The Death of Innovation

When I was a little kid, my brother and I came upon a construction site. Maybe it was a demolished building, I can’t remember. Anyway, there were rocks everywhere. All sorts of different rocks. We were so excited you’d think we discovered an ancient civilization. We played there for hours.

Memories like that, flashbacks from a long forgotten childhood, stick with us for a reason. They’re metaphors for important things in our lives. Sometimes they’re about traumatic events or critical lessons we learned the hard way. In this case, the memories were about discovery and imagination, stuff that really resonated with me.

All those deep memories and the metaphors they represent play an important role in our lives. They help to mold us into who we are as adults. Unfortunately, we’re becoming an overprotective society. We don’t typically let our children play that way anymore.

I’m no shrink, but according to some experts, when children play with random things they find, it sparks their imagination. They create their own scenarios, their own games. And since childhood is when our brains are most impressionable, that creates neural pathways that are critical to the development of characteristics like creativity.

Ready-made games like video games, board games, even Lego sets that tell kids what to build aren’t the same. They’re not even in the same ballpark. It’s like the difference between a Picasso and paint-by-numbers.

But this isn’t just about kids. We’re quickly becoming a paint-by-numbers culture. And, in time, that will sap the one thing that still sets America apart from the rest of the world: Innovation. To say the consequences are far reaching is like saying our leadership in Washington is dysfunctional. No kidding.

When you say “innovation,” most of us think of iPhones and Google Glass. In reality, innovation plays a role in everything from education to medication, from literature to agriculture, from nanotech to green tech, from software to cookware.

Speaking of food, my wife is a gifted cook who attended a culinary academy. She says her biggest leap in the kitchen was when she’d done enough experimenting and was no longer afraid to take chances, to try new things. We don’t learn by following recipes, but by making mistakes. That’s how we gain confidence and courage.

Which reminds me. When I got out of school, my first boss said I was illiterate. He wasn’t far off. Two degrees and I still couldn’t write for beans. But somehow, somewhere along the line, I learned. How did that happen? Think those neural pathways that got trained into my brain when I was a kid had anything to do with it?

It’s the same thing with management. CEOs aren’t born that way. They don’t drop out of the sky into a cushy corner office chair. They start at the bottom and work their way up, just like I did. They take risks and learn from failure. That’s how they get to the top.

Even though your brain loses plasticity with age, it helps a lot of you don’t let those neural pathways atrophy -- like they do when you watch Dancing With the Stars or stare endlessly at YouTube videos.

That’s right, we’re spending more and more of our lives in front of a display. More and more of our meals are ready-made. What will a paint-by-numbers culture do to our critical thinking skills? What will it do to our creativity, our innovation, our leadership in the business world?

What do you think?

You know, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about our growing entitlement culture. It was gratifying to see it resonate with so many people who lean every which way, from CEOs and war veterans to ministers and professors.

The only responses that were disconcerting were the ones where folks said I failed to provide a solution to the problem. How ironic. We’re even becoming entitled to not have to think for ourselves.

I wonder how much we can get for paint-by-numbers art in China?