By Dr Mansi Kapoor*
Dominic Cummings, adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, recently invited applicants to apply for positions for advisors to help him with policy and governance at 10 Downing Street. He wrote a rather unconventional blog inviting people of all sorts to give it a shot.
His blog is an interesting take on skills that matter. It asks what it takes to make a difference. “What does it really take to make a difference,” the blog asks. One category of applications was for Super Talented Wierdos.
“We need some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, weirdos from William Gibson novels like that girl hired by Bigend as a brand ‘diviner’ who feels sick at the sight of Tommy Hilfiger or that Chinese-Cuban free runner from a crime family hired by the KGB. If you want to figure out what characters around Putin might do, or how international criminal gangs might exploit holes in our border security, you don’t want more Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers and spread fake news about fake news.”
According to Cummings, one of the reasons for this radical communication is to attract real diversity. He says true diversity lies in the cognitive one—- people who think differently add value. Diversity is not created by the ones who merely look “different.”
Some other interesting bits from his blog post are
- Unusual mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists, data scientists: Apart from the regular qualifications, Cummings wants applicants to have experience in languages like Python, SQL and R and familiarity with data tools like Postgres, Scikit Learn, NEO4J.
- Unusual Economists: Apart from having a recent degree the candidates are required to have a sound understanding of conventional concepts but also interest in emerging (“edge of the field”) concepts like work by physiscts on agent-based models etc. Ability to code would be an added advantage according to Cummings.
- Great Project Managers: Project Managers will be required to oversee government implementation. Improving governance requires people with tremendous project management skills according to Dominic. Managerial Competence with the right but rare talent is what Downing Street is looking for. The post also provides a reading list on great project ideas of the past like Manhattan (1940), ICBM (1950),Apollo (1960) etc.
- Junior Researchers: The profile for a junior intern was worded just for millennial freshers- smattering of inspiration, expectations and warning in a friendly way. In Cummings own words, “ Brains and temperaments smash experience and seniority. Need clever people who are curious and have capacity to work hard. “I don’t want confident public school bluffers. I want people who are much brighter than me who can work in an extreme environment. If you play office politics, you will be discovered and immediately binned.”
- Communications: “We’re particularly interested in deep experts on TV and digital. We also are interested in people who have worked in movies or on advertising campaigns. There are some very interesting possibilities in the intersection of technology and storytelling — if you’ve done something weird, this may be the place for you.”
- Policy Experts: “If you want to work in the policy unit or a department and you really know your subject so that you could confidently argue about it with world-class experts, get in touch.”
- Super Talented Wierdos: Send a max 1 page letter plus CV to…
Many insights can be drawn from Cumming’s Blog post – Unconventional but authentic communication, changing politics, coveted degrees, education system, governance. However, what intrigues me the most is the invitation to “misfits and weirdos” to join the government.
The word complexity is being thrown about everywhere by almost everyone to describe both the present and the future. It seems to be the fancy thing to do- VUCA world. But nuances about complexity need to be understood even if its bit by bit. Complexity could also suggest something being incomprehensible. If it’s incomprehensible to many, how will it be navigated or be catered to by educators, policy makers, business owners, students or writers?
Consider Co -Vid 19. The epidemic is widely thought of as being passed from animals to men. The virus attacks the respiratory system and ultimately overpowers it, leading to deaths in certain cases. We don’t know the symptoms for sure, nor the cure, so obviously nothing can be said about preventive measures as of now. But for now- what about some context?
Does the outbreak have origins in Chinese Culture? According to a New York Times Article – Why did the Coronavirus Outbreak Start in China? by Yi-Zheng Lian —- many Chinese believe that certain foods have curative benefits and the right diet rather than modern medicine can be more effective in curing certain ailments. Known in Chinese as Jinbu — a non-vegetarian version of an ayurvedic diet — rare plants and animals from the wild are considered most potent in certain cases . Hence bat soup and tiger bones find their way on the dinner table in China. This is just one of the many ‘queer” theories making the rounds. Other explanations border on conspiracy theories – the virus being a bio chemical weapon or an experiment in a Wuhan Lab gone terribly wrong. Then the Politics of the disease: the role of the Chinese Government in controlling the narrative and playing with statistics to back the claim.
And finally, for the Homo Economicus — the economics of the virus. The Guardian estimates $1.1 trillion of lost income to the Global Economy due to the epidemic. Hence, in order to tackle this “complex” problem, a team of doctors, pathologists, economists, security experts, diplomats, pharma companies, Data Scientists and maybe influencers would be required to deal with the crisis. Not to forget, the counter narrative of making a disease reviving racists sentiment against the Chinese would also play up.
We don’t know the cause, the cure, the real consequences of this Viral disease and by the time doctors and scientists stumble upon the “facts”, a new disease would rear its ugly head.
Where does old school thinking figure out here?
Ironically, while current political narratives are about taking back control, building walls, limiting immigration or focusing on hyper nationalism, the problems that confront humanity are boundless: heat Waves, rising sea levels, forest fires, toxic, hate speeches, corporate greed, diseases, illicit cash and drug money. All crisscross continents like never before. One sneeze in Wuhan can make the world shiver.
We sure need weirdos now.
Leaving British politics aside, Cummings has realized that conventional methods, strategy, thinking and education is not delivering results. The way out is emerging from the shadows.
Sadly, Universities and Colleges are no longer the idea factories any more. Path breaking ideas and innovations that matter are being shaped in “weird “places” by “misfits”.
There is no point in focusing on the political left vs right debate of the blog post. Firstly, it is well beyond the scope of this article and more importantly we could lose sight of what’s making sense.
We already have a fall guy. One of the “weirdos,” who did get the job, has already quit. The person, Andrew Sabisky, blends studies in race, gender, class, probability (probably) and is a “super forecaster”. He resigned after controversy erupted about his alleged racists views.
It’s unfortunate that we choose to be either on the Left or on the Right while mirroring exactly the same tactics and behavior.
We sure need super misfits and weirdos who can shake things up!
Professor in Pune, author of “Global Business Environment- Shifting Paradigms in the Fourth Industrial Revolution” and founder of Cult Altered — A Platform to Build Change