The Dunning-Kruger cognitive bias suggests that if you have expertise or competence in a subject, you’re more likely to play down your capabilities than boast of your brilliance. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Low ability individuals massively over estimate their abilities in areas they know nothing about. We’ve all come up against this in real life, whether around the dinner table or when people in public life make bold statements about what is essentially unknowable i.e the future.
It feels to me that we all need to be on the look out for the impact of this simple cognitive bias. We live in a world where experts are ‘discredited’ and the ‘man in the street’ knows best. Dunning-Kruger suggests otherwise.
Its almost a heresy to question the value of a university education. It is only in recent years that we’ve measured the value of our time at university in terms of future earning power and only in very recent years, with the advent of tuition fees, that a sort of educational net present value calculation has been applied to check the ‘earning power’ provided by university.
In some ways, its a shame that we are even having this conversation. Picking up the analytical and reasoning skills that a good quality university course can provide are in many ways an indispensable life skill. Todays school leavers and graduates face a particularly uncertain future even if we ignore the massive problem of environmental change. A massive technological shift is once again underway that will most likely hollow out graduate jobs in the way that manufacturing jobs came under pressure from automation. Couple that with what seems to be the beginnings of a retreat from globalisation and you seemingly have recipe for a slower graduate jobs market. we are already seeing this to a certain extent, as graduates accept ‘non-graduate’ jobs.
Of course those graduate analytical skills will be useful in an uncertain world for those willing to put them to good use. Uncertainty creates opportunity and most likely, those willing to take a more thoughtful approach and not just follow the conveyor belt into the right sort of job may find themselves at an advantage. Perhaps the best advice to graduates will be not to ‘get your head down’ and work hard, but to ‘keep your head up’ and look for opportunity in unusual places. A world of change creates winners and losers. And not always in the places you expect.
For most people who want to start their own business, the most difficult challenge is to come up with the ‘idea’. “I’d like my start up” is usually followed by, “I don’t have any good ideas. Starting your own business means coming up with a fabulous new idea or technical breakthrough, doesn’t it? Well, no. One of the easiest and common ways to create an interesting new idea is to take a bunch of existing (or even old) idea and recombine or rearrange them in some way. The most successful new product in research years, the iPhone, was a combination of a mobile phone with an MP3 player with a dash of Apple design. Steve Jobs said as much when he launched the product back in June 2007. I have a friend whose business combined a pub with a cafe with your lounge room – viola, new business idea. The infamous Cereal Cafe so beloved of the media and the hipsters of Shoreditch is a combination of a cafe with the cereal aisle of your local supermarket. So when you sit down and scratch your head looking for ideas for your killer start up, don’t think too hard about some super niche technical innovation that will knock people’s socks off, just write a list of 30 mundane ideas that interest you and start adding them together – see what you come up with. Recombine your way to start up greatness.
The freelancing or gig economy seems to have washed up on the shores of academia. In a profession where ‘tenure’ was historically the ultimate goal and offered the security to study with our short term pressures on performance, does this represent the ultimate expression of changes to the world of work?
Its easy to see how this might benefit universities as they become increasingly like businesses (as opposed to businesslike). But what does it mean for the individual? The Times HES has a nice piece on one academic’s perspective on the pro’s and con’s of freelancing in academia. In one sense, the most senior academics have always been in demand and, like senior members of the medical profession, have tended to be less tied to a particular institution. It is their reputation which drives the work – even James Clerk Maxwell, a man looked up to by Einstein no less, was something of a wandering minstrel of the academic world. But for the more junior members of academia, does it provide the security required to concentrate on ground breaking research? Or with so much advanced research now being carried out by teams allow projects to be run in a flexible way with a core team supplemented by specialists brought in at the right moment.
Its would be easy to write off the development as another example of the erosion of employment rights or the increasingly precarious nature of work in general, but it doesn’t appear to be quite as straightforward as that. Freelancing could allow academics to mix work at private companies with university work, which would be a particularly useful development that would benefit both sides.
Time will tell who the winners and losers will be, but more importantly, it would be nice to think that someone will be keeping an eye on the impact of freelancing on academia in general. Will it drive greater flexibility and creativity or will it drive an increase in short term thinking that has been so destructive to many parts of the business community. One to watch.