Innovation

If you want to innovate like Da Vinci, education is overrated

Leonardo da Vinci is arguably the greatest innovator of all time. Da Vinci's example helps justify Peter Thiel's radical 20 Under 20 fellowship for college dropouts. See why, and the big caveat.

"I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do." -Leonardo da Vinci

I have to admit that I scoffed last week when I read about Peter Thiel's plan to give twenty $100,000 fellowships to budding entrepreneurs under 20 so that they can drop out of school and launch their own startups.

It's not that teenagers don't have great ideas and can't be successful as entrepreneurs. Obviously, they can. My skepticism comes from the fact that Thiel is a venture capitalist and the game that VCs play is to invest in 10 different ideas with the hope that one of them hits it big, while the other nine are likely to fail, morph into something different, or simply fade away.

So, for the 20 kids that Thiel is funding with his flashy fellowship, only two of them are likely to succeed. Where will that leave the other 18 college-skippers? Possibly among the 20% of 20-24 year olds with only a high school diploma who are currently unemployed, according to the US Labor Department.

That was my original thinking.

However, I'm starting to change my tune after coming in contact with the Da Vinci: The Genius traveling exhibit. Based on some lessons from Da Vinci, I think Thiel may be on to something, but there's also one big caveat with this approach.

The Da Vinci example

Leonardo da Vinci (right) is arguably the greatest innovator of all time. He was an artist, a scientist, and an engineer. But, above all, he was an inventor, who laid out plans that were the predecessors of the airplane, the helicopter, the automobile, the tank, the steam engine, the parachute, the submarine, and the underwater diving suit.

He also developed lots of everyday mechanical innovations, including bridges, musical instruments, the hydraulic pump, cranes and construction devices, and a variety of gears and pulleys to streamline a lot of different laborious tasks.

The guy was a volcano of original ideas, but he also had a disciplined scientific mind that enabled him to refine those ideas into detailed plans -- even though most of them were ahead of their time and were never built during his lifetime.

However, in the last couple decades, people have again become fascinated with trying to bring Da Vinci's inventions to life based on his drawings and using 15th century materials. The Da Vinci: The Genius exhibit is centered around these historical replicas of Da Vinci's ideas. This summer the exhibit is in Louisville (which is also the headquarters of the TechRepublic editorial department) and I'm volunteering as a guide in the exhibit. In observing Da Vinci's ideas coming to life, it's hard not to be awed by his creativity, imagination, and raw problem-solving skills. If he lived in the 21st century, he'd probably figure out the energy problem and the space travel propulsion problem, while also developing a true hologram that puts the current 3D scam to shame.

By volunteering in the Da Vinci exhibit I've also had to learn something about the basic Da Vinci bio. What I've learned -- which brings this discussion back to the topic of education and teenage innovators -- was that Da Vinci was an illegitimate child and so he didn't get the classical education that other Renaissance brats got at the time. He wasn't trained in Latin or Greek, which were the languages of all the intellectual texts for art, philosophy, engineering, and science.

Da Vinci didn't learn any of the conventional wisdom of the time and wasn't groomed to enter any of the most influential professions or centers of learning in Renaissance Italy. And yet, he became the greatest intellectual and innovator of his age -- and maybe of any age. How is that possible? How did he do it?

He did it by observing harder than anyone else. He closely observed the laws of nature. He examined the mechanics of animals, especially birds. He looked at the ways people move, interact, and express themselves. He watched the ways people work and thought of mechanical devices that could improve and streamline important tasks.

Then, he took all of those observations and used his voracious imagination to improve on existing tools and to dream up new inventions that could give civilization another nudge forward.

On Sunday, one of the visitors to the Da Vinci exhibit asked me, "If Da Vinci had been tutored in Latin and Greek and gotten a classical education, would he have still come up with all of these inventions?" I threw the ball back into the court of this obviously very-well-educated lady and asked her what she thought. After debating the issue, we both decided, "No." It was not very likely that Da Vinci's imagination would have been as powerful or as prolific if he'd been indoctrinated with the standard ideas of the Greeks and Romans.

Da Vinci: The Genius is a traveling exhibit that is currently making the rounds across the planet.

Throwing a bone to education

Before we completely throw institutionalized education under the bus, let's not forget about two of the favorite modern examples of the drop-out-of-college-and-start-your-own-company approach -- Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook). Yes, both dropped out of Harvard to start a company and eventually became billionaires, but before they went to college both of them got an outstanding education that was certainly a springboard to their later achievements.

Gates was one of the few students of his generation who got access to a full-fledged computer and logged as many, if not more, hours on a computer than any other high school student in America at that time. Zuckerberg cut his teeth as a high schooler at the prestigious Exeter Academy, one of the nation's best private schools, and earned honors in science while learning four languages -- French, ancient Greek, Latin, and Hebrew -- a pretty social thing to do.

Even Da Vinci himself wasn't completely devoid of education. When he decided to become an artist -- one of the few avenues open to him socially -- he showed enough promise that he was able to earn a 10-year apprenticeship with one of Italy's top artisans, Verrocchio, under whom Da Vinci learned a wide variety of artistic, technical, and mechanical skills.

Final word

Clearly, big time innovators need some kind of decent education to light the fire and launch them on to their atmospheric trajectory. But, there's also a point where they have to step outside of the conventional wisdom and the standard way of doing things in order to turn civilization in a different direction.

