Real Work

In college I took one philosophy class… and failed. I failed because I didn’t turn in a paper worth a quarter of my grade. I didn’t turn it in because I didn’t feel it would make a real contribution to philosophy. Philosophy already seemed so muddled, I didn’t want to add to the clutter.

Of course no one had asked me to make a real contribution to anything. All my teacher wanted, I later understood, was for me to prattle on for ten pages using philosophical jargon with academic style.

I had a hard time understanding that my paper wasn’t supposed to be useful to anyone. Philosophy means the love of wisdom. The world didn’t seem an especially wise place to me. Surely we had work to do.

Despite that disappointing experience, I couldn’t shake the desire to be useful. Just about every week I was coming up with a new idea for a product or service that seemed missing from society.

But I didn’t know what to do with these ambitions. There wasn’t much of an entrepreneurial culture in the year 2002 where I lived. I didn’t know anyone who had started a company.

At the huge technology company, where I was an intern, none of my coworkers talked about starting companies. They were just glad to have jobs, they said.

Then I found out that my university had a department that patented things. Great! I had several inventions that were patentable. So I set up a meeting.

The meeting went well, at first. They listened intently as I described my inventions and argued their novelty and un-obviousness. We agreed on a more rigorous prior-art search as the next step, discussed the overall timeframe, and discussed the royalties and revenue split with the university. Then they asked me one final question: who was supervising my research?

I didn’t understand the question. Why did they think there was someone else involved? I hadn’t mentioned anyone. My bewilderment soon led them to a revelation: I was still an undergrad! Then they began to laugh. Suddenly the meeting was a joke.

Seeing that I wasn’t getting the joke they tried to regain their composure and explain: they only dealt with grad students. You had to be a grad student and you had to be doing research under a professor. They couldn’t stop grinning at me, a cute kid pretending to be all grown up. How adorable! I left in embarrassment.

I stopped thinking about patents and began wondering about starting a company. Could I do that? Did I need to finish school first? Did I need an MBA?

I had heard of an eminent professor on campus who was considered knowledgeable about business and technology. Surely he could offer some guidance.

The day of the meeting I called to confirm with the professor’s secretary.
“Oh,” she said, sounding annoyed upon realizing who she had on the phone. “Why is it you want to see him again?”
I was a student in computer science, I explained, but I had all sorts of ideas for businesses I couldn’t get out of my head.

“And you’re an undergrad?” she asked dubiously.

The professor was busy, she said, and couldn’t meet with me. I suggested we reschedule. We couldn’t, she said.

These stories illustrate my dissatisfaction with much of my school experience. And since then, I’ve distilled that dissatisfaction into one concise complaint: there wasn’t any real work to do. There was classwork. There was homework. But no realwork.

Real work wasn’t expected, as in the case of my philosophy class. Real work was even discouraged, as in the other examples. In general, the culture that pervaded college found my interest in real work disrespectfully audacious. How dare I be capable of real work before finishing my degree?

There were a few professors who were exceptional, of course, but far and few between. They seemed to exist despite, not because of, the university culture. They often had to bend or break the rules just so I could work at my capacity.

There are signs that things are changing, or at least that schools want them to. Indeed, schools now have the hots for “innovation.” Beyond being trendy and newsworthy, innovation is fast becoming our highest virtue. “How can we encourage innovation?” they ask enthusiastically.

Here’s how:

Innovation means doing work that is un-common, un-obvious, useful and new. And the way to get good at that, is to first do work that is real.

Otherwise, if we ask students who have spent their entire lives heretofore doing nothing but simulated work-exercises to suddenly “be innovative,” we can expect lackluster results.

If schools really want to encourage innovation, the question they should be asking is how to replace practice-work, course-work, test-work and the rest of the quasi-work… with real work, long before students graduate.