Innovators Don’t Obey Blindly

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So, you’d like your kids to be innovators?

Stop expecting them to obey you and other authority figures blindly.

Why do I say this? Well, real innovators find some slice of conventional wisdom that they don’t agree with, and they challenge it. They “think different,” to use the expression from the famous Apple ad campaign.

Now, I don’t mean to say that your kids shouldn’t be respectful. Instead, you should teach them to be deeply respectful of people, things, and ideas that they find virtuous. At the same time, though, you should give them some license to be politely disrespectful when they become convinced that something is clearly wrong.

You should expect your kids to question you, as well as all other “authorities” – teachers, media, books, etc. You should encourage them to strive to understand everything they “learn” from someone else.

Kids are naturally very inquisitive and curious, as Allison Gopnik documents eloquently in her book, The Philosophical Baby. Unfortunately, adults can easily extinguish this flame. Here are some non-answers adults routinely use to dismiss kids’ “why” questions:

  • “Because I said so.”
  • “_____ [someone you know] does it.”
  • “Everybody else does it.”
  • “I did that when I was a kid.”
  • “This is for your future!”
  • “Things like this will help you get into college!”

If your kids routinely accept non-answers like these, they may be respectful, but they’ll never be innovators.

What should kids do if they ignore these non-answers, keep asking why, and discover that the emperor has no clothes – i.e. that what others are telling them is wrong? In some cases, when the issue’s important enough to them, they should decide to do something to right the wrong, and we should encourage them.

That’s what innovation is all about – finding some wrong, whether it be a social injustice, an inefficient technology, a poor business tactic, etc. – and taking some action to make it right.

Now, the “make it right” part of innovation is undoubtedly a great challenge, but it all starts with asking questions and finding something wrong that you care a lot about.

There are many people out there like smart MBAs who can be trained to “make it right,” but the talent to recognize fundamental problems is a deeper skill because it’s a habit of mind, like an instinct. It starts with a childlike refusal to obey blindly.

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