The Difference Between Canadians and Americans

This last weekend I briefly passed through Montreal on my way to meetings in Washington DC. I had a really nice day hanging out with an old friend, trudging around the Vieux-Port in about -20 centigrade. To a first approximation it was a winter pub crawl (and a tiny bit of business).

However, every time I go back to Canada my visit almost always starts with annoyance. This is because each time I arrive at the “frontier” I am exposed to some distinct quirks of “Canadiana” that I think are culturally insightful. I mean let’s face it, there aren’t that many real differences between people on either side of the 49th Parallel. The two countries have been lambasting each other with TV signals, fast food chains and poor quality cars for decades. Indeed, as you drive from Vancouver to Seattle and pass through the Peace Arch border crossing, the inscription on the US side of the arch is “Children of a common mother.” Presumably this refers to Britain and not Eve.

The less touching version of this is “Canada – the 51st State” … but I digress.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a few distinct cultural differences between Canadians and Americans – they are somehow “different” beyond just ice hockey and ending sentences in ‘eh. But they are not THAT different, I would say that the variations in custom are about as distinct as west coast US (i.e. California) and east coast US (i.e. Boston). Of course, we can agree that francophone Canada is very different, but I also think that we wouldn’t call that Canada – that’s Quebec.

I should also point out that I am a Canadian citizen, so I don’t want any hate mail about some goofy foreigner passing comment about Canadian culture.

So on to my story:

When one arrives at the Canadian border there are two queues. One queue is for Canadian residents. The other queue is for “visitors.” It’s that first queue that irritates me – it’s not for Canadian citizens, but for residents. A non-resident citizen is actually a visitor and every time I go through that line I pretty much end up getting an interview (even with the automated system).

This pisses me off every time.

Some years ago, I arrived in Vancouver to see my family and the border officer asked me “what is the purpose of your visit to Canada.” I felt my ire raise and I gave a polite but curt answer “visiting family.” The officer then went on and asked “oh, what family is that?” My blood pressure rose again and I snarkily answered “living family.” She then paused, glared at me and said “will you be staying with your living family or will you be staying elsewhere?” At this point I completely lost it and retorted “I haven’t worked it out yet but if I want to stay in a friggin’ (that’s the polite version) bus shelter, it’s my prerogative.”

Not one of my finest hours, I admit, but I was jet-lagged, irritated and I needed to pee. Needless to say, I was shuffled off into a room for a more detailed interview. After sitting on a sofa for about 20 minutes, presumably with someone watching me from the other side of the silvered window, this friendly looking officer, a geezer with a bushy white moustache walks over to me, sits down opposite me and asks “so what’s going on, eh?” Breathlessly (hey, I was in my 20s) I expressed my ire. He sombrely listened without expression and at the end of it he says “hmpf.”


“Well young man, I can see you are indignant about this and, to some extent I can understand why – but we can’t have visitors (note the term “visitor”) acting abusively toward our staff. These are our standard security questions and we expect people to comply.” Then he said something else, his expression softening, “Look, the next time this happens and you are feeling hard done by, take a deep breath and with a smile on your face say ‘do I really need a reason to visit my home and native land?‘” For those non-Canadians reading, this is a phrase from the national anthem. Clever. Cocky but irrefutable.

Over the years, I have used this response a dozen times with consistent effect, including last weekend. Sometimes it elicits barely concealed distain, sometimes it induces a chuckle. Most importantly, usually the interview stops there. But the contrasting observation here is that an American citizen returning to the US would possibly be asked “where have you been?” The border officer might be interested in drugs, or prohibited agricultural items, but the tenor (and I have heard it hundreds of times in airport line-ups) fundamentally assumes that if you are a Citizen, you are entering the US because you are returning home.

A US homeland security / border protection officer would never ask a US citizen “why are you here?”

This, folks, is the difference between Americans and Canadians – the fundamental notion of citizenship, identity and belonging. For our American brethren, it doesn’t matter where in the world you live, it is your identity that matters first – you’re an American (and a taxpayer) dammit. America is your home and guiding light, that beacon of civility and oversized food portions amidst a sea of chaos and al-Qaeda sleeper cells. It is my perception that the US government would unhesitatingly send in the Marines to airlift a citizen out of a foreign territory in a crisis. A less spectacular example is that if you lose your passport, you can get it replaced in 24 hours just about anywhere in the world.

