How to Raise (and Educate) the Next Steve Jobs

In October 2011, I was standing in an airport news stand trying to decide between two bestsellers side by side on the shelf.  First was the biography Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. The second was The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators (Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, jobsand Clayton M. Christensen).  I picked up this book and read the question: “Are you the next Steve Jobs?”   Ironically, when this question was penned, Steve likely was still with us.  Now he had completed his goal to “make a ding in the universe.” It is time for us to raise and educate the next Steve Jobs.  Can the skills of the innovator really be taught (and learned)?

Innovators create new ideas, products, and ways of doing things.  Innovations solve complex problems and improve the overall quality of life on this planet.  Since we’re not likely to run out of problems, we need more innovators.  And if altruism doesn’t motivate you, consider that innovation drives the competitive edge in the global economy. Jobs for innovators are less likely to be outsourced or automated.  Now do I have your attention?

So what is the parenting or teaching style that creates innovators? The year 2011 marked another milestone: It was the 65th anniversary of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s paradigm-shifting “permissive” child-rearing philosophy, and also the publication year of Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  Dr. Spock encouraged the Baby Boomers’ parents to trust their instincts and follow their children’s cues rather than focusing on strict schedules. (Educators, think in terms of student-centered, progressive democratic education.)  Chua’s “Tiger Mom” parenting style restricts children’s free time, focusing them on achieving exacting standards. (Educators, think standards-based education and high-stakes assessments.)

Which style produces innovators? As it turns out, creativity requires discipline and divergence, and so does raising the next-generation-Jobs. My advice here is borrowed from the parents of innovators interviewed in Tony Wagner’s book Creating Innovators. First of all, parents, are you willing to discipline yourself to be different from the helicopter moms and dads?  Can you “just say no” to constant screen time and “yes” to allowing your children more low-tech unstructured time to play?  Outdoors even?  Can you discipline yourself to provide found objects as “toys” that allow open-ended experimentation and freewheeling imagination?  How about enforcing an hour of “free reading” instead of one of those structured after school sports? Are you observing your child’s strengths and passions and considering them as seeds for greatness or just something they’ll “grow out of” so they can follow your programmed pathway to “success?”   Educators, you face similar challenges.  A teacher-colleague of mine recently told me that her school principal decided to abandon the highly successful “drop everything and read” program because it wasn’t aligned with the new (and heavily tested) standards.  That’s NOT education for innovation.

So maybe Spock (that’s Benjamin) was right that parents need to trust themselves and their children more.  In a world that seems very untrustworthy, that’s taking a risk.  But if we’re going to raise and educate a generation that can innovate their way to a better world, let’s follow the wisdom of the slogan Steve Jobs created and lived: Think Different.