11/03/2014 04:34 pm ET Updated Jan 02, 2015

Defining 21st Century Success: Are You Expert 2.0 or Hero 2.0?

I want to be clear: I'm not 100 years old. But when the twelve year old girl sitting next to me at the Broadcom Masters awards started talking about what to do with Raspberry Pi, the first answer that came to my mind was: "eat it?" No. "It's a credit card-sized computer. You use it for electronics projects," she told me, in a kind but patronizing tone. I like to imagine I keep up to date with tech things. I hated that I'd never heard of it.

I remember writing my first website on Tripod at around her age. "Isn't that something to hold a camera?" asked a kind but clueless grown up; I had rolled my eyes at the dinosaur. Many of us dream that we're going to do something amazing that will somehow distinguish us in the world, and maybe even put our names in the history books. As I sat listening to that girl using more and more terms that I pretended to understand, I started to panic: was I becoming that dinosaur? Was my history book fantasy ebbing away? So soon?

The Broadcom Masters program rewards and motivates middle school students who excel in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). I vaguely anticipated a parade of baking soda volcanoes. Instead their topics ranged from creating an electronic device that accurately detects early signs of wildfires to diagnosing lung cancer to something about quantum entanglement. The word they had in common was data. Back when I was their age, I was the sort of person who won science prizes. But this wasn't a school competition I recognized. It could have been a scientific conference, or an industry innovation showcase. When it comes to achievement in STEM these days, the parameters haven't just expanded - they have mutated.

Young people are growing up with the fact of their own personal capacity to turn their ideas into novel big-wide-world, large scale impact in a way many of them seem to consider not remarkable, but just business as usual. And they don't have to patiently wait til they're a grown up to do it. Their relationship with technology is natural. They leverage extensive, unprecedented social capital through increasingly interconnected systems. And they have information. Lots of it.

At school, I thought information was what you found in a textbook, or heard from the lips of a teacher. If you were a nerd like me, you might get an extra book from the library. Putting information into your head was the focus of learning: the objective was to memorize information, regurgitate it to pass an exam, and hope it might turn out to be useful in the real world when you grew up. Today the constraints and the timeline have both shifted. Information is no longer an exclusive commodity for those who sit exams, access ivory towers and slide beyond glass ceilings: it's readily available anytime, to anyone who wants it, in greater quantities than ever before. Young people, like the rest of us, have ready access to almost infinite information, but with their mastery of new tools and unjaded creativity of youth, they may be singularly well prepared to impact the world with it.

This increasing access to information is changing us all in many ways. One way is redefining 'success', or how we distinguish ourselves in the world. People with information at their figurative fingertips have historically been the people who have gone on to be lauded, respected, and even immortalized in the history books. But now each of us has unprecedented information at our literal fingertips, and without us noticing, memorization is being gradually rendered obsolete.

It seems we'll have to do more to find our way into the 21st century history books than know stuff, because we are all starting with so much information that it has ceased to be a valid differentiator. If the information club is now open to all, how can we, as members of that club, distinguish ourselves in the world? Probably not by certificates proving we made our brains memorize and regurgitate some of that information, now so easily accessed in other ways.

Perhaps the new success is not holding information, but using information to deliver the sort of solid, real life achievement that each one of us can individually point at and say not "I know that," but, "hey look, I did that." So what are the options for an ambitious person who wants to be valued, to distinguish themselves, to 'succeed' in this century? Learn more? Probably not. At the moment, society awaits us with their hearts and minds ready to be won not by what we know, but by what we do.

Minds are being won by proving we're the most expert person at applying the information that's available to all. Expert 2.0 harnesses imagination and talent to catalyze information into tangible results with real world impact, like a science fair on steroids, that can only be won if people are using the invention on a large, amazing scale. These Experts deliver inspired coding, innovative start-ups, fascinating technology, applied research that directly saves lives, improves processes, makes things better. People point at them and say 'look what that Expert did with their innovation.' And we applaud - and tweet about them. They are valued. It looks like 21st century success. And you can be any age at all to get it.

Hearts are being won by demonstrating our value to society through personal goodness. And here some grown ups who want to excel might find an advantage - for those who can't compete in Expert 2.0 mode, they can leverage their mobility, independence, and other resources to compete as Hero 2.0 instead. Hero 2.0 uses grand gestures and on-the-ground heroic sacrifice to deliver their real world impact. They prominently donate to worthy causes, they launch social movements, they put out fires, and they travel to parts of the world where they photograph hardship amid hungry children, they hug babies infected with Ebola, and they post it all on Instagram. The greater the hardship, or personal risk, the higher value society currently seems to ascribe to the heroics. People point and say 'Look at that brave Hero, risking their life for others." And we applaud - and tweet about them. They are valued. It looks like 21st century success.

If we think of journalism as the precursor to the history books, and extend the concept online, it's never been easier for any of us to claim our 15 minutes of fame, and at the moment, society characterizes fame as somewhat analogous to success. But in reality, competition for the 21st century history books will be like no other, because everyone has the opportunity to do greater and greater things, whether through innovation or heroism - though what we will probably care about most is an inspired combination. And the competition for success has never been more intense, or more founded in a democracy of information. If we do it right, the race to distinguish ourselves in the information age will change the world - and perhaps it will be something greater than individuals that makes it into the 21st century history books in the end.