Americans brag about this at cocktail parties…

In contrast, a Canadian abroad is not a citizen ambassador, is not a proud son or daughter acting upon the world stage – a Canadian outside of Canada is an outsider. If you ever got into strife in some third world country, the Canadian government would probably hold a referendum about it and then grudgingly send an emissary from a nearby British Embassy. If you need to replace your passport outside of Canada, it’s 8 weeks of gruelling paperwork out of Ottawa.

Living outside of Canada? Not really Canadian.

America needs to find its mojo again

When my entrepreneurial life started in about 1999, the US was THE place to go and do business in our industry. At the time, I was part of a new medical software company based in the UK and even though we were located in England, we only ever really wanted to be “American.” We never even tried to get local regulatory approval for any of our products – FDA marketing clearance was all that mattered.

I fondly remember some of those early clinical meetings at the (phenomenal) Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston and tradeshows in Chicago (anyone in the medical imaging business would agree that the Radiological Society of North America – or RSNA meeting – is pretty amazing). Those times were filled with a real sense of excitement and buzz. One of my happiest memories was walking down a crisp, snowy “Magnificent Mile” after a partnering meeting that went very well – made truly magnificent by Christmas lights and Sinatra’s buttery overtures emanating from a hotel lobby – thinking “wow, anything is possible here … baby.”

I’m not an American citizen and, like much of the planet, I’m a little weary of many of the ways that America has shaped events over the past decade. On the one hand, America’s challenges are all of our challenges in terms of entwined economies and global security. On the other hand, the demise of the US economy (don’t even get me started on Europe) is an important and perhaps even necessary part of a reshaped world order where the centre of power no longer lies in the North Atlantic, but the Indo-Pacific. The continued rise of Asia despite US and EU turbulence is evidence of this and big changes are always painful.

But… I am also very pro-America because whatever you may feel about globalization and the events of the last century, America’s contribution has been enormous, disproportionate and remarkable. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement does have a legitimate gripe – there is no place in our world for greed that comes at the price of other people’s lives and prosperity – but to me this is not the epitome of America or American values. It is an aberration and it is decidedly “un-American.” I certainly do not advocate replacing the institution and inspiration of American meritocracy with a “mediocracy.” A good friend of mine who works on a trading floor in NYC had a chuckle about the “occupation” – he said “yeah, sure, they occupy from 9-5 but then after that, protesting becomes a hunger sport and it’s too hard – I stay in the office until at least 7 or 8pm and nobody bothers me.”

I think most of the world misunderstood the Occupy Wall Street movement as protesting capitalism generally. The best evidence of this is that there were mimic movements all over the planet that were localized and focused on domestic frustration, not anti-American sentiment. In my home town of Melbourne, Australia there was a scraggly bunch of bearded losers who turned out for the “Occupy Melbourne” movement. Half of those guys didn’t even know what they were protesting for. Financial stability? Generally effective governance? Low federal debt? Some of the lowest unemployment rates in the developed world? Free quality healthcare? At the (antipodean) fringes of this protest, the message was so diluted, nobody could identify the issues – that’s how I know that many people haven’t really considered what capitalism (with a little c) means and the generally beneficial dynamic of free enterprise.

In fact, in Australia, the global financial crisis has had so little impact, most people didn’t know until quite recently that it was taking place. Sure, some business segments were affected, and some people noticed that house prices were no longer rocketing along – but for the vast majority of Australians it was a problem that did not exist. One of my great irritations with my countrymen is that the Global Financial Crisis (capitalized) is almost universally referred to as the “GFC.” Like KFC – the fast food chain – a truly disposable term. The words “global” and “crisis” don’t even seem to deserve repeated utterance and comprehension.

“It’s just the GFC, mate.”

So what happened, America?

9/11 came along and the country went into lock-down mode. Successive administrations allowed government to get “big” and exceed its purse strings in the name of domestic security, while failing to fully address the biggest domestic security issues of all like an ageing population’s healthcare needs, energy and systemic crumbling of its education system. America was also no longer “open for business” – despite messaging to the contrary at most international airports (note to America’s Chief Executive … when you have to remind people that you are “open,” your “business” aint doing well).

