I attended an interesting session this morning that showcased a futurist named Edie Wiener. Edie always has interesting things to say but I found myself disagreeing strongly with one of her main points this morning. She talked of "Educated Incapacity," which she explained is the challenge that accompanies expertise. As she explains it, every person who has been educated and built up experience in a particular specialty often ends up enslaved by thinking that becomes increasingly narrowed with age and practice. That education, that experience, that perspective honed over time can become baggage that makes it difficult for us to be swift to innovate, to remain open to new ideas. And often, Edie says, the people with such baggage are left standing with it while someone else (invariably much younger) sweeps past carrying only a little backpack of experience, just enough to get the job done and sufficiently unencumbered to be able to carry their new vision into the future.
So far I agreed, although I had some misgivings. But it was when Edie said, for emphasis, "Never ask a lawyer what the future of the legal profession will be; never ask an accountant what the future of accounting will look like" and so on, following with several other examples to back up her claim that the people often recognized as the experts in a field are superceded by those with less experience, but more vision.
As I look at people around me nodding their heads in agreement, I found myself resisting. "Wait a minute," my mind said. "What about people like Russell Baker?"
Russell Baker was born in 1901 in Wisconsin and after overcoming poverty and other struggles managed to get a law degree and soon thereafter founded a firm. In 1948 he formed a partnership with John McKenzie in order to follow his dream of creating an international law firm, something unheard of at the time. People scoffed at the concept, but Baker had a vision. I remember when I practiced law at one of the big fancy-pants firms in San Francisco, lawyers in the high-end law firms considered Baker & McKenzie as practicing in a different--less distinguished--league. Baker & McKenzie is now the world's largest law firm and it has flourished, while some of the most revered traditional firms have fallen by the wayside, the most recent example of which is Dewey Ballantine.
There are similar examples in the medical profession, in education, in the judiciary. Although rare, some people not only become the learned ones in their own profession, they also never stop asking the important questions about how things could be improved, even reinvented. Perhaps they are the ones to watch since the combination of their experience and vision can be the winning combination that can take an entire profession into the future.