As Stephan and I sit during a meal at a local restaurant talking about an array of topics we narrow in on creativity. Stephan grew increasingly contemplative, his brow furrowing:
“To understand creativity, we have to look at children. Because young children are inherently curious and playful. They’re constantly looking at things, touching things, tasting things, because that’s their way of exploring the world. It’s that sense of curiosity and wonderment, the ability to be in awe of the world around you, that is the foundation of our ability to be creative.
And when you think about great inventions, curiosity has always been a driving force. Curiosity, wonder, innovation, they’re all so tightly interconnected — they’re all part of the same thing. But the greatest tragedy about all this is that we don’t nurture that creative urge. We put you in kindergarten and we tell you to do well, then grade school, high school, college, get a good degree, get a good job, climb up the ranks and become CEO. That’s the basic shape, and that’s the dream everyone is chasing.”
My response to that was written on my face, but he continued, pre-empting my objection.
“But as I’m sure you’re aware, that kind of traditionalist approach that worked for my generation doesn’t work as well in 2017. And when you tell children no too many times, no you can’t go there, no you can’t try that, no it’s because I said so, you blunt that inquisitive impulse. That’s how you get people who, 15 or 20 years later, who struggle with creativity.
Because when you force people into these cookie-cutter models and say: No, no, no, this is what we expect of you. This is what we want you to do, you’ve got to get your As and we won’t accept anything less. The people I meet at conventions, my students, they all say the same thing: that they don’t want to work for just a paycheck. They want to make a difference, they want to use their talents to make a positive change. And the new workplace wants to give them that opportunity, it demands high-performance, high-innovation culture, but the education isn’t in alignment, it isn’t helping them.”
I struggled, gears turning. “So, if you’re saying that education trains us for the wrong job, what do we do about it? Are we supposed to.. un-educate people?”
“‘Un-educate’ is the wrong term, but a big part is to redefine what education is, what the effects of education are, and really look at what tools they are (or aren’t) giving people that they can apply in their lives.
It’s got to be about finding individual talents, and helping to develop the skills needed to maximize their potential. The goal should be competency: intelligent people with clearly developed skills resting on a foundation of specific knowledge.
But this is not a one-track goal, different skills and competencies are needed, and all of the pieces work together for the individual to excel in their respective job or field. You don’t want cookie cutter employees even if you could get them, because they wouldn’t have the kind of cross-skill synergies that provide fuel for creativity and innovation.
But this is not obvious to many people, and it’s sometimes very difficult to see useful connections between disparate skills, both from a managerial standpoint and from an individual one. So, it’s a hard question to answer. Eventually it comes down to understanding individuals and their drives, and before that, it comes down to understanding yourself. Being able to know what drives you, what resonates with you, what inspires you… it’s tough, and there’s no easy answers.”
“Self-awareness is the project of a lifetime, not a weekend,” I mused.
“Exactly. And there’s no recipe, no standardized answer that says ‘here’s how you do it’, it’s about starting the journey, being mindful, and being open to what comes at you. Because the fact is that life happens all around you, and if you’re focused on that one thing you’ve been told you’re supposed to focus on, you’ll miss all the other opportunities out there. Life’s not a straight line, you’ve got to let it happen.”
His phone buzzed, his two o’clock call happening right on schedule. He made his polite goodbye and stepped away, leaving me alone with my thoughts.