The question isn’t “if you’re smart”, it’s “how you’re smart”.
We’ve been conditioned — by society and industry — to believe that genius is “other-worldly”, reserved for the fortunate few, the Musks, Sandbergs and Jobs of the world.
This narrow view of genius is one of the most pressing challenges staring down the future of education. A monolithic definition of intelligence currently holds the next generation captive; because the majority of students are “taught” — explicitly and implicitly — that they lack the “smarts” (the goods) to advance through the system. As Dr. Chris Emdin says, “Students quickly receive the message that they can only be smart when they are not who they are.” Kids begin to shrivel and contort themselves to fit into a system and standardized expectation of learning and aptitude. I’ve seen it at my own school, and even with my own children. I’ve seen kids who have been told they can’t. I’ve seen kids fail because they can’t conform to academia’s limitations — only to see them unfurl to full capacity when given the space and tools to tap into their strengths and learn through experience.
What if, however, we were able to reframe human potential so that millions of teen students, the world over, realized that they possessed their own special secret sauce? What if every student believed they possessed their own form of genius, their own brand of smarts that was celebrated, encouraged, and nurtured in school? Can you imagine the massive awakening, renaissance even, that would ensue?
How then do you begin to ignite one’s unique genius? From research and experience, there are four key components to unlocking human potential at scale.
Expand the Aperture Rather Than Narrow the Focus When teens are asked the proverbial, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, 9 times out of 10 the usual suspects are uttered. “Oh, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher….” Most teens happen into a career choice because of a familial pathway (Mom was an attorney, Uncle Mike was an accountant), rather than due to their own experiential and creative exploration. What if kids could be exposed to a much wider array of career possibilities, a catalogue of hundreds of life pursuits, each with a compelling story about how an individual designed and built their life anchored in passion, meaning, and impact? What if teens had time in school to truly explore the world outside of it?
Passion is the Guide A close cousin to the narrowing-effect is the personality profile. Coast to coast, most high schools administer a college/career prep assessment to gauge interests/readiness and provide a recommended path forward. “John, you are introverted, mechanically inclined and precision-oriented, we suggest the best careers for you are vo-tech— possibly as a machinist, welder or mechanic. A two-year trade school certificate would enable you to earn a starting salary of $45k with good earning potential — especially in the south.” Every fall, such “sentences” are meted out to rising seniors — with no consideration of the deep reservoir of passion that students like John possess for digital photography, jewelry-making and drone flying. A deeper exploration of passions, interests, and skills uncovers a vast picture of possibility for kids.
Hands-On is the Only Way As master farriers know all too well, the best time to strike the anvil is when it’s red hot. Once your passion is sparked, the embers ignite, and that’s when you want to hit the hammer hard — get immersed, lost in the flow to determine the depth of your talents and aspirations. It is here, in the inferno, where your future is formed. Building the skills, capabilities and confidence that will propel you forward. When teens authentically try new things, gathering real experiences, they build passions and aspirations beyond anything they’ve ever known.
Craft and Share Your Narrative. The final and most important dimension is storytelling. Curating the set of experiences, insights and ideas that one has amassed; and assembling this body of work into a custom portfolio. A robust tapestry of what makes you unique — passions, talents, values — and the trajectory that you aspire to. A portfolio is a much more robust vessel for capturing and communicating the fullness of your potential and how you wish to show up in the world.
In this Age of AI, when data science and digital technologies are accelerating at warp speed, it’s essential that we take the moment to rethink what makes us human. Deep in our DNA lie the strands of our brilliance — the gifts, the passions, and the ambitions that define our potential.
All of us have an opportunity for greatness in this world; defined not pedagogically, but intrinsically, experientially and soulfully. That we can unlock the door and step to the edge of our humanity, discovering the vast possibility – that is our genius.