Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg — these contemporary innovators have altered the way we live and work, given rise to new industries, and defined the future. In short, they’ve changed the world.
They also raise an important nature-versus-nurture question: Do you have to be born a world changer? Do you have to win the genetic and parental lottery to create value on the scale that these individuals have?
I think a lot of people would say yes, given the lack of any systematic effort by our schools to instill the qualities that members of the elite innovative class possess. This is a shame, because I believe that three of the fundamental traits displayed by elite innovators can be taught:
- An Eye for Problems: The ability to identify problems worth solving
- A Solution-Oriented Mindset: The willingness and ability to develop solutions to worthy problems
- Execution: the capacity to create, and follow through with, those solutions
What Lies Between the Office Drone and the Innovator?
More than natural intelligence, it is the lack of these three qualities — the ability to identify problems worth solving, the willingness to develop solutions, and the capacity to execute — that separates ordinary people from superstar innovators.
How does this manifest in the real world? Well, most of us us give in readily to the frustrations of everyday life, the limitations of current technology and the magnitude of society’s problems — or we don’t notice them at all. For example: How many of us questioned the efficiency of phone books before the internet was invented, or considered solutions to traffic congestion or taxi shortages until Uber, Lyft and Via arrived on the scene?
Zuckerberg Didn’t Succeed on Intelligence Alone
There are two major reasons that many of us accept the problems and limitations of the world around us, and thus fail to devise solutions that create value for ourselves and others. One is that we don’t even see them, and the other is that we have no idea how to address them. But elite innovators do see them and do know how to address them — and it’s not just because they’re exceptionally intelligent. They have a set of attitudes and soft skills that can be taught.
With a little more conditioning, encouragement or know-how, I think many smart kids could be world-changing innovators in the mold of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. I’ve thought a lot about the kind of high school or college class that would help students adopt an innovator’s mindset and empower them to go out and create things of value in their careers. Below is a syllabus I’ve dreamed up for just that type of class.
Syllabus: How to be a World Changer: Designing an Innovation-Centered Career
In the space of a generation, a dozen or so products and ideas have changed how we interact, how the economy functions, and how we perceive the future. These products, which include the microprocessor, the internet, email, social media, and the smartphone, are associated with “titans” like Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg (and many others). The careers of these individuals illustrate, at the highest level, what it means to be “a productive member of society”.
Do you have the potential to be as productive in your own career? Do you envision a career in which you create products, processes or ideas? In this course, we will examine the attitudes, soft skills and mindsets that enable members of the elite innovative class to generate enormous economic value from their creations. Then, we’ll apply these lessons to our own career plans.
At the end of this course, you should be better equipped to pursue a career driven by three core values: innovation, problem solving and value creation.
- The Ambiguity Advantage: What Great Leaders are Great At, D. Wilkinson
- Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur, Derek Sivers
- Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday
- From Zero to One, Peter Thiel
- How to Lead in the Smart Machine Age (article), Edward D. Hess
- Linchpin: Are you Indispensable?, Seth Godin
- Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, Jake Knapp
- The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, Jon Gertner
- The Innovators, Walter Isaacson
- The One Thing, Gary Keller and Jay Papasan
- Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston
I. Vocation: The intersection of need, interest and ability
What role do ego, vocation and passion play in the careers of elite innovators? In this unit, we’ll explore the often corrosive effect of ego in our life choices and career plans. We’ll discuss “passion” as a cultural obsession and career planning fetish. We’ll experiment with substituting problem-finding for passion in the pursuit of a career and practice squashing the fame-seeking ego to allow our problem-solving instincts to emerge. We’ll construct vocational Venn diagrams that illustrate the intersection of societal need, our personal interests, and our unique abilities.
Ego is the Enemy: Part I, To Be or To Do?
Leadership in the Smart Machine Age (article)
Anything You Want
- Analyze the role that your own ego has played in your life choices and academic pursuits to date.
- Identify a public figure whose success you were impressed or surprised by. What problem did this person solve? Were you aware of the problem before you were aware of the solution? Why did you miss it?
