Innovate Without Becoming a Jackass

3 09 2014

This morning, I was inspired to think about innovation and my process for thinking differently about education by talking with a bright high schooler. I have volunteered to mentor(?) a student, Jake, in Don Wettrick‘s Innovations class in Noblesville, Indiana. And last week, Jake contacted me on Twitter and asked to visit with me about what innovations and changes should be made in schools.

Oh yeah. He totally did.

Innovation in education, huh? Well since that’s where I’ve been trying to live for the past 8 (some would say 15) years, I’m always game for that type of conversation. After all, this kid is still in school…who knows more about what kids are dealing with than a kid? Yeah, it should make for a fun two-way conversation! But Twitter and it’s 140 character limits is no place for a real discussion with a student who seemed genuinely interested in connecting. So I asked Don if Jake and I could Skype or GHO or something. And today was the day.

So Jake, in addition to planning to be a Social Studies teacher (which I was/am), wants to be an innovator. We laughed and talked about what inspires me daily to do things differently. We talked some of the good things in schools and some of the things that might be better if we shifted them a bit. He shared with me his inspiration to this path and even divvied up a bit of his vision, which obviously includes having fun while learning in school. We talked about the value of passion in our lives and whether it should guide us for our life’s pursuits or not.

Ok. I guess I talked about that.
Spoiler alert: no, we should not “follow our passions” as a career choice. Let me know later if you want to wrestle with that concept or not.

So what do you tell a kid who says he wants to be a Social Studies teacher but also change education? Oh, so many, many things. I sent him to books & blogs. I told him about double majoring (unless he’s going to add coaching to his credentials). And I also gave him a challenge to watch & reconsider a movie that’s beloved by most teachers.

But one thing that tumbled out of my mouth was eye-opening for me. In response to his desire to be an innovator, among my suggestions was to question the status quo; question everything, especially the things we “know” are “true.” Things that have always been done this way. Things that we all love (see movie challenge above). Things that are given.

Well, that’s not surprising. That’s my pat answer. Thinking deeper on that answer was what surprised me. What is the process for innovation?dragon

Sure, we look at those “givens” mentioned above. And of course we look at what’s broken, which usually leads us back to a sacred cow belief. So we look at the truths, the sacred cows. We look at the good and appreciate it. And then we look again, searching deeper and asking, what if this wasn’t true? What would be the result? What would happen then? What’s the purpose of this given? Is that what’s actually happening? How can we make this better?

Basically, to innovate means to dissect reality, consider alternatives, and pick alternatives that lead to better outcomes. Sometimes innovation is earth-shattering. Sometimes innovation is a small shift.

But we’ve got to be careful when we begin to dissect all truths; to pick apart all the things we accept as good. It’s a dangerous process and a perilous mindset to get into. It’s too easy to merely become a jackass who picks on everything. “Oh you value that? Well let me poop on it for you, showing you where it — and you — are wrong and stupid. And because I can see where the wrong is, I’m obviously smarter. So unless you change that which I just pointed out to you, you’ll never be worth anything.”

And if someone calls the jackass-innovator out on just being a jerk, he pulls the mantle of “innovator” ever tighter around his shoulders to protect him. After all, he’s the one doing the hard-thinking work while others mindlessly follow the system, right? “If only they would listen to me!”

It’s a sad habit to get into. We all know those people, don’t we? The innovator who has worked so hard to change the system that they no longer are able (or willing?) to see the value in anything? People laugh behind Ginger Lewman, innovation, innovator, innovatetheir backs as they continue to isolate themselves. It breaks my heart.  And honestly, early on, I was becoming one of those until a very good friend pulled me out of that dangerous dragon’s lair.

If we want to be innovators who continue to live in the light and do good things for (with) people in a way so they can hear us — so we can connect with them and be seen as a person who helps others move forward on their own feet without blame, without guilt, but with success and collaboration — then we have to continuously find the good in the status quo too.

Having good in a system doesn’t mean we can’t innovate there. But recognizing the good does allow us to keep our humanity so we can continue to innovate, together.

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