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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Lazen

"Back to where we started": A conversation about education and being human with Seth Godin

For Seth Godin, the most valuable people in business aren’t the ones who do what they’re told. They’re the ones who tell him what to do. Who innovate. Who design. Who change. Who take risks. Who say, “This is not enough. We can go further than this.”

It’s a sermon Godin has been preaching for decades, in best-selling books, speeches and blog posts and one which has made him among the most sought after and respected thought leaders, entrepreneurs and business consultants working today.

Godin blames what he calls a “compliance surplus” on an outdated education system, designed at the turn of the last century to train factory workers for an industrial economy.

In his education reform manifesto and TED Talk Stop Stealing Dreams, he advocates for a revolution in mission, instructional strategy and culture of learning that replaces the emphasis on the assembly line skill set with one that trains for leadership in a modern “connection economy.”

Still, most children today are pushed out the door and into a public school environment that destroys initiative, discourages generosity, and extinguishes curiosity and creativity–the very qualities most prized in the connection economy.

In Godin’s book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable, he describes that dynamic as a “Faustian bargain, in which we trade our genius and artistry for apparent stability.” In The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly?, he suggests that choosing “stability” in a “race to the bottom” is just as dangerous as flying too close to the sun.

But for many parents like me, driving kids to perform according to state achievement standards without aiding and abetting the theft of their dreams feels like the story of a different myth: that of Sisyphus, condemned to an impossible task.

In an April interview, I spoke with Seth about aligning parenting with purpose—about creating a new mission for childrearing based on a modern economy and culture—in spite of what happens in the classroom.

Here are some quotes from Seth (the first few sections are most relevant to my work in the field of expressive arts therapy and education.) , taken from our conversation:

On becoming “artists” again:

“Art” is the work of a human being seeking to connect with another human being usually by doing something that hasn’t been done before. Doing something that might be risky and most of all doing something that’s generous … And I want to be very clear here that it’s easy to get carried away in the soft stuff that comes with nurturing and humanity and looking your kid in the eye and feeling that wonder of what it is to be 12. I am a huge fan of that. But I am talking about something different. I am talking about the fact that in addition to the fact that this is the right thing for people to do emotionally – it is also an economic imperative. That all the things we got sold on why we needed to leave [humanity] at home and why we needed to say to our son, grow up don’t cry—those excuses for acting non-human are GONE. They’re bogus now. Ironically we are back to where we started, which is being human."

On what parenting is for:

"Until you’ve asked the question what is parenting for … you can’t decide if you’re doing a good job."

"I’m arguing that what school is for is to create leaders and people eager to solve interesting problems … Everything we do at school should do one of those two things or support one of those two things. That’s my thesis and if you have a different one that’s fine but you should say it out loud. And when we think about parenting and ask what is parenting for… you can argue that a dominant, obeyed, authority figure sets the table - creates the platform for you to do the things that parenting is for, but I’d like to know what that is, because I don’t agree."

"For me—[the purpose of] parenting is [to] create a family that supports each other as they thrive and [to] create children who will grow up with joy in their heart and the passion to connect—[who will] be generous and lead us. Because if we have more of those people in the world- I think we’ll be better off."

On the end of the Industrial Economy:

"We invented public schools… jobs … suburbs–so many of the things that are part of our lives because we wanted and needed to support the industrial economy…. [It] was a very seductive bargain: if you gave up certain elements of self-determination and elements of your dreams—in return, the industrial economy would take good care of you and give you riches unimagined by anyone who wasn’t royalty years ago. [And now]… anyone who reads Play Buffet has more resources than the King of France did. And that is a huge step forward. But something has shifted. And what has shifted is that the industrial economy is faltering—it cannot and will not grow like it used to. And so the industrial revolution that kicked off in 1875 has played out, and now there’s a new revolution right here and right now that is not of industrial economy but of the “connection economy” and what we need to do now is inspire and train those of the connection economy fundamentally different from those that the industrial economy brought us."

On priorities:

"I’ll ask the well meaning parent three questions that will get to the heart of how hard this [issue of success] is as a parent:

What’s better: for your [child] to have five B’s or one A and three C’s and a D?

I would daresay that most parents would go for the five Bs. Be “pretty good” at everything. But in fact in the connection economy, the people who thrive in it are great—unbelievably off the charts at one thing. And they’ll do fine because they can hire someone to take care of the stuff they’re not good at.

[What’s better]: A kid who plays on a champion soccer team and doesn’t get a lot of playing time and doesn’t develop emotionally or a kid who loses every single game but along the way, with every single kid on that team, [plays and] figures out what it is to grow and to connect and to nurture each other?

Again, if you look at the parents in the stands—If you look at the coaches in high school that we reward– if you look at what they write about in the newspaper and what they talk about at school, you would seem to think that the purpose is to get trophies as if there is a trophy shortage and I don’t buy that.

What happens when your child comes home with an essay, a painting or a piece of pottery that… they are incredibly proud of but no one else gets, understands or admires? Do we reward the kid who has “talent”? Do we make sure that the star of the musical is always the same kid because she has the best voice? Or do we reward wide-eyed enthusiasm and righteous effort?

For that kid who’s just a natural and can sing like a bird—it’s not going to carry her very far—there are 500 other schools with kids just like her and there’s only room on Broadway for one. What in fact is going to pay off in the long run is the emotional intelligence and the resilience to care enough about a thing to keep pushing yourself to confront and dance with the dark side of failure – not applauding the one who happens to be good at it today.

[For] parents who are so focused on their kid getting into a famous college and so focused on how the other parents rank us because our kids have some sort of preternatural talent—it’s really hard to suck it up and say “nope, I am really enthusiastic about my kid who doesn’t appear to be good at this, but is on a track to be great at it.”

