May 17, 2012


Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. By Tony Wagner. Video collaborator: Robert A. Compton. Scribner. $27.

The Thing You Think You Cannot Do: Thirty Truths about Fear and Courage. By Gordon Livingston, M.D. Da Capo. $19.99.

      Beware of books that incorporate large numbers of to-do lists – a very old-fashioned idea – into a self-consciously with-it format that goes so far as to omit the publisher’s name from the spine in favor of a scannable patch (that is, a QR code) that lets users with an appropriate electronic device view a trailer. Someone out there is trying too hard.  That someone would be Tony Wagner, rather awkwardly identified as “the first innovation education fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard and the founder and former co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.” This is supposed to be impressive as all get-out, but it comes across as protesting a bit too much: this material is so important and Wagner is so well-qualified to put it across, the book seems to say.  And what is being put across?  Well, there are more than 60 videos embedded in the book – primarily interviews with various people mentioned or profiled in it; through more of those QR codes, the videos are accessible on video-enabled e-readers.  Indeed, scanning (mentally, not electronically) the special features of Creating Innovators and its highly earnest presentation, one wonders why it is appearing in traditional book form at all.  Surely something so forward-looking, so tuned into the future, ought to be offered only electronically, since the future lies far from ink-on-dead-trees productions.  But the reality is that Wagner is hedging his bets – hence the lists: Seven Survival Skills (re-listed from an earlier book), five characteristics of innovative thinkers, five skills (in two categories) separating the innovative from the non-innovative, a Venn diagram showing that the overlap of expertise, creative thinking and motivation is innovation, and so on.  Then there are the apt but scarcely surprising acronyms and divisions of subject matter – for example, STEM innovators (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) vs. social innovators: “STEM innovators want to make things that will change the world, and many people can readily understand that aspiration. Social innovators, on the other hand, want to make change and are, by nature, idealistic.”  Wagner’s comments on the ingredients for successful innovation are worthwhile but scarcely earthshaking – the importance of parental encouragement, for example, given the fact that virtually everyone discussed in Creating Innovators is quite young (“Now thirty-two, Jamien is several years older than the other innovators whom I’ve profiled in this book”).

This is by no means a bad book; it is, in fact, quite a good one, emphasizing the things that innovators (many of them already entrepreneurs) have in common in their thinking, educational and family backgrounds, and looking quite carefully for patterns that could be duplicated to help train the next generation (and the one after that) in constantly striving for new solutions to existing problems – and others that are sure to emerge but have not done so yet.  The skills that will be needed by teachers and mentors are a part of Wagner’s book, too, and if he ultimately (and perhaps inevitably) comes up with no single prescription for fostering innovation, he is to be commended for making the attempt.  Indeed, there are signs that Wagner himself knows that there are inevitable shortcomings in what he is doing: “Reading this, some might get the impression that – aside from having to decide when to allow a child to quit an instrument or back off a sport – the adults whom I interviewed found parenting comparatively easy.  But I clearly saw that while they all loved being parents and spending time with their children, they also struggled…[with] being ‘different’ parents…”  Ultimately, for all its attempts to present material in innovative ways, Creating Innovators keeps returning to some ideas that are scarcely new, notably including giving children the chance to fail and learn from mistakes while providing an unwaveringly supportive family environment.  How to do this is beyond the book’s scope, but Wagner knows it can be done even in single-parent, money-strapped families, since some of the innovators he profiles come from just that sort of background.  Perhaps ironically, one recurring theme of the book is the importance of reading, both in school and at home – yet today’s young adults are increasingly impatient with any sort of traditional knowledge absorption and look always for shortcuts to what they want to find out (and frequently discover them).  Creating Innovators is ultimately far more effective in its research-based arguments for some rather old-style child-rearing values than it is for its glitzy attempts to convey its message in new and somewhat gimmicky ways.

      The message of psychiatrist Gordon Livingston’s The Thing You Think You Cannot Do is strictly for adults, especially ones living with heartbreak and fear.  The title, a quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt, is an apt one, especially in light of the author’s own experience in losing his two sons – one to suicide, the other to leukemia – within little more than a year.  The immeasurable heartbreak of Livingston’s personal story underlies this study of fear and courage, whose chapters are headed with particularly intriguing quotations: “Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious. – Rumi.”  The actual content of the chapters, though, is less compelling.  “Death is the fundamental fear from which most of the others derive.” “A derivative of our fear of death is our apprehension about the aging process.”  “Fear lurks behind perfectionism” (one of the 30 chapter titles giving the “thirty truths” of the book’s subtitle).  “The most lethal combination of character traits, for men and nations, turns out to be arrogance allied to ignorance.”  These statements have about them a sense of the epigrammatic, and for that reason come across as more glib than profound.  Livingston also has a tendency to roam into areas that, while interesting, seem to be no more than tangentially connected to his central premise: “We are not really taught by our parents or the culture that really good sex occurs in the context of a relationship in which the participants care about themselves and each other equally.  Instead, we are frightened with prohibitions, religious and otherwise, that only make the forbidden fruit of extramarital relationships seem more exciting. …[M]ost of us cling to the ideal of monogamous commitments even though half of our first lunges at matrimony do not endure.”  Livingston intends his book to be affirmative, even uplifting, but it is filled with depressive and depressing scenes, such as one about a horrific accident involving Vietnamese children being horribly burned or killed by white phosphorus on Christmas Eve in 1968.  Ultimately, what Livingston is arguing is that “courage can be taught only by example” (another chapter title), but that (yet another chapter title) “there are wounds that doctors cannot reach, that gratitude cannot heal.”  There are a few almost-revelations here: “If we lived forever, there would be no such thing as courage” (an interesting notion, if a debatable one).  But by and large, The Thing You Think You Cannot Do comes across as Livingston’s attempt to muster his own courage, cope with his own memories of serving in Vietnam, and deal with the peacetime challenges he encountered after the war.  Those are all laudable goals, but they do not readily translate into a book to which readers with different backgrounds and experiences can easily relate – or one from which they can draw lessons applicable to their own very different lives.

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