Aaron Levie was profiled in an education-focused interview a few weeks ago on Medium. The interviewer, Afraj Gill, did a fantastic job getting past the platitudes and gave Aaron a chance to share some clearly well-established thoughts regarding education. I try to be selective when recommending articles and this one clears just about every bar I’ve set for myself. Gill’s profile is that important for a few reasons.
First, education-focused interviews are rare enough in the world these days, especially when the subjects are famous outside the discipline. Even if five times as many Elon Musk interviews focused on his ability to self-educate himself to functional rocket scientist ability in two years, it would still not be enough to convey the impact that his respect for and fascination with education has had on his success.
Second, when these interviews happen, they’re invariably both dense yet non-informative. If someone were to tell you that the questions were posed and the answers received via email, you’d have no reason to doubt it. These are the sorts of interviews that begin and end with statements like “the school system is fundamentally broken” or “we need more funding for [program X].”
Lastly, education is such a critical part of every successful person’s story that it ought to be scrutinized to a nearly absurd level of detail. Education is the process that ensures we can replicate successful individuals. As a society, we think about finding “the next Steve Jobs” or “the next Mark Zuckerberg.” Too often, people focus on where those people were when they achieved success; they focus not enough on how they got there. In other words, become the next Steve Jobs by acting the way Jobs did as CEO of Apple. To me, it seems smarter to track how Jobs got there in the first place – this requires understanding his education (formal and informal).
Aaron Levie is shown to be highly thoughtful about education. In the article, he highlights two ideas repeatedly. First: the importance of learning as much as possible. Second: education’s role in providing “building block skills,” i.e., the abstract skills that you then apply in different contexts to achieve results.
“Learn as much as you possibly can”
Levie’s observation about the importance of learning is differentiated because of how unqualified it is. His pitch isn’t that you ought to study your industry in extensive depth or that you have to learn one type of subject over another; instead it’s about self-learning, almost regardless of the content. In his case, it’s picking up biographies of entrepreneurs or broadening his industry perspectives by reading outsiders’ takes on it. Admittedly, they’re all “business-y” books, but you get the sense that he reads them indiscriminately, not knowing what random observation in what book will prove to be helpful.
This is his justification for college. “You basically have a 4 year period where you really have no responsibilities, except going to classes. And you’re around some of the smartest people that you’ll ever meet, depending on the school.” (Side note: I love that qualification.) But again, it’s about not just building depth within one subject area, but about varied disciplines. “Take as much of a varied curriculum as you can possibly go into…I wanted to learn as many things as I could about a broad variety of subjects and meet a lot of people [who] were going to go off and do a lot of interesting things.”
That point in particular is closely related to the main thrust of Prof. Clay Christensen’s thought piece, “The Innovator’s DNA.” Prof. Christensen’s point is that innovation comes from unconventional thinking – which is often aided by the free association that comes when you’re exposed to unfamiliar or seemingly unrelated subjects. Prof. Christensen writes:
“Unlike most executives—who network to access resources, to sell themselves or their companies, or to boost their careers—innovative entrepreneurs go out of their way to meet people with different kinds of ideas and perspectives to extend their own knowledge domains. To this end, they make a conscious effort to visit other countries and meet people from other walks of life.”
You can almost see in Levie the young upstart craving similar knowledge but forced to resort to reading biographies without the resources or time to visit other countries (though Levie is, of course, fabulously wealthy). The idea of learning for the sake of learning, of self-educating, of exposing oneself to varied disciplines – it’s independently pushed by Levie and Prof. Christensen. The list of innovators who subscribe to this believe grows ever longer.
Building block skills
I always find pause when thinking about innovation and critical thinking skills and the exemplars of such traits in the business world. It’s a lot easier for Google[x] to talk about its success stemming from its lack of structure and its free-wheeling problem solving when it can play with some of the most naturally gifted minds of their generations. Schools don’t have that luxury. Even with those gifted minds, schools first need to provide the basic knowledge to begin with. Only then can they focus on getting the most out of these minds.
Still, it’s obvious that schools aren’t doing a good enough job of encouraging creativity as it stands. There need to be fewer rigid answer keys and fewer disciplinary boundaries. Levie’s phrasing represents the right mindset. Knowledge is worth gaining in almost any context; if we want it to be most useful, it ought to be taught from the “building block” perspective. Schools are smart enough to know that it’s not enough just to teach Gatsby, they have to teach why Gatsby is important. The “building block” mentality takes that a step further. It says schools have to teach how Gatsby is reflected in other contexts. Turn Gatsby into a building block. I’d argue that the cultural works that have withstood the test of time are more than capable of weathering such a test.
At the risk of putting words in Levie’s mouth, I think he’d recommend schools do three things:
1) Pursue the flipped classroom model (and seriously). Flipped classrooms make significant demands of their students. Critically, unlike most other student-intensive educational reforms, the flipped classroom’s demands are almost entirely effort-based. Students don’t need to have a certain base intelligence any more than they do with traditional pedagogy; they just need to put in a little more effort. This means two things. First, it’s a model that can work for every student out there. Second, and relevantly for Levie’s point, it encourages self-education by ingraining it as a daily practice right from early childhood.
2) Focus on cross-applicability of skills. To Levie’s point about the importance of building block skills, schools ought to focus on giving their students comfort with pattern-matching. I’ve talked in the past about how the liberal arts do this in general. Prompts like, “discuss the traits of the Great American Novel across Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, and Rabbit, Run” are made to force pattern-matching. But there’s more disciplines to cross than simply time periods in American Literature. It’s admittedly harder (though not impossible) to run across the sciences and the humanities, but my very wonderful Econ 81 class taught me how simple it is to build structural models for seemingly unquantifiable constructs. Even without any numbers to input, you can derive insights by applying science-y structure to non-science-y problems.
3) Encourage people to take risks in school. Levie says of college that “You…have a 4-year period where you can do whatever you like. I think a far fewer number of people actually take advantage of that than they should.” Part of that is because colleges don’t provide the infrastructure to take risks as much as they could. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony in the concept of an “infrastructure to take risks.”) Entrepreneurship classes, mandatory ungraded classes outside one’s major, etc. are all ways to make students more comfortable with leaving their comfort zone.
I also wanted to highlight two brilliant, if not necessarily original, observations of Levie’s that didn’t pertain to education theory, but rather the market more broadly.
“Do something that wasn’t possible just one or two years ago….[U]sually every couple of years, there’s a platform change, and if you’re not building technology or products that are being enabled by that platform change, you’re not probably going to have the underlying tectonic shifts that you need to cause your startup to grow and thrive.”
He also believes the changes that the market will reflect in the coming decades will all support improved accessibility and improved fragmentation or modularization of education. The MOOCs hit both those pretty well, but there are other tangential areas that will likely benefit as well. (Credentialing is a notable one.)
For anyone considering entrepreneurship in the space, or making market bets, Aaron Levie doesn’t seem like a person you can ignore. He has well thought out opinions on what makes education work and the track record to inspire at least some credibility.