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It’s wise to accept that you don’t have all the answers

As my readers are aware I am a great advocate for emotional intelligence, in which context I often talk about how we are sometimes challenged to separate how we feel from how we behave. This allows us to act in ways that keep our interactions and relationships positive, by finding the strength to overcome feelings such as anger and hurt, embarrassment and inhibition.

So this recent post on Adam Grant’s LinkedIn page caught my eye: “A core skill of emotional intelligence is treating your feelings as a rough draft. Like art, emotions are works in progress. It rarely serves you well to frame your first sketch. As you gain perspective, you can revise what you feel. Sometimes you even start over from scratch.”

Wise words for those of us who take pride in just “saying what we think”, in “being straightforward”.

So who is Adam Grant? He is an American psychologist and author, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who was made a tenured professor at the amazingly young age of 28.

I was first made aware of Prof Grant by my daughter, after he spoke to the parents and teachers at her children’s school in California where she is a board member, and after which she sent me a recording of his presentation on how to develop a next generation of creatives.

His first advice was to go easy on rules. Rather, share guidelines based on values, recognising those who abide by them and act as role models for them. Indeed the youngsters should be encouraged to challenge existing rules and guidelines, but of course in a respectful and constructive way.

Next he is against specialisation, in either the arts or the sciences – noting that some of the most prominent Nobel Prize winners in the sciences indulged in painting, piano playing, poetry writing and other artistic sidelines. Recognise those who, like the Nobel heroes, excel at creative problem solving in multiple fields.

Both teachers and parents should readily admit that they don’t have all the answers, and they should be encouraged to ask advice from the children, who in turn should feel free to speak up without fear of being unduly criticised. Neither the elders nor the young ones should be afraid to push back, on the understanding that we are all “work in progress”. At home as in school, it’s OK for children to be exposed to and to participate in disagreements, away from the notion that the parent/teacher is “always right”. Being exposed to civil discussion is good for the emotional development and wellbeing of the children.

Grant also asked the parents and teachers to pay attention to how they display their values through their behaviour, both with each other and with the children. And in commenting to their children about their behaviour they should talk about values, nurturing and reinforcing behaviour that is moral, generous and caring.

“Ask your children whom they helped today, how they acted as helpers,” I heard Grant propose. “And get them to reflect on what kind of persons they are; what they did that was creative in the last few days; what made them happy.”

Finally, he cautioned parents and teachers to neither be too soft – which would spoil the children; nor too hard, which would make them feel inadequate and ashamed. Yes, there should be high expectations, and where the children fall short that should not be ignored. But not at the expense of recognising their successes and strengths.

Much of this is incorporated in Grant’s best-selling 2016 book, Originals, which I couldn’t recommend more strongly. For in it he goes much further in explaining how the way we are treated when we are young determines how we develop when we become adults – what kind of activity we seek and enjoy, and how successful and fulfilled we become.

Above all he focuses on what it takes to be bold enough to challenge the status quo, to be a non-conformist creative and to speak up, to stick with your new ideas … and so to be one of the “originals” about whom he writes and whom he celebrates in his book.

Malcolm Gladwell, whose book Talking to Strangers I wrote about some months ago, is one of my favourite thinkers… and I am not surprised that Grant is one of his.