Rebellion of an Innovation Mom
June 5th, 2011
09:05 AM ET

Rebellion of an Innovation Mom

Editor's Note: Anne-Marie Slaughter is the Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. Follow her on Twitter at @slaughteram.

By Anne-Marie Slaughter – Special to CNN

Call it the rebellion of the mother of two adolescents against the Tiger Moms, but what this nation needs to be innovative and entrepreneurial is to ask our kids to do less.

Innovation requires creativity; entrepreneurship requires a willingness to break the rules. The jam packed, highly structured days of elite children are carefully calculated to create Ivy League-worthy resumes. They reinforce habits of discipline and conformity, programming remarkably well-rounded and often superb young people who can play near concert-quality violin, speak two languages, volunteer in their communities and get straight A’s.

These are the students that I see in my Princeton classes; I am often in awe of their accomplishments and teaching them is a joy. But I strongly suspect that they will not be the inventors of the next "new new thing".

Creativity requires a measure of random association and connection and substantial periods of down time, where the mind is allowed to run and turn over seemingly disconnected bits of information, images, and ideas. Richard Florida, author of The Creative Class (follow him on Twitter at @richard_florida), observes that “many researchers see creative thinking as a four-step process: preparation, incubation, illumination and verification or revision.”

Incubation is “the ‘mystical’ step,” one in which both the conscious mind and the subconscious mull over the problem in hard-to-define ways.” Hard to define, yes, but not hard to foster, as long as chunks of the day or the week are left open for relatively random activity: long walks, surfing the Internet, browsing a bookstore, household chores that don’t require too much thought, watching the birds at the birdfeeder and gazing out at the ocean.

Tune In: Sunday 8pm ET/PT as Fareed Zakaria explores why innovation is the key to America's future on CNN.

Creativity gurus often suggest ways to add randomness to your life. Left to their own devices, teenagers are masters at drifting from fad to fad, website to website, and event to event as their fancy takes them, but that seemingly aimless, random wandering is exactly what we are programming out of them.

Entrepreneurship means undertaking something new, something that you create or make happen that does not exist in your space. It does not have to require breakthrough innovation; successful entrepreneurs can borrow ideas that are succeeding elsewhere and transfer them. But our most famous entrepreneurs have a vision and follow it in defiance of conventional wisdom.

One of the nation’s leading entrepreneurs recently listened to me pitch a new idea and patiently told me the many reasons it was unlikely to work and/or that I was the wrong person to make it happen at this point in my life. But at the end of our conversation, he smiled and said: “Of course, every successful entrepreneur started with an idea that other people said would not work but persevered anyway. So go for it.”

Read and Watch: China poses an innovation challenge to the U.S.

To nurture young people who are willing to persevere in the face of deep skepticism or outright opposition, we must reward them or at least allow them to be rewarded for breaking the rules, not meeting our expectations by jumping through an endless series of hoops.

Remember that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college to follow their passions.

Can we really imagine kids who have done absolutely everything expected of them both in and out of school being willing to ignore their college courses and their parents’, teachers’, and coaches’ expectation to suddenly pursue their own path?

Check Out: More from the "Global Innovation Showcase" created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

The U.S. higher educational system recognizes the value of challenging authority; that is what “teaching critical thinking” is all about. I wrote in 2009 that the U.S. was primed to remain an innovation leader precisely because we give A’s for the answers that challenge the teacher’s thinking and B’s for the answers that echo it.

China, by contrast, is not a country where the government is likely to foster challenging authority any time soon. But a genuinely entrepreneurial, creative nation cannot reward such thinking only in the classroom. We must openly value rule breakers, rebels, and iconoclasts and hold them up as role models. Scary stuff for parents of teenagers, of course – we are then inviting them to challenge our authority. And many readers are already no doubt thinking that Gates and Zuckerberg had to get in to Harvard to be able to drop out of it, and their paths in were not exactly unconventional (they both excelled at exclusive prep schools).

Read: Fareed Zakaria's TIME article, The Future of Innovation: Can America Keep Pace?