Education, by its very nature, is about institutionalizing and sharing the best ideas and best practices of the past -- even if it's the recent past. A college education trains and teaches students how to best plug themselves into the current civilization. Education helps you plug into the things society already needs, to plug into society as it is today. It's not about tomorrow.

Innovation is about what's next. To pull off a big innovation, you almost always have to take a big risk. You have to try something different.

That's why Thiel's program could work. He's looking for up-and-comers with big ideas to solve big problems. The fact that some of these promising students are dropping out of college to pursue big ideas says something in and of itself. These are students willing to take big risks -- the kinds of risks needed to make something big happen. Even if they fail, they'll learn a lot in the process and then probably try another big idea.

This certainly doesn't cancel out the need for education. Society will still need lots of educated people to refine, systematize, and carry forward the work of the next big ideas. But, to find the next Leonardos who can architect the next breakthroughs, we need things like the Thiel fellowship.

And, for those companies, teams, and leaders looking for ways to innovate within their current work, I'll share one last tip from Da Vinci. Remember when I said that Da Vinci basically out-observed everyone in his generation? That was critical. He spent a lot of time observing and figuring out where there were important problems and pain points that could be improved by either iterating or innovating. It's a simple but powerful formula. Lots of organizations could do a better job of carefully observing the best opportunities to target, and then attacking the opportunity with their best ideas.

Also read

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

134 comments
correy.smith321
correy.smith321

Back when I was young my own mother as well as the local neighbors around my small town would give a few lessons of classical education. The classical education that the teachers taught me were all about lectures from the Renaissance Age, Medieval times, and even plays by a variety of famous poets. Now days I see that hardly any of those are being taught to the children.  http://classicalacademicpress.com/what-is-classical-education/ 

Ashleyreed
Ashleyreed

I like the idea that people are getting up and working for things, but education is still important. If we do nothing with the things we learn, then we need not learn them. I've been reading about classical education, I want to make sure my kids have the best education they can get. My daughter is so creative, so I want to encourage that as much as I can. http://classicalacademicpress.com/what-is-classical-education/ 

mike five
mike five

A human resources manager once told me that a degree only certified that you are trainable.

graytmind
graytmind

The first I Pod guys you got it wrong. the first i Pod was in fact as big as a slot machine and was, Named the i Pod firstly because the device was to be used for internet and information so it was just give the letter I and as for the Pod the team came up with the name pod as it was in the inventors eyes a pod like a flower pod full of new life and good ideas. The name of the company was indeed I Pod and was situated in brisbane Australia. and the year was 1995 unfortunately the australian invention was too early in the market. we even had the first online trading post and when we offered to put the printed version online for just a few cents per advert the managing editor told us the internet would not take off as it was just a fad... Even our revenue stream ideas Were so far advanced that even to this day they have not caught up . There is so much that can still be done. it is sad to see tha the great thinkers are not on the ball, With todays wireless tech and infotech competent society There are so many opportunities just waiting to be developed. So I encourage entrepreneurs to go for it. Mind You I can tell you getting a business angel would be a good idea for starters. they weren't there for me or my team. Show Less - Posted by graytmind Jun 09, 2011 @ 4:47 AM (PDT)

syssie
syssie

I quit school (at 17) because thought wasn't allowed to go beyond agreed upon subject matter. I thought that was just insane. I still don't understand how people stop their thoughts at some arbitrary/imaginary boundary. Nor why they would want to.

cosmos-420man
cosmos-420man

it took some education to get to here. When these formally known Tech Critics refer to Gate's and Zuckerberg's education, they are merely going on the fact that they dropped-out of college. None to say the least have they gathered any information as to the rest of their schooling and or courses in other subjects. This is like the same cliche' made towards Einstein and his constant bad marks in Elementary School, Middle School, and High School. But, didn't these aspiring geniuses lead themselves to a certain point in learning, whether it be their own self-educating or one-on-one group sessions and/or so on . . . .

Wilmot McCutchen
Wilmot McCutchen

Reading Plutarch, Plato, Herodotus, Polybius, Livy, and Homer may seem irrelevant to invention, but I believe it helps. The inductive effect of these ancient examples of courage and drive is relevant to the process of conceiving a novel and useful idea and reducing it to practice. Classical education can give some idea of the virtues that support innovation. But heroism is unfashionable these days. Exalting mediocrity and conformist group-think have taken its place, as in the Dark Ages. Instead of leading out a student on a voyage of discovery (educere) current educational theory emphasizes pounding in (educare) enough to pass an exam and get a job to take one's place as a wage slave. Live brave and think bold, like the ancients.

gunnarzdad
gunnarzdad

Perhaps we need less traditional brick and mortar schools and more schools that teach and really inspire innovation. We still need education to teach the basics, but instead of making Western civilization a required class, we should make entrepreneur classes required.

Englebert
Englebert

Let's face it, a lot of people just want to get by their exams, get their degrees and make a lot of $$$. Many of these exam passers just cram stuff into their brains and expunge them the next day. They have absolutely no interest in creativity or innovation. The point of the article is that you have to break free from excessive institutionalized thinking if you're going to produce something innovative. I cannot disagree with this dogma especially when I see hordes and hordes of MBA's, CA's, CFA's, none of whom in their accumulated brain trust could've prevented the recent man-made recession, never mind produce something that would better our lives.

codepoke
codepoke

For every 1:1,000,000 genius out there who might really profit from this idea, there are 999,999:1,000,000 people who've been coddled into thinking they're geniuses. I wish Thiel all the luck in the world figuring out who's whom.

