The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

Miller, Matt. (2009). The Tyranny of Dead Ideas. New York: Times Books

Thinking about the challenges of today, and the future that lies ahead, I remembered reading this book by Matt Miller.  I took the book off my shelf and reread it.  What follows are some of the ideas that may be useful for us as we move forward while dealing with COVID, the economy, VUCA, and the fears about our future world.

To quote Marshall Goldsmith, the title of his best-selling book, “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There.” This is true for some of the strategies and actions that have been successful in the past but may not work in the future.  The key is what do we keep doing and what will require change as business and educational landscapes change.

My definition of a dead idea:  Something I believe or do that no longer is getting the best result for me and others.  In forty years of teaching and leading schools I have learned the following over and over again.  IF IT ISN’T WORKING, TRY SOMETHING ELSE.

Some new realities we will have to deal with:

  • COVID will continue to impact our life and workplaces until vaccines and personal health procedures are in place.
  • Health care costs are rising and probably will continue to be higher based on the current risks.  Organizations don’t want government to be involved.  At the same time organizations do not want to bear with the costs associated with health care. Who is going to deal with healthcare costs?
  • Politicians and business say we need a better educational system but tend to ignore what other countries have done to improve their systems. Other countries have learned from us in the past.  Now, let’s learn from them. I suggest books like Surpassing Shanghai, Clever Lands,  Most Likely to Succeed, and the work of Andy Hargreaves. Everyone [seems] to agree that education is the key to improving future living standards in a fiercely competitive global economy.
  • In 2008 not a single major party questioned our shockingly inequitable system of school finance.  How are 10 million poor American children supposed to compete? How long will we tolerate disinterested and disengaged young people?  What will be the social costs of ignoring this issue?
  • Most of the business literature I read identifies the best companies are focusing on collaboration, creativity, and change.  My view is that we are still focusing on content acquisition.  Yes, we need assessments to find out levels of learning.  We also need a repertoire of ways to teach and engage learners.  (Learners include teachers, leaders, and businesses).

Intellectual Inertia – (I like this term) People grow comfortable with settled ideas about the way the world works.  It takes an extraordinary shock to expose the conventional wisdom as obsolete. This has happened:

  • 30s – Great Depression
  • 60s – Civil Rights Movement
  • 70s – Savings & Loan Crisis
  • 80s – oil crisis
  • 90s – testing
  • 00s – local v. national control
  • 10s- innovators v. status quo
  • 20s – put on your seatbelt, it is going to be one heck of a ride

Ernest Hemingway said, “Never mistake motion for action.” The point of this book is that some of our current policies, procedures, and thinking are not getting the results we originally intended.  People are running around keeping busy with little change in results.  Charles Payne (2008) wrote a book titled, So Much Reform So Little Change. I think he is correct.  I call this the ‘reverse butterfly effect.’

Some of our ideas are dead or insufficient.  I’ve seen the following quote attributed to Einstein, Henry Ford, and Moms Mabley, (paraphrase) ‘if you always do what you did, you always get what you got.’ So, what are we going to do in order to get different results?

Present Shock via four forces that are set to accelerate the next decade:

  1. White Collar Anxiety – jobs higher up the income scale (engineers, doctors, lawyers, consultants) will for the first time be [more] exposed to competition from places like China and India.  How will business and politics be reshaped by “downward mobility” for the better educated?
  2. The Rush for the Exits – is corporate America’s desire to stop providing health care and pensions to its employees [end]. (Bill) From my experience when money is tight, the answer is to cut costs.  That means people, supplies, and fixed costs.  This quick action usually eliminates R & D, creativity, and increases a scarcity mentality. Another possibility is creativity, attraction of intellectual capital, and relevance to people’s real world might produce desired results.
  3. The Gray Boomer Fiscal Squeeze – aging members of the baby boom generation will send government’s health and pension costs through the roof. Will [government] simply abandon these vital functions?
  4. Extreme Inequality – the top wealth and income [gap] is pulling away at levels never before seen. It is clear that many of the winners are reaping the rewards not of the “free market,” but of manipulated pay schemes that are as likely to reward failure as success.  Bankers who pocketed millions peddling subprime mortgages retire to their country clubs while the rest of us are left holding the bag. At what point does backlash discredits [uncontrolled] capitalism?

Here are six dead ideas in the book:

  • our kids earning power (probably will be less, there is no guarantee that college degree is required)
  • free trade (how do we do free trade and protect the U.S.)
  • are organizations responsible to take care of you (probably not)
  • more taxes hurt the economy (not necessarily)
  • education is a local matter (rethinking school board and national needs)
  • money follows merit (the question will be what can you do not what degree do you have)

Dead Ideas involves a failure to adapt to new circumstances, a recurring feature of human thought and behavior.  Question: “Are old ways of thinking preventing America from adapting to the challenges now posed by globalization?” Question for educators:  “what do we currently do that is preparing our kids for an unknown future?  What do we need to do differently to help prepare students for a life of ongoing learning?  Tell me what the basics are of 2030 and I am your guy.

African Proverb:  Not learning is bad, not wanting to learn is worse. I highly recommend Jon Saphier’s work on High Expectations Teaching – 50 ways to prove to students they are smart.

You can’t develop a strategy for a country or a company if you’re blinded by preconceptions that no longer reflect the real world.

Three steps to dealing with dead ideas.

