I was recently asked by the organizers of TEDx Columbus to contribute a quick post to their blog for TEDx Columbus 2011. The only problem was deciding on which TED speech is my favorite and why is tough because anybody invited to speak at a TED conference is already a great speaker and authority in their specific field. The thing that separates a TED conference is the opportunity to learn about something you wouldn’t otherwise be taking the time to learn about. It is this gift of human imagination that TED celebrates and why I chose the speech that I did. Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 speech on how schools kill creativity, and the most downloaded TED video on YouTube, is at its core of everything I believe in as the son of a retired high school social studies teacher. It is subject matter that affects every single human being living on this planet today and in the very near future, yet most of us take for granted. “Everybody has an interest in education, and it goes deep with people like we do religion, and money. Creativity is important to everything we do. Education is meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp.”
My fondest memories as a kid was not playing with my friends until exhaustion, but the part after were I had time to daydream by laying on the grass or in the hammock staring up at the leaves on the trees or the clouds in they sky transforming them into anything just by using my imagination. In my opinion it is something we have forgotten how to do as adults because we “don’t have the time.” In my opinion this directly correlates with productivity and quality versus quantity debate. I often do my best creative thinking and work when I’m not always rushed to be “productive.” Doing less with more is always great and helps achieve the bottom line, but the mistakes that are made along the way can be much more costly because of short term goals. My parents always encouraged me, at a very young age, to be involved in creative reading and writing. This lead them to help me submit entries as part of local library competitions. What I felt were nonsensical stories, they saw as teaching point and opportunity to present the bigger picture importance of storytelling in everything that we do as a human race to communicate to one another.
In life this translates from school into the business world. Sir Robinson echoes this statement by saying, “Kids will take a chance. They’re not frightened of being wrong and if you’re not prepared to be wrong you will never come up with anything original. We run our companies this way. We stigmatize mistakes.” In business school one of the first things they teach is the importance of being flexible, agile, and having the ability to adapt to an ever-changing landscape and yet you see news stories on a daily basis of companies everyday not doing that. The most recent victims of this in the headlines have been Yahoo and RIM (of Blackberry fame). There is been speculation in tech circles that Microsoft is headed that direction as well. Some of the greatest success stories come out of failure, and in the software and design industries this is referred to as, “fail early and fail often” so that investment money isn’t wasted by focusing on the wrong things.
Do you think as adults if we were allowed to explore the what ifs more often, than doing what our predecessors did, that we would change and evolve quicker as a individuals, small businesses, big businesses, or as a society? These days it is as if our educational leaders and politicians are going through the motions of fill a need for the workforce rather than investing in the next generation of innovative leaders. The problem with this is that paints a bleak picture for future generations. Arts and music programs are being cut in from school budgets at an ever increasing rate, and after school programs being switched to play to play. Research shows there is a direct corollary between this activity and increased crime rates. Call me a bleeding heart liberal if you want to, but it is a basic fundamental necessity that affects every single one of us in more ways than we can imagine. It only becomes our problem until it is already too late. If we don’t change our outdated educational system to include encouraging creativity in our daily lives, imagine what our future will look like in 10 to 20 years.
The thing I question the most in my life is the true value of going to college and the competitive advantage to getting a bachelor’s degree. My mom always said, “It will be the best four years of your life.” She was right to a certain extent, but as Sir Robinson points out it is a direct result of the Information Age as an answer to the industrial revolution. “We are educating people out of their creative capacities. Picasso once said that all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. We don’t grow into creativity. We grow out of it. Or rather we get educated out of it.” What happens when the industrial revolution is over? When I first started taking classes for my major in communications at Ohio University I thought to myself what a joke. All the things that they my professors were teaching me I had already learned and had been practicing in junior high and high school.
My first job out of college working at a local TV station I instantly felt like I had wasted my time in school because of coworkers that were my age that didn’t go to school had moved up the ladder when I was paying my dues on the ground floor even though I had done the “real world” experience through summer internships and constant self education in my free time. Recently I watched a CBS segment of Sunday Morning addressing the increasing problem of internships going to students from families with greater economic status simply for the reason that the cost of living is just too projected debt for a middle income family to incur. If I had it to do all over again would I have done anything differently? Maybe and maybe not. Going back to graduate school motivated, or so I thought, beyond my wildest dreams and often to my wife’s dismay to start my fight against complacency.