The Management consultant
The Management consultant

Formal education finishes at school leaving age.Past this it is up to the individual to carry out his/her education in the wider world.Traning should start when leaving school,this maybe in the workplace,trainng establishments but it remains structured with clear out comes.This is up to you..no one else.

jeffpk
jeffpk

Ignorance is not the mother of invention. Ignorance, in fact, causes you to reinvent what has already been done. I see enough of this sort of ignorance IN academia these days, let alone outside of it. There are always prodigies who can self-teach. But it begins with research and an eagerness to absorb everything anyone has to teach you. One of the best engineers I ever knew was self taught. He was also a sponge who actively soaked up every bit of knowledge he could from the studies and experiences of the school taught people around him. Minds like that are rare. Creativity is not the result of ignorance. Creativity is the result of knowing what has been done before and then asking "why is it done that way?" and "is there another way to look at it?" Questioning the common wisdom is key to invention, but to do that you must first know what the common wisdom is and the history of why it became common.

jeffpk
jeffpk

Its exploitative as hell... (1) 100,000 is not a lot of money. Yes, for a college kid he can probably live on it for a couple of years. Then what? (2) I assume these aren't grants. Hes not going to fund these kids to develop something and sell it to someone else. As is usual for Vulture Capitalists, for this relatively small investment he'll own most of the result. (3) They will be lucky if 2 of these kids get rich. And the rest? what will they do with an unfinished college degree? Maybe they can work for a DaVinci and dig canals. If someone had offered me this in college i probably would have taken it. And I'd probably be sorry now I did.

Uber Geek
Uber Geek

There are many programs that if instituted across the education system could increase the ability of students to think critically and creatively. The best, brightest and most gifted can get help from the Davidson Institute Some of their scholarship recipients have done amazing work at an early age: http://www.davidsongifted.org/fellows/Article/Davidson_Fellows___2010_427.aspx For a more mainstream way to teach creative thinking, you could get your local schools to start an Odyssey of the Mind team or get a Destination Imagination team together: http://www.odysseyofthemind.com/ http://www.destinationimagination.org/ The best thing to do to help fix the issues facing education in the United States today is NOT to lay blame, point fingers, or complain, but rather to use those feelings to motivate you to make a change by volunteering to help the schools start a program that can help teach the critical and creative thinking skills that are currently being overlooked.

Ralph Smith
Ralph Smith

Thanks for the history lesson and providing the setting. But what OF those 18?

ssnedd
ssnedd

as far as i know it, these paper qualifications are there for one thing - cover ass. employers gonna look for ppl who got papers to cover more angles to their arses. when shit happens, employers got their ass covered cos they hired paper qualified proletariats, no prizes guessing who's got the blame. and by golly, education's but a tool to supply the economy with working class ppl. Innovation cant be 'taught' like some package used in educating people. cant expect geniuses to pour out of campuses, shits just to mainstream. article's damn right, you just gotta look and observe things and think, for yourself..and not be told how to think it. Risk here's of course whether you're willing to step out of the 'ad populous' convention and face shit on your own. make or break, well i suppose its why we never get so many geniuses anyway.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

The trouble is a broken system. The employer wants some external validation the applicant knows something. The assumption is that the applicant can't tie his own shoes. The educational system has the ability to issue the validation the employer wants, but this validation does not mean the information presented was relevant or that the student retained it. The certification industry bypasses the learning part and simply test the applicant's knowledge. The certification does not guarantee suitability, nor that the applicant knows anything... just that they passed the test. We need a new method of learning... something like a Montessori learning model for IT. The information will be retained because it is part of a learning experience with personal context, and the degree or cert will mean something because of this.

sperry5322
sperry5322

DaVinci was indeed educated. He had 10+ years of apprenticeship training. That IS education and his was a broad-spectrum one at that. During the 50's, 60's, and some of the 70's, young people attended Vocational Technology Schools or Vo-Techs. These schools and programs were essentially modern apprenticeships. They provided the students a solid path towards become plumbers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, draftsmen, and more. The focus was on the doing of the job, not on the esoterica of traditional education. For example, the math skills taught were directly related to the job and field. Many of the graduates got reasonably good-paying jobs. Vo-Tech has been pretty much eliminated from the modern education system(s), much to America's detriment.

eoschlotz
eoschlotz

I think the experiment is a great idea. I hope the recipients understand they are making a decision that takes them down a path. The un-innovative and un-creative people who work in HR are only able to look at degrees and certifications to screen out as many people as possible. So I'm proud of these brave non-conformists who reject the status quo and trust their own skill rather than a degree. And to Mr. Davis, as far as I can tell most of his inventions were completely original, because no one had been thinking along the same lines he was (that advantage of not being polluted by conventional education). And, as far as I can tell, based on years of study of that historical period, most of his inventions were truly innovative.

HarryGalbraith
HarryGalbraith

This reminds me of the time when I had a phone interview with a job applicant. The company's education requirements were clear, yet the job applicant took issue with the college degree requirement. He pointed out that Jesus did not have the equivalent of a degree from a college-like institution and He made a significant contribution to mankind. My memory may not be completely accurate, but I think that I told him he could have the job if he could have God write him a letter of recommendation. The point I was trying to make was pretty simple. The probability of that job applicant being the modern day equivalent of Jesus was pretty low. While the college degree would not guarantee the success of a job applicant, it at least increased the probability of success. I believe there is a low probability of there being even one living person that can achieve the innovative level of Da Vinci. It is rare enough that we see innovation at the level of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and others that we hold in high esteem. I think it may be dangerous for us to motivate young people to avoid college and try to emulate the likes of Da Vinci. Over a decade or two, we may see one or two that reach the level of a Steve Jobs, but the majority are likely to have wasted many years of potentially productive intellectual growth. I suspect that the loss of that intellectual growth would surpass the value we might realize from one or two great achievers. At any rate, I seriously doubt we will ever see the likes of Da Vinci again. Let's keep motivating young people to go to college and try to change our educational system to better support the innovative process.