I don’t agree with all of America’s foreign policy. But not withstanding having to take my shoes off during TSA inspections and the annoying 100ml liquids restriction, on the whole I am grateful most times I get on an aircraft that we have the influence of US power in the world – I genuinely think the planet would be a scarier place without it. However, in my view, America becomes a net security threat to the world – not when it “loses wars” in Afghanistan (which it has, at valiant and tragic cost to its people) – but when it ceases to be a responsibly governed economic force. That’s what happened with Wall Street and it is happening again with this disgusting republican-democrat stalemate over budgetary policy. This is nothing more than a shameful demonstration to the rest of the world of US democratic impotency. Even worse, the lack of political diversity of the two-horse race undermines America’s crucial message to the world that democracy is a political institution worth having.

How can we ever hope to stabilize our planet and bring 100ds of millions of people out of poverty if economic development and democracy become failed ideas?

Which brings me back to mojo. I think Obama deserves the chance he was given in the form of his re-election – In my opinion, the man is “mojo” personified, particularly in contrast to his slack-jawed GOP counterparts who not only lack a defensible value system (from abortion and women’s rights … to gun control … to taxation), they no longer place the best interests of the American people ahead of desperate and mostly crass stunts to recapture electoral mindshare. Constitutional debates are a great soapbox for distraction when you have nothing better to offer your electorate. Besides, my view is that big problems don’t get solved overnight and I think the American people almost have an obligation to hold an administration’s feet to the fire long enough so that political cycles and multi-$Bn electioneering doesn’t kneecap (probably with an ARM16 assault rifle) progress.

A short-term benevolent dictatorship, anyone? Maybe a little bit of Lee Kuan Yew might not be a bad thing for America … say, for a decade…

Of course Wall Street needs reform, and it is getting its makeover slowly but surely. However, as I previously stated, I don’t want the meritocracy to end. I still want to see talent disproportionately rewarded for success. We should want to see achievers held out as social and financial role models. Sure … we need to make certain we have a system that reins in the growing socioeconomic disparity but we’re only ever going to be able to fund that more egalitarian (dare I say socialist?) system if people who keep the economic treadmill spinning are motivated to do so at high speed.

This means that business needs to be placed back at the heart of the American vision for the future. It means rediscovering the puritan work ethic that drove the nation for the last couple of hundred years. It means recognition that 65% of new jobs created in the last 10 years came not from (bailed out) mega-organizations, but from SMEs. It means understanding that even though there was TARP, it didn’t necessarily improve liquidity and access to capital for small business – in fact, possibly the contrary. It means that entrepreneurs deserve support and accolade, not protest and condemnation (besides, everyone loves that “Facebook kid” and the “Google Brothers” already).

In short, America needs to bring back its “can do” attitude. It should be “can do” responsibly, “can do” environmentally sustainably, “can do” where the government respects the toils of those whom it taxes and genuinely works to build a better nation, not just adverserial political demarcation lines. America also needs to be “open for business” and re-think its position on immigration. Several million high-tech jobs (necessary to fuel the economy) cannot be filled domestically and as part of reasserting itself as the global leader in innovation, it needs to re-open its doors to talent alongside re-investing in its education system (which, increasingly, falls behind the rest of the world).

Since 9/11, every time I have entered the country, I have been treated like a terrorist, or at the very least some kind of undesirable. In a recent immigration interview, I heard – quite possibly for the first time in at least a decade – “Welcome to America, have a nice stay.” This particular immigration officer also muttered under his breath “…and spend lots of money, Lord knows we need it.” If immigration officers and taxi drivers are a litmus test of this basic awareness, there is hope.

America, find your mojo. Get a swagger again. Remind yourself of what’s great about your country and welcome the world and all its diversity back to your shores. It’s what made you great in the first place.

Why I believe in Singularity

The short explanation is because I have already experienced it in a rudimentary form. For those who don’t know what Singularity is, you can read about it here.

The longer explanation is… well… longer, and it starts with a sad story.

A friend of mine, I will refer to him as “Ollie” (people who knew him will recognize his nickname and for everyone else, it’s respectfully anonymous) was a lovely guy. Just one of those people everyone liked. Smart, witty. Late 30s, devoted father and a much-loved husband.

I caught up with Ollie for a beer and a chat about life a few weeks before his second kid was born, a little girl I think. He was loving life, excited about the baby coming and we parted company that afternoon promising to catch up in a few weeks. We had been close friends in university, but like many relationships that kind of get side-tracked by life, we had only sporadically caught up over the years. It was very nice to see him and I felt truly happy to have reconnected with an old friend who was obviously at a contented point in his life.

