The Power of Why: 101 New Year’s Resolutions

Maybe I’m feeling inspired from our recent trip to Disneyland, or maybe it’s the excitement I feel about beginning a new job next month, but as we begin a new year and I look inward to create meaningful resolutions, I find I am fascinated with the topic of creativity and innovation.

I have just finished reading The Power of Why by Amanda Lang and look forward to power of whyborrowing ideas from the book to spark creativity and innovation in our schools. As a child, Lang decided she wanted to be an architect. Her family supported her career goal and very early on she knew the steps to take to reach her goal. Unfortunately as she reached adulthood, she asked ‘how’ questions to reach the next step but didn’t stop to ask herself ‘why’. Eventually she realized that she had much more passion for the stories within the buildings rather than the buildings themselves, and she changed directions to explore a career in Journalism. All of a sudden all night assignments became invigorating rather than exhausting and she knew she was on the right path.  She now co-hosts the Lang & O’Leary Exchange CBC and is the senior business correspondent for CBC News.

While this book focusses most on the business world I believe there are many valuable lessons that we can take away and apply to education.

  • Shift our priorities. Rather than trying to develop creativity while meeting prescribed learning outcomes, what if creativity becomes an outcome itself?  Developing creativity as a learning outcome or competency allows us to remain curious, seek to improve, ask questions, and look at problems from new angles.  In essence, those who think creatively will continue to learn.
  • Find ways to preserve child-like wonder and reignite natural curiosity. In twin studies, research suggests that 80% of IQ is related to genetics but only 30% of our creativity.  This suggests that 70% of our creativity comes from environmental factors and can be learned. Unfortunately it can also be diminished if it is not encouraged.
  • Focus on the questions, not just a desired answer.  Promote questioning to develop divergent thinking.  A shift to develop a curious mentality versus an expert mentality allows students the ability to understand how they learn, and develops a skill set that will be beneficial in the future.
  • Look at education through the eyes of the customer.  Private schools do a great job at this, promoting their strengths and the benefits the customer will receive.  Unfortunately the public system often turns to the media to highlight what’s not working in schools rather than highlighting our tremendous strengths and opportunities as one of the best education systems in the world. To stay innovative, we need to continually improve while focusing on our strengths.
  • Reflect. If we want to be creative and curious in our work, then we need to start with ourselves.  People who have the courage to self-reflect and ask questions of themselves create opportunities for growth and positive change.  Lang warns that those who focus on routine and comfort may wake up one day only to recognize they are in the wrong career or wrong relationship.
  • Start with individual ideas and then work together. The most creative ideas develop when students have the time to brainstorm alone first and then bring their ideas to the group. Beginning as a group reduces creativity for a variety of reasons including self-censorship, groupthink, taking turns, laziness and a tendency to promote harmony over creativity.
  • We need to teach our students that one of the best ways to stay actively engaged in their learning when they feel they are losing focus is to stop and ask a question.  Students with ADHD have a natural aptitude for applying ideas from one topic to another – a gift in innovative thinking.
  • Shift thinking from ‘How’ to ‘Why’.  Rather than asking how we are going to accomplish our goals, or get our daily, monthly or yearly tasks done, stop and ask why.  Why do students and parents choose our school? Why do we do things the way we do? Often those who have lived in multiple countries or worked in various industries have a learned ability to ask why and look at situations with fresh eyes. Do we take time to stop and get the perspective from those around us?

So – as we enter a new year, I have decided to set resolutions from a different angle. Rather than asking what I want to do this year, I will look a bit deeper with each resolution and ask why. Gaining a deeper understanding of my goals will help me reflect on what I truly value and what I hope to accomplish. To set resolutions that matter, I plan to use a technique Lang describes that is used by many Fortune 500 companies to encourage innovation: Participants at creativity retreats are asked to generate a list of 101 goals. This seems like a rather long list, but the length has purpose as the goals that are harder to think of often require more stretch or deeper exploration into who we want to be. Goals that are further down the list are often more creative and unique.  Once completed, participants are asked to narrow their list to their top fifteen goals.  More often than not, goals near the end of 101 list make their way to the Top 15.

I am inspired by this idea, and will try this in order to set my New Year’s Resolutions for 2013. And like a child with natural curiousity, I will ask myself a lot of questions, understanding why and why not.  Although I have yet to complete this activity (that’s tomorrow’s task), I have a sneaking suspicion I already know one of my top goals for 2013….  I will awaken the three year old child within me and approach life from a curious perspective, not afraid to ask Why or Why Not.  As Lang concludes “asking questions makes life richer, more interesting, more fulfilling and more complete.  Better.  That’s the power, and ultimately the purpose, of Why”.

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