A few days ago, I was scanning hundreds of job postings for positions that pay $100,000 or more per year on theladders.com.  I was curious what top companies are looking for most in their new hires.  There’s the typical “self-motivated, track record of success, x # of years experience” stuff.  But something new is starting to show up on these high paying job descriptions.  Along side education and experience is the request for creativity.   In fact, companies are begging for creative, “outside of the box” thinkers who can find new solutions to old problems.


Why A Good Education is No Longer Good Enough

So, what are colleges doing to spur on the kind of creativity that companies want?  Apparently, not much.  In fact, there is a clear gap between the priorities of colleges to educate for the “real world” and the real world itself.  What companies want is clearly different than the training college graduates receive.For starters, let’s look at some of the leading icons of our day:

  • Steve Jobs
  • Bill Gates
  • Mark Zuckerberg (creator of Facebook)
  • Michael Dell (creator of Dell computers)
  • Ralph Lauren (designer)
  • John D. Rockefeller

What do they all have in common?  They are all known for what they have created.  And, they all dropped out of college.

“But,” you say, “you’re just pointing out exceptions to the rule – the majority of successful people have a college degree.”  Okay, I will give you that.  Creative people can be successful in college.  And, they can be successful without college.  The question before us is: Given that so many companies want creative people, do colleges provide an environment that encourages creativity?


Conformity vs. Creativity

I went to college, then I went to college some more, then I went to college even more after that.  To date, I spent almost 20% of my life (6 years) in college earning an Associates degree, then a Bachelors degree, then a Masters degree.  I’m no college hater.  But what I learned in college was how to learn (very important), how to take tests (somewhat important), how to write papers (very important), and how to earn good grades (the jury is still out).  I learned what others have said, their contribution to the field, and the debates over what others said.  Then, I took tests and wrote papers on that material.

My skills were increasing in the things that I was practicing – reading, writing, and test taking.  And, that counts for something – but I was under the impression that I was going to practice what I learned, not just practice learning.


The Problem? Good grades are often earned by conformity, not creativity.  

In graduate school, it was no secret that if you wanted a good grade, you’re writing assignment should reflect the views of the instructor, not your own.  If you wanted to craft an original paper, one that varies from the arguments given in class, do so at your own risk.  For all its benefits – and there are many – college can be extremely frustrating for those of us who want to find our own voice.  It is no mistake that some of the leading thinkers, innovators, and successful business leaders dropped out of college.  Perhaps thinking inside the box was just not an option for them.


Good Grades + Creativity = Success


The one fundamental need that we all have is to create.

From the time we were born we’ve been creating.  I used to create very elaborate stories in Kindergarten.  One late afternoon, my Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Henrietta, asked me why my mom was taking longer than normal to pick me up from school.  Without any hesitation, I told the teacher that she had a heart attack and that she was in the hospital.  Satisfied with the teachers’ shock and sorrow, I knew I had created a good story.  Ten minutes later my mom walked in to pick me up – and totally ruined my credibility.


Creativity requires courage.

Creativity gives the world a raw vision of who we really are and what we are capable of…and that is scary.  The pace that life forces us into is not conducive to becoming creative again.  What came so natural as a kid, has become foreign and uncomfortable as other impose their ideas onto us.  To create means to risk.  Steve Jobs risked the day he dropped out after one semester of Reed College to start his own company in his garage.  Apple Computers is now the largest U.S. company in U.S. history.  I don’t recommend that you drop out of college, but what would it mean to unleash the creative power that you have been given in your life?  What would it take to convince you that practicing will lead to greater success in all areas of your life?  In your life, would you rather conform or create?

Our world is increasingly complex and chaotic.  What we need are people who are willing to look at problems in a new way – maybe in a way that is different from their professors, parents, or classmates.  We need people who are willing to look foolish, who are willing to be told that they are wasting their time, who will walk alone for a while because it means changing the world.

Does being creative mean that we don’t have to work hard?  Of course not!  The most creative people often work the hardest.  Thomas Edison, who was perhaps the world’s most creative man of the 19th and 20th century, famously said,

“Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration. Accordingly, a  ‘genius’ is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.”  

By the end of his life, Edison had 1,368 patents to his name.  In the end, it wasn’t his GPA that mattered, it was a combination of creativity and hard work that led to his success.  Just like Steve Jobs, just like Bill Gates.

As for Edison, he never went to college.


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