Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Mindset Equality and Innovative Thinking

Last week, someone who runs an after-school program for disadvantaged kids reminded me of something very important.  She told me that the kids she works with aren’t exposed to the kind of thinking I talk about in my blog.  Even in the heart of Silicon Valley, with Facebook a mile away, the idea that they can improve their lives through thinking through a problem is foreign.  At the very core of innovative thinking, what has powered the rise of companies worth trillions of dollars, is one central belief: there is a better way.

Before you slap me with a label that reads “obvious”, remember that much of what you believe is a product of your culture and environment.  This is water.  And the water is different for different people.  I recently visited some rural areas of Morocco, and I was struck by how little things have changed over the centuries and how much is dictated by tradition.  Many cultures in the world prize tradition and the knowledge and community it promotes.  But over-adherence to social rules kills the belief that there is another way, a better way.  In other communities, it is not tradition, but hopelessness that creates this mindset.  If you don’t see change and progress in your community, then why believe in it?

Closely related to the belief in positive change is the belief that you, as an individual, are in control of your life and can thus create positive change.  In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes this as the first habit of being Proactive.  Before you can make things better in your life, you must first accept responsibility for it.  This book, and others like it, have helped millions of people improve their lives with a change in mindset.

In Outliers: the Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell points out the impact of upbringing and its impact on future success.  Upon visiting the doctor, a wealthy parent may teach their child to ask the doctor questions.  A child from a less fortunate family may feel less entitled and just accept the authority of the doctor without pointing out any concerns (like a hidden rash).  This taught mindset can have real impact later in life.  Gladwell tells the story of Chris Langan, a genius with a 195 IQ.  He ended up dropping out of college, essentially because his truck broke and he could no longer get to campus early in the morning.  It sounds crazy, but he passively accepted the conditions and limitations and didn’t fight for his teachers to accommodate a simple change in his schedule. This snowballed into getting kicked out of school.

Innovative thinking is built on the foundational though that you can make things better.  It requires you to challenge the status quo and current “authority”.  But this type of thinking is not taught equally across our society.  Parents with limited formal education and strapped budgets do not discuss NPR stories with their friends.  They do not read Outliers or the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in their spare time.  And they do not expose their children to these ideas.

In contrast, wealthy kids are taught to challenge authority and the status quo.  They are shown by example that they can make things better.  They are given the core mindset for innovative thinking.  Income inequality is growing, but to solve this, it’s not just about moving money around (welfare, minimum wage, taxes).  It’s also about mindset equality.  We need to work to expose all children to stories of innovation and inspire in them the belief that they can make a difference in their own lives and in the world.  We need to bring innovative thinking into our schools and into our media.  We need to teach the teachers and the parents about mindset.  We need to find ways to break down the social barriers and inject our poor communities with hope and empowerment.  In this way, we can create a more diverse and equal generation of innovators to solve the challenges of today and tomorrow.