Friday, August 27, 2010

Grade Inflation

My daughter Eila was always good in school... more than good. She was from many perspectives, the perfect child. She was responsible. She was diligent. She was cheerful. She was creative. She was happy.

Unlike her amazing siblings whose interests would sometimes lead to encounters with local public security personnel, Eila was one of those kids who just never got into trouble. Eila did great in grade school. She did great in high school. She was doing great in college. However, something started bothering her; she was doing great, she was on track, and yet she didn't want to do what she was doing. She felt that there was more for her, something outside the normal go-to-college-and-get-a-job scenario. She also felt that she should be in school, that she should finish what she'd started, stay the course, go the distance.

So, despite the protests of her teachers, despite the dyer prognostications of her friends, Eila left school. She wasn't sure where she was going or what she was going to do, but she knew where she wasn't going to stay.

It wasn't easy for Eila. She'd been on a well-defined track for so long, she wasn't sure what to do next. She'd flirt with various ideas, but didn't really engage them. She'd start the engine and press the gas pedal, but the wheels would just spin, the car wouldn't move. Finally, after a week of deep exploration into herself and her motivations, Eila called me to tell me that she'd figured it all out.
Excitedly, Eila told me, "Dad, I know why I have been so uncomfortable not being in school. When I'm not in school, I don't know who's grading me. But you know what? I don't need anyone to grade me any more!"

Eila was just twenty and overnight she changed everything. She became her own keeper of the grades, her own evaluator, her own designer of curriculum. She never looked back. Why bother? But instead, she looked forward as the uncertainty and ambiguity of the future morphed into unbounded opportunity.

Out-of-the-Box
Over the past decade or so, the notion of "thinking out of the box" has come into vogue. People admire out-of-the-box thinking. Corporate execs will declare, "What we need here is some 'out-of-the-box' solutions?"

Ostensibly, out-of-the-box implies unbounded, creative thought not limited by convention and historical perspective. However, out-of-the-box really means just what it says, outside the normal boundaries, but just barely outside. In practice, we simply place a slightly bigger box around the current box and allow thought to occur in the space between. In some cases, this leads to incremental improvement, in some cases not, but in all cases, it precludes breakthroughs.

The problem with how we implement out-of-the-box thinking is that we immediately start to grade new ideas before they've fully formed, ending up with tiny idea abortions strewn around us. We feel that we're out of the box simply because we've voiced ideas that we'd never have voiced from inside the box, yet our grading system is still anchored deeply inside the original box, a grading system that considers ideas still in the box but touching the edges to be extreme.

You can think out of the box as long as you want, but if your grading system is still grounded in the box, well...

Breakthrough thinking occurs only when we tear down the box and jetisen the grader, even if only temporarily. When you do this, you give newly conceived ideas the opportunity to come to term, to see the light of day. You can always toss'em in a bag of rocks and drop'em in a river when you're done, but you'll be doing so with a full understanding of what they are and could be.

Who's grading you? Is it someone (or some ones) in your present, or is it a voice (or voices) from your past? Where does the voice of your evaluator originate? What does your grader tell you? When does it laud you and when does it reprimand you? Why?

What situations in your life could use a little out-of-the-box thinking? Have you tried to do so? If so, was the experience that of creating a bigger box or was it that of open-ended exploration? Did you silence the grader or did you bring her along?

What would change in your life if you didn't need anyone to grade you anymore?

Happy Friday,
Teflon

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