I’m a child of the 80’s. I’ve always been obsessed with computers and technology. So obviously “Back to the Future Part II” wasn’t just a movie to me, it was a roadmap; a roadmap to a time when we won’t need… insert dramatic pause… roads. This week, on October 21, 2015 we celebrate “Back to the Future Day”, the so called “future” predicted back in 1989.
So what the heck happened?!?! Where are my friggin’ flying cars and hoverboards?
But I’m not going to talk about flying cars and hoverboards because what they represent is far more important. These crazy technologies represent our hope for a “fantastic future” (a term borrowed from Ashley Vance’s excellent book about Elon Musk).
For a 9-year old kid in 1989 looking into the future, 26 years is a long friggin’ time. Everything seemed possible. Or said another way, nothing seemed impossible.
What if you could keep this feeling that nothing is impossible for your entire life? If you could truly believe in the feasibility of flying cars and Mr. Fusion and self-lacing shoes and dog-walking drones? Imagine what you could achieve! You wouldn’t stop pursuing your idea as soon as some “expert” told you it was impossible. After all, many of the world’s greatest inventions were once thought to be impossible by “experts”. And, even if your idea did turn out to be impossible, how much smarter would you be if you learned this through your own trial-and-error? And how many other ideas might you come up with along the way?
But sadly, that childlike sense of wonder gets beaten out of us at an early age. Kids often stop dreaming about an idea when an adult tells them it’s too hard or impossible. I’ve had students tell me this when I speak at schools! How horrible is it that? Try talking about crazy solutions to a hard problem with a 9-year old and a 16-year old. I bet you have a more creative discussions with the younger child. It’s like our imagination is filtered as we get older.
Schools reward students for memorization, adherence, and uniformity instead of problem solving, exploration, and uniqueness. We need more kids like Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys who, after watching Sputnik in the night sky in 1957, developed a passion for building rockets that drove them to learn difficult math and science far beyond their school curricula. We need more kids like Jack Andraka, who lost a loved-one to pancreatic cancer and became determined to develop a very inexpensive test for the disease. We need more kids like Malala Yousafzai, who became the youngest Nobel Prize winner through her advocacy for women and education in Pakistan. We need more kids who are allowed to veer off track to pursue their passions with an encouraging teacher or local mentor.
The thing is, I suspect most of our kids start out just like Malala, Homer, and Jack. Sure, not everyone is gifted in the same way, but I’m confident that kids who are encouraged to pursue their passions could achieve far more than if they are forced to be like everyone else. By definition, when you make everyone enter a “standardized testing” system, you’re creating a system in which some kids win and some kids lose. We all lose when that happens. And, we all certainly lose when children of lower socioeconomic status and diverse backgrounds don’t get a fair opportunity to compete and innovate.
What sucks even more is that children raised in these systems of standardization become adults that perpetuate analogous ways of thinking in the corporate world. No, I don’t have data on this, so tell me if I’m wrong… but it makes intuitive sense, right? Many kids are raised in an environment where success is based entirely on their quarterly school report cards and annual standardized tests. As adults, might these kids run companies that prize quarterly earnings reports and shareholder value rather than long-term innovation and impact on the world? What if K-12 schools graded students on a three-year-long science project? Or six years to master a musical instrument? Or two years to write a novel? Wouldn’t students encouraged in this way be more likely to pursue their dreams and think innovatively about a far-off fantastic future?
As we get older, too many of us stop thinking with wild optimism and creativity like we did when we were kids. We let our fears of criticism or our rational brains hold us back from exploring something where we might fail. We stop proposing ideas about how things could be and instead restrict our thinking to what can get implemented this quarter. We stop daydreaming about flying. We stop having imaginary friends like Hobbes was for Calvin. We stop drawing dinosaurs in our notebooks. And that really sucks. I’d love to see the person next to me in a meeting drawing a tyrannosaurus rex instead of writing an email!
Yes, the past 30 years have given us mind-blowing innovations like the Internet and supercomputers in our pockets. So we’re doing something right. But not enough people are engaged in creating revolutionary “moonshot” products or addressing real-world problems. We have way too many challenges in this world to allow this to keep happening. The fantastic future we dream of now is different than it was in the 1980s; we must also focus on offsetting the negative effects of climate change and a struggling crowded planet.
We’re losing many of our best and brightest people to things that don’t matter. I am frustrated by how many startups are creating apps in which “success” is defined by how often they can distract people from the world around them for fifteen seconds. Look, we all definitely want and need entertainment (I love Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, Audible, Instagram, etc.), so there’s definitely a balance to strike here. But we probably don’t need so many of our brilliant engineers and entrepreneurs graduating from college only to apply their talent towards building apps and games. Imagine what else these amazing people could do!
If we think about everyone’s talents in a society as a resource that should be deployed strategically for the sake of all mankind, I’d argue we’ve failed epically on this.
I’m not blaming anyone here. Incentives need to be aligned better. This is a systemic problem and no single group or person is at fault. I’m writing this because I want to create solutions. I think the biggest moonshot for the next decade is convincing the world to work on moonshots. And I want your help. We’ve all gotta figure this out together. I don’t need a flying car or a hoverboard, but I need to believe that we can dream of a fantastic future and have the critical mass of smart, creative people (especially children) who will get us there someday.
If you interact with children in any way, please never tell them something is impossible. Help them pursue their interests and let them discover the challenges on their own. If they have a crazy idea that you can’t help them with, find someone in your community (or online) who can help. Challenge them to think BIGGER, not smaller. When you watch movies like “Back to the Future Part II” with kids, ask them what excites them about the future. Help them figure out how they can be part of creating that fantastic future we all desire.
We need our kids to continue dreaming of a radically better future… they are our best hope!