Sunday, May 16, 2010

Teach Your Children

Over the years, I had the opportunity to work with and learn from senior executives. I've worked with people who were CEOs of small companies, mid-sized companies and multi-billion dollar corporations. Many of them have exemplified what I consider to be strong leadership and management. Many were terrible leaders and managers, but adept users of politics, credentials and leverage.

One of the things that stands out in my mind as a significant differentiating factor between the great leaders and the not-so-great leaders is how they were educated (or how they educated themselves.) The great leaders had significant hands-on experience--not just in business, but in life. Their knowledge of the businesses they ran went beyond the generics of running a business; they really knew and loved the products that they produced. The not-so-great had impressive degrees and read a lot.

This got me to thinking this morning about how we learn and how we teach our children.

How We Learn
Yesterday, in So, Just Who Do You Think You Are?, I talked a bit about two primary forms of learning: through instruction and through experience. When we learn through instruction (from a teacher or from a book), we learn about something, but we don't actually learn the thing itself. When we learn through experience, we learn the thing itself, though we might not know much about it.

I would note that when I talk about learning through experience, I don't simply mean having an experience. To learn through experience requires processing, thinking, trial-and-error, discovery and derivation, i.e., figuring things out.

For example, if I memorize a book on playing the piano, I'll be able to tell you many things about the piano and about how it's played, but I won't know piano nor will I be able to play piano.

If I learn to play through instruction, I'll be able to do much more with the piano than I would having read a book; however, much of what I know will be second-hand knowledge, it won't be my own.

If learn the piano by sitting in front of it and poking at the keys, trying this and trying that, picking out tunes in my head, I gain an intimacy with the piano that I wouldn't get from a book or through instruction. However, I wouldn't know formal terms to describe the skills or knowledge I'd acquired and I might develop technique that isn't particularly useful.

In the end, we all learn through a combination of instruction, experience (or application) and figuring things out. However, we each have biases that favor one form over another, and that determine the sequencing, e.g., try it out and then receive instruction or receive instruction and then try it out.

The most formiable CEOs that I've met were of the figure-it-out-and-then-learn-what-you-call-it variety. The least were of the I-learned-all-about-this-in-business-school variety.

Qualifications for Adulthood
Every parent wants to raise children who are independent and can take care of themselves. However, it seems that by twenty-one, most kids today are not particularly good at either. I think this results from our having intimately associated education and school. We almost talk about them synonymously.

There are many experientially-acquired skills not typically acquired in school that serve as prerequisites for independence and self-reliance (and for CEO-ship). So, I thought I'd create a set of qualifications for adulthood. It's basically a checklist of experiences that result in acquisition of the requisite skills, not a list of the skills themselves. To satisfy each qualification one must have actually had and learned from the experience without any assistance.

Instruction can be employed, but the qualification is not satisfied until the experience has been completed without realtime instruction.
  1. Repair a tire on a bicycle
  2. Change a tire on an automobile
  3. Mow a lawn for a summer
  4. Travel to a foreign country alone
  5. Prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner from scratch without a microwave
  6. Swim two miles, or run ten miles, or bicycle 100 miles
  7. Write a poem
  8. Sing in front of an audience
  9. Build a fire using no more than wood and matches
  10. Hike to a camping ground carrying your own tent, food and sleeping bag
  11. Eat something that you've grown from a seed
  12. Balance a checkbook
  13. Build a piece of furniture of your own design
  14. Find and repair a leak
  15. Speak a second language fluently
  16. Change a really messy diaper
  17. Live with someone from another country
  18. Change the oil in a car
  19. Program the clock on a VCR without looking at the manual
  20. Learn to play your favorite song
  21. Drive in a city of more than 1,000,000 people
  22. Paint a picture
  23. Repair a lamp
  24. Catch and cook a fish
  25. Take care of someone who is sick or cannot take care of himself
I'm sure that we could come up with qualifications, but I think that this list is a pretty good one.

Raising Adults
As I look at the above list, I realize that there are several items that my folks ensured I experienced, but that I never ensured that my kids experienced. I was fortunate to have a dad from Finland who considered it American decadence to hire someone to do work that you could do yourself and a mom who didn't really begin to love early mornings or cooking until after I was in high school.

On the other hand, by the time my kids were growing up, we had things like maintenance plans and Triple-A (roadside automobile assistance) and a belief that parenting involved taking care of your kids which is substantially different than raising them.

As I look at my list, I like it. In fact, I think I might incorporate it into the interviewing process when hiring people.

What about you? Are your kids on track to have had all the above experiences (or reasonable substitutes) by twenty-one? Have you had them? If not, maybe you could acquire them together, yet independently? You might even learn something from your kids.

Have a happy, experientially rich Sunday!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi Dad,
    I really enjoyed this post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and wisdom. Love you-Joy

  3. Food for thought. I like the list. I think I will come up with my own. I have to be able to ride a bicycle to want to be able to repair the tire. Maybe I can learn with the kids....

  4. Heeey Faith, welcome back. I hope you had an amazing trip. I would love to hear everything about it! In meanwhile, I can tell you from experience, rinding a bike and repairing a tire are totally different things! So, even though I would love for you to experience how to ride a bike, that doesn't have to hold you back from repairing one!

  5. We had a great time, Iris! We'll talk soon. I fell off a bike at 12 and never went back on. I won't even want to learn to repair a tire if neither myself or the children ride!

  6. Hey, Joy.

    Thank you for your comment(s)! I'd love to teach you how to repair a flat bicycle tire while we show Logan as well! Maybe all three of us can run a tri-generational marathon together?

    Love, Dad

  7. I'm not surprised: I've never grown up!!! and I feel great staying at least 10% non-grown up.

  8. I want to make a quick addition to my list of 25 Qualifications for Adulthood.

    After a brief discussion with our summer interns (all of whom are pursuing university degrees in engineering), Jonathan and I discovered that not one of them could drive a car with a manual transmission.

    Sigh, what's the world coming to?

  9. Teflon's comments have a clear male bias.
    I have some to add to the list that I suspect he still has not done, and hence is not really a fully-'qualified' adult:
    1. Sew a 3-piece garment (including hat) for a Barbie doll.
    2. Raise a pig or steer from infant all the way to slaughter.
    3. Remove old wallpaper from a 10x12 room and rehang new paper. Determine the proper number of rolls needed before starting.
    4. Share one bathroom with two other girls.
    5. Clean a refrigerator, inside, outside, behind.
    6. Try out for cheerleading.
    7. Taste before salting.
    8. Work in the campaign of someone who is running for public office.


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