I asked Steven Pinker once: "What should I say to my students, when they ask me what they should do with their lives?" "Measurement," he replied.
The full story:
I had volunteered to pick up Rebecca Goldstein (famed novelist–philosopher) and Steven Pinker (famed psychologist, linguist, and all-around public intellectual) at the airport last summer when they were flying in to speak at a conference.
As a brief aside, I trust that the giggly-girlish expression on my face below indicates the depth of my fanboyness towards both thinkers:
I had pondered for weeks what Big Important Question I should ask the two of them, while I had 'em in my minivan. (Which, for the record, was cleaned more thoroughly than when we had purchased it.)
I was quite suprised to hear Dr. Pinker's answer.
"Measurement?" I responded, dumbly.
He explained that organizations are doing wonderful things in the world — curtailing malaria, lessening domestic violence — but we can't be sure which organizations, and where, and how.
And when we lack careful measurements, we're left with braggadocio. Who can spin anecdotes into the best story? Who has the most compelling TED talk?
Our civilization can do better — we can mend the world (see my earlier post "Can a new kind of school change the world?") — but doing so will require looking very carefully at what we're doing now.
And that means measurement.
I've been proposing, these last few days, that one of the pieces of signature curriculum in our new-kind-of schools could be that every student, in high school, helps start a business — a "social business" that aims not only to make money, but also to improve human or environmental well-being.
I've suggested that having students embark on this could help cultivate intellectual superpowers (especially in complex thinking), the hard work of being part of a real team, and ecstatic joy (only a little bit of an overstatement).
Now, I'd like to suggest that having students start their own businesses could teach students how to measure — and how to think scientifically.
The secret here is the Lean Startup methodology.
The Lean Startup methodology comes from the book The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries.
Here's what I'm taking from the book:
The world is full of opportunties to help people — and by helping people, make a profit. There are, let's postulate, a trillion of them. But to take advantage of these, you have to pull it off just right. There are a googleplex of near misses.
How can an entrepreneur tell the difference between a successful business strategy and a near miss? She can't, at first. No one is smart enough to know this ahead of time.
This revolutionizes the way we come at entrepreneurship. In the past, we've championed successful entrepreneurs as people who had a brilliant vision, and then toiled to make it real. (Think about the stories we tell about Steve Jobs.)
What's needed, however, isn't cocksuredness, but a method of self-correction.
What's needed is the scientific method.
If there are a trillion workable opportunities, the entrepreneur's job is to find one. That requires steering, and steering requires knowledge, and knowledge requires experimentation and measurement.
The Lean Startup approach is a cycle of three parts:
- You have an idea.
- You build a product.
- You measure the results.
And then you repeat — tinkering with the idea, and conducting an experiment to see what's really going on. You attempt to call into question the assumptions you've made, and discover what people really want.
Lean methodology (to repeat) is an application of the scientific method.
We can train kids in some of the deep ethos of science by having them start social entrepreneurships.