hand, is necessary for ambiguous, indeterminate tasks. Applying knowledge of geometry to solve a tough engineering problem, inventing a machine that washes dishes for you, understanding why the elements on the periodic table are arranged the way they are, building a robot that can pour an even better cup of coffee, and using Microsoft Word to write a novel are all examples of dynamic knowledge.
And though static and dynamic knowledge are equally necessary, that doesn’t mean they’re considered equally valuable.
Many people have discovered this the hard way over the past few decades. What follows is my warning to you.
The Decline of Static Knowledge
As technology continues to progress, static knowledge becomes less and less valuable. Whereas the Industrial Age required workers who were able to repeatedly carry out a determinate set of steps, the Information Age requires workers who are able to tackle complex, nuanced, and ambiguous problems without a clear map for doing so.
“Why is this happening?” asks Josh Zumbrun in the Wall Street Journal:
“Economists believe it’s because jobs that are highly routine are the most susceptible to being replaced by automation and technology — Excel spreadsheets replace bookkeepers and sophisticated robots replace people on the assembly line. Especially during periods of recession, many workers in routine occupations lose their jobs and aren’t hired back as the economy recovers.”
In other words, routine workers — people who use primarily static knowledge in their professions to repeatedly perform a set of clearly defined tasks — are significantly and increasingly more likely to be displaced by technology.
Compare this to what Zumbrun has to say of nonroutine workers (also called knowledge workers) who rely primarily on dynamic knowledge in their professions to solve indeterminate and ambiguous problems:
“Over the past three decades, almost all job growth has come from the two categories of work that are nonroutine. … While routine jobs have gone nowhere over the past three decades, the number of people in knowledge work jobs has more than doubled, and there are no signs of that trend slowing. This strongly suggests that even though technology is eliminating some jobs, it’s creating even more in different fields.”
It’s a simple fact that as we continue into the future, there will be less need for static knowledge and more need for dynamic knowledge.
So, the question we must ask ourselves is this: are the institutions we’re trusting to prepare us for the future helping us develop the right type of knowledge?
Or, are we being trained as mere chauffeurs in a world desperately in need of more Max Planck’s?
The Failure of Higher Education
Despite the changing economy, schools continue to prepare students for a past long gone.
As Seth Godin puts it in Stop Stealing Dreams:
“Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence — it was an investment in our economic future. … Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. … But now? … If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, he will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.”
Jobs where the boss tells you exactly what to do are exactly the kind of jobs that are increasingly being replaced by technology.
So, what are educators doing to solve this problem?
Fortunately, the concepts of static and dynamic knowledge aren’t new in the world of education. In fact, my use of these terms is heavily influenced by a February 1976 paper that coined the equivalent terms with respect to learning: surface learning and deep learning.
This paper found significant qualitative differences in how students learn based on their approaches: deep learners actively try to understand the content in a greater context, whereas surface learners merely try to memorize the content most likely to appear on an exam.
In my conception of static and dynamic knowledge, therefore, surface learning leads to static knowledge and deep learning leads to dynamic knowledge.
And because policy-makers recognize the importance of helping students develop the skills they need to succeed, the education system is thoughtfully designed to encourage students to become deep learners, right?
While there are many staff, faculty, and administrators who care deeply about doing what’s best for their students, I’ll let you be the judge of whether your educational experiences have felt geared toward helping you develop into a deep learner.
For many, I fear the opposite may be true. Here are some factors that characterize and encourage surface learning (identified in a supplement to a textbook popular among new teachers):
“Assessment that asks students to reproduce information rather than apply understanding”
“Lack of choice of subjects and methods of study”
“Fear of failure, and, therefore, attempts to avoid failure”
“Memorization as an end in itself”
“An excessive amount of material in the curriculum”
“Poor or absent feedback on progress”
“Assessment methods that create anxiety and that emphasise recall or application of trivial knowledge”
Far too many learners’ experiences seem to be in line with far too many of these points, and the result is that many learners who have the potential to become like Max Planck (a deep learner developing dynamic knowledge) instead end up like Max Planck’s chauffeur (a surface learner developing static knowledge).
This is not an indictment of the many staff, faculty, and administrators who work so hard to make the best of a system desperately in need of reform; rather, this is a call-to-action for everyone else to support their efforts.
While the current state of affairs may seem bleak, all hope is not lost. Indeed, there are many interesting movements within higher education that continue to chip away at this problem.
Between computational thinking, entrepreneurial thinking, and design thinking — each of which emphasizes dynamic over static knowledge — the needle seems to be moving in the right direction.
Until it moves much more, however, it’s well worth considering your alternatives.
Alternatives to Higher Education
Despite the sensationalist title of this post, I don’t intend to argue that most people shouldn’t go to college.
While I’m not convinced that attending college is inherently valuable for the reasons commonly assumed, it’s still the safer option for those who are lucky enough to have the opportunity.
And regardless of college’s value with respect to static versus dynamic knowledge, it’s still invaluable for many other reasons (socialization, networking, wage premiums, etc.).
With that being said, particularly ambitious individuals should definitely consider alternatives to college, and everyone should consider augmenting their college experiences with experiences more likely to provide them with the dynamic knowledge necessary for the future.
What each of these experiences has in common is an orientation not just toward learning by doing, but — in its simplest conception — learning by making.