It turned out it would be my biggest test of determination and will power to date. However it does beg the question, is it worth it? Sir Robinson refers to this as, “The process of academic inflation in that a job that required a BA now requires a MA, a Ph.d. and so on.” This is where I often ask myself if I had come from different economic circumstances growing up would I have been more motivated to succeed on my own, like so many of the entrepreneurs that I have come to know and admire, or follow the same path as so many had done before me and do what is expected.
These days it seems like there is so much motivation to go the “real world” route because the cost of education and the return on investment leaves you with a decent education, as much debt as the average 30 year home mortgage, and no guarantee of a job. Depending on how you look at whether or not the glass is half empty or half full this is an opportunity for this fundamental change in how we educate in schools around the world. Aside from the basics of primary education it is an opportunity to change an antiquated system to breed then next generation of entrepreneurs and small business owners. Mike Rowe, of Dirty Jobs fame, shares his perspective in saying, “There is a disconnect as kids we were full of wonderment on how things are made and why things work to now as adults, they just do. That there is a cyclical skills gap, and some argue structural gap, that needs to be addressed in order to recapture ingenuity. In high schools all vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated “higher education” to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are labeled as alternative. We’ve marginalized critical and creative thinking with books like, The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss.” When I heard him say this it instantly reminded me of publicly funded shows like Fred Rogers’, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Jim Henson of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show fame. Walt Disney built an empire off of imagination we seem to forget about as adults and only partake in current productions as facilitators to our own kids. Sir Ken Robinson keys in on this notion that, “The whole purpose of public education, through out the world is to produce university professors.” Then you get into a whole other argument about economics, but you get the idea about how everything is interconnected and the biggest success stories come from innovation and creativity.
My question becomes, where are the next generation’s Walt Disneys, Fred Rogers, Jim Hensons, and Mike Rowes? Are they just hidden, I’m looking in the wrong places, or have we forgotten what some would consider national treasures in developing creative innovation that applies to everyday life? Are our priorities out of whack because we’ve been fed by marketers the disposable culture and are too shortsighted to see the long term damage it has caused? It has created this sense of entitlement, expectation, and complacency rather than the factors that this country was founded on or every republic now and in the future will be founded on. I say creative innovation because they didn’t talk about it or put a spin on someone else’s product or service. They just did it.
Part of Robinson’s speech reminds me of the story my dad told me about when he was at a White House dinner party during the Nixon administration and someone asked him what he did for a living. I will never forget what he said happened next. He said, “I answered honestly by telling them I was a high school social studies teacher and they engaged with me as if I was a second class citizen for the rest of the night.” My dad would go on to say that he turned down going to White House dinners with my mom, who was an Assistant Press Secretary for Mrs. Nixon and did a lot of the event planning, because he didn’t find he had much in common. Here you had a president who was known for being a champion of education and civil rights before his troubles with Watergate surrounded with people who thought the idea of education and creativity was beneath them.
Another story my father told me about how as an employee of the public school system to take a civil rights course and the guy teaching it was so misinformed that my dad became the teacher. He later admitted to having a nervous breakdown due to self-realization that everything he had been taught growing up in the small town of Marion, OH had been wrong and that he was living through a cultural revolution on the steps of the Lincoln Monument being witness to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech to correct the history of civil rights in classrooms everywhere.
The rub, as it were, in the whole speech is the creativity of his delivery. He applies humor to a very serious issue facing our educational system. I was never very good at taking tests, but when I had teachers that comprehended I did better through comprehension exercises that is when I had the freedom to develop my passion for creativity. This might explain my impatience with the routine, thirst for new challenges, and the feeling of accomplishment when starting from scratch. A recent Chinese proverb I found recently, in my opinion hits the nail on the head, states; “Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I will understand.” I might be biased and feel that my dad is one of the few exceptions to the rule, but I only hope I can be the kind of teacher to my two girls the way he was a teacher to my sister, me, and so many other young adults that he encouraged to use creativity as their driving force for their life endeavors as future leaders.