Jessica Jackley '00

We asked Jessica what impact studying philosophy at Bucknell has had on her life. Here's her response:

I remember vividly when Gary Steiner assigned our Philosophy of Science class Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This important work, Steiner explained, analyzed the evolution of science and scientific thought. Interesting, I remember thinking. I'd always been taught that science proved things and produced facts, and I was curious to witness this truth-producing process questioned. At the same time, scrutinizing the whole history and process of science seemed aggressive, audacious, even arrogant.

This was precisely what I loved about my philosophy classes: permission to question the unquestionable.

By the end of the book, Kuhn had left me with the following concepts:

  • Scientists don't work alone, but as part of scientific communities with sets of agreed-upon beliefs.
  • Normal science operates within these sets of beliefs, or "paradigms," and many scientists' research is "a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education," as Kuhn puts it.
  • Sometimes scientists observe things that don't fit existing paradigms (Kuhn calls these anomalies), and when enough strong anomalies build up and validate each other, a new paradigm emerges and the old paradigm bursts. These shifts are scientific revolutions, "tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science."
  • Scientific revolutions happen slowly. They also threaten the status quo. Remember Galileo, put under house arrest for claiming the Earth revolved around the sun (not the other way around)?

Since then, I have found Kuhn's ideas informing my thoughts about all sorts of things. And, I have continued to give myself that permission I learned to grant myself throughout my philosophy studies to question the unquestionable. Philosophy made me stronger, bolder, braver, more thoughtful. It laid the groundwork for me to take the most important, riskiest steps I've taken throughout my career.

Aren't we all part of communities with agreed-upon, foundational beliefs? Deep down, conscious of it or not, we think we know something about what the world is like, and we gravitate toward others who think similarly. It's easy to go about our days without stopping to question these fundamental assumptions, though they can limit what we're capable of seeing and believing is possible. So usually, we're open to interpreting the world only in ways that perpetuate what we-and our communities-already believe to be true.

Thankfully, anomalies happen. We get shaken up, surprised, or just baffled by life. We get hints that the world might be different from what we'd thought. It's easy to shun these inklings and to tell ourselves, "No, that can't be true," or "I must be crazy," or "But that's just not the way things work." Sometimes, however, the anomalies are true, and we're not crazy, and we've gotten a glimpse of something that could actually redefine the way things work. A well-timed, powerful new insight has the potential to shape an entirely new paradigm around it-shifting the scope of possibility in the world!

When I became an MBA student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Kuhn's ideas melded with my studies of innovative organizations and how these organizations create new products, new markets, and in a way, entirely new paradigms. Many begin with a bold, fresh insight about how things could be better-a kind of prescriptive anomaly. They then build themselves around this vision. Sitting in a strategy course one day, I realized that this was happening right before my eyes with Kiva, my start-up that was then only a year old: we (my cofounder and I) believed we had seen a huge new opportunity in the enormous untapped potential of entrepreneurs' stories to form connections and inspire action. It was this kind of angle, a story based on hope and hard work and entrepreneurship, not the sad stories of poverty that dominated most philanthropic messaging, that we believed would inspire people to step up and participate in a new way. And we believed the call to action shouldn't be another donation, but a loan. We then used technology and the existing microfinance infrastructure to build the company around these insights -- anomalous ideas in the social sector at the time. Others had scoffed at our idea, saying that people didn't want to hear about the details of some goat herder's business, and that a person-to-person microlending site was silly, inefficient, and wouldn't scale, among a whole host of other criticisms... But we stuck to it. We believed things were about to shift. The old paradigm was on shaky ground, and while we didn't know for sure what the new one completely looked like, we believed a p2p microlending site, was a correct and true piece of it. And we were right. (Kiva turned out to be the first site of its kind and a pioneer in the "crowdfunding" space -- but that was language that would come later!)

Want to start your own revolution? Remember Kuhn. Be aware of your most basic assumptions, and be ready to question them. Keep your eyes open. You might see something new and true. Trust yourself when you do. Follow the insight. It just may be the first step to changing the world.

(Footnote: parts of this piece are from an article I wrote in 2009 for the Stanford Social Innovation Review)

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