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.

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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.

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