Marcthehat
Marcthehat

From the original article "Education, by its very nature, is about institutionalizing" - modern society is about 'institutionalizing'. Most people are capable of innovation in one form or another, however modern society (govenrnents ((and education)), multi-nationals etc. etc.) generally seek to limit the free thinking that can lead to innovation, as this is a risk to their status quo. So I believe that it is most likely that all the great innovators (I will leave the arguments as to who is great to others) either were not aware of the rules or choose to ignore or 'cheat' them. We are educated in rules (as researched/published by others) on nature, the universe, society, technology etc. but strangly many of these rules have been re-written over time. Most of us live in societies that have a plethora of rules on every aspect of how we live, leaving very few people in exalted position or field where we are allowed to innovative and be supported in its development, and I am concerned that the capability to ignore or 'cheat' the rules is being beaten out of us. initially by education and then through the rest of our lives. I don't know where we go from here

mf001
mf001

I don't know about you guys, but across the pond we get bombarded with dodgy theories from 'educationalists'. You may have them over there too. They claim to have guided education over the last forty years, during which we have seen standards sink like a stone in government-funded primary (5-11) and secondary education (12-18). Tertiary education has been grossly over-expanded to keep kids off the unemployed stats, and standards have performed in line with those in the primary and secondary fields. I have one simple question. Is an Educationalist to Education as an Islamist is to Islam? I welcome your views.

minstrelmike
minstrelmike

Learning by watching nature is called 'science.' Attending school to get a certificate is called 'education' or academia.' That process involves giving the 'correct' answers back to the 'teachers.' Read Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolution. 'Innovation' by definition, is something new, not the same old same old. You want to learn quantum mechanics--get a degree. If you want to learn how the world of physics really works, question the entire assumption of quantum mechanics (but don't expect to get a degree). /* Physicists act like it's an insight when their equations collapse after a measurement is taken, however, they start with the full probability space of all measurements so they shouldn't be surprised about what happens in that space when a measurement is finally taken. Duh. */ Earth science has completely rejected Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis. Any real scientist needs to at least read it before attempting to reject it because it seems absurd. /* Any biologist or earth systems scientist whjo claims the control structure for Gaia cannot possibly exist ought to first explain to a bartender (the true test of understanding) the control structures for 1. a single cell and 2. a tree as an organism and the single leaf cells it contains. */ True education is looking at the world as it is. An academic or social education is pretty much just telling people what they want to hear.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

Thank you to everyone who has participated in this discussion. I'm very impressed by all of the well thought-out replies (even the ones I disagree with). There are some great perspectives and feedback that have definitely expanded my views on this topic. This is what makes TechRepublic great -- a lot of smart people who are eager to have constructive conversations about important topics. So, thank you!

Myrna Ayarza
Myrna Ayarza

Thank you for sharing your knowledge and thoughts. I have always believed all talents combine make the big difference in society. Great ideas might come from someone dedicated to creating as Thiel??s 20 under 20 team; or it might just come from someone who is performing a constant manual task with not much education, but some experience. Education has its place, experience has its place and inquisitive minds have their place. Great ideas need to be practical and executable. Therefore we need the thinkers, the educated, the experienced. We need them all.

m_bisen
m_bisen

The world is filled with opportunists so if youngsters are given an avenue to innovate and make a fortune and for that they have to leave their school...whats wrong.....its always better to make most of it at the right time then to realize late in the years, what did I gain or rather give back to society after going through formal years of schooling.Ideas are nothing but product of brain generated by mapping,networking and connecting unexpected.So any time in life if one gets to turn the idea into working thing..great...Because Education can stop but Learning can never stop...humans are made to be like that...Agree?

premiertechnologist
premiertechnologist

Without government or corporate backing it won't matter. Da Vinci was successful in dreaming up designs, but what of implementation? Babbage couldn't make the machine he designed because the materials and fabrications were not available. I'd say that for all the hype, Da Vinci wasn't all that successful: Yes, he left us some nice paintings and all, but he never built a working helicopter. It's sort of like a science fiction writer dreaming up the Warp Drive. Even if you do innovate -- and I've had a few, like the Jail Chaplain Library System and Integrated Voice Response for Permits (absolutely advanced beyond what anyone else could do at the time by combining the IBM Mainframe VTAM, TCP/IP, dynamic screen system generator over the network with Berkley Sockets to the HP3000 MPE i/X System using C and Cobol to access the network database) -- you may find, as I did, that someone else will take the credit. If you want to innovate, do it on your own time and hope you can connect with the public. Here's an idea for you innovators -- and you could make plenty of money at it: Create a visual drag and drop mega menu GUI designer using pure css: Sort of like Artiseer, but with mega menus. Make sure it will integrate with Windows Visual Studio, Wordpress, HTML, PHP, Adobe Dreamweaver, Joomla, Drupal, Blogger, DotNetNuke and CodeCharge Studio. Since none of you can do that, I'll take it on... eventually. Two or three years should do it. Oh, and by the way, you should build in dynamic tabbed panels as well. Good luck with that.

jtroop
jtroop

Da Vinci was a great dreamer, but then again, how many inventions during his time period were there? It is one thing to draw something on paper, it is a totally different thing to actually make it a reality, or true working piece that performs a function. I do not think Da Vinci could have solved any of the problems you mentioned in this article. He was lucky that at the time period he was alive, there just were not a lot of things invented in the course of history yet. If I draw a lot of things that have not been invented yet, and they are found a couple of hundred years from now, does that make me a great inovator??

