Stop stealing dreams at work

In “Stop Stealing Dreams,” Seth Godin asks “What is school for?”

He describes why school is the way it is and what it should be instead. And he dedicates the book “to every teacher who cares enough to change the system, and to every student brave enough to stand up and speak up.”

As I read his book and watched his talk, I noticed how his arguments about school also applied to large firms. And I found myself asking “What is management for?”

At school

Seth’s main argument (one also made in the excellent documentary, “Waiting for Superman”) is that schools were designed for creating workers in the factories. That we are all products of the industrial age.

School was built "to train people to behave, to comply, to fit in.”

“We sit you in straight rows, just like they organize things in the factory. We build a system all about interchangeable people. Because factories are based on interchangeable parts. If this piece is no good, put another piece in. And org charts, those little boxes, are all designed to say ‘Oh, we can fit Bob in there because Rachel didn’t show up to work today.’"

He tells a poignant story about a teacher at his son’s public school who’s working with the class on a crafts project involving putting nails in a board in a certain pattern. When one boy doesn’t do it correctly, the teacher sternly tells him “I told you not to do it this way” and, one-by-one, she removes the nails and throws them on the floor.

“And that’s what she believed school was for. School was about teaching obedience.” She showed him who was boss. Next time, he’ll just do what he was told.


And that is what we teach at work. The very phrase “Stealing Dreams” can apply to what we do to the bright young people we bring into large firms. The same approach we use at school carries over into work:

You will listen to your manager.

You will adhere to this code of conduct.

You will observe this dress code.

You will follow these policies.

You will be graded on a curve.

Management, as it is today, is not about getting the most from each unique individual. Rather, it’s about mapping each individual to their slot in processes and org charts, making sure they fit in, and making sure there’s another person to take their place when they go.

Interchangeable people, interchangeable parts. No wonder even the brightest can succumb to learned helplessness.

The consequences

When both school and work produce sameness, people produce less value than they could. And both the individual and the firm lose.

Midway through his talk, Seth asks everyone in the audience to raise their hand as high as they can. They raise their hands. Then he asks them to raise their hand a bit more. They raise them higher.

“Hmmm. What’s that about?”  You’ve been trained to hold back. To meet the objective but no more. To optimize on the test or the rating and not on the work.

“What people do quite naturally is if it’s work, they try to figure out how to do less. If it’s art, they try to figure out how to do more. And when we put kids in the factory we call school, the thing we built to indoctrinate them into compliance, why are we surprised that the question is 'will this be on the test?'"

Our focus on improving productivity through sameness and repeatability has produced tremendous results for certain kinds of work. But more and more of that work is now controlled by machines. And what we need now is something very different.

What we need and want is not passing the test but more innovation, adaptation, and agility. Our schools and management systems are simply not designed for that.

What you should do, every day, at your firm

The main contribution of “Stop Stealing Dreams” is to inspire us to question our institutions, why we do what we do.

If you have kids, think about what and how you want them to really learn. And when they go to work - when you go to work - think about the kind of system that will help you realize your potential.

“Are we asking our kids to collect dots or connect dots? Because we’re really good at measuring how many dots they collect, how many facts they have memorized, how many boxes they have filled in. But we teach nothing about how to connect those dots...

Persistence in the face of a skeptical authority figure is priceless. And yet we undermine it. Fitting in is a short-term strategy that gets you nowhere. Standing out is a long-term strategy that takes guts and produces results.”

At work, every day, ask the question “Is this what management is for?” Whether it’s the next re-org or HR process or training program, don’t just accept what management is and does. Much of it was designed for another time and another set of problems.

Unless we question what we’re doing and understand why we’re doing it, we’re not going to get what we need.