When I was a little girl, every kid didn't go to kindergarten. A lot of schools started with first grade. There was a private kindergarten in our town. Mrs. Johnson was the kindergarten teacher. Mrs. Johnson lived in a split-level house on a hill. The kindergarten was her basement. It was a kid's dream come true.
At kindergarten I drew and painted and made things out of clay. We had little plays and we played music games and wore costumes. I was in heaven. I wasn't prepared for first grade. I had no idea that I was about to plunge from kid-nirvana into the pits of hell.
I went to parochial school. We sat in neat rows and kept our mouths shut for fear of Sister Mary Allan, the teacher, who was a brutal disciplinarian.
She and the other teachers would pull kids out of their seats and smack them with a wooden paddle in the back of the room while the rest of us sat with our heads down on our desks, in mortal terror that we'd be dragged out of our seat next for punishment.
The teachers would whack kids on the backside with all their might, leaving bruises. The kids would scream in pain and terror behind us. This sort of child abuse was legal in the US in 1967.
I never got whacked at school, but I was abused in a different way. Sister told me nearly every day how little she thought of me.
I barely spoke at school, because I was petrified of getting in trouble, but even in silence I rubbed Sister Mary Allan the wrong way.
I drew little pictures in the margins of my worksheets. I was bored to tears, and drawing doodles in the margins kept me sane.
The other kids would giggle and say "Draw a picture for me!" and during our lunch period, I would draw pictures for them. "You're nothing special," Sister Mary Allan told me when I was six.
"You don't have any talent. All of your older sisters are smarter than you are. I guess in your family, the brains ran out before you were born."
I spent a lot of time in the punishment corner for drawing when I wasn't supposed to. As a first-grader there were plenty of times when I thought it would be better if I were dead. I couldn't see how I'd make it through to eighth grade.
Luckily, my dad got promoted at work and we moved to a new town. My parents put my seven siblings and I in public school.
My new teacher, Miss McBlain, let me draw as much as I wanted to. She gave me art supplies to work with. Miss McBlain is a patron saint of the Human Workplace.
When I finished my work, Miss McBlain let me pick crayons out of the box and draw to my heart's content. Every kid should have that creative outlet, but every kid doesn't.
Kids who color outside the lines get smacked down and silenced, not just in 1967 and not just in Catholic school. It happens everywhere, and it's happening right now.
School itself is all about rules and conformity, unless you're lucky enough to have a sensitive teacher or you're in a school devoted to developing a kid's talents, like a Montessori or Waldorf school. Each of my five kids has been smacked down by a teacher who didn't want a kid to challenge the status quo.
I am sympathetic to teachers, of course. They have a horrible task. They have to teach kids to pass tests, because bureaucratic ninnies believe that when a kid passes a test, the kid has learned something. Why should we surprised at that thinking? In the business world, we give out tests like crazy. We think tests are the bomb.
We certify people and put initials after their names, and we say "That person knows a lot." Nonsense! We can't see that the greatest learning happens when you learn something you weren't expecting to learn, when you break completely out of the frame "Here is how it works" whether "it" refers to Human Resources, Project Management or Database Administration.
"It" is always changing, in the real world. Traditional teaching locks the real world out. The real world, with its confusing swirl of changes, mustn't interfere with our glorious taxonomy, our teachable rules and systems and rubrics!
Bill Bryson, in his wonderful book A Short History of Nearly Everything, describes case after case of scholarly experts being stumped by intractable problems until an outsider comes along and solves the mystery.
The outsider has the advantage, because his or her brain has not been warped by traditional teaching in the field. It was a geologist who hypothesized that a meteor had something to do with the dinosaurs' extinction, not a paleontologist.
Creative people don't keep their brains locked into standard patterns. For that reason, they can rankle and frustrate more linear thinkers.
It happens at work all the time. An enormous percentage of the people who work with us at Human Workplace have been frustrated by small-minded, rule-obsessed managers who can't see innovations that could help their organizations dramatically. They literally can't see them.
"I don't understand what you're suggesting," they say. "That's not how we do it here."
I jokingly call these small-minded bureaucrats weenies and amoebae, but in truth we must feel sorry for these folks. They literally can't comprehend what you are trying to tell them. Their brain does not permit them to color outside the lines, intellectually.
If it isn't in the procedure manual, they can't perceive it! If they do get a dim awareness of the world outside the colored lines, they're frightened by it.
Our client Bill is an HR Director. He was asked by a local trade organization to organize a Job Fair where employers and job-seekers could meet and mingle. Bill dove into the project with gusto.
He hired a magician to walk around and perform magic tricks. He got a local Mexican restaurant to lay out a make-your-own-taco spread. He invited a high school jazz combo to play.
Bill led a workshop to teach the recruiters attending the job fair how to talk to job-seekers, casually and off the script. The employers were thrilled. Several dozen people were hired at the job fair and scores more had interviews afterward. Person after person told Bill "This is the best job fair I've ever attended."
The trade organization wasn't so pleased. "Maybe you'll have a future in the entertainment world," said one Board member, "but I doubt we'll be asking you to organize any more events for us, if they're going to be so free-wheeling."
Bill was disheartened for about a week, until he realized that you can't please everybody and there's no point in trying. Bill is a creative guy. His brain naturally tends toward colorful and random things. He can't change that -- and why would he want to?
The business world wasn't built on the notion that creative ideas power our companies, but we are realizing now that they do. People sitting in cubes performing standard tasks over and over can't achieve anything great.
Only new thinking can let our organizations meet the new challenges the twenty-first century presents to them.
That's why we talk about innovation all the time, and about disruptive thinking and collaboration, where two or three or twenty creative brains come together to rock the world.
We talk about those things, but we have a hard time putting them into practice. That's because creative activity at work flies in the face of Godzilla, the god of bureaucratic process. Creativity threatens the status quo. People can get angry fast when you threaten their tiny patch of bureaucratic turf.
I know what that fear and anger look like, because I saw them on the face of my first-grade teacher and many other people since then.
You'll see it when you suggest something new at work, something your boss didn't think of or an idea that threatens the mantra "This is how we've always done it."
How do you surmount that brick wall of negative energy? Sometimes it's worth chipping away at the wall for a long time, the way Tim Robbins did in The Shawshank Redemption. Sometimes it's not worth it.
In those cases you're better off leaving the team or the organization and finding a place where they value creativity and new ideas. Why stifle your flame before you know how big it can get?
Here's a simple exercise to gauge whether your creative flame is being dimmed at work or given room to grow.
Make a list of the ten things you'd like to see happen in your organization -- your wish list of positive changes. As you look at the list, decide whether each item is working its way through to acceptance already, or whether the brick wall will keep it from becoming real in the next year or two.
You're evaluating the appetite for new thinking in your current workplace. Is there a ravenous appetite for new ideas, or a very tiny one or no appetite whatsoever?
If your creative suggestions keep falling on deaf ears time after time, that's not just personally frustrating for you (although it's excruciating, I know!). There's worse damage being done.
Your great ideas could help your own employer and perhaps many others. Your ideas need to come out and be realized. The world needs new thinking.
If you're casting your pearls before swine, there are plenty of other people who will embrace your unboxed thinking and act on it. Why waste time with folks who can't see the creative brilliance you bring them?
Whatever you decide to do about your creative flame on a career level, you can start growing that flame right now by talking about your non-traditional ideas. Share them. Color outside the lines! Doodle at staff meetings.
Spend less time with people who want you to fit into a little box, and more time with people whose thoughts wander into strange and wonderful places. Step into your creative power. We are cheering you on!