Knowledge work and the hacker mentality

Are you a hacker? I am. And I’d be willing to bet that quite a few of you reading this are, as well. In fact, I think being a hacker is one of the skills/mindsets that is essential for a competent and successful knowledge worker today.

Of course, I’m referring to a hacker in the “old school” sense, as described by Bruce Schneier:

A hacker is someone who thinks outside the box. It’s someone who discards conventional wisdom, and does something else instead. It’s someone who looks at the edge and wonders what’s beyond. It’s someone who sees a set of rules and wonders what happens if you don’t follow them. A hacker is someone who experiments with the limitations of systems for intellectual curiosity.

Hackers are as old as curiosity, although the term itself is modern. Galileo was a hacker. Mme. Curie was one, too. Aristotle wasn’t. (Aristotle had some theoretical proof that women had fewer teeth than men. A hacker would have simply counted his wife’s teeth. A good hacker would have counted his wife’s teeth without her knowing about it, while she was asleep. A good bad hacker might remove some of them, just to prove a point.)

Richard Feynman was a hacker; read any of his books.

It is in this vein that I claim to be a hacker, and that I claim that a hacker mindset is an important one for a successful knowledge worker. Tom Davenport notes the following about knowledge workers:

Knowledge workers have high degrees of expertise, education, or experience, and the primary purpose of their jobs involves the creation, distribution, orapplication of knowledge.

[High-performers] engage in certain activities that keep them on the cutting edge of their own expertise and help them develop new capabilities as appropriate.

Many high-performers attributed problem-solving abilities to the acquisition of a broad base of knowledge. Knowing how one’s work impacts another department or function,seeing opportunities to collaborate or help solve a problem in another part of the organization, or understanding how two seemingly different kinds of expertise fit together were typical traits of high performers.

Sounds like a hacker to me. So I’ll ask again: Are you a hacker?