Art is the New Math

I was recently helping my 13-year-old son Noah with his math homework. Long division. By hand. Ewwww. Looking at his pained expression, I realized how pointless and outdated this exercise was and how our schools are teaching kids the wrong things.

I’ve been a business leader for the last 20 years, and I have never used long division in my career. Not once. Thanks to technology, there are readily available tools that compute faster and more accurately than any human. I also don’t live in a mud hut, ride a horse to work, nor communicate via telegram. So why does education focus on outdated concepts and techniques when there are so many more important things to learn?

The world has changed dramatically over the last few years, and a new set of critical skills has emerged as the currency for success: creativity, original thought, and imagination. These are the only functions that can’t be outsourced. In today’s ultra-competitive, incredibly complex environment, creative problem-solving trumps rote memorization. Fresh ideas beat rigid processes.

So why do we teach the exact opposite? We’re taught to follow-the-rules, guess-what-the-teacher-knows, be obedient, avoid risks, do what we’re told, and most importantly… don’t make mistakes! Yet this type of linear and fear-based thinking is the biggest inhibitor for creativity. The biggest inhibitor for success… in both business and life.

Nurturing creativity is job #1 for leaders of any organization, from big businesses to non-profits to families. We can’t prepare students for the challenges of tomorrow by teaching the skills of yesterday. Instead of cutting “soft” programs like art, music, and drama (courses that develop right-brain, abstract thinking) we must recognize these skills as critically important. More important that standardized tests and flash-card memorization.

Most of us teach others in some capacity – as parents, leaders, colleagues, spouses, and even as customers. You will make a greater impact by encouraging creativity and imagination instead teaching how to follow procedures. Our organizations, companies, and families can benefit greatly by exploring new ideas instead of favoring rigid obedience.

This week, think like an art teacher instead of a math teacher. Encourage others to look at their situation as a big, blank canvas with limitless possibilities for creative expression. Let go of those rules-driven norms, shun the status quo, and have those around you – from kids to co-workers – paint instead of compute.