Creativity and Problem Solving: If You Could be Any Toy…

I was always amazed in my over two decades of higher education experience at how difficult it was for college students to make the transition from accumulating knowledge for building a knowledge base to learning knowledge in order to problem solve. Some examples:

One day, a work-study student came into my office for his work shift, and he was completely enraged. He had just handed in an economics problem-set in which he was sure the answers were all correct. The professor then proceeded to divide the class up into groups and had them work on a case study related to the problem-set. The student was enraged because “there was no one right answer.”

Another student left a business case interview disgusted because one of the questions before the actual case was “If you could be any toy, what would you be?” She felt that it was a silly question to ask in a “serious” interview. The career staff pointed out that this was an excellent opportunity to flex her creativity. One answer could have been Mr. Potato Head because she could be flexible and change as needed. She considered the answer and said, “Ok, but flexibility is limited by the number of extra parts in the box.” So then the discussion became, “How do you expand the options? What are the consequences of expansion?” That really is what employers are looking for: Viable problem-solving options.

I know next to nothing about the Common Core curriculum, but I wonder how it is going to prepare students to take on the role of problem solver  in school and in work life. Workplace needs are dynamic, and what was the right answer last week may not work as a solution for this week’s problem. And your concept of the “right answer” may differ from those of your team mates. What to do? I asked a recruiter from Mitsubishi, “What happens when an automotive designer’s ideas clash with what the engineers come up with? Who is ‘right?’ Who wins?” His answer: “They both have to come up with a solution that works.”

In other words, in the real world of work, it is no longer enough to memorize the textbook, the white papers or the manuals to get the “right answer.” You still need that knowledge; however, creative application of that knowledge, often in conjunction with other people, is what is needed to solve problems.

This leads to a question I often get from parents of college students and college personnel: Which is better for getting a job: a liberal arts degree or a specialized degree? Both types of degrees are useful if students acquire a solid knowledge base while understanding how to use it to solve problems.  And letting go of the idea that there is one right answer frees up the process to let creativity in, to try on what-if scenarios and examine their consequences before implementing them. People do not always like that answer because it becomes clear that getting a job is not about who has the most knowledge and skills, but who can use those knowledge and skills to adapt to a dynamic workplace and be able to provide solutions.

When the Competition Becomes Fierce

Happy New Year! I think 2014 has a much better ring to it than 2013, don’t you? I am going to start the new year off with a post on one of my favorite careers: music. Yes, that huge American competition, the Grammys, is coming up at the end of this month. The category, Best Classical Vocal Solo is dominated by four of my favorite performers: Joyce DiDonato, Cecilia Bartoli, Dawn Upshaw and Jonas Kaufman. All possess completely different voices, especially among the mezzo sopranos, yet all recordings up for this award are wonderful. What to do, what to do? I am glad I am not a Grammys judge because I would be hard-pressed to decide.

This dilemma is similar to what hiring managers face when confronted with many excellent candidates and too few jobs to fill. And if you are a job seeker in this new year, you will also be dealing with fierce competition. I was once told in my academic career that my fiercest competitor should be – me. This advice held me in good stead all through college, keeping test and deadline stress at bay. It also helps in developing your own career. However, when you are writing a resume and interviewing for a new job, you cannot just ignore the competition. You should be benchmarking yourself against those other candidates.

One of the best ways to know how you stack up against the competition is to pay careful attention to the job description for the position that you want. Are you using the same words on your resume that are listed in the description? Do you have the knowledge and skills for which the employer is asking? How about certifications and licenses — do you have them or are you willing to get them? Make sure you let the employer know this. Put them on your resume or indicate in your cover letter that your are willing to go the extra mile and obtain anything you need for the job.

You may not know who else is applying for that coveted job, but you DO know yourself — your strengths and what makes you stand out from your competitors. So don’t just repeat buzzwords from the job description on your resume. Ask yourself, “How am I a maverick in this field? How is that going to help my next employer?” Be careful. This takes a bit more finesse, more research into the culture of the company. Will having some unique qualifications help you or hurt you? For example, will it help you to have experience in several related fields for one specific job? Find out by networking. Tap into your family and friends, their contacts and forums on the Internet. Going into the interview armed with this information may very well put you ahead of the competition. Good Luck!

As for who will win Best Classical Vocal Solo at the Grammys this year? I cannot even begin to guess. Everyone who is nominated has put forward their best work. This means that while I am at a loss as to know whom to choose, the ultimate winner is sure to be a stellar musician with an excellent album.