Sarel Theron
Sarel Theron

Go to the site Innovation Exchange ... $50,000 plus for innovative ideas for corporates ... In South Africa ... due to past circumstance and present economics we have massive drop-outs ... here we use the term `Street wise' for entrepreneurs who strive to succeed without formal education ... if you do not have a degree you have massive challenges to get funding so you have to be street wise and a hustler to succeed ... So Innovation Exchange is a great entry site with no risk to see if one has what it takes .... This is one challenge; "The challenge 'Heat resistant packaging to keep food cool' is ending - and they still need your help! Your idea captured in a 1-2 page document may be all it takes for you to claim this reward. If you have already submitted a solution and want to amend it with any additional information or insight, make sure you post your revised solution by June 3, 2011. " ... I like it and use it and have come close to providing acceptable solutions ... a lot of fun with big rewards ...

prdenize
prdenize

With a little bit of education you know a "little about a lot" of topics. The more formal education you get the more specialized you become in your range of topics. In other words a person with a PhD would know a "lot about a little". Therefore formal University education by definition would inhibit someone's ability to "create" outside the narrow band of expertise. Marconi the inventor of wireless couldn't change a car tyre, but could invest wireless communication. However (I believe) it was a mathematician Maxwell who theorized that electricity could exist as a radio wave. Maybe innovation requires a combination on the geeks and the marketeers. In the Microsoft situation Gates AND Allen started the Microsoft Company. Allen in is stated was then alleged "shafted" by Gates who had the vision and ruthlessness to stomp over the opposition and put other companies out of business. The Facebook story appears to be another example.. Successful people aren't always the nice guy. Gates appears to be spending billions on "save the world projects", maybe to purge the guilt. Now that Apple is making a "killing" is Steve Jobs a nicer person.. maybe not! Moral of the story. Before becoming rich you may want to examine WHY you want to have all the Loot. In the real world monopoly game the winner isn't always the nice guy!

doctordawg
doctordawg

Leonardo had an incredibly wealthy secular sponsor. He and other Florentine innovators stood out because the Church had no sway in their lives as long as the Medici kept their distance from Rome. Once the "Bonfire of the Vanities" swept away so much wealth and crushed so many secularist endeavors, Florence returned to superstitious church drivel, and anyone proposing man could fly was burned as a heretic. The same thing is happening now, except that the Church is now Wall Street and the innovations they demand center around profit, not usefulness. I guarantee if one of these 20 bright kids invents a free substitution for Plavix and Lipitor, he will win no prizes.

The Management consultant
The Management consultant

This is a very well discussed topic.The outstanding issue is can we train anyone to be innovative? No, innovators are a summation of nature and nurturer.Education will help some understand the subject matter to push forward the boundaries whilst others have no desire to take the risk or ridicule of innovation.Innovation carries 90% failure and less than ten percent success.It is governed by practical perceptive rules of thinking which only a few can conceptualize..Latest thinking is that successful innovators have higher than average grey matter areas in the brain.People who are dyslexic are known to process these traits and it is likely Leonardo was severely dyslexic.

Colinza
Colinza

Hi Jason, A great article! I became a real Da Vinci fan back in the late 80s when I attended a similar exhibition in London. The models were amazingly constructed with an impressive flying machine above the exit hall. The cabinets of mostly tiny - manuscripts were endless and the attention to detail of the subject matter truly amazing. Most of the manuscripts were from the Queens collection. It displayed a kind of logical methodical process combined with wild freedom. He must have been completely possessed with the desire to express his thoughts I guess not having the world cup or mindless TV movies to distract him did help! Interesting your question - would he have achieved as much if given the classic education of the day? Well, ponder this, thousands did receive that, possibly, dogmatic education and none rose to the heights he reached not even close. I guess the key is translating education into wisdom. This reminds of the Paul Simon song: "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, its a wonder I can think at all. But my lack of education never hurt me none, cause I can read the writing on the wall" But still it has to start with the fire inside he must have had an inferno in his brain.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

1) You don't. 2) You can't. 3) Who're you kidding? 4) Not me, that's for certain. 5) If you have to ask... A one i 100000000000 (one hundred billion) genius like ol' Leo isn't built. It just is - or was, as it were. Will there be another? Maybe Einstein was another, but these days we have a burden of knowledge far greater than that of Da Vinci's time, and specialization has become hard to avoid - so we have no Einsteins behind glass at the Louvre. That's another thing, not learning the official truth of Da Vinci's time wasn't necessarily an obstacle, back in that day universities schooled clergy, and schooled them with Aristotle. And Aristotle, being utterly wrong, was holding people back for centuries. I also call into question the dark fate of the 18 of the 20 who stochastically will not succeed. Bear in mind that most dropouts drop out for far more insurmountable reasons than a hundred grand. These guys can continue their education at any time, even alongside work. Except for wounds to the ego, they're not likely to suffer any ill effects from being given an opportunity like this. Wounds to the ego can be serious enough, though.

