Technological innovation didn't begin in the Silicon Valley, and the people responsible for many of the creations and processes we take for granted never went to college. Some barely made it through high school, either due to extreme poverty or what would today be diagnosed as ADHD. However, those people most renowned as innovators were lifelong learners, both in terms of technology and market demands. The most innovative people in history were avid learners. They absorbed information that they incorporated into their innovations from several sources: the library, which offered an untrammeled learning experience unlike that obtained in a classroom; from working at odd jobs; and through association with others who had specialized expertise.
Both Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison were library junkies. Carnegie had access to Colonel James Scott's private library when he worked as a bobbin-boy in a textile factory. His inquisitiveness led him to read about and learn American history and the ideals of freedom and democracy expressed by the Founding Fathers. He internalized the American ideal of individual liberty and the Jeffersonian ideal of every person being a free agent in a free market and these two concepts ignited his empire-building dreams. Edison was forced to learn independently; as a youngster, he was thrown out of public school by a teacher who labeled him "addle-brained" - a perjorative term that today would translate to "learning disabled" - because of his overwhelming inquisitiveness and imagination. His mother first hired a private tutor, but when Edison's reach exceeded the tutor's abilities, he chose the path of independent learning. Many innovative people feel restricted in a formal educational setting; with the availability of not just books but digital information today, there exists ample opportunity for any person to access information about nearly every subject.
Innovators also learned from other people who were more experienced in their fields. Henry Ford was determined to learn more about mechanics, physics and the basics of engineering, so he apprenticed himself to the Michigan Car Company, a firm that assembled railroad cars. When he wanted to learn about electricity, he did the same thing with the Detroit-area Edison Electrical Works. During his tenure, he met and made friends with Thomas Edison, who remained a friend throughout his life. Andrew Carnegie learned the basics of business from Thomas Scott, division manager for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Mentorships, apprenticeships and networking in general are still valid means by which to learn new skills, processes and gain new ideas. "Master Mind" groups were used by the business titans of the Industrial Age and championed by Napoleon Hill as a way for every member to increase his or her knowledge, abilities and eventually, net worth.
The idea that learning stops with a high school or college degree is one that promises a life of mediocrity. Today's technology and global marketplace demand that everyone involved in commerce - whether as an employee or an owner - stay engaged in learning what works, what fails and what an ever-changing marketplace demands. Questions often open the door to new opportunities, and for the innovators of our generation, to the creation of new industries that meet the needs of the market.
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