A couple of weeks later as part of a health kick, feeling self-conscious about a few extra desk-induced kilos (he was a software engineer) and wanting to be healthier for his kids, Ollie started running around the track at a nearby park. On one of those jogs, he had a massive heart-attack and died.

Just a few days after his baby was born. Tragic and awful.

We were all shocked and saddened but something bizarre happened. A few weeks after Ollie passed away, I saw a LinkedIn newsfeed that perfunctorily reported “Ollie has new connections.” I supposed he must have sent a LinkedIn invite to someone who posthumously accepted, maybe they didn’t even know what had happened. I found it slightly creepy. Then a few weeks ago I was doing a LinkedIn search and I guess a few keywords in my search once again pulled up his profile. It’s been amended to indicate that he’s no longer with us, but just the same, it got me thinking.

I realized that we all have an internet persona to some extent. In some cases it’s extensive. Google will already trawl through our email and work out what interests us. Our preferences are dotted all over the virtual planet, from what kind of music we like on iTunes to our seating preferences on United Airlines. It takes a very cursory level of analysis to investigate and understand detailed things about people who have a comprehensive on-line presence. It therefore seems utterly reasonable to me that, in time, algorithms could start to build a pretty good idea of who we are. I reckon an undergraduate computer scientist with access to the 120,000 emails in my Gmail account could probably build a simple bit of code to impersonate my email writing style (at least identify my favorite expletives and the more colorful turns of phrase).

You don’t have to conceptually stretch too much further than this to get to the point where software could know us well enough to think like us, to act like us, to make decisions just as we would … in short, to be us.

Kurzweil and Vinge think it’s still a couple of decades off before it happens, but I think when something is close enough to robustly visualize it, it’s already here. The plain fact of the matter is, Ollie’s LinkedIn and Facebook “avatar” persisted after his death. It continued to echo of his desires and actions in life through the propagation of signals and behaviours after death. I suggest that it is a kind of primitive “Singularity” and certainly more significant than some kind of digital epitaph. Do a mental exercise and put yourself back 200 years in time and try explaining to someone that a deceased individual sent you a message, without actually having written the message before that person passed away. Try explaining that the person truly sent you a message after they had died. You would have characterized that as a “message from the afterlife” – it would be a supramortal event.

Truly worthy of being burnt at the stake.

I actually believe humans will achieve immortality, but not in the biological domain. Our bodies were probably not meant to live forever and even when we solve cancer and heart disease, etc. (which we will) in the limit, the biology of our brains will let us down. It’s also my personal opinion that human beings were not meant to live forever and that our social and ecological existence is based on the promise, inevitability and necessity of death.

I think what will happen is that we will end up living our biological lives in order to create the data points and inputs to our digital lives. In the future, from the day we are born, personalized devices will monitor and capture every moment of our life, our biosignals, our words, our actions, our interactions with people and objects. Massively distributed technologies will chronicle our lives for us and then, when we die, our perfectly captured soul will simply propagate forever. Death will merely be the shedding of a biological core and a nanosecond transition to a synthetic digital being that will continue “life” forward, fully aware that the organic self is no longer.

In this scenario, the life goal would be to maximize the biological experience in order to “richly” propagate the digital soul to eternity. As such, we might think of life rather differently. We might only care about the experiential dimension of life and worry less about things that aren’t important, interesting or exciting. We might deliberate decisions and value relationships more because we’d have to live with them forever. We could take very long views on careers because you would end up being a lawyer/doctor/engineer for the rest of eternity – alternatively, we might want to capture as much knowledge as possible so that when we leave the biological epoch, we are able to enjoy unlimited intellectual diversity. We would crave sophisticated and multi-dimensional personalities, capable of continued evolution in a virtual world.

We would also live our lives with tangible evidence that there is indeed an afterlife … in the form of terabytes stored on a server farm in Palo Alto, but an afterlife no less…

I think this is a very realistic scenario. I just hope whoever is running the IT infrastructure has got site redundancy and good backup power.