Sensor Guy
Sensor Guy

He's right that as you move up the education you tend to become less earth shattering in your thinking. As aptly said by Santee, overrated is not unnecessary or not recommended. He's not using a new innovative business model. This is the same old Silicon Valley VC model of the 1990's except he's gotten free buzz from the press with his "under 20" schtick added on to the old model and the anti-college slant plays well against the college expense bubble in today's economy just like engineering and applied science was a bad word back in the late 60's and early 70's. On the other hand he's wrong about the under 20 bit. I'd suggest to him he should do some breakthrough thinking of his own and give five or so of the grants to people over 50. He may find, as I have, that there's as much innovation at that age as under twenty. Maybe not the brute inexperienced energy and long hours, maybe not the wisdom to avoid Thiel raping you financially as a VC if your idea succeeds, but certainly the spark innovation is there among the oldsters. Oldsters maybe even more important since the demographics of the Internet are changing and using experience to cut time to market may actually be a new paradigm shift. I'd also suggest he steer away from Silicon Valley and the Ivy Leagues. They'll get the grants from rich schools and money from relatives. The big opportunity is maybe among the Hispanics and other growing minorities, since they now are the new majority in the Western hemisphere.

pete20r2
pete20r2

Do you know the volume of patents recieved by the USPTO that amount to perpetual motion machines? There are so many that they don't bother arguing, they just say "OK" and take your money. This is the result of lack of education, any 10th grader can tell you that you can't just generate energy from nothing. I like to argue by employing extreme examples, so here it is: Suppose a person is entirely un-educated, this includes common knowledge, which is still knowledge and must be learned all the same. How would they have even the slightest chance of say, inventing the wing, they would have no knowledge of, pressure, thrust, forces, reactions, vectors. They would in effect have to 'waste' time by re discovering all of these things. Say then that the wing has not been invented but everything ever known about fluid dynamics is known by some particularly learned person. It only takes a spark of his imagination to create the wing. He (or she :) only needs to have one fantastic thought and they can immediatly see how it could be viable, "yes, a pressure differential would create a force" , or "redirecting air downwards would impose a reaction force and thrust the wing in the opposite direction". Now there have been many fluke discoveries, but they only become useful when they are understood. PTFE or 'Teflon' can be stretched into tape but only is it is done very rapidly. This was discovered when a scientist got angry because he couldn't stretch it slowly and grabbed a piece and ripped at it, but is didn't break. He then explained this with molecular theory and this is how PTFE sheets and tape are produced today. Sure you can go it alone, but I think it would be foolish to disregard the wealth of knowledge that we already have.

skranish
skranish

If the bozos at Digital Research were not so stupidly behaved, we would not know or care who Bill Gates is. If MyFace or ButtBook or any of the other social networking websites had been a little more successful, we might well not know or care who Mark Zuckerberg is. Both were blessed with the outstanding education provided by top-notch private schools. Both had successful, accomplished parents. These guys were "doers", but innovators? I think not. There is a major luck component in all of this, and I don't think Theil has control over this or any way of providing it. If, as others have pointed out, 22 out of 24 fail, Theil will probably figure out how to make money off the two successes, and the other 22 will realize thay have been had. Just because you have a good idea, does not mean you can do anything with it - or build a company out of it. Good ideas are a dime a dozen in 10 gross lots. The only thing that really matters is a good idea taken to completion - and a LOT of luck. For many people, a good education is the key to learning how to complete a complex task. If you want to find innovators who started with little education, start with, say Thomas Alva Edison. The education of his day was wrote memorization and clearly he needed none of it. He was a true engineer, building on the work of others. He did not invent the light bulb, he just made it practical. He had his failures, too - he was on the DC side of the AC/DC debate, and ultimately lost big time. Most people are unaware of his greatest innovation and accomplishment: the commercial R&D lab, devoted to inventing things. Then there were the Wright Brothers. Educated only through high school, they ran a bicycle shop, which in those days meant BUILDING things, not unpacking stuff from China. They expected to be engineers, too, building on the work of others. They did a lot of research, and discovered that everyone before them was **WRONG**. They took a methodical approach to everything they did, which is lost on most people. Their time at Kitty Hawk (You know, "North Carolina, first in consistent wind speeds!") was not merely a moment in time, but spread across THREE winters, where they learned how airplanes (and kites!) flew, learned how to fly one themselves, and THEN brought a powered plane to fly. So people like Edison and the Wrights succeeded without the college education of the day..but this was before much of modern technology was taught. On the other hand, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, England's brilliant engineer of the mid 1800s, DID have the benefit of the classical education of the day! But a good education today is very different from what Edison and the Wrights avoided. Sure a few LUCKY ones will do amazingly well without it - provided they get help from just the right people. Others would be well served to get a GOOD education. My children attend the same private school that produced (a few years back) the team of high school age students who wrote "Tooble", a program that allows downloading YouTube videos to an iPod. Like good entrepreneurs, they had an idea, and pursued it. Like good engineers, they built on the work of others. The won a prize at one of the Apple festivals and got a lot of good publicity. And like good students who have had the benefit of an outstanding education, all went on to college. They continue to work on the program - but are not trying to take the short route. College experiences today vary widely, from the very top schools to places that are little more than holding pens for children who have not grown up yet. A truly great education will make a big, long term difference for most people.

