What Nurtures Leaders Who Have Bold Ideas? A Report from the Aspen Institute Ideas Festival

Let’s assume that the people invited to present at the 2010 Aspen Institute Ideas Festival have important ideas to share. Then let’s also assume that there are important things we can learn from their own career paths: how did they become people with “bold ideas?” How did they emerge from the rough and tumble inner cities to the more affluent communities to become the people they are.

Although the sessions at the Ideas Festival are designed to focus on the ideas themselves and not on their originators, I find myself paying attention to the speakers’ personal stories. I have been listening to what helped them find their passions—their chosen paths, pursue them and become individuals with ideas worth listening to.

As Marc Tucker, the President of the National Center on Education and the Economy argued at the Festival, the ability to innovate is a critical skill that’s fundamental to the future health of the American Economy. His argument goes like this:  If U.S. businesses can outsource to people in other countries with very high skills or even with moderate skills and pay them lower wages than we pay in the U.S, then they will outsource. So who will pay Americans the kind of wages that will maintain our standard of living? His solution: Americans need to create goods, services and experiences that everyone wants so much that they are willing to pay for them.  Using Apple and its Macs, iPods, and iPads as examples, Tucker says that we need to create lots of companies like Apple. Thus, American education needs to foster creativity and innovation.

Here are some of the lessons I heard from the kind of people Marc Tucker hopes that American can do a better job at fostering.

They have a passion.  Sometimes it was nurtured by their families and teachers and sometimes not, but their work is not a job. It defines them. It’s who they are. When they are working, they are, as Sir Ken Robinson, author of The Element, puts it, “in the groove.”

They seek and find like-minded people.  The playwright John Guare tells of leaving the university with a degree that said he was a playwright, but then he didn’t know how to become one. He happened to be walking down a street in New York City and saw a sign on a storefront that said it was a theater. There he met a “burly” man who was a steam presser in New Jersey from early morning until mid-afternoon, when he returned to the storefront, where he was a play producer.  Guare told this man that he was a playwright. The man said he was looking for an Aquarian playwright. As luck would have it, Guare is an Aquarian. So the man said, “then write a play and we will produce it in May.”  From those connections with the like-minded people he found in that storefront, a true original, John Guare, emerged.

They find people who support their original ideas. Biz Stone tells of how he decided to partner with Evan Williams in a relationship that would ultimately produce Twitter. Stone reports: “if I said, ‘Imagine a world without gravity,’ Ev wouldn’t say ‘that’s ridiculous.’ He would say, ‘Okay, and what comes next?’”

They pursue their curiosity and see what happens, make mistakes, learn from them and continue their journeys.  Evan Williams and Biz Stone said that they didn’t realize that Twitter had become a phenomenon until they were at a conference in Austin, Texas with some early adopters and could see the power of “crowd sourcing” in action.  Now, one of their next challenges is to turn the power of the crowd into a vehicle to “do good.” Likewise Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, had many false turns until he recognized how to use the power of the village elders in creating schools for girls in remote Afghan villages.

There is not one person whom I have met at the Aspen Ideas Festival who hasn’t argued that we need to reinvent, or “reset” (to use Richard Florida’s term) or “transform,” as Sir Ken Robinson puts it, the way we raise and teach our children. The Industrial Age views of education won’t work in helping us nurture a new generation of children who can innovate and who can lead.