The Blessings and Curses of Conveniences

Dan, a senior executive, recently told me of driving around in his prized 1977 Chevy pickup with his 16-year-old grandson. “Hey Grandpa,” the young man said, while holding a latte, “Where are the cup holders?”

“We didn’t have cup holders forty years ago,” answered Dan who then added, “Roll down the window. Let’s get some air in here.” It took the better part of a minute for the grandson to solve that problem. Then there was the manual gear shift . . .

As much as older folks laugh about incidents like this, we should keep in mind that conveniences like cup holders, electric windows and automatic transmissions are both blessing and curses. Those who create these inventions do so because they’ve felt or observed a need. Their creativity allows those who have felt this need as well to save time or enjoy a “creature comfort.” But those who come of age after the convenience’s debut take them for granted and can founder when the convenience doesn’t work, the battery dies or simply isn’t applicable.

I have argued endlessly that there is an inverse relationship between convenience and resourcefulness. The more conveniences we create, the less resourceful the next generation becomes. Now, I’d be the last person to argue for the “dark ages,” as some refer to the time before digital technology. But how do we compel those coming of age to develop the skills and confidence necessary when there’s no button to push or app to open?

Number one, stop saving their butts. Most managers discover that answering “quick questions” results in an ever-increasing volume of quick questions. This practice inhibits the development of resourcefulness and creates a giant time suck. If you start telling them to “figure it out,” they will do so a surprising amount of the time. Establish this as an expectation and over time those around you will rise to the occasion. (For more on this, read my post on think-alouds.)

Number two, help them scaffold their learning. The good decision makers I know carry a diary, notebook or some other means of recording insights as they occur. By the way, when you write ideas down, rather than typing or dictating them, the brain does a better job of creating schemas. Schemas are what the brain uses to categorize and organize what you learn. (Knowing how to change a tire or fry an egg are examples of schemas.) When those you supervise discover something new, ask “What have you learned? And wait for them to put it in their own words. (This works on your kids as well.)

Number three, praise them for “putting their mind to it.” You could say, “Good job” or “Atta-boy.” But it’s more effective to compliment the specific behavior by saying something like, “I like the way you . . .” That way, they will be encouraged to try that approach the next time they encounter a similar challenge. None of this is rocket science. But the best managers make these ideas a ritual with those around them. How about you?

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