True, but Gates at least demonstrated a willingness to break the rules at an early age; he and three fellow students got banned by a computer company for exploiting bugs in a program to get free computer time.

For anyone noticing that my two examples are both men, that may not be accidental. I recall many conversations when I was teaching at Harvard Law School about why our women students did better on average than our male students but that the superstars of the class – the kids who were reinventing legal doctrines on their exam essays – were almost always male.

Read and Watch: A brief history of innovation

By contrast, one researcher had found that women were more likely to be at the very top of their class at Suffolk Law School, where they were often the first women or even the first children in their families even to go to law school. My colleagues posited that these young women had had to break the mold at every step, and had been rewarded for it, in contrast to the many elite young women who are rewarded for meeting expectations – for being good girls.

A Princeton study on women’s leadership has just found that women are far more likely to take second chair leadership positions, supporting the organization and getting the work done as vice-chair, executive editor, or secretary, than to have their name at the top of the masthead.

One young woman surveyed referred to “the intensity of self-effacement,” acknowledging the social pressures on girls not to “put themselves forward.” Are not we still much more likely to reward girls for being good, while bad boys get “boys will be boys”? Who is more likely to carve their own path? On the other hand, women who leave conventional corporate and legal career path to be the kind of parents they want to be are then much more likely to start their own businesses because they require the flexibility of being their own bosses, so we may have cultural counter-currents fostering female entrepreneurship later in life.

Read and Watch: Fareed Zakaria on innovation online and on TV.

Finally, Tiger Mothering encourages competition over cooperation. The discipline that competition enforces – in the daily practice of a sport, instrument, writing or performing art – is important for later success of any kind, conventional or entrepreneurial. But the verification or revision stage of the creative process often comes from tossing ideas around among members of a trusted group, as does the courage to launch something new.

In a recent piece on the perception that the current generation of young people are slackers, Jon Gosier notes that their habit of asking for help and wanting to work with others reflects their understanding of the gains that come from teamwork, which “have been learned from the collaborative nature of their childhood activities, which included social networks, crowd-sourcing and even video games like World of Warcraft.”

The corporate culture at hubs of innovation like Google and Twitter encourages employees to hang out together, work together and explore random ideas in a collaborative atmosphere.

Read: Are we still an innovation nation?

Nothing in this post is meant to reflect on the problems with secondary education in the majority of U.S. schools across the nation, where kids need more hours in the classroom and hard work on the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. But to be an innovation nation in the knowledge-based, networked economy of the 21st century, we must remember that creativity and entrepreneurship cannot be programmed, and that less is often more.

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Topics: Culture • Education • Innovation • United States

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soundoff (330 Responses)
  1. nonprovincial

    The image for this article looks more like a Harry Potter ad that would appeal to the less educated in the CNN audience. Fundamentals are what most Asians strive for their children to achieve [as best they can]. Music, math, science, literature, athletics on an international scale are the focus and not some ghost like feel good visual effect mixed with talking head speak that is presented here. American provincial culture strives for Santa Claus and the local baseball team. I am a white American born, raised and educated here but I have lived and worked most of my life in Asia. So what really is the American Dream? Sucking billions out of the economy by manipulating friends and contracts? You are as they say just full of it.

    June 6, 2011 at 1:16 am | Reply
  2. Mark Buxman

    I find it kind of funny, if you stop and think about it, everyone go to college get all of those letters attached to their name then try to install a water heater or build an addition to your home or better yet build a home. Probably not going to happen. I can think of thousands of ways to compete with a college degree and make the degree seem pretty insignificant, yet while I sat in my college classes it seemed like an easy way to spend time. I think innovation is an individual thing that can't be taught any more than you can teach someone to overcome a phobia of some type. They are both things that you deal with individually.

    June 6, 2011 at 1:33 am | Reply
  3. Ramana Annamraju

    What Innovation China did????I am lost... Just mention one besides kung pao chicken!!!!!

    June 6, 2011 at 1:34 am | Reply
    • Gloria Yeline

      Compass, printing, firecrackers–in case you didn't already know.

