Lecturing Birds to Fly – Overreliance on Formal Education

In today’s business world, there is often an overreliance on formal education to the detriment of experiential learning.

Nassim Taleb’s book, “Antifragile,” distinguishes two sets of beliefs about how we gain skills and insights.

The first focuses on the kind of knowledge we acquire in school (i.e., lectures, reading, and research).

The second focuses on the learning we get by doing or that comes to us naturally (i.e., aptitude, instinct, etc.).

Taleb makes the case that we tend to overestimate the role and necessity of formal education and minimize the less documented and intuitive experience-based knowledge.

Additionally, Taleb notes that we are inclined to erroneously attribute many things we learn via experience and intuition to formal education.

To make his point, Taleb gives an example of college professors who decide to provide a series of lectures to young birds in order to teach them how to fly.  After hours and hours of lectures, the birds fly!

The professors scurry about writing papers and books about their success in teaching birds to fly without ever considering the fact that birds don’t need lectures in order to fly.

Taleb goes on to say that “history belongs to those who can write about it”, which makes us blind to the possibility of an experience-based learning process that operates as a loop of: Random Tinkering > Experience, Rules of Thumbs, Common Sense > Practice > Random Tinkering

HR POINTER: Many small business managers and owners are in awe of executives they read about in “Fortune” or “Forbes” who have extensive formal education.  Because our society promotes higher education, there is an assumption by those without this education that they are missing something or could be so much better if they only had this additional training.

The fact is that they are selling themselves short by assuming that their experiential knowledge and good old fashioned common sense is inferior to the formally trained mind.

There is always a place for formal training.  However, we must also learn to recognize the value of individuals who are life-long learners in the “school of hard knocks.”

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