I’m back from Meribel, in the French Alps, where I participated in Anthemis’s Hacking Finance Retreat. There were lots of barbecues, hours of hiking with my wife Laetitia, a memorable yoga session next to a beautiful lake, and obviously many workshops and discussions on topics related to financial services, which are the focus of Anthemis’s investment thesis. You can read more about this unique firm and its founders here: ‘Weirdo’ fintech VC Anthemis marches to its own drummer.
One of the workshops I attended was on embedding finance in education. There was a lot of talk about income share agreements (ISAs), as well as several mentions of Lynda Gratton’s The 100 Year Life and the importance of what she calls “transformational assets”: assets that are critical when you have to switch jobs and reinvent yourself many times throughout your entire life.
Transforming as a worker is more complicated than it sounds. Indeed, it’s about more than simply learning new skills. In many cases it means quitting your current job, taking time for yourself, making room for conversations with many people, perhaps moving to a different city, and finally finding a new job.
Overall I think that people are too focused on the purely educational dimension of transformational assets and overlook many other dimensions. Still, I have a few ideas to share on education 🤗.
Education and the workforce
1/ For decades we’ve heard that lifelong education is the solution too many problems. Bill Clinton started his political career rebuilding the education system in Arkansas, of which he was the governor for 12 years, with just that in mind. Then Tony Blair campaigned with the slogan of “Education, education, education”. Then an entire generation of center-left and -right politicians embraced the idea that the only way to curb unemployment was lifelong education. Even today, Emmanuel Macron has made it a central point of his agenda as he tries to reinvigorate the French economy. But somehow it doesn’t work, and all this talk about education that never translates into results makes the voters angry.
2/ But why doesn’t it work? I’ve written at length, including in my book Hedge, about how important it is to be able to rebound and switch jobs more often. It’s what the Entrepreneurial Age is all about. As firms become more entrepreneurial, those who are employed by them need to be have a more entrepreneurial approach to their own career. But there’s a catch. The need for lifelong education doesn’t mean that we have to keep going back to school. In fact, I think the idea that we can separate learning from practice is where things go wrong in our current approach to education.
3/ In a more entrepreneurial economy, you can’t really predict what the jobs will be years from now. What’s more, the great lengths to which entrepreneurs go to differentiate themselves from the competition mean that jobs are different from one firm to another. That makes it difficult to design an education system that helps workers train to do the jobs of the day. Ultimately it falls back on entrepreneurs themselves to upgrade the skills of their employees—whether they’re new hires or already inside the company. Learning by doing will become a key part of what education is all about.
4/ Workers, too, can be a driving force. Unlike large organizations, individuals are deeply immersed in the economy, able to spot what’s coming and going, and agile enough to decide that they want to move on and take that new job. Historically, there have been two things standing in the way of workers’ taking charge. First, there were strong incentives for them to settle into their current job rather than go hunting for a new one. Fortunately in the Entrepreneurial Age that’s now over and it’s hunters, rather than settlers, that have the upper hand. Second, it was difficult to learn the skills and obtain the degree that you needed to even land a job interview in another sector.
5/ One major change is that educational resources are being commoditized. With so many tech people blogging, podcasting, sharing their knowledge and being accessible, it has become easy for anyone to learn anything that’s related to entrepreneurship, software, and venture capital. An extreme example would be how Harry Stebbings of Stride taught himself to be a venture capitalist by interviewing hundreds of venture capitalists for his Twenty Minute VC podcast. And you might know the example of “YouTube Man”, a.k.a. Julius Yego, who learned how to throw the javelin by watching YouTube videos and ended up winning the Olympic Games. Soon the same approach will exist in every sector.
6/ What remains of education if content is commoditized? Mostly, three things: discipline, a network, and a degree. When you study at a university, you aren’t only being sold access to professors and a library. There’s also the process of working hard on what those professors teach you, getting to know other students with whom you’ll be connected your entire career, and finally obtaining a degree that certifies that you were there and did well. It made sense to bundle all these things together when the approach to our working life included three stages: education, followed by work, and finally retirement. But what will become of the bundle now that a key part (content) has moved elsewhere?
7/ I think that one element, the degree, is now dispensable. It’s telling that so many startups have been focused on reinventing degrees. Udacity came up with that concept of a nanodegree because they needed something somewhat tangible to reassure paying customers. And in a country such as France, delivering proper degrees is still needed if an education business is to access the vast amounts of money the government allocates to lifelong education (remember, it’s allegedly the one solution to mass unemployment). But why are degrees so important? Isn’t it obvious that it’s now easy to assess what a worker is capable of based on their actual work rather than a sheet of paper?
8/ The fact is that a degree is often a proxy to evaluate other, more important things. One is discipline. What makes you valuable if you attended a given school is not the content that was made accessible there. It’s that while being there, you had to adhere to a demanding work ethic that proves many things: you can work under pressure; you can understand what’s expected from you; and you can deliver results. This, I think, is the value added by the likes of Lambda School: not the content itself, but the discipline of working on concrete projects, with pressure from your peers, and supported by a tutor.
9/ Then there’s the importance of the network. Getting an education is not only about learning content and working hard. It’s also about learning to behave, and learning to interact with others in a social environment. It’s hard at the beginning, as once pointed out by Paul Graham (Why Nerds are Unpopular is the very first essay he published on the Internet!). But once you get closer to the labor market, there’s an alignment. Interactions with peers become similar to those in your future working life. Nerdism begins to be rewarded rather than repressed. And those people that you interact with everyday become valuable connections rather than annoying bullies. And so with the unbundling of education, we need to reinvent professional networking and what it means to be part of a community of workers that support each other. Really, it’s about reinventing trade unions!
10/ Ultimately, our education system will be reinvented by misfits. They’re the first to spot how the current system isn’t working, and they’re not willing to wait for a new system to emerge. So at some point those people decide to exit the system and become free agents. For children and their families, that is known as homeschooling—and I think the experimentation going on in that field is fertile ground for inventing the school system of the future. For adults, it’s about freelancing, becoming an autodidact, teaching yourself by doing, building, and rediscovering the pleasure of being an artisan.
And by the way, if you read French 🇫🇷, my wife Laetitia Vitaud has a book coming out on September 18 that explains how craftsmanship is the best framework to reflect on the future of work! You can pre-order it on Amazon and read the articles that she’ll be publishing on Medium over the summer 🤗.
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