- Vocation can be thought of as the place where your interests and abilities intersect with a need present in society or the marketplace. Sketch a vocational Venn diagram for yourself, showing how your interests and abilities can serve a particular need in the world. Do not think in overly grand terms — we are not trying to solve for world peace. The need you have identified can be confined to a small niche. The more specific you are about your abilities and interest, the better.
II. Design thinking
We all have brilliant ideas from time to time — but how often do those ideas leap into the physical world and create real value? Have you ever wondered why a certain coffee chain, mobile app or eyewear company is so wildly successful without creating anything truly “new”? Today, we are likely to attribute those success stories, at least in part, to “good design”. But what does that mean? Daniel Burka, a Google Ventures partner and design pioneer, has called design “the scientific method for business.” In this unit, we’ll learn how successful innovators turn ideas into products through the application of design thinking.
Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days
The Innovators: Chapter 7, The Internet
III. The modern workplace
The modern workplace is often where grand career visions collide with reality. In this unit, we’ll look at the frustrations, banalities — and plain old sh*t — you’ll have to deal with in corporate environments, no matter how big or small the company. We’ll focus on ambiguity as a major force in modern workplaces and how to harness it to one’s creative advantage. We’ll talk about mindsets and habits to keep workplace distractions from squelching your value-creating potential. We’ll talk about innovating from the fringes in large corporate environments and the importance of storytelling and persuasion.
On the modern workplace:
Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (Chapters: The New World of Work, Becoming the Linchpin, The Resistance, There is No Map, The Culture of Connection, The Seven Abilities of the Linchpin)
The One Thing: parts 1, 2 and 3
Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders, chapter 2
- In 3-5 pages, explain which ideas in Linchpin and The One Thing were most interesting or useful to you and why.
- Bring a presentation or term paper from another class and present it to your classmates. Use the skills you’ve acquired through the course readings to prevail as your “boss” tears your presentation to shreds, fixates on something you consider totally irrelevant, or asks you to start over.
IV. Problem identification
In this unit, we’ll practice seeing the world as one great problem oyster. We’ll discuss how to find promising problems worth solving and explore execution as a key trait of successful innovators.
On finding problems worth solving:
From Zero to One: chapter 1, The Challenge of the Future; chapter 8, Secrets
The Ambiguity Advantage: chapter 9, Getting Creative with Ambiguity; chapter 10, Developing Ambiguity Acuity
- In Zero to One, Peter Thiel shares one of his top interview questions: What important truth do very few people agree with you on? Think deeply on this question and explain your answer in 1-3 pages, making sure not to use any of the “wrong” answers Thiel discusses in Chapter 1.
- For the next three days, make a list of 10 ideas pertaining to business, design, technology or anything else with the potential to create economic value. As we have already learned, the ability to solve problems is preceded by the ability to identify good problems worth solving. Find inspiration from any of the following areas: points of friction within your own daily life, problems you read about in the news media or blogs, questions you find on Quora, or even reviews of certain books on Amazon.
As a group, we’ll develop a list of society’s top 10 problems. (Easy, right?)
V. Your college journey
Examine why you’re here and what you’re doing. Develop a career vision. Perform a viability assessment on your career goals using the lessons learned in Unit 1. Identify which aspects of your career goals are ego-driven versus vocation-driven.
Anything You Want
- In 5-6 pages, connect your college coursework and activities to the outside world and the problems you plan to solve during your career. If your plans or ideas on college have changed since the start of this course, discuss how and why. Provide an honest assessment of how ego or vocation affect your vision for your future.
- Drawing on the skills you’ve learned in this course, identify a problem you’re interested in solving. Discuss the problem and create a roadmap for solving it. Describe the solution and what form it takes — a product, process, organization or something else. (10 pages)
Why We Need a Course Like This
We need to stop focusing on the outlier status of elite innovators. The refrain, “Not everyone can be Mark Zuckerberg” is far too common. The soft skills that people like him possess can be taught.
Many of us have brilliant ideas that, if brought to life, would change the world for the better. But so few of us know how to execute these ideas. If skills like problem-solving and execution had as much importance in the school curriculum as history or algebra, perhaps more people would be value-creating innovators and pursue thrilling, fulfilling careers.
There is little to lose in trying.