The other reason is that we are uniquely willing to listen to our young. In many cultures, age carries too much weight. Experience is rewarded over imagination, and respect can be too deferential. In some cultures, people are given jobs on the basis of age, creating a sedentary environment stifling to the young. Remember the saying “Children are to be seen and not heard”? Well, look at the economic growth created by such “children” as Bill Gates and Michael Dell, to name just two.That’s the good news. But when it comes to nurturing our youth, we have to do better. I am especially concerned about early education, which can (and usually does) have a profoundly negative effect on creativity. In the race to understand what children learn, we are far too enthusiastic about celebrating their successes. What is more fascinating is what children do wrong. Even the concept of “wrong” should get some attention. Though the wind is not made by leaves flapping, as some children guess, the theory is sufficiently profound that it should not be dismissed out of hand. In fact, disassembling erroneous concepts is one of the best ways to find new ideas. The process is akin to debugging a computer program and has almost nothing to do with drill and practice (which is once again becoming a cornerstone of schooling).
Our biggest challenge in stimulating a creative culture is finding ways to encourage multiple points of views. Many engineering deadlocks have been broken by people who are not engineers at all. This is simply because perspective is more important than IQ. The irony is that perspective will not get kids into college, nor does it help them thrive there. Academia rewards depth. Expertise is bred by experts who work with their own kind. Departments and labs focus on fields and subfields, now and then adding or subtracting a domain. Graduate degrees, not to mention tenure, depend upon tunneling into truths and illuminating ideas in narrow areas.
The antidote to such canalization and compartmentalization is being interdisciplinary, a term that is at once utterly banal and, in advanced studies, describes an almost impossible goal. Interdisciplinary labs and projects emerged in the 1960s to address big problems spanning the frontiers of the physical and social sciences, engineering, and the arts. The idea was to unite complementary bodies of knowledge to address issues that transcended any one skill set. Fine. Only recently, however, have people realized that interdisciplinary approaches can bring enormous value to some very small problems and that interdisciplinary environments also stimulate creativity. In maximizing the differences in backgrounds, cultures, ages, and the like, we increase the likelihood that the results will not be what we had imagined.
Two additional ingredients are needed to cultivate new ideas. Both have to do with maximizing serendipity. First, we need to encourage risk. This is particularly hard in midcareer and often flies in the face of peer review and the mechanisms for corporate advancement. This is simply because risk, on its own, can look pretty stupid. People who look around corners are exposed to failure and ridicule, and thus they must find buoyancy, or support, within their own environment. If they don’t, counterintuitive ideas will remain so.
The second ingredient is encouragement for openness and idea sharing-another banality nearly impossible to achieve. At the digital bubble’s peak, being open about ideas was particularly hard for computer scientists because people saw riches coming from not sharing their ideas. Students would withhold ideas until after graduation. As one person held his or her cards close, another followed, and as a result, many research labs declined in value and effectiveness. In this regard, thank God the bubble has burst.