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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Can our kids be creative AND follow the rules?

Please consider the following case study:

In your position as manager of the marketing department for the rapidly expanding software firm, Big Data Cloud Selfie 12 (aka BDCS12), you supervise a team of 15 staff of varying ages and responsibilities.  At the end of the year when evaluations are required, you must fairly consider the value of each team member's individual contribution so that you can then assign a dollar amount for their incentive bonus. Joe, your young market researcher, is always coming up with new ideas on how to improve the business and has been known to use his own time to work on projects (of his own devising) by himself, surprising you with them when he is finished.  Sally, on the other hand, works on the social media side of things.  She is on time to work every day and is never absent.  She quietly gets along with everyone and has never missed a deadline.  Both Sally and Joe are the same age, with the same years of experience, and graduated from the same college with the same GPAs. One of them will receive a higher rating on their evaluation and therefore get a higher bonus.  Which one would you evaluate higher?

Well, according to Bowles and Gintis in their book, Schooling In Capitalist America, you (and most managers) would give lower ratings to the young employees like Joe with high levels of creativity and independence and higher ratings to the ones like Sally seen as tactful, punctual, and dependable.  This sounds eerily familiar to me as a parent. Life is easier when the kids toe the line, get their homework done on time, follow the rules and generally just don't cause trouble. Sure we are quick to praise them for their creativity but maybe not as enthusiastically when their creative endeavor results in us spending hours scrubbing paint off the walls.

Can't we raise our kids to be creative, independent, and also punctual and dependable? Are they mutually exclusive traits? Or worse, if we try to help our kids develop all of these will they be mediocre at all of them? How valuable is the employee who is punctual "most of the time" and "sort of" creative?

For Bowles and Gintis (as their book title suggests) it is a matter of schooling. I should also mention here that I have not read the book yet.  It is on my Amazon wish list though... To excel in school (graduate, get into college, get employed) the best students are the ones who do their work and do it on time. There is some room for creativity and independence but our kids can get straight As all the way up through high school without a single creative bone in their bodies. There is no incentive for our kids to be creative and independent and there is no practical incentive for us as parents to encourage those traits.

When I was in college I had to write a term paper for history class. I had no interest in the traditional approach and asked my professor if I could write a story, historical fiction so to speak.  He agreed and I banged out the 10 page story including footnotes as required to identify the historical references.  I proudly handed it in and looked forward to the rave review I would receive for my creative approach to handling this assignment.  Imagine my shock when I received the paper back and saw the D prominently written in red pen at the top of the page along with the sentence, "This is not a research paper." Arguing my case had little effect on my grade but the experience taught me that in order to get ahead, I needed to follow the rules (and the rubric) precisely.  There was no room for a new way of doing things and checking the boxes and staying within the lines is still the best way to ensure a good grade or a promotion. 

There are some exceptions, but maybe these exceptions make things even harder on our kids as they grow up. In the job interview the interviewer may be impressed with creative achievements.  He may also perceive examples of independence as proof that our kids will be proactive problem solvers within the team as opposed to the actual likelihood that they will chafe under the restrictions of the corporate world.

Dependability and punctuality may be important in the job application (showing up late is never a good idea) but it is thought of as a minimum requirement rather than something that will help our kids stand out. The more glamorous attributes in an interview are examples of creativity and independence.


So our kids need to be punctual and dependable as they go up through school then show their creativity and independence in the interview and then go back to punctuality and dependability after starting the job. So, heavy on the diligence and a splash of brilliance. As parents, we can encourage creativity on a regular basis with school while trying to make it clear to our kids that their grades are not likely to measure how creative the work is but rather how closely it follows the rubric. Independence is also good to praise in our children but combine that with the message that you don't let people down. If you make a promise or commitment then follow through. We live in communities and rely on people every day.  The corporate world is the same, a team focused world where dependability and tactful employees are valued the most.

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