The U.S. spends more on education than many other countries, yet it has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the world. The problems of education are complicated, and fixing them is a long-term task. But somewhere near the heart of that effort, there has to be a better understanding of what really motivates people to succeed in their lives and to engage with the world around them. There are simply too many adults who actively dislike what they do and lack any sense of purpose in it.
There are, of course, many people who absolutely love their lives and feel they’re doing just what they were born to do. But the evidence of disengagement is the legions of people who are dull-eyed at work and do the minimum to get by. We pay a high price for this disaffection — in our schools, organizations and communities. Ironically, one of the root causes can be education itself.
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In my new book, I describe people who love what they do as being in their element. To begin with, they’re doing something for which they have a natural flair. It could be for business, the law, teaching, social work, music, carpentry, sport or working with animals. You name it. But being in your element is more than doing things you’re good at. To be in your element, you have to love the work too. As they say, “Find a job you love and you’ll never work another day in your life.”
An essential step in finding your element is to understand your talents, and this is where education so often goes astray. Schools often overlook the diversity of students’ talents because they’re typically focused on a very narrow view of academic ability. Students sit at their desks all day writing, calculating or doing low-grade clerical work. So-called nonacademic courses — in the visual and performing arts, physical education and many practical and “vocational” subjects — have much lower status. Consequently, students who come to life in these other disciplines and activities often find that their particular talents are marginalized or denied.
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This long-standing division between academic and nonacademic is being widened by the current emphasis on the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math. As a result of the fear of falling behind, many school districts have drastically cut programs in the arts, humanities, sports and practical subjects. This is poor educational policy and poor economics too. Important as the STEM disciplines are, they are only part of a properly balanced education and cover only a few of the many skills and passions on which successful economies actually depend.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I was recently at a meeting in Los Angeles on alternative-education programs. These are for young people who have dropped out of high school and are designed to re-engage them in education. They’re all different, but they have some common features.
One is that they aim to connect with the individual interests, talents and learning styles of each student. They also help them discover the things they’re good at that they love to do. These programs work because they treat education as a complex, personal process, not a sterile, standardized one. If all education were like that, there’d be no need for alternatives.
One of the myths of standardized education is that life is linear. A message we should give all young people is that it is not. Students are often steered away from courses they would like to take in school by well-meaning parents, friends or teachers who tell them they will never get a job doing that. Real life tells a different story, and there is often little relationship between what people study in school and what they do for the rest of their lives.
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You might imagine, for example, that engineers, mathematicians and scientists dominate the innovation-strategies leadership of companies in Silicon Valley. They don’t. A survey of more than 650 CEOs and heads of product engineering found that just over 90% had college degrees. Of those, only 4 of 10 had degrees in engineering or math. The other 60% had degrees in business, the arts or the humanities.
Katharine Brooks is director of liberal-arts career services at the University of Texas at Austin. She estimates that fewer than a third of the alumni who stay in touch with her are in careers that are directly related to their college studies. After college, most people find that they are interested in other things. Are they happy in their new choices? They are if they are fulfilling their passions, she says. “The saddest thing to me,” says Brooks, “is seeing someone take the job because it pays well and then spend all that money on toys to cheer themselves up for being so miserable in their jobs. The people who are doing what they love hardly feel they’re working at all, just living.”
Helping people find what they’re good at and love to do is the surest way to increase their engagement at work and promote a deeper sense of well-being and fulfillment in their lives. I’m not saying, of course, that if education helped everyone find their element, that would solve all the social and economic problems we face. But it would certainly help. And it’s much better than the alternative.