One of the great Silicon Valley tropes is that inexperience is a positive. The extreme expression of it– I’m simplifying here, but not that much– is that young people who aren’t already experts in a field don’t have the bad habits and assumptions that insiders have about what can’t be done, what’s impossible, or how things are supposed to work (or simply are), and therefore are able to be totally innovative.
This is, to put it mildly, an idea that deserves to be examined more fully. It’s like assuming that because I don’t speak Arabic, or know anything about poetry, that I’ll have better insights about interpreting 9th-century Arabic poetry than someone who’s spent a lifetime studying the subject, and can, you know, actually read Arabic. Or that a person who knows nothing about quantum mechanics can have a brilliant insight into quantum mechanics, precisely because they’re ignorant of it.
This is the kind of magical thinking that brought us Theranos.
Presumably there’s a sweet spot between innocence and expertise, where outsiders know just enough to be able to see that a field or industry is ripe for disruption. But there’s much better evidence that the disruptions we should take seriously come from people who are incredibly knowledgeable, and have actually done the work of mastering a field.
For one thing, in most fields you have to learn a lot in order to declare yourself an expert. Everybody knows that health care is screwed up and that the tax code should be reduced to a postcard-sized set of rules– unless you’re a doctor or tax accountant, in which case you understand just how complex these systems are.
Further, in most fields you have to know an awful lot in order to understand what even counts as an interesting problem, where the gaps in a field’s knowledge are, or what things really are efficiencies.
Finally, creativity rests on a foundation of endless, sometimes boring, preparation. As mathematician Stephen J. Merrill puts it in his article “To Again Feel the Creative Voice,” (International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education 5:1 (March 2007), 145–164):
The creative voice speaks to those who have prepared themselves. The tools to implement any insight received are those experiences, techniques, and abilities developed up to that time, and, developed to an extent that they are automatic Y not needing conscious intervention. This means that there are no shortcuts to being creative. One must practice the musical scales, draw the urns, and complete the mathematical exercises…. To have a creative event, one must have both the inspiration and the ability and experience to execute it. Developing technique as an artist, writer, or scientist is necessary.
Merrill the quotes musician Stephen Nachmanovitch:
To create, we need both technique and the freedom from technique. To this end we practice until our skills become unconscious. If you had to think consciously about the steps involved in riding a bicycle, you’d fall off at once. Part of the alchemy engendered by practice is a kind of cross-trading between conscious and unconscious. Technical how-to information of deliberate and rational kind drops through long repetition from consciousness so that we can “do it in our sleep.”… When the skill hides itself in the unconscious, it reveals the unconscious. Technique is the vehicle for surfacing normally unconscious material from the dream world and the myth world to where they become visible, nameable, singable.