11/17/2010 09:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Enlightened Amateurism

I was speaking earlier this week with someone from InnoCentive, a Massachusetts-based company dedicated to something called challenge-driven innovation. Increasingly, businesses and governments recognize that the answers to critical problems may not always come from within their own organizations. So they use companies like InnoCentive to post their challenges to the broader community of global thinkers and professionals, and often someone comes up with the answer.

What's interesting to me is how often these answers come from people whose day job has nothing to do with what the challenge is about. A good example is the recent case of John Davis. In the summer of 2007, Mr. Davis was working in the concrete industry in Ohio. Somehow he came across a challenge that the Oil Spill Recovery Institute had posted through InnoCentive, looking for ideas on how to separate oil from water after it's turned viscous. Originally set up by Congress after the Exxon-Valdez spill, the OSRI spent nearly 20 years trying to solve this problem through the highly skilled community of petrochemical engineers within the oil and gas industry, but without success. Mr. Davis, using his understanding of the science behind maintaining the liquidity of concrete, came up with a successful solution and claimed the $20,000 prize. In another recent example, Andrew Deonarine, a resident in Public Health at the University of British Columbia, came up with the winning solution for a challenge the Economist posted about how to use technology to broaden access to education in the developing world. There are hundreds of examples like this of people who solve thorny problems that they have no direct professional relationship with.

I think there's a lesson here that we must keep in mind when we're planning educational reform: the value of enlightened amateurism.* Amateurism has acquired a bad name over the past century. An amateur is, in most people's eyes, someone who is bad at something but does it anyway, because he likes it.** The opposite of amateur is expert. And experts are what make our society strong. So goes our conventional wisdom.

But I think it's worth remembering how many of the great achievements of our society have not resulted from the work of what we would today consider experts. None of our greatest presidents had an MPA, many of our most innovative businessmen and women didn't have MBAs, many of our greatest musicians never attended conservatories. Of course, many of them did. And I think it's fair to say that most scientific and medical advances, in particular, do come from experts. My point is not that experts are irrelevant -- on the contrary they are essential. They're just not sufficient. To truly prosper, we need more than the contributions of experts -- we need the contributions of bright, creative, free-thinking amateurs. The combination of the two groups is stronger than either by itself.

This week I'm in the midst of a number of industry-wide committees that have been created to address the challenge of reforming our national approach to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. A lot of our work is oriented towards helping create a stronger pipeline of future engineers, scientists, doctors, and mathematicians than we are currently positioned for. I believe completely in the necessity of solving this challenge. Reports from Rising Above the Gathering Storm in 2005 to Prepare and Inspire in 2010 have made clear how much danger there is of our slipping behind our rapidly growing global colleagues if we don't make significant investments now in the STEM education system, and if those investments don't lead to significant growth in qualified STEM professionals. I spend much of my time working to develop solutions to these goals. But I'm also increasingly weighing a different question -- how can we, alongside our investments in professional preparedness, use our education system to revitalize our national commitment to enlightened amateurism? How can we ensure that the next generation of workers is not only more competent, but also more broad-minded and creative than our own? It's true, to a large extent, that succeeding in STEM fields gives students more self-confidence, more autonomy, and stronger critical thinking skills, all of which make them more capable of contributing to fields outside of STEM than less well-prepared peers. But we can't rely entirely on this accidental spillover effect. We have to make sure that our investments are designed explicitly to produce confident, creative, risk-taking broad thinkers. Not only science and technology, but every other field of endeavor, will benefit from this.

I'm not overly worried. Broad thinking is actually a kind of national characteristic -- it's something that has traditionally set us apart from other powerful economies, and I don't think it will slip away too easily. And it seems that believing it is slipping away when it isn't is also a kind of national characteristic. I fall prey to it from time to time. Let me give you a recent example. I went to a science-oriented magnet high school in Virginia, where I had excellent teachers in math and science. But I also had excellent teachers in Latin, history, and art. I was proud of how, even though it was in theory a technical high school, our student body was quite diverse. I recall one student who was an excellent painter but was no great shakes a mathematician. I loved his art; I felt he added a lot to my student experience. After I graduated, as the years went by, when I was back visiting the old neighborhood I would hear stories about how the school had become so much more narrowly science-oriented in the intervening years. How parents were now pushing their elementary-school age kids to take prep courses in math and science to make sure they could eventually pass the high school acceptance test. How only people who were exclusively dedicated to math and science could now get in. All of this made me a bit sad. Then last week I overheard two young people at the next table at a pizzeria down the street from my house talking about having graduated from this very same school, four years ago -- more than 15 years after I graduated from there. They were lamenting how, in their day, the school was quite broad-minded, but they had heard, since they left, that the school had become much more narrowly science-oriented. And it made them sad. Well, it made me laugh. Perhaps fears of society slipping towards specialization and losing touch with broad-mindedness are simply a pet pastime for us Americans, with no grounding in reality.

Let's make sure that it stays that way, that we don't facilitate the demise of enlightened amateurism. How do we do that? To some extent the very point of enlightened amateurism is that there isn't an obvious way to cultivate it, which is part of the reason, I think, that it's often absent from our policy conversations. But I think there are some steps we can take. We can invest in organizations, like InnoCentive, that are helping to bring structure to the process of enrolling broad constituencies in mission-critical problem solving, and channeling rewards to the people who succeed. The U.S. Department of Education launched a site earlier this year that is designed to draw in a broad range of innovative ideas for advancing education, and I look forward to seeing what emerges from it. We should certainly broaden and empower these kinds of frameworks in which anyone can participate. We can reaffirm our commitment to core curricula in high schools and colleges, to ensure that more students have a broad foundation in the sciences, humanities, and arts. We can design testing systems that measure the degree to which students can synthesize ideas from across a range of fields, and then design curricula that cultivate this kind of cross-pollination. And, as private citizens, we can encourage amateurism in ourselves, as an example for our children. If they see us setting aside time for something that we enjoy applying our minds to that is completely unrelated to what we do for a living, they will as well.

While we're doing this, we mustn't lose sight of the value of more specific, targeted reform efforts. Developing common core science standards at the K-12 level, doubling the number of qualified science and math teachers, creating new interactive resources designed to help students of all backgrounds develop a genuinely active comprehension of science and math, identifying and providing STEM skills training to at-risk kids: this is 90percent of the challenge of building our STEM talent pipeline, and we have to commit collectively to making these things happen. But we have to remember the other 10 percent too. The person who comes out of left field to contribute an idea that sets off a revolution in technology, the failed idea from finance that becomes the answer to health care, the Native American language that becomes an unbreakable wartime code. We have to make sure that we don't forget to find ways to keep this kind of surprising, productive amateurism alive.

There's a pretty famous company that asks its employees to spend 20 percent of their time working on projects of their own conception, rather than those that are assigned to them by the company. It's called "20 percent time," and it's been enormously successful. In fact, I'm writing this piece in one of the products that emerged out of it. What if, as a country, we achieved 5 percent time in our daily lives? What challenges could we solve that are dogging us today?

*I believe I first heard the phrase "enlightened amateurism" at a dinner party many years ago from Richard Cellini, currently CEO of Briefcase Analytics.

**To be clear, I don't think an amateur is someone who is bad at something. I think an amateur is, etymologically enough, someone who loves something, generally something at which she's not a professional. She can be quite good at it. In fact it's because I think she can be quite good at it that I've written this piece.