Thursday, July 26, 2012

Race Vs. Journey

...if that extra practice, coaching, and money spent on equipment, camps, and lessons comes at the expense of other activities (such as family vacations, riding a bike for fun, playing other sports, or doing something really crazy like playing "kick the can" in the backyard for a few hours), then our kids lives are worse for it. And, more important, the message to our eight-year-olds is that the key to life is running faster than the next guy, without thinking about why they are running or where they are trying to go.

..Here is all I am asking you to do: look around every once in a while and ask yourself; Have I created a race out of something that ought to be a journey?

A journey involves following a passion. You identify a worthwhile goal and then work relentlessly in that direction. There are often tremendous external rewards, but the direction and motivation come from within.

A race involves running faster than everyone else, regardless of where they happen to be going. This, too, involves a lot of hard work and the potential for large rewards - but not much introspection. In a race, success is defined by how you finish relative to others. If you flounder, even briefly, then someone will pass you by.

I see the Little League mentality bleeding into higher education, which is what I know best. I see it when students become more obsessed with grades than with learning, or when credentials mean more than the accomplishments they represent. Let me describe two recent incidents that left me vaguely trouble, for reasons that I could not quite put my finger on until recently.

The first involved a student who walked into my office after a midterm exam. She was despondent that she was going to get an A- in the class. You read that correctly; her midterm grade was an A-; not a B-, not a D. An A-. And when I describe her as despondent, I am not using that word lightly. I spent at least half an hour trying to assuage her anxiety, to no avail. Finally, I asked, "What is it that you want to do in life that you're not going to be able to do because you got an A- in this class instead of an A?" She didn't have an answer.

The second incident was a conversation with an extremely successful entrepreneur who was reflecting on his experiences at one of the world's most selective business schools, which I will not name here. [Harvard] He was describing the ethos of competition at the school, which at times seemed more important than the material being taught.

I asked him the following question: Did he think that most of his classmates would prefer to have this prestigious business school education without the credential, or the credential without the education? In other words, would those accepted to the MBA program prefer to 1) attend all of the classes, learn from their impressive classmates, and immerse themselves in one of the greatest universities - but no one would know they had done so; or 2) get the diploma, and therefore the credential from this esteemed institution, but none of the learning.

He said number two, with no hesitation at all.

Both of these incidents struck me as wrong, though for reasons that I could not articulate - until I read an obituary for Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs, at which point it all became crystal clear. As a young man, Steve Jobs, one of the most creative and transformational business leaders ever, dropped out of Reed College, but he continued to audit classes. He got the education without the credential! Jobs later said that one of the classes he audited on calligraphy helped to inspire the fonts supported by the Macintosh computer.

The "life as a race" mentality sends a powerful signal to kids that they can't take risk, because that may lead to a C, which will doom their chances of getting into a good college, or a good law school, or some other competitive endeavor. And then life will suck, just like not making the traveling soccer team.

Yet we know that success is not about simply running faster than everyone else in some predetermined direction. It is about finding a passion, taking risks, running in new directions, and dealing with the future.

If you think of life as a race, then every setback means that you have fallen behind. Every risk has a potential failure lurking nearby.

But if you think of life as a journey, then every setback helps direct you to a place where you will be more likely to succeed. Every risk has a potential adventure behind it, or at least a learning experience. You are not necessarily in competition with everyone around you.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your overall advice. But the "credential/knowledge" argument here doesn't ring true. It's an established fact that an MBA from a top-5 biz school is an extremely lucrative credential, whereas an MBA from the vast majority of MBA programs is generally a total waste of tuition money. Sure, you learn facts, but it's nothing that can't be learned in an equivalent amount of time on the job with smart and well-connected people. And for the most part, when you look at people who go to biz school, it's a self-selecting population of folks who are looking for a career tool. In the case of Reed College, well, it's not a place you go so you can hang the diploma on the wall. It's a place to get high and read books for 4 years, which can be tremendously useful for the right person.

Boris said...

It may be a bit overstated - there is NO doubt whatsoever that a Harvard MBA degree (just the degree itself, not the learning) is worth a large chunk of change. However, that's not what the author is talking about - he is NOT gauging success or happiness simply as a dollar amount.

We could say it's all just semantics, I guess, but if one took the education and found success (in $ terms) vs. the other who took the degree and got a well paying job (again, in $ terms), who would be the happier? Who would be more satisfied? If you buy the author's premise, the first had a journey to the peak, while the other was simply posited on the mountaintop.

Anonymous said...

Other Anonymous, you're missing the point of the post. The point is that our education system has created a business mentality that values a piece of paper more than it values actual knowledge or experience. I've personally worked in the same company as programmers who had Bachelors degrees in Computer Science and better paying jobs that repeatedly made mistakes that I, a self-taught programmer, would never have made due to my experience and learning. Another point, I think, is that diploma does not equate knowledge, but we treat it like it does.

And yeah, an MBA from a top 5 business school is a lucrative credential, but can you seriously tell me that the obscene costs of tuition for one of those places is entirely because of the quality of education? I don't think you can. At least a third of what you pay for is the name on your diploma and nothing else.

Anonymous said...

The point i take from all of this is that a majority of our world will unfortunately never get the point the author is trying to make. Those that do; they are blessed.