On Seth’s parents and his childhood:

"I won the parent lottery and I’m not ashamed to say it—my mom… was an extraordinary member of the community where I grew up in Buffalo. She started by volunteering at the art museum and ended up as the first woman on their board of trustees. She invented the modern museum store and was treasurer of the museum store association. My Dad became an entrepreneur when I was 17 and was the volunteer head of the United Way and the local area theater. I grew up believing that being part of the community was what you did. I lived in the suburbs, but we were in downtown Buffalo all the time. I had neighbors who had never once set foot in downtown Buffalo because people who didn’t look like them lived there.

My parents were totally in favor of raising free-range kids. As I’ve written before I was abandoned by some guy in downtown Cleveland at midnight when I was 14 and had to figure out how to get home on my own. And that changes everything because you start to realize that you have way more resources than you think you do. [My parents] also made it clear … that the goal wasn’t to mimic somebody and do what your were told—the goal was to be excellent at what you chose to do….

"I spent every summer … at a camp in Canada called Arowhon that is still in business, that’s very focused on extinguishing bullying and challenging kids … to do “something” all of the time. And once you realize that you can … put on a show, make a speech, create a prank, learn how to sail, go into the world, [on your own initiative] it gets really boring to just sit there doing nothing. And too often, we’ve over-programmed our kids too much that we’ve extinguished their desire to make a ruckus on their own."

"There was a lot of being left alone. When I think about stuff we did with electrical wire, chemicals, shovels and other implements of destruction—it freaks me out. … This idea that “I’m not going to entertain you right now—you’re seven years old, here’s a spool of wire- see you later”—there’s a lot to be said for that."

On technology at home:

"We don’t “really” have TV in my house … even in interactive screen time, you are anonymous and what I think is important is that you have to put your name on it. You have to be in the [real] world and say “I made this”. Not, my avatar made this– not, my username made this– I made this. And once that starts, I think every eleven-year-old ought to be blogging and every twelve-year-old ought to be uploading videos they made because being able to say … I made this [and then see] a reaction creates a cycle where you can get better at it. That is really different than consuming South Park."

On creative challenges:

"Different (creative challenges) resonate with different kids. I’m a huge fan of putting on a show …The act of putting on a show or selling a girl scout cookie or doing a fundraiser is that you get to say “I made this”… the point is saying “here I am”—it doesn’t have to be acting but it has to be something: somebody connecting to someone else about something they care about."

"What we (parents) have to do is understand that we’re the ones who are going to take the hits the same way we did in the delivery room and the same way we take the hit when we have to swallow our fear when our kid rides his bike away for the first time. And those hits involve looking our kid in the eye when he says he doesn’t want to go to college and finding out if that’s a real thing and if so, applauding that. And sending our kid out to sell girl scout cookies all by herself like “a free range kid” as opposed to doing it for her so that she ends up with higher scores on the girl scout cookie rankings."

On courage and letting go:

"Courage in WWI was a little different than it is now. Courage in WWI was most certain death to help a country thousands of miles away … so the courage we are talking about now is the Brene’ Brown sort of courage—the vulnerability courage … [and] … it’s the courage to sit still and just create gaps where creativity and passion can fill in. And that’s really hard to do. Because in those gaps and in those moments you’re not in control. You don’t know what’s going to happen next … .but if you create a good enough vacuum and you’ve earned it, your kid will tell you what happened to her in school because she wants to build that bridge if you let her."

On achievement and success:

"If I look at someone like [musician and artist] Amanda Palmer who broke the record for the most successful Kickstarter fundraiser ever raising 1.2 million dollars, organizing her 24,000 fans, building a worldwide tour, giving one of the most popular TED Talks of the year and most of all, bringing her art to people who wanted it, Amanda Palmer by every [traditional] measure, was not a success when she was 15, 20, 23. She spent years at Harvard Square, standing on the street, busking on the street, pretending to be a silent bride in a wedding dress. And you look at the arc of Amanda Palmer’s life and it’s not the arc that you brag about in the alumni magazine. It’s the arc of someone who cares and someone who is going to get there because she needs to and wants to and has committed to. And it’s not the arc of someone who went to the famous college, got picked at the placement office and has a niche in the industrial economy."

"If your goal is for your kids to be successful, 40 years ago, you could argue that a niche in the industrial economy was exactly the right thing, but I’m pointing out that that’s not available anymore. So parents have to suck it up and back their kids up. They have to say to their kid who is boring but has straight A’s, “You are letting your family down” because all you are doing is playing in the industrial economy."

"What’s fascinating about [places like] Manhattan school of Music and Julliard is [that they are] basically sweatshops churning out low paid workers for the orchestral industrial complex … what they spend all their time doing is pushing their students to play [music] as written. Technique is the dominant metaphor and practice is the only way to get there … [But] the students who are both happy and successful do not get that way because they have out-practiced everyone else or can play a scale 1% better than everyone else. In fact, the Yo Yo Ma’s, the Emanuel Ax’s and the Keith Jarrett's of the world, don’t get there solely by practice…."

"You succeed by playing what you feel. You succeed by having the guts to do something that might be criticized and yet we’ve created these institutions where we try to push people to do things that are beyond criticism as opposed to raising kids who are eager to be criticized because it means they are on to something."

On compliance:

"The industry of 20’s 30’s 40’s was 100% about the power of the manager and particularly the middle manager to demand compliance from “his” employees … and if you had compliance and the work they were doing was simple enough, you would make a profit …Compliance was prized above all else. And it’s not a big leap from compliance at work to corporal punishment at home: to sitting up straight at the dinner table and doing what your parents insist upon. And leaving aside the ethical and moral implications of that … those who are really good at [compliance] are never going to get a great gig in 2020, because we really don’t need anyone who’s merely competent and compliant."

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