Marty Nemko is a weekly contributor to both and, and wrote the Working It Out column for The Atlantic and the Big Idea feature for The Washington Post.  He also has his own radio show for NPR in San Francisco where he lives with his wife Barbara and dog Einstein.  He has been named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and earned his doctorate from UC Berkeley.  His first job was as a professional pianist, and avocationally he is a playwright, actor, and director.

I met Marty at the most recent meeting of the International Society for Intelligence Research where researchers who specialize in human intelligence gather once per year to share their latest findings.  Although his specialty is career counseling, Marty was at the conference due to his personal interest in the topic of intelligence, which makes sense, considering that in the 1st grade he was already reading at the 12th grade level.

I had the opportunity to read his most recent book What’s The Big Idea?: 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America and asked him some questions about his ideas regarding how to reinvent America.

JON: It makes sense that most academics have never spent much time in the real world, but you mention that “most journalists and their editors have spent little time in the real world.”  If journalists are so far removed from the real world, what does this imply about academics who are so far removed from the journalistic world?

MARTY: Both journalists and academics inhabit the same ivory tower, the same bubble outside the real world.  Journalists disproportionately enter the field to change the world in the direction their social science and humanities professors advocate, which is overwhelmingly liberal.  Right-of-center thought is presented in most university courses as straw men to be eviscerated by the "kind" policies of the left.  The large majority of journalists and professors have never spent much time in the real world: working for a corporation, running a small business, working in government, working with the poor they so readily believe they have solutions for.

You note that “Policies are adopted only after being embraced by a diverse array of experts, the public, legislators, and political leaders…While that approach ensures broad buy-in, it tends to create tepid…policy—that on which nearly everyone can agree, a lowest common denominator.”  How do you think policies should be created?

I'm not convinced that a less inclusive model would, net, be better.  Government does get to hear lots of bold ideas but those ideas can't make it through the sausage grinder without being made less efficacious in the service of being more palatable.  I used that term, "lowest-common-denominator" policy merely as a rationale for why I was writing the book - I can be bolder than a government can.  But just because my ideas are bolder, doesn't mean I'm so sure I'm right as to justify my arguing that, for example, some star chamber of geniuses should make policy.  That could bring bigger problems than it would solve.

You say: “The most important thing schools and colleges should teach is how to think rationally: cost/benefit, risk/reward, opportunity costs.  But we’re too busy teaching the periodic table of elements, the causes of the War of 1812, the intricacies of Shakespeare, and how to solve quadratic equations.”  Why do you think schools should teach rational thinking?  And how do you think such a curriculum might be implemented?

One key component would be carefully judged debates. Debate maximizes the amount of time students spend reasoning and with lots of in-the-moment feedback from the opposing debaters and the teachers. I believe that - to the extent that reasoning can be taught, that would be the most potent vehicle.  Not only does that maximize time on reasoning tasks, the competition of debates are fun and motivating.  To maximize time-on-task, many lessons would contain a debate component in which every kid in the class is paired with a similar-ability-level kid.  The way it would work is for the first few minutes, Kid 1 would make the pro argument and Kid 2 the con, and a bit of response and rejoinder. Then, they'd switch sides.  Each pair would be observed by a judge (one of the smarter kids) - who'd give feedback on the quality of the reasoning. Of course, the teacher would provide input, both by going around the room, giving feedback on the fly, and, after the class debated, demonstrating best arguments for the pro and con position.

You discuss what you call a “Contribution-Points-based economy” where instead of cash people would be “competing for how much societal contribution they’ve made.”  How do you think an economy using contribution points might work?

As I wrote, it would be a crowd-rated website, a la Amazon reader reviews. There are many problems with it but the perfect is the enemy of the good. I think it's an interesting thing to pilot - for example, in a school.  The status quo - in which money is the index of success - cries out for an alternative or at least a supplement.

You mention that “the extent to which you have left the world better is…the most valid criterion for assessing whether you’ve lived a worthwhile life.”  To help people move towards this goal you propose what you call “The Meter” which you think is something people should use every time they are deciding what to do with their time.  Could you talk more about this?

It's simple.  Every act could be validly-enough self-rated on a scale from -10 (Selling crack to kids) to 0 (watching a sitcom on TV) to +10: (doing research to develop a vaccine against cancer.) If every time (or even more often) we contemplated what task to do we rated the options on The Meter, more of us would live a better-led life. Of course, sometimes we'd choose a non-beneficial action - like watching something dopey on TV - but consciously weighing the net impact of each of our actions on the world, would result in a more meaningfully led life.

Today a popular mantra is to “Follow your passion.”  You note that the “Fact is, if you do what you love, you well may starve.”  As a well-established career coach you mention two important lessons: that “status is the enemy of success” and “Don’t innovate. Replicate.”  Could you explain more about these two lessons and why they are important for people to understand?

First regarding the passion thing - Sure, if you're super talented or well-connected (ideally both) the risk-reward ratio of pursuing a commonly held passion (e.g., performing, saving the environment, etc.) is good.  But if you're not, you're likely to fail or if hired, be paid poorly if at all. Nonstars are more likely to end up feeling passionate about their work by choosing a less competitive arena and therein taking the time - with relentless focus - to become a go-to-guy/girl in something in-demand.  Feeling competent, getting praised and well-employed for your expertise ends up being more key to passion than being in a so-called "cool career."

Regarding "status is the enemy of success." It's obvious that it's harder to succeed in a high-status field than a low-status one: to be a successful professor than a successful espresso-cart owner.  A person who runs a small chain of carts (staffed by others) will likely feel better about his life than if s/he tried to be a professor - unless he was a star and truly likely to get hired, promoted, etc. as a professor - assuming you'd get hired as more than a starving gypsy professor.

Finally, re "Don't innovate, replicate." I'm talking here about starting a business. Sure, it feels creative to innovate but guinea pigs usually die, the leading edge is often the bleeding edge. Probabilistically, it's wise to take a proven business idea and simply open up shop in a different (terrific) location or do a minor tweak of some existing idea. There's sufficient opportunity for creativity in replicating and/or tweaking a proven business concept.

© 2013 by Jonathan Wai

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