  1. Identify the dead ideas that matter – middle of the 19th century we had an economy based on whites owning black human beings. In the 20s, women couldn’t vote. 1913 stability requires a Central Monetary Authority.  Today, the UN Security Council has the same members it had in 1945.  Japan will never be able to compete with American car manufacturers.  So much for that belief.
  2. Understand each dead idea’s “Story” – must understand the source of its power in order to change it.  What has changed now that makes it useless or wrong or harmful?  Who has a stake in its persistence? The answer includes understanding how we got here, what has changed, and how will we address the future needs.
  3. Reach for New (and paradoxical) ways of thinking – Ideas that appear counterintuitive speaks to how skewed our vision has become.  Destined Ideas are paradoxes.  Embracing paradoxes has the power to stretch our minds. How do we include creative thinkers?  What are we reading and learning from outside sources that will help us with our internal issues?  Who are the ‘learning omnivores’ in your organization?  Are they treated with respect and their thoughts are considered?

Workers now change jobs many times in the course of a career; tens of millions are permanent “free agents,” unattached to traditional jobs that bring benefits.  “Job Lock” is the phenomenon through which people stay in jobs they’d rather leave because they can’t afford to lose their health coverage. America spends 16% of GDP on health care.  2015 it is expected to be 20%. Other advanced nations are at 11%. This going to require students, future employees, to have more creativity and flexibility than ever before.

Charles Kolb: “Business needs to wake up and rethink this if we’re going to compete in a global economy and do right by ordinary Americans.” Look for more on this subject with a book summary of “AND” by Barry Johnson and the work of Polarity Partnerships.  See

The “haves” the top 5% of the population control 50% plus of the nation’s wealth but wield only 5% of its votes.  The “haves” hire skilled propagandists to persuade the public that taxes of any kind are destructive. Taxes are going up no matter who is in power.

Robert Nardelli walked away from Home Depot with at least $250 million after a five-year stint, which the stock value remained flat.  Hank McKinnell left Pfizer with nearly $200 million after a reduction of $130 million losses on his watch.  Gerald Levin earned $600 million despite the failed Time Warner-AOL merger, which led to stock to drop from $58 to $9 a share costing shareholders $100 billion.

I get confused about education.  We want local control of education via school boards and are held accountable for comparisons with other nations.  It is time to rethink how we will be competitive globally AND create learning opportunities for our kids in our communities. What worked in the past might not be the best way forward.

Local Control, unlike the approach that most wealthy nations take for granted, pervades U.S. schooling to this day. People rail against those in Washington DC who come out a meddle with what communities and parents know best. For 150 years we extended more schooling to more people than any nation had before and rose to superpower status.

The U.S. spends more than nearly very other wealthy nation on schools, yet out of 29 developed countries in a 2003 assessment, America ranked 24th in math, 24th in problem solving, 18th in science and 15th in reading.  For more educational statistics and the other five Dead Ideas, read the book.

NCLB has sparked a race to dumb down requirements to create the illusion of progress. The result is a phony accountability regime built on quicksand.  Mississippi says 89% of its 4th grade students are “proficient” in reading, while the NAEP says the level is 18%. There is no R & D. There are 15000 curriculum departments in the country.

TOMORROW’S DESTINED IDEAS – Dead Ideas give way under the pressure of events. Our task is to get ready for the world that is being born.

  • Only government can save business
  • Only business can save liberalism
  • Only higher taxes can save the economy (and the planet)
  • Only the (lower) [and]  upper class can save us from inequality
  • Only better living can save sagging paychecks
  • Only a dose of “nationalization” can save local schools
  • Only lessons from abroad can save American ideals

One thing is for sure, “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”  Investment in teacher and leadership development in schools is essential to deal with today’s issues, not a world that formerly existed.

Here are a few closing comments from the book.  Candid self-Scrutiny muscle is underdeveloped. The new mantra must be that in an era of accelerating change, everyone is at risk of clinging to Dead Ideas that don’t reflect new realities. Intellectual inertia is now a permanent occupational hazard. Being a physics major, inertia says a body will remain at rest unless a force is applied to that body. So, what perturbs the system to make the body (and the mind) move and adjust?

A Mind is a Terrible Thing To Close.  Organizations have a hard re-examining their assumptions because of the three Ps:

  1. Psychology – there is a status quo bias. 
  2. Politics – Internal politics (internal conflict can derail any system wasting energy)
  3. Pay – Corporate compensation schemes often give top executives huge personal incentives to turn a blind eye to the Dead Ideas in their midst. 

Empower Licensed Heretics. Court Jesters were known and valued by the kind for their ability to speak truth to power. There is a creative space needed in an organization to make this role flourish. 

Superintendents need a critical friend. There are no dumb questions. Bottom Line: there are many ways to skin a cat. What’s important is to recognize the need to have this licensed heretic function and to find a viable way of stitching it into the organization [to benefit organizational thinking].

Dead Ideas Assessment

  1. Why do we think we are still valid or will be in a couple of years?
  2. What forces may render them obsolete?
  3. What opportunities are we missing because of our current (but dated) convictions?
  4. What might we do differently if we knew their days were numbered?

The first step to the cure is admitting that we need help.  You may be interested in Matt Miller’s 2015 book, Chess Not Checkers.

Italicized parts are either book titles or direct quotes from the book.



Crehan, Lucy. (2016). Clever Lands.  London: Unbound

Goldsmith, M. (2007). What got you here won’t get you there.  New York: Hyperion

Hargreaves, Andy & O’Connor, Michael. (2018). Collaborative Professionalism.

Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press

Miller, Mark (2015). Chess Not Checkers.  Oakland:  Berrett-Koehler

Payne, Charles. (2008). So much reform so little change.  Cambridge: Harvard Education Press

Saphier, Jon. (2017). High Expectations Teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press

Tucker, M. (ed). (2012). Surpassing Shanghai. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education


Wagner, T. (2008). The Global achievement gap.  New York: Basic Books  

Wagner, Tony & Dintersmith, Ted. (2015). Most Likely to Succeed.

New York: Scribner