Albert Einstein’s genius is so highly regarded that he remains an iconic symbol 59 years after his death and the references to intelligence at the mere mention of his name have become a part of our vernacular. Yet, in a story by NPR Einstein’s Lost Theory Discovered . . . And Its Wrong (http://www.npr.org/2014/03/20/291408248/einsteins-lost-theory-discovered-and-its-wrong) not only do they detail a failed theory, they note that about 20 percent of his papers, “contain various mistakes of various degrees.” I am not surprised that any human makes mistakes, especially one on the edge of innovation; what saddened me was the incredible hypocrisy of our education system that propels students toward perfection as the ultimate goal, when the creativity of true genius lies in the mistakes—and the willingness to make them.
As I watch my oldest son prepare for the adolescent ritual of the SAT, I am reminded of the dread that filled my experience of standardized testing as the gateway to college and success in life. While Einstein’s numerical prowess, mistakes and all, are beyond the reach of most, he shares certain leadership qualities with many of us—including the desire to challenge the existing system and norms to find better ways of addressing challenges or (explaining the Universe). In our modern world, where many facts and figure are easily accessed or computed by small devices we all carry, why do we continue with a system that forces students to perfection?
I can remember arguing with my high school math teachers (yes, I avoided all math, absent statistics classes in college) about why I should be given credit for having completed the problem correctly while making a simple computational error. Did I know that 4 plus 8 equals 12? Yes. Did I write 11 down in the series of steps to complete the problem? Yes. I am hearted to know that I shared this tendency with Einstein and if this were standardizing testing, an 80 percent score would not qualify one for a top academic institution.
Some people are more inclined to notice the details and to quickly and easily identify errors; others are able to see the systems and intuit shifts and innovations. Some individuals easily find the human connection and draw people in and still others know how to easily move from one task to another with ease. And no one can be excellent in all areas, yet, that is what we ask of our teenagers. We expect them to not only excel in every academic subject; they are also supposed to master athletics, foreign language, drama, arts and music. Young people have a natural wellspring of energy and with prompting from the adults in their lives are capable of driving themselves to create a portfolio of achievement to show admissions committees—but at what cost?
Countless times in coaching my graduate students at The George Washington University, they would burst into tears when asked what they did for fun, as it had ceased to be a part of their experience long ago. The joy of learning and pursuing what they loved had been replaced by the need to be perfect in every area of their lives. Yes, perfect SAT scores are obtainable and why are they necessary?
Einstein will continue to serve as a role model for his genius in explaining how the Universe works. Perhaps his mistakes can serve as a model for us as well. To be our best and to express it in the best possible way, the definition of leadership, requires us to acknowledge where we aren’t as strong, to make mistakes in the pursuit of learning and to be free enough to trust ourselves and the process. As the great genius said, “Anyone who has not made a mistake has not tried anything new.” Childhood, indeed life, is about experiencing the new, learning and integrating those understandings into our talents and strengths. If we force our children into perfection on standardized tests then we have created children who may be right, but lack the ability to try anything new—let alone be themselves.
Here’s to the students who don’t ace the SAT and the Einstein’s among them.