I recently had the luck of attending a talk by three time Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman to hear him discuss his latest book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. Though I had previously read The World is Flat, I didn’t realize that his most recent work focused so heavily on education. The ultimate conclusion from the presentation was that the U.S. desperately needs a 3rd political party that focuses on cutting spending, raising revenue, and investing in the source of our greatest resource and strength – education. This idea aligned nicely with one of my most recent posts on Education Unbound, "Education is Worth the Investment!" in which I concluded that the only way to fix our failing education system is to invest in it. However, another aspect of the presentation that was equally interesting was Friedman’s assessment of one of the underlying causes of the need to change our political system and, consequently, our education system – the hyper-connectivity of the world.
What is Hyper-Connectivity?
Friedman explains hyper-connectivity by telling a story about a piece he wrote for The New York Times. The Times story featured a review of a low-cost, Indian-made iPad-type device. He posted his column at 8pm, ET on a Sunday and had a response from India containing the results of actual tests on the device within hours of his article going live. Prior to the advent of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and other instantaneous communication platforms, it could have taken months for the inventors in India to hear about his review and respond to it.
In another example, he cites the massive flood of "news" coverage coming out of Syria in spite of the fact that all external media has been banned from the country. Citizen journalists reporting from connected portable devices have created their own news sites to upload reports from inside the country to keep the world informed about the revolution. This on-the-ground coverage would not be possible without hyper-connectivity.
One of the results of this instantaneous global connection is that business no-longer needs to rely on local sources to have work done immediately. In fact, there is, as Friedman stated, "a glut of cheap genius" available online to do much of the "average" work and even some of the innovation and creativity that has set us apart from the rest of our global competitors.
No More "Average"
The result of this glut of cheap but highly-skilled labor is that there is no more "average" here in the U.S. Showing up for work to put in your time is no longer good enough to keep a job when someone in India, China, or Brazil can do the work as well or better and cheaper, faster, and with more creativity.
Friedman proposed four ways of thinking that are needed by all American workers to counteract this global encroachment on our livelihood. To be successful in a hyper-connected world every American needs to think like:
- An immigrant – Specifically a new immigrant who is a "paranoid optimist." They are paranoid every day that what they have gained from coming to their new country will be taken away. Everyone in a hyper-connected world needs to operate from this perspective.
- An artisan – In the past the best artisans took such pride in their work that they carved their initials into their creations. In an ultra-competitive global economy workers need to take pride in their work and strive to make every item they produce unique to emphasize their creativity.
- A starter upper – According to Friedman, in the Silicon Valley there is only one four letter word -"finished," and those who think that any job is ever done might just be finished themselves. Every individual should be in a permanent state of beta. There is a constant need for workers to redesign themselves and improve upon their work when the "glut of genius" is waiting in the wings.
- An entrepreneurial waitress – Finally, Friedman stated that, no matter what position you are in, you need to continually maximize the resources that you have. For example, as a waitress, if you have control over the fruit spoon, give your customers extra fruit. The idea here is that every employee needs to make any extra effort that they can to gain a competitive edge.
These four ways of thinking emphasize how doing an "average" job or making an "average" effort is no longer good enough. In a hyper-connected global economy with billions of workers, there is always someone out there who is driven to give their absolute maximum effort and the Internet allows them to take do almost any job anywhere in the world.
How does this new world order affect what our educational system should be?
For starters, we are not even reaching the global education average at this point and failing to do so sets us far behind our global competitors who have a "glut of genius" at their disposal. One problem we face is in not providing the best possible education to every single student in order to help each of these potential new immigrant, artisan, starter upper, entrepreneurial waitresses that can rise beyond the circumstances of their birth. As a society we have the wealth and expertise to craft an educational system that focuses on helping a majority of our students become competitors in the global economy. We choose not to do it.
We may not be able to compete with the sheer number of students in China or India, but we can take advantage of what we do have to make our average student one of the top innovators in the world. We have every resource necessary, every technological advantage, and a great pool of educators to draw from to make all levels of our educational system the best in the world. If we can make a serious commitment to doing that we will move ourselves back into global preeminence.
Friedman ended his talk by describing his interactions with the enthusiastic American citizens he meets in his travels. He explained how this country is still full of people who didn’t get the word that we are losing the global economic battle…they still invent things, start new companies, and innovate. "We’re just too dumb to quit," Friedman said. The country is still full of the creative individuals who can power us back to the top. We just need to get out of our own way, support education, rediscover America and realize "That Used to Be Us."