Finding the Next Einstein

Why smart is relative

The Role of Talent In Education and Business

A conversation with Norman Augustine

“I am often asked whether I am an optimist or a pessimist.  I generally answer with the old saying, ‘A pessimist is a person who wants to be an optimist, but has a grasp of the facts.’”

These are the words of Norman Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin and the current chairman of the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee.  He holds numerous honorary degrees and has been presented with the National Medal of Technology by the President of the United States.

I first learned of his work when reading Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, a report from the National Academy of Sciences.  Deeply intrigued, I next read Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth? and discovered Augustine’s Laws which compiles the insights he acquired as an aerospace businessman.

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I had the privilege to ask Norm about his thoughts on educating America’s most talented students, what the education sector can learn from the business sector on talent identification and development, traits he thinks we should be developing in students, and what Americans can learn from other countries.  He had much wisdom to share.

JON: Why should Americans care about the education of our country's most talented students?

NORM: Certainly one of the many reasons that America should care about the education of our most talented students is that these individuals will, in their lifetimes, disproportionately create jobs for others ... and jobs are the basis of an individual's standard of living and to a not inconsiderable degree to our national quality of life.  The jobs such students will create through the creation of knowledge and the application of innovation are also important to our government since such jobs provide the tax base that permits the federal system to provide national security, healthcare, education and more. 

Since my own field is science and technology, let me use it as an example.  Many decades ago some brilliant researchers holding PhD's were performing investigations in solid state physics and quantum mechanics, certainly with no idea that what they were doing would one day be important to the creation of iPads and iPods.  Similarly, some years later some extraordinarily capable individuals were studying the then little-understood physical phenomena that ultimately led to the invention of the transistor and the integrated circuit.  The application of their observations has literally changed the world.  In terms of jobs, an article in the Journal of International Commerce and Economics reports that the 700 (extraordinary) engineers recently working on Apple's iPod were accompanied by no less than 39,000 other employees. 

It also seems to me there is little doubt that, for example, 100 "good" physicists working together could never have produced what one Albert Einstein produced.  Simply put, it is in the public's interest, let alone being a matter of equity, that we permit the most talented individuals in our society to make the most of their abilities along with everyone else, particularly because doing so can impact the world at large in such a positive manner. 

In our country today there are two principal groups that are largely underserved in our K-12 educational system:   the most brilliant and the most economically disadvantaged.  A great deal of attention is, appropriately, being focused on the latter group.  Yet, one of the strongest predictors for a youth's receiving a college degree and a commensurate lifetime income is whether that youth's parents had a college degree-along with their lifetime income.  This clearly undermines what is known around the world as the American Dream. 

When we design our public schools to focus on the median student, we place both the least fortunate and the most outstanding among us at a disadvantage.   If we are to rectify this, we will need not only to help the less prepared but also to provide special opportunities for the most brilliant.  The reason we do not do more of this already is, I suspect, a misguided equating of special treatment for the most brilliant with elitism...a notion that is very dangerous to everyone.

2. What did you learn from how the business sector identifies and develops talent?  Could those insights be applied to the educational sector?

My own non-scientific observations in the business world suggest that-unlike the caution offered by stockbrokers about "future performance"-by far the best indicator of future contributions is past contributions.  That of course raises the question of how one can identify talent in younger people who have not yet had an opportunity to build a track record. 

Earlier in my career we used college grades as the best indicator of future performance among new graduates.  Unfortunately, the extraordinary inflation that has taken place in grades in recent decades has made grades all but meaningless to potential employers.  Some of the companies with which I have been associated (as a member of their board) have thus placed emphasis on IQ tests and many of those companies have been extremely successful in identifying talent in this manner.  My own experience, however, has been that motivation will beat raw intelligence almost every time.  Of course, a combination of motivation and intelligence is virtually unbeatable. 

My career has provided me with the opportunity to work in business, government, academia and charitable arenas and I have concluded that motivation is ultimately the best indicator of future contribution, particularly if one does not have an established track record that can be examined.  One observes this in sports.  Take the case of Buffalo in the NFL Playoffs a few years ago when it had fallen behind Houston by 32 points shortly after halftime.  Yet, at the end of the game, Buffalo had the lead.  The question is, with the same basic players on the field in each half, did Buffalo's players become that much more talented during halftime-or was there something else at work that increased their motivation?  I'd bet on the latter.

3. In addition to the value of learning, are there other traits that you think America should be developing in its students?

The single most important trait that our schools, families and other institutions can ingrain in our students is the importance of character.  Without a strong ethical compass a student in his or her lifetime can only harm the world-and most likely themselves and those around them.  Beyond that, I would emphasize the importance of hard work.  That is certainly true of the process of learning.  More and more evidence suggests that it takes long hours working on very demanding tasks for one to learn.  This is a disconcerting observation given that the number of hours per week college students study today is about half what it was a few decades ago, at which time it was not terribly large to begin with.  But one simply can't hope to understand, for example, genomics or particle physics or even less complex topics without hard work...and that includes the most brilliant among us.

4. What do you think Americans can learn from other countries?

I believe that there is a great deal that can be learned from other countries.  Some of the errors of our own thinking has resulted in one of the poorest K-12 education systems in the world while we spend the most per student as compared with all but one other nation.  Similarly, I have visited classrooms abroad containing 60 or more students and their academic results surpass those being achieved in many American public schools. 

I would hope that we could learn the importance of academic curiosity...the desire to learn more.  It is told that recently two Stanford professors placed three interactive courses on the web and within a few days acquired over 300,000 students...from 190 different countries-with no formal credit offered. 

Also, in our public pre-K-12 system, we should learn to respect our teachers and, correspondingly, have teachers that we can respect.  Today, America's teachers largely come from the lower third of their college class, whereas in many other countries they come from the top ten percent-and are rewarded and treated accordingly. 

5. Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share?

Two of the most important factors that I have been able to ascertain in my experience in business and in teaching is that to be successful a teacher needs to be highly qualified in their own field...possessing at least a Baccalaureate degree in their core subject (as opposed to a purely teaching degree).  Another important factor that impacts student success to a very large degree is parental interest.  In this matter the differences between the U.S. and that of, say, Asia, is marked.  In America, if a survey were to be conducted as to whether a young person would rather be a quarterback for an NFL team or a Nobel Laureate, I believe there would be little doubt as to the outcome.  This is not a formula for competing for jobs in the emerging global economy.

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai

You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or G+. For more of Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative go here.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider.

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at Duke University.

 
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