Do our schools programme us to fail in business?

What is the point of the education system? Is it to prepare our young people for a productive and happy life in society? That would be nice. Is it to allow every child to be the best they can be? That would be a great goal. Is it just to keep kids off the streets (as many believe)? Sadly, it is possible that the education system has no goals at all.

But it once did have a goal. It was set down in the Victorian Industrialist era to prepare children to work in factories. That purpose was never replaced with anything more suitable. That’s why we were all educated in a room full of children all sat in rows. We were all told to shut up, don’t talk to your neighbour, don’t look to see what anyone else is doing, just concentrate on your own work and face the foreman at the front. Above the foreman was a clock and when a bell sounded we were all allowed outside and when a bell sounded again we all came in. Just like in the factory. We were given a smattering of almost useless general knowledge and the education system’s job was done.

The problem with having a goal such as this means that we were all trained to behave in a certain way in the world of work, for a world that no-longer exists. Being told that to ‘conform is good’, that to ‘keep quite is good’ and ‘not to copy is good’ all have latent side-effects. Those behaviours give rise to beliefs that strangle creativity and leave us unprepared for a changing world in three ways:

1. If you conform in business you don’t stand out. Ok, you don’t risk making mistakes, but being risk-averse means you become frightened of failure and that means you’re unable to grow. Instead we’re taught that failure is bad.

2. If you’re in business and don’t talk to anyone else you will hate networking and fail at building relationships and teams, the secret to success in society. Instead we’re taught that you should work by yourself in silence.

3. If you’re in business and you don’t look to see what the competition is doing, if you don’t copy the best ideas and improve on them you end up being left behind. But we’re taught that we have to be totally original (which is impossible) so we fail.

As adults, by realising this, we can turn back the clock and reinstate our creative selves that were persecuted and locked away all those years ago. Perhaps times have changed slightly. Perhaps there are individual schools that have greater, more honourable goals. But the ‘system’ has no such goal except to produce ‘results’ by testing and ranking pupils and schools. For our children we can and should examine how they are being educated and ask the simple question – what is the system for.

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Creative, Moi?

The midwife holds up the newly born baby and declares, “we’ve got a creative one here all right. This one’s a genius and no mistake.” You can tell just by looking at them can’t you?

Well, the people that society judges to be genii, the cleverest people that humanity has ever produced all say that although babies are born with a tendency to be better at some tasks than others or be interested more in one thing than another, ‘being creative’ is not something you are born with to a greater or lesser degree than anyone else. It’s like running. Babies aren’t born Olympic sprinters or long distance runners, they become them many years later by training. We could all become Olympians if we went through the relevant education and training and it’s the same with creativity.

A dictionary definition of creativity is “the ability to create new ideas or things using your imagination”. Notice it doesn’t say “the ability to be able to draw and paint a lifelike representation of a bowl of fruit”.

So why do people think it is? Perhaps it’s because creativity hasn’t been understood or taught particularly well in so many schools.

This could be changing. Teachers have realised that creativity can be taught alongside and within every subject. The National Curriculum is tackling this and have come up with their own definition of creativity: “First, creativity involves thinking or behaving imaginatively. Second, this imaginative activity is purposeful: that is, it is directed to achieving an objective. Third, these processes must generate something original. Fourth, the outcome must be of value in relation to the objective.” It sounds a bit vague perhaps but it seems to encompass everything.

Creativity is the process of making associations between disparate concepts, to make decisions based on those associations and then take action. What that means is that creativity is looking at things, making connections between things that weren’t connected before and then doing something about it. We can simplify that to a formula:

Perception + Decision + Action = Creativity

So what’s this all about you say, and how does it relate to me making more money? Well the products of creativity are ideas. Ideas are the currency of tomorrow’s world. We need more ideas. If you can consistently come up with good ideas in your field, for your business, for your life, you win.

Still think you’re not creative? No, I didn’t think so. I know you’d never admit it but you’re probably the most creative person you know.

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We love stupid ideas

Stupid, idiotic, bad ideas are great. Think of bad ideas. Think of very, very stupid ideas. I challenge you – think of five stupid ways you could improve your business or lifestyle right now. Five rubbish ideas.