Trends like Seymour Papert’s constructionism have long aimed toward making the classroom more production-oriented and less consumption-oriented.
I ask simply, why bother with the classroom at all?
If the goal is to construct one’s own understanding through a creative process, why not skip the classroom and go right to the creative process itself?
These are a few ways I and others have learned so much more by doing just that.
Entrepreneurial Ventures & Side Projects
The easiest way to get started developing dynamic knowledge outside the classroom is to start a project. It doesn’t have to be a big project, and it doesn’t have to end up successful — the goal is simply to go through the process of coming up with an idea, gathering domain knowledge, putting in the work, and seeing something through to completion (without someone else telling you exactly what to do).
What’s key to note is that it isn’t the project or the domain knowledge that’s most valuable. Rather, what’s most valuable is the meta-knowledge you gain about how to work on your own, how to determine what to work on, and how to work on it in the way that’s most effective for you.
The vast majority of people spend their entire lives waiting for the next set of instructions to follow. Go to school, get good grades, get into college. Go to college, get good grades, get a job. Go to work, do good work, get a promotion.
Unfortunately, that’s not how the world works anymore, and you need to take your learning into your own hands if you want to be prepared for that harsh reality.
Here’s an excerpt from the abstract of an oft-cited piece on Protean Careers:
“The business environment is highly turbulent and complex, resulting in terribly ambiguous and contradictory career signals. … The traditional psychological contract in which an employee entered a firm, worked hard, performed well, was loyal and committed, and thus received ever-greater rewards and job security, has been replaced by a new contract based on continuous learning and identity change…”
In other words, follow the instructions if you’d like, but don’t count on it getting you where you want to go.
Doing self-directed projects, on the other hand, provides you with exactly the experience necessary for understanding how to be effective in continuous learning and identity change.
As Paul Graham wrote in one of his famous essays, “The important thing is to get out there and do stuff. Instead of waiting to be taught, go out and learn.”
And, in so doing, learn how to learn in a way that sitting in a classroom can never replicate.
(Ideas for starting ventures and side projects: learn to build a personal website with Codecademy, teach yourself to play the piano, write a daily blog on Medium, sketch in a journal, research design thinking and then go out and do it.)
Open Source Projects & Volunteering
Perhaps you can’t come up with an idea for a project or venture of your own. Or, maybe you’ve done quite a few of your own projects and ventures and want to gain some experience working on something bigger.
There are literally thousands of open source projects and nonprofits that could use your help. And, in the process of helping them, you’ll be developing dynamic knowledge through experience and practice.
Similar to working on a project or venture, contributing to an open source project or volunteering for a nonprofit will help you gain valuable meta-knowledge like how to work well with others, how to adapt to new and unforeseen challenges, and how to figure out how to allocate limited resources most productively.
If you’re diligent, open to feedback, and eager to learn, doing this also has the side effect of developing you a reputation as someone with whom others want to work. And in a world where dynamic knowledge is valued more than static, there are few assets more valuable.
(Ideas for finding open source projects and nonprofits: post on Project501, ask friends and family if they know of any worthy causes, use a website like VolunteerMatch, browse GitHub if you’re technical.)
Though doing internships is an increasingly conventional path, what I’d like to propose is not viewing them as a one-time thing you do over the summer just for the sake of building your resume.
Instead, actively seek out opportunities to work with people from whom you have a lot to learn. Work for free if you have to — it’s still cheaper than paying for school — and keep in mind that your time is worth more than money if all you’re doing is menial office work that relies on static rather than dynamic knowledge.
If you’re fortunate enough to have developed a strong skill set and a reputation for getting things done (i.e. through projects and ventures or open source and volunteer work), chances are you’ll have a few options when it comes time to decide where to go.
If that’s the case, don’t be blinded by big names and fancy offer packages: you’ll likely learn more working with a small and dedicated team than a “prestigious” company with a more structured program.
The key here, again, is that you’re learning what it takes to be successful in any position. The actual work matters less than the meta-work of facing difficult and often ambiguous problems without clear instructions for how to tackle them.
If you can learn the dynamic knowledge of how to be resourceful and resilient, that’s infinitely more valuable than any amount of static knowledge you’re likely to learn in a classroom.
Self-serving aside: as I work to figure out whether to fully drop out or return to school, doing a few more internships instead of going back seems like a very compelling option. Have a cool software or product role in edtech for Fall 2017? Let’s chat.
As far as how to get an internship? That would require an entire additional post. The short summary is this: with so many people trying to get in the front door, you need to find another way in. Get creative, leverage your network, and be tenacious as hell. A cover letter and a resume are not going to cut it. This is exactly where your dynamic knowledge needs to shine.
What Success Looks Like
With ventures and side projects, open source and volunteer work, as well as paid and unpaid internships, you can craft exactly the experience you need to achieve your goals.
What’s valuable is not what you’ve learned but whether you’ve learned how to learn.
What’s valuable is not a specific skill but your propensity to develop new skills.
What’s valuable are not determinate applications of knowledge but your ability to apply knowledge toward solving indeterminate problems.
The map is not the territory, and the territory is changing faster than ever before. If you don’t want to get lost, you’ll have to learn to navigate without a map.
The future is yours for the taking — if you only choose to take it.