Citrix CEO Mark Templeton, in his NYT interview, made an interesting point:
There are two strategies for your life and career. One is paint-by-numbers and the other is connect-the-dots. I think most people remember their aunt who brought them a gift for their birthday or whatever and it was a paint-by-number set or a connect-the-dots book.
So with the paint-by-number set, you know ahead of time what it’s going to look like. Then, by contrast, with a connect-the-dots puzzle, you can only guess at what it might look like by the time you finish. And what you notice about that process is the further along you get, the more clear it becomes. It might be a beach ball, or a seal in a Sea World park or something. The speed at which you connect dots gets faster as the picture starts coming into view.
You probably get the parallel. This isn’t about what’s right and what’s wrong. This is about getting it right for you. Parents often want you to paint by numbers. They want it so badly because they have a perception that it’s lower risk, and that’s the encouragement they’re going to give you. They’re going to push you down this road, and faculty members will, too, because they want you to deliver on what they taught you. It doesn’t make it wrong; it’s just that there’s a bias in the system. You have to decide for yourself. The earlier you actually get it right for yourself, the faster and the better that picture is going to look.
And the more time you spend on paint by numbers when you’re a connect-the-dots person, and vice versa, the harder it’s going to be.
I think he’s correct that parents, in an attempt to guarantee success for their children in an uncertain world, often steer them toward a paint-by-numbers approach to life–and that this is likely to be counterproductive. Today’s credentials obsession, coupled with the nature of most of the educational system, also points toward the paint-by-numbers approach.
I’ve noticed that people who are overly impressed with their own educational credentials–especially those with advanced degrees of one sort or another–often tend strongly toward wanting to paint by numbers, and want to avoid the (perceived) risk of connecting the dots.
Related post: Management education and the role of technique