â€śCan you pull that train over the hill?”â€¨
“It is a very heavy train,” responded the engine.â€¨
[the superintendent] then went to another great engine and asked: “Can you pull that train over the hill?”â€¨
“It is a very heavy grade,” it replied.â€¨
The superintendent was much puzzled, but he turned to still another engine that was spick and span new, and he asked it: “Can you pull that train over the hill?”â€¨
“I think I can,” responded the engine.1
Â In my previous blog post, I discussed my participation in the recent TEDxYouth@TheWoodlands as a speaker. Here, I reflect upon on my participation in that event as the coach for the eleven youth speakers.
I felt a great privilege and honor in guiding and supporting the youth over a two month period leading up to their respective TEDx talks on January 7th, 2012. What is indelibly imprinted in my mind is the courage demonstrated by the youth in plunging head-first into something of which they knew little.
Â So the order was circulated, and the engine was started back so that it might be coupled with the train, and as it went along the rails it kept repeating to itself: “I think I can. I thinkâ€¨ I can. I think I can.” 1
In the classic tale of â€śStory of the Engine that Thought It Couldâ€ś, the little engine stepped up to undertake a formidable task while larger, more capable engines demurred. The little engine exemplified the mindset of â€śI am persistent enoughâ€ť whereas the larger engines exemplified the mindset of â€śI am smart/capable enoughâ€ť. According to Dr. Carol Dweck 2, this latter mindset is common amongst youth who have been repeatedly praised for their intelligence or capability as the reason for their success. This mindset leads youth to seek out situations which reinforce their self-image as intelligent/capable and eschew those in which their intelligence/capability is inadequate to the task.
I vividly recall panicking in my high school calculus mid-term examination when confronted with the first problem-set. The solution did not readily present itself to me as it had always done so in previous exams. I was not smart enough to solve it! I would never be able to solve it because I was stuck with amount of intelligence with which I was born. I had always been praised for being smart by peers, teachers and parents. That was the secret to my success. Now, I had been exposed to be inadequate. I failed that exam. Worse, I was so ashamed that I skipped the next class when the exams were returned. Worse still, the teacher asked a classmate to deliver to me my graded exam. Now, everyone in school knew I had failed that exam â€¦and failed badly with only a 15% score. That was the â€śI am successful because I am smart/capableâ€ť mindset working to deadly effect in me.
The coupling was made and the engine began its journey, and all along the level, as it rolled toward the ascent, it kept repeating to itself: Â ”I —think —I can. I —think —I— can. I —think— I —can.” 1â€¨
The little engine succeeded because of its â€śI am persistent enoughâ€ť mindset.Â The other engines feared being exposed for being not smart/capable enough.
So what does this tale have to do with the youth speakers at TEDxYouth@TheWoodlands? Were they the little engines who thought they could because they were persistent enough?
No, because they demonstrated an even more powerful mindset.
- The â€śI am smart/capable enoughâ€ť mindset is what I call Creative Constraint.
- The â€śI am persistent enoughâ€ť mindset is what I call Creative Confidence.
- The â€śI am brave and resilient enoughâ€ť mindset is what I call Creative Character.
The eleven youth speakers at TEDxYouth@TheWoodlands demonstrated Creative Confidence and more importantly, Creative Character. You see, many of the youth speakers committed to speaking on stage thinking that they could NOT achieve the task. Yet they were willing to work their tails off plunging into the scary dark abyss, risking embarrassment and humiliation in front of their family, teachers, friends and the millions who would see them on Youtube.
Two months ago, many of the youth speakers had only gossamer thin notions of what they wanted to convey in their talks. Many were deathly afraid to speak in public. One youth wanted to dramatize a chess match using the piano but believed that he could Â not perform the necessary alchemy.Â Another struggled mightily to identify the messages behind his emotions and did not think he could put them to literary form. Others upon learning more about the TEDx world stage on which they would speak, utterly blanched. Â And yet they plunged ahead with courage.
Â It was almost to the top.â€¨
â€śI ———think” â€¨It was at the top.â€¨“I ———can.”â€¨
It passed over the top of the hill and began crawling down the opposite slope. 1â€¨
Unlike the little engine, the TEDx youth had no apex of a hill to define success. The youth plunged into the mist in search of a mirage.
What makes a TEDx talk a success depends on how it impacts the audience. How much was the audience inspired, provoked, delighted, surprised and moved? It is precisely this kind of ill-defined problem that will pervade the youthsâ€™ world of work.
Unlike a FIRST Robotics challenge or my high school calculus problem set, there is no central authority describing the problem to solve, no reference manual detailing the constraints, no referee judging correctness of action, no key filled with the right answers, no clear finish line. Those who can navigate and stomach the stress of this world of ambiguity and uncertainty will thrive. Others will work for them.
Â “I ——think——- I—— can—– I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could.”â€¨
And singing its triumph, it rushed on down toward the valley. 1
Â I think I can, I thought I could – powerful testaments to the Creative Confidence mindset. But even more powerful is â€śI donâ€™t think I can, but I am willing to risk the plunge into the unknown and give it my all.â€ť That is Creative Character.
To the youth who risked that plunge at TEDxYouth@TheWoodlands 2012, I bow to you out of admiration.
1)Â Â Â Â Â Story of the Engine that Thought It CouldÂ (1906) by Rev. Charles S. Wing, a public domain work of literature (http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Story_of_the_Engine_that_Thought_It_Could )
2)Â Â Â Â Â Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006) by Carol Dweck