An MBA is just a life choice

I never thought I would write a blog post about doing an MBA, but I read an article the other day on Quartz that kind of irritated me (generally a great site though):

Obviously, Jay Bhatti wanted to tell everyone he has an MBA from Wharton. A few times. But that wasn’t really what annoyed me – what irritated me was the positioning that only elite education has personal development value. Sure, nobody questions that prestige institutions add a certain panache to the CV, have amazing alumni networks, etc. However, I think the biggest issue with an MBA is that all schools are a much of a muchness and Harvards and Whartons are only modestly differentiated. I didn’t do a “top 5” (at least according to Jay) MBA but I got a fine finance and business education from NYU’s TRIUM program and the MBA gave me what I needed – a toolkit.

I would say that a good many decent business schools from UCLA to Dartmouth, from NYU to Duke – are capable of giving just about any bright individual a great business school experience.

Like Jay, I also get asked by a lot of students about the merits of business school. Unlike Jay, I don’t think an MBA is waste because I believe that any type of focused learning that involves developing new skills, interacting with people and building new networks is valuable. Here are four things I tell people thinking of going to business school:

1) Forget the ROI. Yep – unfortunately it’s undoubtedly proven that an MBA probably isn’t going to make you richer. What I do think is that it enables you to reinvent yourself and position yourself into roles/jobs that might have been tougher to reach before. I see a lot of people go into an MBA with “engineer” or “scientist” or “psychologist” or “sales guy” printed on their forehead, and come out with ability to redefine who they are. That may not equate to a bigger salary but it might equate to new opportunities or job satisfaction … and that’s valuable.

2) Do it for love. Pretty much doesn’t matter what business school you go to – it’s a blast. It’s fun. You meet interesting people. You learn. Yes, it costs money but a lot of worthwhile hobbies cost money.

3) Like many things, business school competes with other life demands. You might be smart enough to get into Wharton but you might have a family with little kids. You might be at an interesting point in your career. You might love an old dog (I mean the canine variety) who isn’t going to travel well. You might just love your local gym or sports club and your lifestyle feels complete. This is all really important because business school can be hard work and somehow you still have to keep the rest of life going for a year or two, including paying your bills and staying happy. Fact is, people make all kinds of compromises in life and that may mean going to your local school on evenings and weekends instead of picking up and going to Harvard. If your local school is one of several dozen respectable B-schools, you’re not selling yourself short.

4) If you are doing it for a CV point, the only thing that counts is who pays for it. Let me explain. Even if, like Jay, you are a legend and managed to get into Wharton or Harvard, all an MBA really tells people is that you were able to write an enormous check. Truly. But it almost doesn’t matter where you do an MBA if your employer is willing to pay for it because it signals something very different. It signals “this person is a commercial animal and we were willing to invest our profits in the development of this person to improve the performance of our business.” Completely different message. I’d rather have my employer pay for a part-time MBA at school #50 than just write a check myself for #1. By the way that IS return on investment…

Anyhow, that’s my 2c worth.

Bottom line? Wouldn’t life be shit if all we ever did was benchmark our decisions on the basis of a return-on-investment? On that basis, we wouldn’t get married, we’d probably avoid kids, we’d never smell the leathery aroma of a new car and we’d certainly never take an expensive vacation (wow – talk about negative “ROI” – time off work AND an expenditure!). Equally, the world would be dull and filled with Jay Bhattis if nobody did anything unless they were going to be “the best.” There’d be no amateur anything, we’d never learn new skills just for the hell of it, and we’d never get pleasure out of doing anything badly.

I do lots of things badly – like cooking and windurfing and dancing. I also went to a “not worth it” business school and loved every minute of it.

JP Morgan – Live from SFO

Yep, it’s that time of year again – the healthcare industry’s proverbial pilgrimage to Mecca – the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. I note that as a cash-limited early-stage company CEO I was grateful for my free pass, it enabled me to hobnob with the “good and great” and actually meet people at the coffee shop in the lobby rather than loiter out the front.


It’s an exciting but also kind of a weird meeting. Firstly, it’s the only time that CEOs (big or small companies) do their best to turn up looking like London bankers or NYC hedge fund managers. I’m pretty sure that among the pinstripe suits, deftly placed kerchiefs and chunky silver monogramed cufflinks, I saw at least one monocle. I kid you not. In fact, there is this kind of reverse dress code snobbery whereby the less important you are, the more superbly dressed. I looked pretty darned good – so much so that the Chair of my own board walked right past me and didn’t recognize me (she’s used to jeans and a jacket at best).