Infotwins
Infotwins

Age has nothing to do innovation. Anyone with an innovation attitude would innovate at any age - under 20 or above 70. I am hitting sixty this July and I am involved in a big time innovation. I should say that this is happiest phase of my life. At last I am able to do now what I always loved to do - to do new things. If at all age has anything to do with innovations, it could be in relation to the propensity to take risks. I have seen people losing all the verve and the nerve too early on the pretext of delivering 'responsibilities' and ensuring 'security' Once we are able to overcome our aversion to risk, age would never diminish our innovation sensibilities. In fact, the innovation spirit can mature like wine and become more and more potent Every innovator also acquires knowledge. There is however, a huge difference in the type of knowledge imparted by institutions and what the innovators learn. Those with an innovation attitude learn to learn and unlearn and learn to do things. They are not attracted so much by abstract theories but by ideas that connect knowledge with realities around them as well those that excite them with newer possibilities. You can also identify innovators by their rebellious instinct against anything illogical. They are never afraid to face or pose any questions. They carry a self belief that things can be better and that they can create things that can change things for the better. Underneath all these is an unshakable honesty of purpose and incisive empathetic sensibility that help them think for and on behalf of others I have been actively following a number of discussions and conversations about innovation. Somehow most of participants shoot in the dark as they have never done any innovation by themselves. Innovation is all about doing the doable. I guess we would have real insights about it by listening more to the innovation doers

markpowers80
markpowers80

... and Vinci was where he was from, as the historians (the other nerds) like to remind us. If you were his friend, you'd call him 'Leonardo'.

Professor8
Professor8

JohnMcGrew and masonm on the mark, but not so sure Thiel is. No, you don't need a degree to learn or to do great things. And being a little hungry can be a big incentive. But over the last 20 years, the tech execs and VCs have been starving a lot of American brain-power and wreaking a lot of damage. But look at all the garbage that passes as "innovative" today. "Social networking". Bah! People could always set up their own web pages and have near-total control over their privacy. "CRM" should be considered Criminal! Twits? Decades old. Tablet computers. Again, decades old. Meanwhile, the old standards -- word processing, spread-sheets -- still need one heck of a lot of work to clean them up and add features that should have been in there in the 1980s. I'm getting the impression that what we really need are a lot more people able and willing to do the conscientious, sometimes dogged, work to make tech better. benroberts, some 3K Americans earned CS degrees back in 1970, 5.5K in 1972, and if peaked in 2004 ove 66K after nearly a decade and a half of intentional destruction of the job market. malcolm davis, don't neglect the cost of keeping that inventory of parts; that's why so many products are more economical to throw away and replace than repair. cwarner7_11, the trouble is that, e.g., Dirac, caught the right part of the wave of advancement in a particular field... and then they didn't have to be research assistants through 3 post-docs and only be able to enter the struggle toward a professorship when they were 40 (or be tossed aside at 35) as is the case for many, today. They could extend the envelope when they were 20-25 because they got to do interesting/exciting work on interesting/exciting concepts. Now, they're cutting off both ends. There's little employment security. There are few opportunities to get onto anything resembling a career ladder by normal paths, today. Gates is not worthy as a model. Zuckerberg is not a worthy model. Ellison and McNealy are certainly not worthy models. Jobs, maybe a little. You don't become a great baseball batter by practicing mugging people with a club; you do it by inventing and producing something good. And we don't get more great apps by praising the sellers of ones that stink.

Hethen
Hethen

Jason, This is likely the best piece you have written, since I have been reading your column. You were able to capture the essence of the issue regarding the difference between education and innovation. You succeeded in formulating a clear and defensible position giving proper respect to both perspectives. Thanks for taking the time to share this viewpoint.

benroberts
benroberts

In 1970 having a college degree was something that set you apart from other people. The journey to get there was considered long in terms of finances and time. Consequently, a college degree meant that you could reasonably expect to gain employment in the field that you studied. Fast forward to 2011 and college degrees have become as common as high school graduation certificates were in the 70's. Subsequently their value has diminished significantly when it comes to gaining employment. In addition to this, the student loan phenomenon could also mean that you are a college graduated, unemployed person up to their eyes in debt. I really like this initiative. Good ideas transcend education. I agree with Jason, even ideas that don't make it in this program will have taught their progenitors some very valuable skills and probably kick started their network of contacts so that they can go on to the next big idea. I applaud Peter Thiel and I only wish there were a couple of guys like him in Australia!

Jonno-the-First
Jonno-the-First

An entrepreneur needs capital, dreams, passion, belief, and an infallible idea. Without what Bill gates had, (his dad a patent attorney, his mum a banker) luck and opportunity, and friends who had the same nerdy ideas and were passionate as well, Bill wouldn't have made it in that field. So $10,000 isn't enough... entrepreneurs need support from assorted parts of jigsaw pieces that allow an idea to jell. Some would call it luck. I call it the inverted pyramid of failed ideas . Many will try for few to succeed. The fertiliser of new ideas are failures which point to feasable ideas. They are the examples of what not to do. If you could put that in a bag and sell it every one would succeed at this.

