Underwater Basket Weaving

What Comes Next?

I’ve been sending out a lot of high school graduation cards this month. I try to distill into each one something the graduate will find valuable (beyond the cash). And as families debate College vs other options, someone invariably asks: “Why waste all that money on Underwater Basket Weaving?” The tacit implication is two-fold: first, that the only purpose of education is employment and second, that anything not directly related to employment is wasted motion. I disagree. In a world that demands innovation (and increasingly disruption) I will argue that Underwater Basket Weaving is the most important class you or your graduate can complete.

External vs Internal

First, some context. In one of last month’s articles we contrasted education and training. Specifically, how training favors correct action over theoretical understanding. In other words, during an evacuation drill you need people to "stand up and walk" even if they don’t know why. Another central difference between the two is that “training” by and large is an externally driven process whereas “education” is largely an internal process. “Training” can be as simple (and effective) as brute-force repetition.

Education by contrast is a much longer process and one where the learner does most of the heavy lifting and does most of that away from the classroom. There are hours of learning the vocabulary and core principles of a new topic. You must become familiar with the history and context of the new subject. You need to uncover the topic's recognized authorities and, from them, learn to analyze the subject’s “body of knowledge” and its potential impact on the future. Finally, you must learn the language needed to communicate this to others. In short, the process of “education” involves the learner creating intricate layers of knowledge and discovering subtle-but-complex connections on their own.

Underwater Basket Weaving is all about education.

Straw Man

Of course, “Underwater Basket Weaving” is a straw man: it’s a placeholder for any compulsory elective outside of your major course of study. It might be a Poetry class if you’re a Physics Major or vice versa. Either way it’s an academic “black-hole” which you need to learn to negotiate. This “new and unknown” aspect is precisely why mastering it will save your career and possibly your company.

Game Time

Let’s play a quick game. Below are two terms: “Compulsory Elective” and “Disruptive Innovation”. Compulsory Electives are, of course, the focus of this article. But Disruptive Innovation is the focus of every major business publication, board meeting and prospectus of the last 18 months. Below that I’ve compiled a series of statements. The object of the game is to see if you can pick out which statements describe skills required to negotiate disruptive innovation, and which statements are recommendations for acing your compulsory electives.

Compulsory Elective: a required course of study not directly related to your degree curriculum which introduces new material, new topics or an entirely new course of study.

Disruptive Innovation: an innovation that creates a new market, new value network or an entirely new approach to a market.

Which topic do you think the following statements were about: Disruptive Innovations or Compulsory Electives?

  1. Regular discussions with your group will help you capture information you might miss when working in a vacuum.

  2. Learn to master a new terms or vocabulary quickly and accurately.

  3. Learn to ask the right questions, collect the right information and share it with your working group.

  4. An enthusiasm to learn, and experience with changing requirements.

  5. Those who have the wherewithal to transfer their skills to other areas are apt to be the most successful.

  6. Asking "what do I need to learn and how?"

*Sources: Harvard Business Review, WSJ, College Magazine.com, quora.com, oxford-royale.co.

You’ve probably already guessed that this is one big trick question: the answer key has check marks in every box. Each of these statements appear in articles about both topics. It turns out that the same skills required to navigate a “new and unfamiliar curriculum” mirror those skills required to navigate a “new and unfamiliar marketplace”. A disrupted marketplace in other words.

Suddenly an MBA who also scored well in Underwater Basket Weaving is demonstrating an above average ability to master new information quickly; no matter how “disruptive” it might appear when compared to his or her core credits!

Learning how to Learn

The other invaluable aspect of a university education (and its compulsory electives) is it proves the applicant has “Learned how to learn”. As I hinted at above, a solid performance in a range of compulsory electives demonstrates several key skills any employer needs.

When I see a four-year degree, I know that this individual has mastered a set of skills that can be adapted to any undertaking. For example, If I’m hiring a Flight Department Dispatcher, I might start by looking for someone with a Bachelor’s in Aviation Science and a 3.2 or better GPA. This tells me three very important things:

1. “Aviation Science” tells me they enjoy and know a lot about the aviation industry. That’s a great starting point.

2. “Bachelor’s” tells me that they also had to endure several semesters of Literature, Humanities, Music (and probably Underwater Basket Weaving).

3. “3.2 GPA” tells me that they figured out how to do well at all of the above with a high level of success.

In other words, this person has learned how to learn. Even if their sole passion in life as been aviation, to earn a Bachelor’s with a 3.2 they found a way (in the span of one semester) to come up to speed on all these other subjects! Even if they weren’t familiar subjects. Even if they weren’t relevant and possibly weren’t even interesting.

And to pass a college course means they either had to submit a paper or make a presentation at the end of the course. And this paper had to be well researched, fully cited and completely supported.

Even more important is the fact that they didn’t just do this once or twice. They had to exercise these skills repeatedly, consistently, and dependably.

We’re Looking for a Few Good Basket Weavers.

When I look at an applicant with a four-year degree I see a future team member who is adaptable. This means that when my boss announces “we’re going in a new direction” I have a team member I know will do the research, learn the vocabulary, run the analysis and even write a report.

I’m comfortable with change. I’m comfortable with innovation. I’m even comfortable with disruption. Because no matter what the future holds or what the market demands, I know I can depend on my basket weavers to keep up and keep me covered.

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