If you are important enough that you can lose the tie – you are comfortably situating yourself between “blending in” and making a statement that you special. Everyone notices you when you don’t wear a tie – I should know, I didn’t wear one last year and people looked at me wondering “who the heck is that guy and why don’t I know who he is?” Then there are the arch-Jedi knights of the biotech and healthcare world, those select few serial entrepreneurs and high-end VCs who turn up wearing jeans and a sports jacket. It’s the only meeting where turning up in jeans is a sign of either hierarchical supremacy or supremely bad dress sense.

When you see some guy in a silver ponytail, jeans and a jacket waft past – you can bet there will be 10 guys in pinstripe suits leering after him like testosterone fuelled footballers on prom night.

The other funny thing about the meet are the entrepreneurs. Like me. I had the magic pass this year so I was able to get past the highly scrutinizing security at the front entrance(s) of the St. Francis. But last year, I was there in the throng of guys in $200 off-the-rack suits loitering out the front of the building, waiting to accost a particular potential business partner or investor (I should note that I wore the same cheap suit I wore last year but the tie was new). It’s hard to pick the right analogy. Is it dogs loitering under the king’s dining table, waiting for a few scraps? Is it a noisy flock of seagulls just out of kicking range at the beach, looking eagerly at dropped food morsels?

Whatever it is – it’s pretty entertaining to watch and I love being part of it. The best part is that everyone is on the phone, pretending to be busy and having a deep conversation … but one eye is roaming to the lobby entrance… waiting…

The only thing that I feel a bit bad about is the local street folks and homeless. Sadly there are a lot around Union Square. They see all these “well dressed” guys standing in a mob out the front of the Westin and can’t figure out why they are so tight with change. While it would be completely inappropriate to categorize the average biotech entrepreneur as “poor” I spotted more than one stretched entrepreneur that I know who would think twice about giving away his BART fare back to the airport. The homeless are begging from the entrepreneurs, the entrepreneurs are begging from investors. It’s a kind of whacky social food chain.


Anyhow, about the meeting itself? What is there to say. As always it’s a tremendous opportunity to meet with a lot of terrific people in one place. It’s a hectic pace, with the day time-sliced into half-hour segments from early until late. It’s certainly a great way to learn the layout of San Fran’s hotels, bars and cafes and most veterans of the conference could probably write a good section of a Lonely Planet guide. Having given up alcohol for January I enjoyed the after-hours slightly less than usual but still managed to get in plenty of informal discussions over little crab cake morsels and tempura prawns (mmm… my favorite).

My impression this year was that the focus was really more on tracking companies with late stage products and that the meeting was mostly about engagement between public company CEOs and analysts. That aspect has always been there but the biotech showcase and earlier-stage activity seemed to have less of a spotlight. The focus also seemed to be less on topics like the state of the industry, healthcare policy and innovation – hard to know if that’s a good sign or not. Either people have stopped worrying about how messed up US (and global) healthcare is, or a record number of new approvals and some very exciting pipelines are keeping analysts distracted.

I would describe the atmosphere this year as “upbeat-lethargic.”

One thing is for sure, every year it’s exciting, especially for those of us at the bottom (well, near bottom…) of the food chain … and every year being part of it opens up new opportunities. Besides, it’s hard to beat the healthcare investor equivalent of a caffeine, alcohol and canapés-fuelled speed-dating extravaganza.

See you there next year.

20 Under 20

By chance, last weekend I watched about ¾ of a documentary about the Thiel Foundation’s Fellowship competition. It was fascinating to listen to these really smart kids talk about their ideas, how they want to change the world, their passion and enthusiasm. I was quite inspired. It’s also great to also see captains of innovation support something like this and nurture others who have big ideas and who are trying to launch their careers – those big breaks can make a difference (to the extent that you can really characterize Sean Parker’s scraggly beard-stroking and linguistically convoluted “wisdom” as giving something “back”). You can read more about it here.

But there were also a few things about the documentary that didn’t resonate with me.

Firstly, there was a comment from one of the Fellowship recipients that “winning a Thiel Fellowship was permission to follow a dream.” I’m really not sure how to interpret this – why is quitting college, getting paid $100,000 and joining a network of ultra-bright but quirky and slightly self-absorbed kids “permission?” Is it the title of Thiel Fellow? Is it an association with a phenomenally successful entrepreneur and Silicon Valley network? The money? What is really the enabling factor here?

