I’m a marathon coach. Each July hundreds of thirtysomethings brave the heat to begin six months of training for the Chevron Houston Marathon. Most of them finish.
Reconciling the dedication of these runners with our country’s loss of its competitive edge is an enigma. I’ve concluded that we lag not because our young people are lazy, stupid or lack qualified instructors. It’s because we’ve forgotten to teach them that, in life, you can’t cut the tangents—the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line.
We taught this generation to reach goals by the smartest path possible. We didn’t know that would morph into their mantra: Work smarter, not harder.
They’re convinced that somewhere on the internet is a “smart” short cut for every challenge. They can work from home, get a master’s degree without leaving their bedrooms.
Yet here they come to marathon training, day after day, taking on the toughest of physical challenges.
They’re brave. One can only reason that they crave discipline, relish the contest.
Predictably, government has triangulated this phenomenon by preaching that everyone is right—the competition gap can be bridged by simply leveraging technology. All we need do is clone more students in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—and we’re back on top.
Though well-meaning, the politicians have forgotten that STEM studies aren’t called hard sciences for nothing. They’re a marathon, not a 5K, and the starting line is high school. If every challenge to that point has been solved by a computer app, students lack the mental muscle to get out of the blocks.
But the problem isn’t that simple. In the ’50s we learned that staying on task too well has the robot effect—producing an underlying dissatisfaction with the reason we work. The result was the ’60s, where self-actualization became the buzz phrase for using skills in the way best calculated to satisfy the worker and the consumer. It’s still valid.
To say we should just teach kids to work harder is too easy. I watch them answer the bell at 5 a.m. What’s needed is a better mix of new and old. But blends are trickier than straight cabernet.
Taking the “smart” path preserves time and energy for challenges ahead. Taking the traditional teaches humility and satisfaction, without which success is hollow. The secret for this generation to win the race is finding the right blend.
Malcolm D. Gibson
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