      June 6, 2011 at 2:32 am | Reply
      • Jason

        I don't think that innovations that predate the discovery of North America are very relevant to a discussion of American trade competitiveness.

        June 6, 2011 at 6:19 am |
  4. Klaark

    I see we're operating under the idea that we've got two ways to raise children: As hippies, or hyper-efficient robo-Asians. Because no one ever broke free of their parents' influence and succeeded or failed on their own merits as people...

    June 6, 2011 at 1:50 am | Reply
  5. Ramana Annamraju

    America will raise and become true innovative leaders in the two critical fields 1) Quantum Mechanics 2) Neuro Sciences

    June 6, 2011 at 1:55 am | Reply
  6. KingNear

    As much as Dr. Slaughter emphasizes the need to break outside the box, I don't think she's advocating for complete wimsy. Innovation isn't radical creativity, it's a synthesis of the old and the new. Zuckerberg didn't create something out of nothing, he drew on a vast knowledge of current products as a base to expand on. Take music as another example. From time to time somebody will come along and invent a new genre, but most artists – even really good ones – copy and synthesize to create their own style. Although a revolutionary may develop the basis of a new product, the majority of advances happen piecemeal over time.

    As for recommendations, I think Dr. Slaughter's point is that teachers, parents, and other authority figures need to incorporate more opportunities to challenge the norm. I also think it's important for students to show their work. Most people can think of a new idea, but do they have a purpose for the change and is it actionable? Creativity can and should be held accountable to good reasoning.

    June 6, 2011 at 1:59 am | Reply
  7. desmond murray

    Take a look at http://www.bestearly.com for an educational approach that should be part of America's innovation strategy ..... universal adoption of early research participation. Give us your feedback.

    June 6, 2011 at 8:29 am | Reply
  8. Mari Lynch

    Absolutely, less is often more! Too many kids are on a http://RacetoNowhere!

    June 7, 2011 at 2:54 am | Reply
  9. Mari Lynch

    Absolutely, less is often more! Too many kids are on a http://RacetoNowhere.com

    June 7, 2011 at 2:54 am | Reply
  10. Hypocrye

    What a load of crap! Husband and wife bios are seeped in IVY (poison). I bet their sons are already enrolled in SAT courses, play the instrument, have done work helping the homeless in Princeton and already fine tuning their IVY-entrance resume.

    June 7, 2011 at 9:28 am | Reply
  11. DdC

    Here a nice quote that summarizes previous contributions:
    "A reasonable person adjust to society.
    Hence all progress depends on unreasonable people."

    Creativity is a personality disorder. One needs lots
    of energy, perseverance, intelligence, and a way to
    perceive things differently.
    It is not a zero-one feature.
    It has many different type of outcomes, not necessarily
    yielding financial success.
    Very, very few individuals have it.
    One cannot educate for creativity -- I believe.
    A society needs to be perceptive to these strange minds.
    Some societies are (sometimes) better than others to foster
    creativity.
    Have a look at a site that lists #Nobel price winners/capita.
    You will be surprised with the top and the bottom:

    http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/peo_nob_pri_lau_percap-nobel-prize-laureates-per-capita

    June 8, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Reply
  12. alex

    Balance is the keyword here. x% Tiger-mom style plus y% free style makes it work, with values of x and y adjusted person by person, day by day, and project by project. This if the formula that works for me, who has been pretty successful in innovation in science and technology.

    June 8, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  13. Hans

    This is one of the best articles I have read on CNN.

    June 9, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  14. Name*Amy P. Kelly

    Check out our site that is being built! You are a total Lemonhead, and The Lemonhead Movement salutes your encouragement to collaboration and innovation! We would love to see you on our Produce Board.

    June 10, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Reply
  15. Casey Lu

    I wonder what Ms. Slaughter has to say about the Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld's response:

    http://tigersophia.blogspot.com/2011/06/well-look-what-cat-dragged-in.html

    June 18, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Reply
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    November 29, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Reply
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