Secondly, although there was an acknowledgment from the competition administrators that being a Thiel Fellow and being an entrepreneur wasn’t necessarily synonymous – or even required – there was a real focus on “do-ers.” The question constantly arose – “what have you done?” Thinkers seemed to be a bit pooh-poohed. I completely believe that kids, young adults (whatever) are capable of executing whatever they believe in, but we also have to accept the fact that even high potentials at the beginning of their careers might not necessarily have a mind-blowing CV. Sure, you have to find people who stick out in the crowd but is having “solved” poverty or the global energy crisis the prerequisite for nurturing talent? Do we only have room in the world for people who “do?” Doesn’t that kind of narrow the scope for a diversity of definitions of success?

Thirdly – it’s great to identify wicked-smart people early in their careers but what kind of message do we send everyone else who is not quite at “genius” level? I think it was Edison who said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration but this is going beyond establishing aspirational and inspirational role models. I want to understand how the guy who intends to change the face of nuclear physics is going to do so without the funding, support, engagement, acceptance and partnership with others (perhaps he going to build that fusion reactor in his basement)? How is the young woman who wants to change healthcare going to do so, without critically understanding how healthcare actually works today and building the relationships to deliver her vision?

I completely understand that fresh faces and fresh ideas that are unencumbered by staid and institutionalized thinking is powerful, but is it enough? Perhaps I am also just a slightly cynical “Generation X” who looks at our “Gen Y” counterparts with a sneer and the common criticism of success and gratification entitlement without the actual hard-won experiences of the real-world. I also think we live in a world where it is possible for some people to have great ideas and for others to execute on them – in my view, that’s exactly what thought leaders do.

… Which leads to learning.

I have two comments about this. Firstly, there is an innate hypocrisy in Peter Thiel’s anti-college, anti-“structured” education opinions. We’re all distinctly aware of the fact that it’s possibly not cool to have a college degree in Silicon Valley and that many people hold out Zuckerberg, Gates and Jobs’ dropout history as almost a pre-requisite for guru status. I do also think that college/university doesn’t suit everyone and I am concerned about the fact that we don’t have the right diversity of education options for kids and that the pathways we do have are a bit “one size fits all.” Yet Thiel had an elite education and (I will go out on a limb here) probably wouldn’t have had the pathway in finance and many of the opportunities he did without his Stanford degrees – in fact, both an undergrad B.A. and a graduate law degree (JD) – quite a personal commitment to education, it would seem?

To so openly scorn the economic and social value of education against the backdrop of overwhelming evidence that for the rest of us plebs, having tertiary education vastly improves life options (in both the developed world and the developing world) is a bit dishonest. Needing a college degree and benefitting from a college degree are also not the same thing. It makes me question whether there is real wisdom being offered to a bunch of hyper-bright young people who are looking for a role model?

The second part of the “learning” issue is a theme that arose a few times in the documentary – namely failure. I think most entrepreneurs accept failure, learn from it and move on as battle-hardened. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s fun or enjoyable but learning from failure eclipses learning from success most of the time. My question is this – by including dropping out of college as a condition of “success” are we really just setting these kids up for failure later in life without the personal lessons that stem from it? Sure, maybe they can re-apply for a course when the Fellowship is over, but then is Thiel et al’s message that in order to pursue your goals and your passions, other dimensions of personal development are not important and don’t need to be considered in tandem?

I really dislike the implications of this and there is huge arrogance in it. I don’t necessarily think that the classic model of brown-brick education is going to persist a whole longer into the future and we definitely have to abandon Ford/Carnegie’s model of programmed consumerism that has been socially ingrained in our education system for most of the past century. However, life-long learning – including formal/structured life-long learning for those of us who value and appreciate human interaction (as opposed to a MOOC on signal processing streamed over the web from some geeky professor at MIT) and experience and the ideas of others (as opposed to just one’s own view of the world) – is only going to become more important. The world is moving too fast for all new ideas to be self-originating and there isn’t much contention in the statement that collaborative, interdisciplinary organizations are more important than ever to solving big problems.

In the end, I accept that maybe I’m just one of those almost pointlessly over-educated people who resents the success of those who didn’t worry about getting a college degree, or didn’t demonstrate the commitment and self-discipline of 4 years of occasionally dull but nonetheless developmentally invaluable years at college (or in my case, six years because I was kicked out of my first university for being an academic dud).

In which case, sneer back at me…