As a society we think of success in terms of trophies and ribbons, high test grades, and acceptances to remarkable universities. It is also narrowly defined — do well in school, go on to a great university, graduate, matriculate into graduate school, graduate, get a great job, and somehow everything will fall into place. It’s not that simple anymore.
It has come to a point where people find it dangerous to stray from the path. We treat the word ‘fail’ as a four-letter word. As one blogger put it, “Okay, well, fail does have four letters. But you know what? It’s not an obscene word.” It’s another step in the iteration process. If you’ve never failed, you’ve never lived.
We must uphold the remark made by John Dewey, America’s original philosopher of education: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” What if school weren’t school anymore? What if school became an arena to blend communities and the world? What if school created the citizen ideal? That’s what we must work to.
Here’s a radical thought: Let’s make ‘F’ the new ‘A.’ Failure early, fail often. For instance, Thomas Edison performed 9,000 experiments before coming up with a successful version of the light bulb. From cardboard and duct tape to ABS polycarbonate, 15 years and 5,127 prototypes later, Sir James Dyson created his successful bagless vacuum cleaner. An article on business and failure in the Economist describes an entrepreneur’s J-curve of returns: the failures come early and often and the successes take time.
Schools, on the other hand, paint failure in a terrible light. The poster ‘Failure is Not An Option’ is plastered on walls of brick and mortar classrooms far and wide. Kids crack under the pressure to be perfect all the time. Get that ‘A’ in science class or else you won’t be successful in life. It is simply ludicrous.
We are creating grade-obsessed students to “do school” — memorize enough information to perform well on a test, regurgitate, and then forget.
I see too many kids sucked into this race to nowhere. Gerald Celente, editor of the Trends Journal, said it best in the documentary the College Conspiracy: “You have to have a certain kind of brain to understand the dead language that they write in textbooks. But they brainwash you from a little kid up so that you’ll buy into the system. You get good grades and you study hard and you become a member of the system. No freedom. You don’t know how to think, because they told you how to think their way.” We shelter kids from the real world. After post-secondary education, we say ‘Go survive on your own!’ Most kids drown.
Some people don’t see that they have options beyond what society tells them to do. That’s one of the biggest headaches in this world. Compliance is the shortcut to success.
In the classic scene from the famous movie The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin, a newly minted BA, receives some unsolicited career advice from a family friend at a graduation party around the family pool. “I want to say one word to you. Just one word…. Are you listening?” the family friend asks. Benjamin nods yes. “Plastics.”
If we had to boil down to just one word the career and success advice we give our own young people, that word, says Michael Ellsberg, might be “education.”
Or in another twist: “Do well in school. Don’t break any rules. And all will be well.”
This advice, however, seems to have become antiquated.
The problem is that a majority of the millennials are too conformist when living in such a chaotic time where almost every facet of our society is being disrupted by innovation.
As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues in his manifesto The World is Flat, the “flat world” has allowed more people to plug and play, compete, connect, and share knowledge and work more cheaply and powerfully than anything we have ever seen in the history of the world. The long term health of our country depends on innovation — to imagine and reinvent products, services, and industries. That’s the drug America runs on.
Our education system is in need of a radical jailbreak — questioning every assumption on which our schools are based. As Cathy Davidson suggests, we must jettison the old dogma and “stop comparing the future only with the past.” We are at the perfect moment to begin reinventing our institutions. Now is the time to scrap the nostalgia of industrialism from the SAT to grades to standardized testing. We are robbing our kids of the future.
The bottom line is that in school, students are trained to dream small dreams. Dreamers in school are dangerous. Dreamers can be impatient and unwilling to fit in. Dreamers are the “round pegs in the square holes,” as Apple’s “Think Different” ad campaign captured — “The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.”
They look at the status quo and say: “I will not stand for this. Let’s do something about it.” Instead of following all the little rules, be something that author Seth Godin calls a “sleepwalker.” Every once in a while, Godin says, someone stands up and says “Not me.”
So what should we do? First we must redefine the way we do schooling. We can’t penalize failure. Without trial and error, there is no innovation. Without innovation, there is no future.
Second, parents, especially immigrant parents, must understand that the route to success is messy, tough, and ugly. As Tony Wagner writes, “traditional ‘helicopter parents’ indulge their children’s every whim, while hovering and protecting them from adversity. For innovation-minded parents, intrinsic motivation — passion — is the driving force.”
Third, let’s bring back the dreamers. Recollect the 1960s and ’70s, people imagined a world of flying cars and robot maids? What happened? Not only did those things not come to fruition, but we have stop asking “What if?” We have to rediscover that spark.
And finally, schools have the weight of instilling what Tony Wagner, Harvard’s first Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center, calls the 3 P’s: play, passion, and purpose. These are the driving forces of education that Wagner explores in his most recent book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, outlining what parents, teachers, and employers must do to develop the capacities of young people to become innovators.
Teach kids early on to live by these words: Risk, Survive, Repeat! Smart risks, of course. Go big or go home. The greater the impact you want to see in the world, the farther you have to travel from the shore.
Take author Michael Ellsberg for example. He’s interviewed an extensive number of millionaires and billionaires without college degrees and designed a guide to developing practical skills in the world without the typical motivational fluff. Ellsberg argues in his book The Education of Millionaires, “Changes in one part of the system impact the entire system. Prepare for many more interruptions, shocks, surprises, global reorganizations, ‘black swans,’ and totally unforeseen developments on this scale (both positive and negative). The ‘left field’ out of which random and unpredictable events can come has just gone global.” Be prepared to adapt, invent, and reinvent yourself each and every day. Be immersed in the chaos.
Cory Booker tweeted, “You were born a genius without limitation. Live your truth, don’t die an imitation.” If you aren’t disrupting a system, an industry, or an institution, you are not taking full advantage of the moment. “Ideas are worthless if you don’t make them happen.”
This up and coming generation will be forced to face and act on some of the greatest challenges in human history. I want kids leaving school with their heads hurting on how to shake up the world.
Ignore the numbers on your report card. What matters most are the people you’ve met, the lives you’ve touched, and the seeds you’ve sowed.
Keep changing! Keep doing! Keep dreaming! When you stop learning, you stop living!