Want more Elon Musks? We may need to rethink s…


Melissa Schilling, LinkedIn Pulse, Feb. 16, 2018

In my six-year study of breakthrough innovators, there was a
pattern that was inescapable: many of the world’s most famous innovators
struggled with the structure of formal education, and many had far less formal
education than you would expect. I started to wonder if the examples of these
exceptionally successful and smart people should inspire us to rethink how we
deliver education.

Thomas Edison was not initially sent to school as a child
because he had an “abnormally large but well-shaped head” and was presumed to
be too delicate. Then when he was finally sent, he was hyperactive and highly
distractible. When a teacher referred to him as “addled,” his fiercely devoted
mother removed him from the school, ending his grand total of three months of
formal education. Loving, ambitious, and highly capable, she began
homeschooling him.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the world’s most noted scholars
and founder of an educational institution that would become the University of
Pennsylvania, had only slightly more formal education than Edison. Franklin’s
father, Josiah, had planned for him to enter the clergy. However, though
Franklin excelled at writing he failed at arithmetic, and so at the age of ten
his father took him out of school and indentured him to his brother’s printing

Steve Jobs’s teachers noticed he was very smart–in fact, in
the fourth grade he scored at the tenth-grade level on standardized tests, so
his elementary school suggested having him skip two grades to keep him
adequately stimulated. However, he was also very rebellious, and prone to
getting in trouble. He went to college, but soon dropped out. He would later
say, “looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I
dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me,
and begin dropping in on the ones that looked far more interesting.”

Dean Kamen is widely regarded as one of the most
accomplished electro-mechanical engineers in the world and has won many awards
(including the U.S. National Medal of Technology, and the United Nations’
Global Humanitarian Action Award), and has received roughly a dozen honorary
doctorates degrees, despite having never finished an undergraduate degree.
Kamen had earned mediocre grades in middle school and high school, and had
frequent conflicts with his teachers. He resented being told what to do and
would argue with them over the way they taught math and physics. Later, when he
was enrolled at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he refused to go to
classes saying, “I can pay you this tuition and avail myself of this
extraordinary faculty, but I’m not going to waste my time in class because the
opportunity costs would be too high.” He ended up dropping out before

Elon Musk’s approach to school was utilitarian, excelling in
classes that appealed to him and ignoring the others. He notes, “When I went to
college I rarely went to class. I’d just read the textbook and show up for the
exams.” Though he earned excellent grades and was admitted to Stanford’s PhD
program in physics, he dropped out on the second day after deciding he would
rather spend his time revolutionizing methods of payment and banking.

Both Albert Einstein and Nikola Tesla were geniuses who
obtained graduated degrees, but both also had troubles in school. Einstein was
a difficult and irregular student. His teachers perceived him as inattentive
and disrespectful, and one remarked that he would never amount to anything
because he lacked discipline. Tesla had the opposite problem. Though his
teachers regarded him as profoundly gifted, they worried he worked himself so
hard that he would cause himself injury, and they wrote to his father asking
that he be taken out of school. Tesla refused to leave, but then later became
addicted to gambling and dropped out; it is unclear if he ever completed the

Of the innovators I studied, only Marie Curie was noted as a
consistently exceptional student. She had to overcome tremendous barriers to
gain higher education (most universities in Europe did not admit women at that
time), saving up money she earned as a governess to travel to France where she
attended the Sorbonne. The Sorbonne was uniquely suited to her habit of
independent work. As Marie wrote: “The student who comes to France should not
expect to find direction towards a utilitarian goal right at the start. The
French system consists essentially of awakening the student’s confidence in his
own abilities and fostering the habit of using them…the goal of the teachers is
to create large possibilities for free work rather than to form disciples.
Required exercises and scholarly discipline don’t play an essential role.”

When people see that brilliantly successful people earn poor
grades or drop out of school, many infer that education was unnecessary for
their success. However, looking more closely, we see that innovators are
aggressive consumers of education, but they often need to pursue it in their
own rhythm and direction. Steve Jobs, for example, dropped out of college but
stayed on campus and sat in on the classes he wanted to attend. Dean Kamen
reads math and physics texts for fun. Edison was a voracious reader and had
read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Hume’s History of England,
Sears’ History of the World, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and the Dictionary
of Sciences by the age of twelve. Elon Musk read for more than ten hours a day
as a child, and after finishing every book in the public library he started on
the encyclopedia (and committed large tracts of it to memory).

The stories of these innovators highlight a key weakness of
many formal education systems: The standardization of curricula designed to
create efficiency and accountability may fail to tap the intrinsic motivation
of students. It may feel especially restrictive to those who have an intense
drive to learn, their intellectual wings constrained by too much structure.
These innovators wanted to dive deep into topics of their own choosing rather
than follow the path of a syllabus. They exhibited a true love of
learning–even if they had no love for school. Musk was so dissatisfied with
the standardized education system that he started his own small school called
Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”), and notes, “There aren’t any grades,” and
adds that instead of making kids “enter grades like an assembly line it makes
more sense to cater the education to match their aptitudes and abilities.”
Perhaps more of our formal education systems should follow Musk’s example.

Their stories also highlight something else: the power of
books. Books may not seem as glamorous as recent technology-enabled
alternatives like videos and webinars, but few learning vehicles can rival what
can be delivered with a book. It is far easier to customize how one consumes a
book than a video, lecture, or in-class discussion. These latter alternatives
are great complements to books, but not substitutes. You can skim sections of a
book to see its overall structure; you can study some passages intensely,
re-reading them if you want, and pausing to contemplate. You can also easily
move back and forth between text and diagrams in whatever pace and pattern
works for your learning style. You can take a book home and read it in bed, or
out to a park or coffee shop. This is more important than may at first be
obvious; some people function better with some level of background stimulation
while others require a setting with as little background stimulation as
possible. Allowing people to choose is important. And when a book sits on your
shelf, it serves as a visual placeholder that reminds you of its content (a
large advantage print books still have over digital).

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every serial
breakthrough innovator I studied had an outsized appetite for books. Books
enabled them to choose the areas of expertise they would develop, and to
circumvent barriers that might have held them back. Long before Marie Curie
could gain admission to a university she was gaining the physics and chemistry
knowledge she wanted from books. Dean Kamen was able to become a master
engineer through books when he discovered his temperament was ill-suited to a classroom
environment. And Elon Musk notes simply, “I was raised by books. Books, and
then my parents.”

Melissa A. Schilling is the John Herzog Professor of
Management at NYU’s Stern School of Business, and author of Quirky: The
remarkable story of the traits, foibles, and genius of breakthrough innovators
who changed the world, on which this article is based.