Bad ideas are good because bad ideas lead to good ideas. If you wanted to be a photographer but didn’t take a single photograph until you were sure that every photo you were going to take would be a good one – you wouldn’t take any photos. Creativity seems like an illusive mist to most people who think that creativity is some sort of gift. It is not a gift, it is a skill. Like any skill it has methods that need to be mastered. Like any skill the methods need to be practised. Just knowing the lines of a play aren’t enough. It’s the rehearsal that makes it work.

You can learn how to negotiate, how to project manage and how to sell. There are courses on all of those. You can practice those in your field of work. But don’t leave out creativity from the mix. Learn the techniques and use them to get the ideas to get ahead.

We need to think new thoughts. Find better ways of doing things. Find better things to do. That’s what people overlook. That’s what creativity is.

So when you have a problem and you need a solution don’t be concerned with convention. Don’t be concerned with what’s expected. Don’t be concerned with what people will think. Don’t even be concerned with what’s possible. If you put constraints like these on your ideas or if you judge your ideas during the brainstorming phase you might as well give up and join the legion of mediocrity because these things will prevent you from having the best ideas at best, but will more than likely totally kill the process at worst.

Work out what is actually possible and allowed later, in the planning phase, not in the creative ideas phase. Learn to play, to make new associations, swap things around, wonder, be silly, experiment. These are the attributes that will enable you to solve the problem with a unique solution and to think of that elusive winning idea.

Where do good ideas come from? From Bad ideas. So don’t be a fool, think of foolish ideas. Get them out and get them out of the way. Don’t judge them or analyse them, just get them flowing out. It’s from associations connected to these bad ideas that the really great ideas will come.

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Don’t Fight Fantasy

In 1983 a new craze spread through Britain’s children (mostly the boys). It was a range of books called ‘Fighting Fantasy’ by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston. Based loosely on the role-playing game ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ that had taken the US by storm, the books differed in that they were for just one player/reader and they covered a much wider range of adventures and settings than the role-playing games did. The idea was simple. It was a book where you started reading and after a few pages you were given a choice. Did you want to go north or south? Ask the wizard for advice or not? Fight the monster or run away? Each choice would be accompanied by a page number which you would then turn to and continue reading. So you read the book by constantly moving from one page to another in a non-linear way. The aim was usually to survive long enough to solve the mystery. The adventures, whether set in a magical land, the past or the future where always very exciting and vividly described. The prose was always written in the present tense and from your perspective, “The door opens and you see stone steps leading down into darkness. Do you enter (turn page 263) or turn back (turn to page 47)”.

Then the backlash began. The books came to be perceived as a problem by many who misunderstood what was really going on. Some criticised the magical elements, feeling it encouraged interest in black magic (the same issue raised its head more recently with Harry Potter). Had these people not read Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Lord of the Rings?

There was also the old chestnut that turns up every time something is popular for children that they weren’t reading ‘proper’ books. English teachers frowned at the style of prose and bemoaned the lack of variety in children’s reading.

What they all failed to realise was that these books got children reading. We read them over and over again. We devoured them. And when we’d been through the thirty or so books in the series we moved onto other books such as Tolkien, C.S Lewis, Terry Pratchet and Douglas Adams and devoured them too. It doesn’t matter what children read, just as long as they do read.

There were other positive side effects too (again viewed by teachers and parents as bad). We started writing our own inventive fantasy fiction. Initially it took the form of writing your own adventure books for your friends. It was easy to do. You plotted out your story, the characters, events, mysteries and twists and then numbered blank pages of an exersise book from 1 to 100 and then got writing, inventing numerous traps and tricks for the reader on the way.

Slowly and inevitably we all grew up and no longer had the patience to play the book adventures anymore, wanting instead the passive reassurance of a linear novel. But the concept of the Fighting Fantasy books unlocked a unique form of creativity and imaginative invention in those young minds that shouldn’t be underestimated. Don’t fight your children’s fantasy. Let them explore it and express it in any way they choose.

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