Thayer Allyson Gowdy
The 5-year-old girl stood out from the throng of hikers striding up a steep hill. While the adults plowed upward, she leaned down, concentrating on selecting the next dusty rock worthy of adding to the collection she'd gathered up in the delicate tulle of her pink tutu. Her mother stood patiently nearby, neither encouraging nor discouraging, or commenting on, her young ballerina-geologist's project. I wanted to give this woman a high five.
Rather than simply following the familiar path, the girl was immersed in her own compelling discoveries -- and this childlike willingness to blaze one's own trail may just be the most crucial skill for the 21st century. In our era of rapid change and daunting job competition, experts say that the capacity for thinking creatively and bravely doing one's own thing is essential for future success.
After all, the modern definition of creativity isn't just being imaginative, expressive, or artistic. It involves using mental muscles, planning, and self-control to produce something that is both original and useful. Many kids today will grow up to have jobs that haven't even been invented yet, so being able to find fresh solutions to ever-changing challenges is more valuable than ever.
Indeed, according to an IBM survey of 1,500 CEOs, creativity is now considered to be the most valuable trait for managers. Fascinating research by Jonathan Plucker, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education, in Storrs, found that creativity tests given to elementary-school students in the 1950s were three times better than IQ tests at predicting adult achievements more than 30 years later. Having a creative outlook may mean that kids will grow up to design a radical new piece of software, discover a cancer cure, mediate a thorny global dispute, or found an innovative nonprofit.
It's helpful to know that there are two general approaches to problem solving: convergent and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking uses prior knowledge and logic to choose the one correct solution. This is the kind of thinking measured by most standardized tests with multiple-choice questions. Eight times seven is 56 ... every time.
Divergent thinking uses facts and experience to generate new ideas. Through brainstorming and free-flowing experimentation, solutions are tried on for size, and unexpected connections emerge. Of course, this is the mind-set that's integral to creativity, and it's what researchers like Dr. Plucker try to assess with quantitative creativity tests. For example, how many different uses can you think of for a paper clip?
As a psychologist specializing in helping parents raise self-reliant, resilient, enthusiastic children, I have the opportunity to study family dynamics and parental expectations on a micro level in my private practice, while taking a macro view of larger trends when I give talks to parents and educators around the world. For the past year, I've also been interviewing employers about their new hires as part of research for my next book, and I've heard repeatedly that young adults are often afraid to think out of the box.
The good news is that all children are endowed with massive creative potential. They may be natural philosophers, physicists, theologians, fresco artists, rappers, choreographers, general contractors, and even poets. Masters of the colorful metaphor! Sadly, however, cuts in arts funding, the emphasis on standardized testing, and parents' fears about giving kids freedom to explore on their own are making it increasingly difficult for children to follow their creative instincts. That's why we need to give them room to discover and lead the way.