jumping off pointLast week I wrote a post about the importance of having deep knowledge and experience as a prerequisite for innovation that generated a fair amount of discussion. While most of the comments were reasonably considered, as always a few turned to the old, “but Steve Jobs and Bill Gates dropped out” argument. I’ve always felt this was as ridiculous as playground basketball players arguing that they could go straight to the NBA, because Kobe and LeBron did it. But an acquaintance of mine suggested a particular scenario that might favor the “drop out” way of thinking.

Alexander Haislip suggested that, when faced with new frontier or new paradigm situations, “rabid self-directed learners” have an advantage over classically educated researchers and engineers for two reasons. a) Because in a “new frontier” environment there is no agreed upon learning or curriculum (e.g. you can’t get a degree in something brand new). b) A new frontier environment also does not have a large existing base of knowledge from which to learn, so the playing field is more equal.

His argument made sense, but I was still skeptical for several reasons.

First off, I believe all innovation is derived from previous developments and deep knowledge of those developments is still a necessity. For example, we couldn’t build airplanes until we understood aerodynamics. Secondly, terms such as “new frontier,” “new paradigm,” or “new framework” are so commonly abused that they’ve become meaningless. So for his argument to be valid, we would at least have to determine what qualified as a “new frontier.”

In an attempt to reconcile what I thought was a reasonable argument with my emotional reservations about its validity, I discussed it with Gerry Campbell, an investor who’s been developing methodologies for recognizing frontier-type opportunities. While I believe I’ve found the conditions that validate Alexander’s hypothesis, I’m not 100 percent sure and therefore present these ideas not as a statement of fact but as a point for discussion:

Legitimate new frontiers are less the result of creating completely new technology and more the result of redefining a technology still in its infancy. In this scenario, a rabid self directed learner may have an advantage over a classically educated researcher/engineer in his ability to see the technology as something different.

Please consider that hypothesis carefully and allow me to offer two examples.

First, Steve Jobs. Jobs did not invent the computer, but he saw the possibility of computers as a desktop device that average people would use, and he did this at a time when computers as an industry were still in their infancy. Second example, Marc Andreessen (and for the record, Andreessen did graduate college shortly after the release of Mosaic). Andreessen did not invent the Internet, but the Mosaic browser made the internet accessible to the public, much in the same way the Apple II was designed to be affordable and accessible to the public.

In both cases, Jobs and Andreessen recognized and redefined existing technologies that were still in their infancy to create new frontiers while other people did not make this connection.

Note that these examples do not invalidate my previous argument that innovators must have knowledge of the current cutting edge of technology in order to innovate. Jobs (via Wozniak) still knew what was going on at the forefront of computers and Andreessen was still working at the forefront of the Internet at the time he built Mosaic. However, because these technologies were still new, there was a smaller base of knowledge that they needed to learn in order to create the next level innovation.

In this specific situation, it appears that a serious, self-directed learner may have an advantage over someone working within the system. By virtue of his independence, Andreessen may have had an advantage over the engineers at DARPA who were essentially blinded to the potential of the Internet as a result of having built it for a limited original purpose. Likewise, Steve Jobs may have had an advantage over the mainframe engineers at IBM, because they were too focused on big machines.

I say “may have” because I’m still not sure. But I believe there is at least a reasonable argument that in these specific new frontier scenarios, rabid, self-directed learners can teach themselves things, and therefore potentially see things, that someone working within, or getting educated within, the existing system cannot.

One final thought. Anyone reading this and thinking that I just validated dropping out of college, or that mailing underwear makes you a new frontier visionary is wrong. The consumer Internet is not in its infancy, understanding its leading edge today requires significant learning, and using it to mail stuff is not a redefinition of its purpose. Somewhere, someone paying attention to something in its infancy will make an educated guess about its greater potential and the rest of us will likely only recognize it in hindsight. That’s the big letdown. We only know who the real visionaries are after they’ve proven their vision.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]