In many companies nowadays, progressive companies, companies who think ahead and need their staff to perform somewhere beyond jockeying a cash register, employees are given an annual or semi-annual review. This review details in what areas of the company skill set, one excels and in which there is room for improvement. In times of booming economy it is often accompanied by a raise in salary, a bonus, or other cash incentive that will encourage the employee to work even harder, redoubling his or her efforts in areas deemed as needing improving, smiling and taking praise in areas where one excels. Through this assessment employees are schooled in how best to serve the company and so push the corporate machine on to new heights of greatness. This is generally a highly effective tool. Employees who desire to advance in the company want to please. They are anxious to see how they “fit in”, anxious to see how they are seen by their superiors and delighted to know that their efforts are being noticed. They are more than happy to address their short-comings towards the ultimate goal of advancement in the company. There exists, however, a small minority on the fringes of the “bell curve”. These people look at their reviews and think “wow, this is the stuff I’m good at. And it’s the stuff I really enjoy doing. I must put in more time to truly build on these strengths” They are aware of the less sterling side of the report card. They make quick notes about improving their professional demeanor or knowledge of company policy. No true professional wants to deliberately fail at anything. But, on the whole, they focus on the bright side and redouble their efforts to strengthen their strengths. Ultimately these workers don’t become good company men or women. They outgrow their cubicle very quickly and are snatched up by other companies who see how strong their strengths have become. They are given working situations with professionals and assistants whose job it is to shore up their weaknesses while they go on doing what they are truly good at. These are the innovators. These are the leaders of our work force, our economy, and our nation. They are the men and women who know who they are, know what they want, and believe in themselves enough to follow their dreams. On the coat-tail of these dreams ride the vast majority of good corporate workers; the secretaries, the accountants, the sales people, the lawyers, the employees who would not find themselves employed at all had not some innovative soul created Ford Motor Company or Arnold Meat or IBM or Kentucky Fried Chicken.
If we can take that company report card to a grander scale we will notice that America is falling behind in the global economy in the areas of math, science, and the general measurables. No argument here. But I feel our response must be, as it always has been in America, “So What?!” We have never been a culture made strong by a cooperative assembly line of willing workers who are happy to walk with goose-step precision along paths laid out for us by a nameless, faceless dictator. We have never been a culture of conformists. Rather, the greatness of America has always rested firmly on the foundation of innovations and ideas created by that handful of citizens who have been encouraged by an underlying current in our culture to think “outside the box”. We would all be pleased with a straight A report card. Everyone would like to believe that we can actually excel in every subject. But many, maybe most of us with a passionate interest in some area find that we must cut some other areas in order to pursue that which is truly meaningful to us. The flute player who cuts classes to practice. The budding scientist who forgets chores or even meals while engrossed in experiments. The future football coach who is diagramming plays secretly behind his English assignment. These are the stars who are being, ultimately, forced into the box so that America can shine on the world stage as the beaming parent with the child of the straight A report card when our strength has always been leading the world in innovation. Grades, particularly in math and science, are easily measurable. But in all our measuring, let us not forget to reward the innovation that is the foundation of this country. Human beings achieve greatness when they have freedom. Freedom to fail if necessary, but freedom. Let us, whenever possible, offer that freedom to those among us who would pursue learning in their own way. And, when we review their performance, let us recognize not only the math and English scores, but the ardor with which they have pursued their dream.