The Thiel Fellowship vs. the virtuoso principle in professional education

Thoughts about contrarian tipping points for conventional wisdom

Citior, altior, fortior - faster, higher, stronger. The venerable Olympic motto has left the sports arena and turned us all into valiant gladiators. It is a race we are inevitably bound to lose – against machines and cyborgs as much as against human mutants who undisputedly excel at quantitative criteria but have contributed precious little to the qualitative quantum leaps that made up the ultimate sum total of evolution.

At the same time, we are witnessing the unprecedented olympification of all areas of life. The day cannot be far when every aspect of our existence, everyone and everything with which we come in contact will be ‘rated.’ From credit ratings to U.S. News & World Report to Zagat’s, it is the equivalent of cameras in the courtroom: people start acting for the camera, and for the ranking, to the detriment of any other priority or independent substantive consideration. I am not saying it is all bad – witness body cameras for police, and think of transparency in public companies – but, once a tipping point is reached, it does create powerful opportunities for contrarian approaches: think leveraged buyouts and private equity, think investment in distressed assets, think off-balance-sheet items, think emphasizing criteria the jury didn’t. It is the very essence of market forces as opposed to Marxist planned economies to award rewards for what has not been planned for, what went unpredicted, and, hence, unrated.

I challenge you to name a dozen Wunderkinder, child or youthful prodigies who later won significant recognition or even just awards for lifetime achievement. There was Mozart, yes. Now, keep going!

It would just be willful blindness to overlook the evidence: our time is witnessing a spectacular rise in extremely successful college dropouts. In fact, the vast majority of billionaires falls into that category – whatever value one might wish to accord a high net worth, they must be doing something right. Think of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, James Cameron, Mark Zuckerberg, Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Lady Gaga, Tiger Woods, Roman Abramovich, Ben Affleck, André Agassi, Christina Aguilera, Paul Allen, Woody Allen, Brooke Astor (AND her husband!). Why should I get carpal tunnel syndrome typing honorable mentions for the legions of those sore “underachievers” when you can read the “hall of shame” of college dropouts all by yourself?

The rest of us make up for the ever-growing pool of wannabe Olympians – measured by purely quantitative criteria, because these are so wonderfully indisputable. Yes, they are indisputable because they are also almost completely meaningless, and it is, after all, impossible to argue persuasively with nonsense. Our standardized tests relate to testing relevant aptitude much as the ability to jump 5 yards would be predictive for admission to a police academy: something just tells you that neither Sherlock Holmes nor Inspector Jacques Clouseau were capable of doing it – or needed to. But it is such a fair, objective, and, above all, non-discriminatory criterion! Who cares if Sherlock Holmes doesn’t make the cut-off: we know in our guts that, just like Jessica Fletcher, he will ultimately not need a police badge to solve the darndest cases. It gets a little trickier in licensed professions, though. What distorts these tests is that, because of the substantial numbers of test-takers, a good part will excel both at relevant and at (the painstakingly measured) irrelevant criteria. Of course, it is the former the test administrators and their clients will shamelessly claim credit for.

Standardized tests, the panacea of “selective institutions of higher learning,” have shunted deep and slow thinkers to the side to give way to those that excel at quick access to memorized data and to measurable standardized solutions. Were Galilei or Newton’s apple measurable? That’s not to say a lawyer or a doctor ought not be able to think quickly on her feet, but only very rarely does it matter. The other times, it matters mostly for quantitative productivity: that is to say, it indicates one’s ability to resolve déjà vu problems quickly and with minimal reflection. Speed is an entirely useless criterion in the quest for resolving novel, cutting-edge challenges. But then, junior-level professionals are not even expected to tinker with those, and by the time they reach a level where actual thinking may be not only permitted but required as part of their job description, they can be trusted to have learned all tricks of simulating creativity.

There is another consequence to standardized tests, and it has thoroughly corrupted higher education: no matter how cleverly they are designed, all standardized tests inevitably become “learnable.” While this gives rise to profitable cottage industries concerned with test-prepping, it once again skews test results in favor of those able to afford it. If only learning for the test would overlap with learning for life – but it doesn’t. There is, quite simply, no utility whatsoever in one’s ability to retain, for a few weeks at most, inordinate volumes of arcane SAT or GRE vocabulary otherwise ably provided by Merriam Webster. That, or speed-reading, is how we select who should be granted a license to grow their mind? Really?

And this is also exactly why financially quantifiable success based on qualitative innovation has since some time become the domain of the college dropout. The very same principle can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to professionals who, by implication of our licensing laws, cannot have dropped out of college but have faced a very similar dilemma at the level of graduate and professional schools.

Jobs that enable one to repay one’s educational loans within tolerable time and with tolerable lifestyle compromises are restricted to graduates of roughly a dozen professional schools nationwide in each area. That’s where employers of a certain caliber recruit – with a few notable but statistically not terribly significant exceptions. The rest cannot find jobs that will keep them out of quasi-poverty after debt service. How do we know how to identify these gatekeeper schools? Quite easily: they all come ranked, mostly by U.S. News & World Report (and a few others who base their raison d’être on not being U.S. News and offering some alternative but rarely more meaningful ranking criteria). Oh, ranking! What a genius business model, based on a delusionary distortion of the Olympic motto. The self-fulfilling prophecy of yet another substantively unsupportable racket.

It is also the reason why an unprecedented cult of youth has taken hold, ignoring the fact that excellence is not confined to the 18-28 age bracket. But combination of acceptable debt service and retirement savings is.

Once again, all these conclusions point us to a search for the road less traveled: because the beaten path holds very little promise, except an early death by hamster wheel.

