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The tortoise and the hare

Constant & Cultural is a monthly column by Michelle Constant, a journalist, radio presenter, business leader and champion of the arts.

GIBS UP business school Michelle Constant
The Gordon Institute of Business Science PHOTO Wilkinson Architects

In his mostly brilliant podcast series, Revisionist History, author Malcolm Gladwell probes misunderstood and often overlooked stories in society. In one episode, called ‘Puzzle Rush’, Gladwell goes back to law school to write the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), not because he’s decided to change careers midlife, although even that is possible, but rather because he wants to understand the tight time constraints for the completion of the exam, or as he puts it, ‘why they need hares and not tortoises.’
     The podcast struck a powerful chord with me, as I have decided to go back to school (Yes, I am a strong proponent of #agefluidity and not simply #genderfluidity). In the process, I was required to write an entrance exam at UP’s business school, GIBS, and I started to ask the same questions of the GIBS process, as Gladwell asks of the LSAT. Everything about the ‘Open your books, only use pen and pencil, no computers, or cell phones; pencils down and close your exam books’ makes me query the notion of working under pressure in order to be measured as a successful candidate. In fact, these exams don’t test your knowledge, but rather your knowledge under pressure. For sure, I am the eternal procrastinator, endlessly delivering on the knife’s edge of a deadline (as our dear Creative Feel editor can attest to), but like Gladwell, I couldn’t help wondering if the GIBS examiners got the best out of me – and if the process of working against the tick-tock of the clock is slightly archaic. After all, what are we testing, as we sink deeper into the Fourth Industrial Revolution? I was probably failing in a test that was measuring hares, and not tortoises, as Gladwell notes. 
     How we get tested for jobs, for work and for exams often doesn’t allow for the best results. Gladwell attests to this brilliantly in the legal profession, describing how interrogation and range are important skills for the ‘tortoise-ness’ of the supreme court clerk, and the judge.

GIBS UP business school Michelle Constant
The Gordon Institute of Business Science PHOTO Wilkinson Architects

It reminded me of my first few months at BASA, over a decade ago. I did a test for an HR company, and from the expert’s reading of it, I would never crack the grade. It appeared I was too ‘creative’; my lack of C-suite skills would be a problem, I was told. History would be the better judge.
     Our economy is shifting, like the sands in a desert, rapidly and dangerously, and should be addressed with greater flexibility and with greater imagination. We need creativity and innovation. Creativity is unexpected by definition. It requires people to think differently to how they have been trained, and taught in the past. As psychologist Adam Grant noted, creativity may be difficult to nurture but it is easy to thwart.
     In his excellent book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein interrogates the effectiveness of gaining a breadth of experiences, taking life detours, experimenting relentlessly and developing range. According to Epstein, the more repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge, cognitive thinking, from one problem or domain, and apply it in an entirely new space. Epstein quotes Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, where the description of the character Nikolai is as follows: ‘He refused to specialize in anything, preferring to keep an eye on the overall estate, rather than any of its parts… and Nikolai’s management produced the most brilliant results.’ Epstein suggests that we need to be generalists, renaissance people, or as Emilie Wapnick describes us – ‘multipotentialite’. I say ‘us’ because I believe that creative people are the generalists, those with range, those with an interest in the world, or what it means to be human in a rapidly changing, and yes, deteriorating environment. I also say ‘us’ because I believe it is incumbent on all creatives to be life-long learners, to be curious across sectors, in spaces and environments that are foreign to us; to be challenged to drive a new vision for futuring and leadership.

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