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Self-Education; Growing in Importance

on Wednesday, 02.05.2016

There is an age-old argument of school smarts versus street smarts; that is, theory versus practice. In a provocative book, The Education of Millionaires, Michael Ellsberg argues that, especially in the ever-flattening world, formal education as a ticket to success is less of the sure thing it once was. He further argues that informal education is more important than formal education on a cost-benefit basis.

Ellsberg argues that succeeding in the 21st century requires soft skills and attitudes like motivation, networking, passion, comfort with failure and persuading others to believe in you more so than what schools generally emphasize: content-focused information and, in some rare cases, reasoning. Cutting through the hyperbole of why college is a poor investment in time and money, which on its face is somewhat supportable, his real point is that every person should take responsibility for their own self-education. The approach Ellsberg recommends can be summarized as: Don’t show me your transcript or resume; instead, tell me who you are, what your attitudes are, how you can adapt, and what you can do. He argues that the grand bargain of getting into a good school and achieving good grades no longer is enough to guarantee success in the emerging world. Other skills that have always been important, he states are now the key factors in attaining success, especially in business.

The bottom line in the college/advanced degree-or-no-college/advanced degree question is more relevant now, in a changed and rapidly changing business environment:  School should be approached as the student’s opportunity to be exposed to ideas, get inspired and gain basic, mostly theoretical, knowledge only. Ellsberg offers important – and, I think, valid – critiques of our educational system and how it establishes unproductive patterns that do not serve students well, especially in business:

  • Start-ups, in particular, are creative endeavors by definition, yet our classrooms are geared towards preparing students to take tests on narrowly defined academic subjects. This stifles students’ creativity.
  • Learning from failure, when not fatal, is reported by some successful people to be one of the key experiences that lead to future success. However, our educational system encourages students to play it safe and retreat from the first sign of failure, because we assume that failure will look bad on one’s college applications and on future resumes.

Of course, such fields as medicine, law and engineering must continue to be highly regulated and licensed, and the educational and training paths leading to them must remain well-defined and rigorous. For most other fields, however, the notion that formal education is the only path to stable employment is misguided. As both an employee and a business consultant, I have worked closely with some excellent business minds. These were people lacking in formal education, whose other skills might have been ignored and neglected to a company’s very real detriment. Fortunately, those companies recognized the person’s brilliance and experience for what they were – vital assets – rather than typecasting based on limited formal education. On the flip side, educational credentials have a lower correlation with real business success than our venerated educational institutions would lead people to believe.

In our highly chaotic, unpredictable economy, learning entrepreneurial skills will be more valuable than in the past, even for some highly regulated fields. This is because of the informal job market that employers know about and tap into, the one that operates thus: You need a position filled, so you ask employees and colleagues to recommend someone they know. In this market, one’s resume and SAT score, or the quality of school attended, actually is much less important than one’s enthusiasm, ability to work as a team member and creativity.

Ellsberg’s book does not come close to settling the argument of education of theory versus other real-world skills and experience, but it does challenge some tightly held, historical assumptions and offers suggestions for developing “success skills.” It is a must read for college students (and their parents) and future entrepreneurs who need to understand that the content of their informal education could be a critical factor in contributing to their ultimate success.