Expertise, restlessness and irrationality

The d.school fellows gather in Huddle Room 1 at the d.school. (Emi Kolawole) Over several days last weekend, I met hundreds of fascinating people individually and all at once. Many of them generously asked what I do and patiently listened to my stories. I say generously and patiently because I rarely have a short answer for anything. I'm a Southern-raised rambler with a tendency to over-explain who meanders to run-on discoveries. But I also want to be understood.

So I'd like to write here, as clearly as a nuanced description can be, what I look for in potential d.school fellows. We have a collaborative selection process, which means these are personal thoughts, not a magic key. That said, we've learned a lot in two years about the type of people we can help and who contribute naturally to our students and the broader Stanford community.

If you've been by The Accelerators blog at The Wall Street Journal this week, you might have seen an article I wrote about how to enable a startup culture in an established organization. Here's what I mean by "expertise, restlessness and irrationality." Stay with me.

1. Expertise. This is about more than academic credentials and achievements at great organizations. I look for people who've made bold moves toward extreme personal growth. Melissa Kline Lee worked in the burn intensive care unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Kim Jacobson was a schoolteacher in Compton the year of the Rodney King riots. Melissa Pelochino taught complex literary interpretation to kids reading far below grade level — and saw their abilities jump in only six months. Experts are not just well-trained and great at what they do, they push their own limits to impact those around them.

2. Restlessness. The ancient Greek poet Archilochus wrote: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." I always wanted to be a hedgehog, an incredible talent so amazing at my work that I set the pace in my field and inspired beyond it (think Michael Jordan). But I'm a connector, I lack extreme discipline, and I've never been the best at any one thing.

It took a long time to realize that restlessness is a gift, and it gives back if applied positively and in the right environment. Guido Kovalskys has founded four companies in 15 years, and had not worked in education until launching a platform that, to date, has more than 200,000 registered teachers. Anne Gibbon was an Olympics-quality rower, taught leadership at the Naval Academy, spent three years aboard a warship as a rare female officer and then worked with the Navy Seals.

Margaret Hagan earned a Ph.D in Politics and International Studies, overcame cancer, went to Stanford Law School, got an offer at a major firm and decided this year to pursue her fellowship project creating the field of legal design. Guido, Anne and Margaret have had multiple opportunities for long-term careers — but instead have been blessed restless.

3. Irrationality. This starts with a firm faith in your own self-efficacy, even when the impact you want to make seems crazy to others — until you do it. Matt Haney ran for the San Francisco school board though he's much younger than his elected colleagues, doesn't have kids and the position doesn't pay (he had a full-time job before the fellowship). Caitria O'Neill studied Soviet Russia at Harvard, then launched a disaster relief company at age 22. Fred Leichter has long been a leader at an established organization, but instead of stopping where he's in charge, keeps creating scrappy new roles for himself through his push for social change.

That push, in many ways, is what this fellowship is about. Now, please tell us your stories. We want to know.

Update, April 15, 2014: Applications for the 2014-2015 d.school fellowship program are now open. Learn more about them here.