If you add to that the fact that many employers of licensed junior professionals have concluded that professional schools have taught their entry-level arrivals few things of value, this, in essence, reduces their academic diplomas to an expensive (and meaningless) kind of intelligence test that comes with decades-long indebtedness. What follows this exercise is another decade of sorely needed professional training, this time under practical mentors who set real-world priorities, i.e., not “philosophy of…”, “doctrine of…”, “concept of….” but actual solutions that hold up to the tempest of practical challenges.

Well, one thoroughly fascinating alternative concept is the Thiel Fellowship. Whatever one may choose to think of the political and other meanderings of its founder, it is what only a contrarian can come up with. Not concerned with speed-reading, paper chases or other quantitatively measurable academic caprioles standardized tests are so fond of, it provides fellows with $100,000 in grant money for dropping out of college and pursuing real-life implementation of an idea judged worthy of the effort and sacrifice. Peter Thiel, one of the most creative entrepreneurs of recent years, a chess master, co-founder of PayPal and early funder of Facebook, will strike many as a living contradiction to his own ideas, since he is, after all, a graduate of Stanford (B.A. in Philosophy and a J.D. from the Stanford Law School). But I see no contradiction here at all – rather a need for vigorous generalization. Under Thiel’s approach, no ranking of the outcomes is necessary. The thing speaks for itself, in the language of Justice Potter Stewart: we know success when we see it. No need to make presumptuous ‘decisions’ whether robotics, biotech or the next BigData app are more important for the future of a generation about to be spawned. Let’s not forget, after all, what ranking has really become about: the nod of the ranker – and no other merit, whatever effort is made to cloak subjective outcomes in a costume of objectivity.

While a junior assistant or paper-pusher or suitcase-bearer might well be judged by his or her “efficiency” at menial practical tasks that lend themselves to quantitative scoring, that should not be applied if their employer had the development of significant potential of people on its agenda.

It took Einstein seven years to incubate Special Relativity and then ten years for General Relativity. It is fair to assume that no scientific funding organization would have supported this process patiently with grants (and, in fact, no one did – long-haired Albert worked at the patent office in Bern to support himself, passed over for ‘promotion’ twice “until he fully mastered machine technology”).

Yes. I know. Not every seven years spent brooding over a bizarre idea will result in anything even vaguely resembling greatness. Ask any PhD in Mathematics. In fact, the percentage of this happening will be lousier than the survival rates of start-up companies. It is equally true that there are few alternatives to such brooding other than a DARPA-like approach.

Part of the regulatory madness that makes taking companies private so attractive is the insanity of measuring strategic management performance by quarterly reports and prospectuses. A systemic prescription for failure and abuse? You bet. But one devilishly perplexing temptation is inherent in quantitative scoring that has even moderate acceptance: controversies and justified criticism aside, right or wrong, numbers will be relied upon for selection and allocation processes, only because they are so easy to use, and, more importantly, ‘because they are there.’

To force an individualized, qualitative, subjective look at the individual or decision in question would require considerably greater expense of time and depth of analysis and comparison. Besides, it would invariably give rise to challenges on grounds of fairness, comparability, discrimination and similar objections – simply because such obvious if irrelevant points of attack are inherent in any non-quantitative review. But do markets care what’s ‘fair’ or ‘objective’? Back to Sherlock Holmes, Jacques Clouseau, or Jessica Fletcher: res ipsa loquitur and nothing else.

Just like religions can be shown to have been molded to suit the interests of clerics and not of their respective flocks, the stark realities in higher education beg a similar question: are substance and processes designed at all to serve the interests not only of students but of prospective employers – whose overarching interest must obviously be a maximum of innovative, creative and productive staffers?

Take law school as a classical example: past a single year of common core, of elementary foundational classes, it matters not if there is any utility to class selection in the following years. On the contrary, giving maximum weight to speculative, theoretical and abstract classes is encouraged by faculty who argue that this is students’ ‘last opportunity to acquaint themselves with questions of a philosophical nature, not dictated by utility.’ A quick aside – does real life reward anything at all that does not rise to standards of utility? When did it? But it is, of course, so much easier to teach an abstract class of notions, concepts, and obscure yet controversial doctrines, than to present something that bears the almost objectionable aura of black-letter law. Employers have long given up on expecting graduates to have learned useful things in law school beyond the mere ability to think, and are entirely prepared to start what they consider meaningful education from zero once post-sheepskin reality settles in.

Today, most higher education is a compelling example of systemic failure, especially when one takes total cost to society of its irrational, inaccurate and inefficient selection mechanisms into account. At a national credit risk in excess of $1 trillion, student debt has become the next perfectly foreseeable financial albatross, just like S&L guarantees, the Dot Com bubble and subprime mortgages had been – long before evidence thereof was considered ‘reliable’ enough by special interests that favored the status quo. Each, an unforeseeable, unpredictable crisis? Permit me not to comment. What happened was, in fact, inevitable – only its exact occurrence remained somewhat uncertain.

A functional – although perhaps not formal – equivalent of the Thiel Fellowship will be of utmost importance for the future of professional education. Almost alone among civilized nations, the U.S. affords the incomprehensible luxury of requiring professional education to begin at the graduate rather than at the undergraduate level. It cannot be the purpose of tertiary education to make up for the sometimes indisputable weaknesses of secondary education by mandating an extremely costly four extra years rather than weeding out its victims by aggressively substantive admissions testing. How completing an arcane and often entirely unrelated undergraduate major makes for better lawyers may be an argument for another time and place. However, any meaningful incentive that causes effects similar to those encouraged by the Thiel Fellowship has to find very fertile ground. It would revolutionize professional education as we know it, by stripping it of trappings that matter nowhere outside of academia and that are a direct violation of carpe diem from the macroeconomic perspective of allocating national resources where they yield their most significant returns.