How We Are Taught Not to Succeed

Written by lewsauder

March 10, 2014

Not to succeed

How we are taught not to succed

I still remember my kindergarten class with Miss Fischer.  We did our fair share of learning, memorizing the days of the week, the alphabet and so on.  But more than that, I remember singing, playing, and climbing the jungle gym.

It wasn’t until first grade that we got down to business. Throughout my primary school years, we had our share of fun.  There was music class and art class.  We had a lot of fun on the playground at recess too. But the bulk of time was spent in the classroom cramming facts into our brain.  Mathematics, grammar, history, science, spelling, etc.

Taught not to succeed

Day after day, year after year, we sat in classrooms all day being taught.  Every once in a while they checked to see if we were listening by springing a test or a pop quiz on us.

Then, in my senior year, without warning, all of these adults who decided what I would learn – teachers, parents, guidance counselors – began asking me strange questions. “What do you want to do with your life?” “Where do you want to go to college?” “What do you want to major in?”

For twelve years, superiors decided what I would study, when I would study and how my success would be judged.  Then in an abrupt change of direction, I was expected to make decisions for myself. It seemed to be a great lesson on how not to succeed.

I was confused for a while.  Actually, for a long while. I went to college with an “undeclared” major, finally deciding to get into technology.  My decision on a major in technology (it was called Data Processing in those days), wasn’t based on any certainty of what I wanted to do with my life.  It was based more on the fact that a lot of people seemed to be doing that… so what the hell.

See my related post: Are You Contagious?

It worked out quite well for me. But that’s more because it was a lucky decision than a well thought out career strategy. I’ve never dismissed the idea that I might just be the luckiest dumbass on the planet.

I don’t think I’m alone either.  And it appears that the way we raise children today may make it even worse.

There is less play and creativity in school today and more fact cramming. We measure the success of students and teachers alike based on the number crunching outcomes of standardized tests.

When college graduates make the transition into the work world, they are often given orders and told what to do rather than prompting ideas from them. What the hell do these young green employees know?  The older folks with all of their experience know better. Besides, that’s how it was done when we started out.  If it was good enough for us, it’s good enough for them.

On the other hand, we hear an awful lot of noise about creativity, problem solving and innovation.  We need new ideas. We have all of this technology. How can we apply it in profitable ways? The kid is book-smart, but why can’t he solve a problem where the answer isn’t in the back of the book?

We spend sixteen years in primary and secondary school “educating” the world’s youth. But that education consists of facts and figures.  Most of the problem solving is artificial.

What can we do?

There are no easy solutions. I don’t claim to have all the answers.  But I see a void in non-fact based activities in our education system.  Programs like art and music that get students using the other side of their brain have taken big hits from economic cut-backs.

Not every student is an athlete. But there are – or should be – enough extracurricular activities for every student to participate.  What if school went until 5:00 every day? The sixty to ninety minutes could be focused on everything they don’t focus on now.

If you’re not into athletics, there is music, art, chess club, or some activity that uses different brain muscles you didn’t use during the day.

Problem solving should be a bigger part of the curriculum.  Not absolute problem solving where the teacher compares your answer to the correct answer in the teacher’s guide. Problem solving where there are many right answers based on the argument you make for it.

Problem solving where the answer begins with “It depends…” Then the student is required to tell the class what it depends on, what parameters she had to work around and the answer she finally came up with.

There is a famous story about FedEx founder Fred Smith. In business school, he submitted a paper for a Yale economics class in which he proposed the idea of an overnight package delivery company. He received a poor grade on the paper with a note from the instructor that the idea had to be feasible.

How often have you been shot down with “Wrong answer”, and never pursued your calling? How often does that happen in schools every day?

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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