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Conditioned for Mediocrity—Let Employee Creativity Flourish

Erik Wahl
Author, Speaker, Philanthropist, The Wahl Group, San Diego, CA

More than ever before, employees and students are bored out of their minds. I work regularly with Fortune 500 companies, and their leaders tell me that engagement—or rather, the lack thereof—has become their primary focus. Unfortunately, organizations struggle to secure employee commitment because people are conditioned to go through the motions. Before they were employees, they were students and schools have taught them to be disengaged.

In a teach-to-the-test era, kids are memorizing machines, committing facts and figures to memory to do well on standardized exams. Rarely do they receive the chance to explore idiosyncratic interests or pursue topics about which they’re passionate. Instead, they receive good grades for competence, just as employees receive decent salaries for efficiency.

For the sake of productivity— and for the sake of young, naturally curious minds—things need to change. Organizations can no longer afford to employ people who are working diligently but without purpose and passion. In a globally and intensely competitive era of rising costs and ambitious growth strategies, we need people who are driven to excel. In the face of increasing complexity and ambiguity, we need individuals who care enough to meet these challenges.

These employees won’t just emerge through great engagement training protocols. They need to be acculturated to engagement.

The good news is that kids naturally seek engagement. They are intensely curious, even in adolescence, and if you doubt that statement, you’ve never observed a kid playing a video game or communicating on social media. They can spend hours attempting to move up a level in a game or jumping from link to link in pursuit of some important (to them) piece of knowledge.

Admittedly, sometimes kids are curious about subjects that strike us as silly or superficial—destroying an invading alien army or learning why a friend or a celebrity broke up with her boyfriend. Schools, though, can channel their innate curiosity in productive directions. They can reject the 19thcentury classroom model that was designed to produce obedient industrial workers, one where students sit silently in perfect rows and are prepared for two jobs: assembly line worker (they know how to memorize tasks and follow instructions) or teacher. They can embrace the new model, one designed to feed all types of organizations desperate for scientists, lawyers, researchers, managers and others who are willing to take risks and fail, who invest themselves fully in their tasks, who relish stretch assignments that challenge them to solve tough problems.

To transform our classrooms in this manner will require time, but it’s one that we can immediately start meeting if we capitalize on a resource that exists in most schools: dedicated, creative teachers. People don’t become teachers because they want to make a lot of money or because it’s a glamorous profession; they enter the field with a sincere desire to help kids learn and grow. More than that, teachers are often ingenious at helping kids become engaged in a given subject.

However, teachers need the freedom from the tyranny of tests and curriculums to exercise this ability. Given just a little bit of freedom, they might not teach Catcher in the Rye as if it were a list of names and places (“What is the name of the hotel Holden Caulfield checks into when he arrives in New York?”). Instead, they might ask students to write what they’d advise Holden to do if he were their best friend; or have them create text messages or blogs that Holden might write if were an adolescent today.

Given engagement, students become learning machines rather than memorizing ones. My three teenage sons play a game called Assassin’s Creed. Motivated to solve its puzzles, they absorb a lot of history—they “talk” to Benjamin Franklin and historical luminaries to gain the information necessary to do well in the game.

Enlightened CEOs get all this. Unlike traditional CEOs, they don’t want a company filled with efficient “yes men and women” or even the best and the brightest. Instead, they’re looking for employees who care enough to be disruptive, to challenge the status quo, to take risks to find that elusive great idea.

They also know how tough it is to find these engaged employees or train engagement into them. That’s why we need to start the process in elementary school. Organizations are gradually eliminating the command-and-control systems and hierarchies that discouraged commitment to jobs. It ’s time for schools to get rid of a framework where teachers are taskmasters and students are task-doers. Creating a more participative, interest-driven system will benefit all involved, and it will produce a deep pool of engaged graduates from which organizations can draw.


Erik Wahl is the author of the bestselling book Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius. He is an entrepreneur, graffiti artist; successful speaker, author and philanthropist who helps people unleash their creativity to achieve superior levels of performance. In the past 10 years, he has shared his message with the largest and most influential companies in the world. His list of clients includes AT&T, Disney, Microsoft, FedEx, ExxonMobil and many more and he has been featured as a TED TALK presenter. Mr. Wahl challenges his client companies and their people to change their behavior and develop creative and breakthrough thinking. Mr. Wahl can be reached at 858-715-1997 and on his website: http://www.theartofvision.com.


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