Stovies
Stovies

Da Vinci is evidence of the modern Masters and Doctors Degree Education being a regurgitation of the department professor's pet theories and reading lists. As an engineer in the Oil Service Industry since the 1970s I have met very few Doctors in Engineering that could actually use a spanner. Most of my colleagues could do all the calculations for beam loadings and torque, but the Industry demanded that they be verified by a graduate; and I cannot remember a time when they had a reason to say that the mechanical guys had got it wrong. But the times the work of these permanent students was corrected are very numerous. As you say, they go to meetings and talk the talk; and talk and talk; but talk never built one oil rig, or extracted one barrel of oil out of the ground/seabed. Mind you, there are some good guys among the science and engineering grads; they are the ones that talk to the mechanics as equals. They get the appropriate respect shown in return.

malcolm davis
malcolm davis

This entire subject is really a misnomer. In my senior year of Mechanical Engineering, we were taught to solve problems using existing parts, not by creating new parts. There is an enormous cost in creating new parts, such as R&D, testing, new production tools (molds, materials, etc.), etc. The success of Mazda Miata was that the car is constructed 100% from existing parts. Mazda did not have to pay the normal startup production cost, which saved Mazda an enormous amount, and made the Miata profitable. Engineering is about producing product with the minimum investment, which generally implies limiting innovation, unless the innovation is building things 100% from existing parts. (BTW: That is how modern software is developed, pull as much off-the-shelf as possible) True greatness: Roman engineering was built on an amalgamation of different ideas that was brought in from different cultures. Roman???s advancement in engineering lead to wealth, and overall improvement in life. (Unlike what is portrayed in the movies.) What is also difficult to understand, is that Da Vinci is given credit for many things he did not do. Historians have a difficult time validating things that Da Vinci is given credit. (The same is said for Ben Franklin, how is credited with many quotes that he did not originate.) Hence, the entire subject line is really just a bunch of junk to me.

bigjude
bigjude

Great publicity stunt but it's nothing new. There have always been patrons. Even Leonardo had his. As for tertiary education, that's a modern fad which seems to be failing if the articles I'm reading in the New York Times about the poor cognitive advancement of US college students are correct. Apparently today's US college students read a newspaper or visit a news website less than once a week and spend less than five hours a week on home-based study. Based on tests taken on entry and after graduation, college does little to improve mean literacy, creative and problem solving skills. US educators are blaming it on short attention spans resulting from the use of social media and modern teaching methods making it too easy to pass. It seems to me that wholesale tertiary education is simply society???s way of taking a huge chunk out of the workforce to keep down unemployment by shortening our working lives. From an academic perspective, only a quarter of those kids should really be there. At age 73, I???ve seen many dumbing -down processes. My grandparent???s generation left school at 12 with literacy and numeracy skills better than most of today's high school graduates. I come from the first generation of "teenagers", a concept responsible for many of today???s social ills. The time-honoured system of apprenticeship was dropped in my children???s generation in favour of wholesale tertiary education. I don???t think today???s tradesmen are the better for it. I don't know that this has much to do with Peter Thiel's initiative except that his young entrepreneurs should be very, very grateful for the opportunity he???s giving them to get out and do something. I???d probably be more impressed if he gave half the money to twice the number, but that???s his choice. One last thought. He???s not turning it into a reality show is he?

disaacs0514
disaacs0514

I understand that education is expensive ??? but it may NOT be for everybody. Not to be exclusionary ??? just an observation. I???ve watched too many students in my classes (and in other???s) through the years ???Fail??? ??? not because of the Professor, curriculum, or institution, but rather from a failure to ???apply themselves??? to the task(s) at hand. The attached article is an interesting ???call to arms??? of a consumer based approach to an education. I am reminded of the advice of my Father upon my matriculation to the University of California at Riverside : 1) A Trade school will teach you ???HOW??? to do (or make) something- i.e. achinist/lathe operator etc. 2) A Community college will expose you to different topics, subjects, and give you an ???entry level??? (i.e an ???Associate???s Degree???) 3) A College will teach you a ???Discipline??? ??? like History, Chemistry, or Anthropology 4) A University will teach you to ???Think???, deriving new information from old, knowing Data points A, B, and C, derive information about D,E, F and others ??? and guiding you (ok ??? Teaching you) to ???Teach yourself??? through research, study, thought, discussion, and interaction with other like (or dis-like) minded individuals. Also ??? most Universities are ???collections of colleges (UC, Oxford, Stanford etc) that offer a wide variety of disciplines ??? many having graduation (i.e. requirements to receive A degree) requirements that involve interdisciplinary course work, and well as a ???rounding??? of the students in areas of History, Math, basic science, Language, etc. The precise listing and selection of these interdisciplinary studies define the ???character??? of the University as well as the alumni it produces. You ???Read??? Law, Mathematics, Physics, etc at Cambridge and Oxford ??? not to take a test ??? but to discipline and develop your mind in the field - in order to ???show what you know??? and take the field to the next Level. My first Mentor at UCR ??? the Late Dr. Norman Ravitch (PhD History) reminded me constantly of the importance of the ???levels??? of Study: a) At the Baccalaureate level ??? you study and repeat the steps of others to be able to walk beside/with them b) At the Masters Level ??? you ???Master??? the subject through the affirmation or disproval (through research (MS) or study & Examination (MA) of those who preceded you c) At the ???Doctorate??? level (PhD ??? Not DCS) you add to and expand the body (???Corpus???) of knowledge and revelation in that field Remember ??? the people who teach (the PhD???s) are called ???Professors??? because they ???profess??? the truth???s about a particular (and sometimes peculiar) discipline/area of study I hope this has made you stop, think, and consider. That is always the best [in my opinion] outcome for any student in getting and education. Let me know what you think ??? I???m interested . . . Derek E. Isaacs

rkfairchild
rkfairchild

No, real world experience can be under-rated. Why have to choose? Companies should sponsor more experimental classes and professors. Why have to choose between a degree and experimentation when you can do both?

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