Innovation is the buzzword of the decade. And it is no surprise. You can see transformation happening everywhere -- in the worlds of business, entertainment, publishing, education, and nonprofit. How will today’s middle and high-school students make their marks as tomorrow’s innovators? How will they succeed in jobs that don’t yet exist?
Not since the Industrial Revolution, with inventions like the telegraph, steam engine, and camera, has innovation been so crucial to society. But today’s innovators are different from their predecessors – and they need different ways of thinking to succeed.
To prepare for careers in complex and rapidly changing fields, students must learn to think differently and interact with others in new and creative ways.
Victor, a young social entrepreneur from Indianapolis, recently shared the importance of his teen leadership experiences with me. “Having the opportunities to both serve and lead at many levels shaped who I am as a leader and person today,” he said.
Victor claimed that learning to be a leader and innovator was very challenging. “I wasn’t sure if I would fit in,” he admitted. But by his senior year in high school, Victor said, “I was encouraging others not to shy away from the opportunity to lead because of fear of failure or rejection.” Today, Victor devotes his time to an organization that works to build educational infrastructures in sub-Saharan Africa.
Whether students grow to become social entrepreneurs like Victor or members of creative business teams, they need the right mix of skills to succeed in a complex work environment. The development of these skills begins earlier than you might think.
In addition to the specific knowledge and skills needed to become doctors, attorneys, teachers, engineers and the like, young people must develop the thinking skills to become tomorrow’s creative problem solvers.
Five Innovator Mindsets
In my research with young leaders like Victor, I discovered five mindsets that were fostered by supportive adults during adolescence. These mindsets became vital to success as an innovator.
#1 “I see connections.”
Today’s challenges are complex, interwoven, and multifaceted. Consequently, young people must be able to see the implications of ideas and decisions on an entire system of stakeholders. Instead of viewing change in mechanistic terms like those in the Industrial Revolution, they must know how to recognize, analyze, and respond to a web of relationships that are impacted by small and large-scale change. This requires a shift from linear to non-linear thinking.
#2 “I am open to new ideas.”
We need only look to the halls of Congress to find a generation of men and women holding onto rigid ideas. Stuck on their respective sides of the political fence, they have little opportunity for collaborative success. Yet, innovation thrives on collaboration and flexibility. Einstein’s “We can’t solve the world’s problems by using the same type of thinking we used when we created them,” couldn’t ring more true today. The majority of the successful young innovators I studied were not rigidly ingrained in one ideology. They understood the importance of being open to new ideas and working collaboratively for the common good.
#3 “I bow to my mistakes.”
Innovation only occurs when we have the courage to make mistakes and learn from them. Instead of shaming students who don’t perform to expectations, we must teach them that mistakes are part of their growth as human beings. If you haven’t heard of the Failure Bow, read about it in the Harvard Business Review. Developed by Matt Smith, an improvisation teacher, it works by teaching people to raise their hands in the air, announce “I failed,” grin like a compliant dog, and then move on. More and more organizations are teaching employees to use the Failure Bow as a means to increase innovation! Teens who become innovators have learned from mistakes and failures during their adolescence.
#4 “I embrace diversity.”
The world is made up of different cultures that collaborate and collide at lightning speeds. Key to the development of better products, services, and policies is a young person’s ability to understand people who are different from themselves. Opportunities abound through community service not only for young people to understand the social issues of our times but also to impact those issues as change-makers. By teaching kids to be good citizens, we impart an important mindset that contributes to innovation in all parts of society.
#5 “I live in a human-virtual world.”
The information and knowledge society that has evolved since the birth of the internet and that now includes social media is a major driver of innovation. The next generation of leaders will know how to use the power of the internet and its tools to connect with people and ideas across the globe. But the face-to-face relationships young people nurture with friends, family, and people in their own communities will remain at the heart of what feeds their initiative and well-being. Today’s youth must learn to live in human and virtual spaces simultaneously, harnessing the benefits of both.
How do we foster these mindsets in young people? What other’s come to your mind when you think about innovation? Please share your ideas, stories, and experiences from parenting, teaching, or working with youth.
©2013 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist working at the intersection of youth development, leadership, education, and civic engagement. Follow her at ROOTS OF ACTION, TWITTER, or FACEBOOK.
Photo Credit: Imagerymajestic