Atomic skills versus molecular skills

Scott Adams has an essay in the Wall Street Journal today entitled How to Get a Real Education. He starts by saying the brightest students should get an academic education and the rest should learn entrepreneurship. I disagree. I don’t see why the choice between a traditional academic education and an education emphasizing entrepreneurship should depend on IQ. I also don’t see why there should be a sharp division between the two. Future professors would do well to learn entrepreneurship and future business owners would do well to learn math and history.

But I want to talk here about what I do agree with Scott Adams on. Here’s my favorite part of his essay.

Combine Skills. The first thing you should learn in a course on entrepreneurship is how to make yourself valuable. It’s unlikely that any average student can develop a world-class skill in one particular area. But it’s easy to learn how to do several different things fairly well. I succeeded as a cartoonist with negligible art talent, some basic writing skills, an ordinary sense of humor and a bit of experience in the business world. The “Dilbert” comic is a combination of all four skills. The world has plenty of better artists, smarter writers, funnier humorists and more experienced business people. The rare part is that each of those modest skills is collected in one person. That’s how value is created.

Academia trains people to think in terms of departments. Achievement is measured in ways that fit into a course catalog: chemistry, French, art, math, history, etc. Those who do the best at the academic game have the hardest time shaking these categories. Someone like Scott Adams could berate himself for not excelling as an artist or a writer. But rather than focusing on these atomic skills, he prides himself on how he combines these skills to do something few could do.

When Adams talks about combining skills, I don’t believe he’s talking about the myth of the Renaissance man. The Renaissance ideal is to be great at several atomic skills, each practiced in isolation. Adams is talking about combining skills that may not be remarkable individually and doing something remarkable.

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6 thoughts on “Atomic skills versus molecular skills

  1. Without having read the original article, I must say that if by brightest students the author means people with high IQ (as it seems from this post), then the entire thesis could just be reversed.

    Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory was formulated about 30 years ago, and it’s at least 15 years that the basic idea behind Gardner’s theory (intelligence ≠ IQ) has been accepted at mainstream level.

    Seen from that perspective, one could easily say that only bright people having a good blend of various intelligences should be given the possibility to make an impact on society and culture, while narrow-minded, high-IQ-only freaks should be employed for some sort of limited-scope activity.

  2. That’s an excellent way to put it. I saw that article earlier this week and agreed with most of it, but as a B engineering student, I felt like Adams was saying I should leave the difficult work to more intelligent people. I got hired as a co-op student after my freshman year and have worked 5 semesters for the same company. After each semester, I would get rave reviews at my company – professionals saying what a good engineer I am, then I would go back to school and get B’s in my classes – my university saying I’m merely mediocre. The weak spot in my resume is my GPA and some companies have asked me in interviews why my GPA isn’t higher. I’ve had trouble coming up with an answer that doesn’t sound like I’m making excuses or being defensive, but I think a solid answer to that question is somewhere in your post.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly. I think that we must have a strong foundation in some atomic skills and an equally strong ability to synthesize these with other, weaker skills, in the molecular sense.

    I think you’ll find the theme of ATOMic skills and molecular leadership and synthesis very prevalent in my own writing.

  4. This is a great post. I completely agree, although I haven’t articulated this point that well in the past (thanks for doing a better job than me). I find that students in my discipline of industrial engineering and operations research who have non-traditional backgrounds/experiences make wonderful contributions in class due to their unique combination of skills. I cringe when they are apologetic about not fitting perfectly within their discipline’s box–they can do all sorts of things that their peers cannot and I value that. Developing a combination of skills (not necessarily in entrepreneurship) is a great recipe for professional success in life.

  5. Two other skills that often get short shrift in discussions of education but which I believe are very helpful in any career are minimal social skills and the ability to write. Depending on the career these can be somewhat helpful to absolutely essential.

  6. I don’t agree to mix the science with the money. The idea behind the original article is in any form pointless to me. Businessmen must not be involved in scientific/educational discussion at all. Scientists on the side must not consider money as the key item in any meaning. These are my definitions for scientists and businessmen.

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