Paint-by-numbers versus Connect-the-dots

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

11 thoughts on “Paint-by-numbers versus Connect-the-dots”

  1. And which of these two groups, if either, is more likely to make errors of hindsight? One remembers the post-9/11 criticism of the Bush administration for not connecting dots. But perhaps this criticism was a mere rhetorical device, used because it was politically effective rather than because it made sense.

  2. “connecting dots” in the sense of the critique of the Bush administration suggests that there is a single (in this case sinister) pattern lurking in the dots…in the sense that Templeton is using, the implication is that there are multiple potential patterns to be brought out by creativity.

  3. I think I can sense the point he is trying to make, but the metaphors are ill-chosen. There is far less difference between paint-by-numbers and connect-the-dots than he seems to think. Both entail a pattern that is given to you. You don’t actually see the pattern in CtD, but it is there nonetheless, and your efforts merely make it visible. Its not like a CtD puzzle allows for multiple outcomes.

    What about creativity? What about drawing your own picture? Creating your own career, or life? I know that is what he is trying to allude to, but “connect the dots” is hardly the right image.

  4. Connect-the-dots is probably a better metaphor for inquisitiveness and the ability to see the non-obvious, than it is precisely for creativity, although they’re closely related–being able to see the non-obvious makes it *possible* for someone to create, but moving from possibility to actuality also takes courage as well as perception.. Paint-by-numbers seems a decent metaphor for the idea that there is a set of rules, an algorithm, which you just have to apply to make yourself successful.

  5. It would seem to me to be the difference between experience and real-world observation and living a protected life. Can anyone ever live very long and think that it’s just filling in the colors – how’s that working for people who borrowed heavily for their houses or their education? Or maybe people like me (Scots Irish for one thing) have sufficiently poor impulse control to just not understand paint by numbers people. My German son-in-law commented that we should have a stockbroker who put our retirement in funds that didn’t go down. I think he assumes a greater sense of stasis than we do – who looked at him in surprise.

    I’ve never understood the arguments that Bush should have had a plan to get out of Iraq – if there’s anything that isn’t paint-by-numbers it is surely entering into war, where the variables are often unknown and certainly uncontrolled. Obama doesn’t seem to be held to account for having a paint-by-numbers approach to the economy – constantly surprised that, what, Americans won’t act as he wants them to and nature happens. His litany of excuses for his failures is essentially a list of the variables that a normal person would assume would be part of any equation but that are, in themselves, unpredictable. (The climate change people often seem to be paint by numbers people – unaware that there are many ways to connect the dots.) Isn’t state planning essentially a belief that you can control and predict the future? And how’s that worked out. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see how you can be a “paint by numbers” person except in an extremely static society and not have big problems.

    I thought the essence of the American dream – so often criticized but still true – was that the picture wasn’t known in advance and only experience lets us see what we and our nation are capable of doing.

    By the way, we never lived our lives or taught our kids that getting a credential defined you or made your life predictable. It was a useful exercise in many ways. They saw a mother start a business that required no kind of training at all; but I’d learned about perseverance and had the self-confidence that came from knowing I’d maneuvered those hoops. (Someone with more confidence might not have profitted from those long years in that way – but that, of course, was not all that I took from that experience.) That supported their lives as did their father’s work – which was in a job that needed such credentialling but in which he chose to follow paths that weren’t always those the establishment rewarded. He always said you couldn’t grow up on a farm and be a post-modernist. I suspect in terms of your choices that he that wasn’t the picture he was slowly seeing develop before him – or perhaps he couldn’t/wouldn’t connect the dots in that way. Of course, that, too, like the houses and education, was a kind of mini-boom that ended up with few insights – from whatever way it was approaches. But he did, of course, get a tenured job and live up to his contract, year after year. Meanwhile, he pursued other interests far afield which brought cultural if not monetary pleasure, intellectual if not professional insights.

    okay, this is long, sorry David.

  6. “The climate change people often seem to be paint by numbers people – unaware that there are many ways to connect the dots.”

    This is exactly why the metaphor does not work. In a “connect-the-dot book” there are not many ways to connect the dots. There is a predefined image and the child’s task is simply to discover what has been laid out for them.

    Perhaps there is some insight to be gained here. Is this, in fact, a good metaphor for the conservative view of what education is? Where the educators map out what the received wisdom should be, in a somewhat cryptic manner, and the child then is given the chance to feel a rush of pride and ownership of their “discovery” of the image that has been prepared for them?

    Look, this whole exercise seems pretty obviously to be nothing but a somewhat more literate way of insulting people you disagree with, so it is certainly not an important point. But you should choose memes that actually work for their intended purpose.

  7. JC, I’m not sure you’re understanding either Templeton’s original point or my expansion on it. It seems clear to me that he would like more people of what he calls the connect-the-dots type in his company (although he allows that there *are* people who are inherently paint-by-numbers types who should do what they are comfortable doing)….surely he doesn’t view the role of a connect-the-dots salesman, product manager, or engineering manager to find a pattern that he as CEO has somehow stated to exist in the market and/or the technology and to play it back to him, but rather to use his (the employee’s) own investigative and creative ability to find whatever patterns do exist and can be made useful.

  8. David,

    Of course I understand what he is trying to say. That is why I can judge his metaphor to be ill-drawn – because it does not portray the image that he trying to reference.

    He describes the children’s books that have connect-the-dots pictures. Those books have a predetermined image that the child “discovers” – there is no creativity involved, just pattern-recognition (not that there is anything wrong with such an exercise).

    Obviously he is not looking for his managers or salespeople to be discovering predetermined patterns – he wants them to be creative. He needs a better metaphor. Perhaps simply contrasting “paint-by-numbers” vs. true artistry.

  9. “I’ve never understood the arguments that Bush should have had a plan to get out of Iraq – if there’s anything that isn’t paint-by-numbers it is surely entering into war, where the variables are often unknown and certainly uncontrolled.”

    So in a situation where the variables are unknown and uncontrolled (e.g. life, as well as war), one can dispense with any sort of planning?

    Are these not the very situations where planning is most important? Planning to have a deep and diverse capacity in place to respond to the full range of unexpected events?

  10. Better terms for what he is describing is probably linear vs. lateral thinking which would have pattern recognition or spatial visualization as a subset skill. The issue he doesn’t yet realize is that few people are lateral thinkers. An arguement that environemtal pressure, from parents, leads people to be think more linearally is plausible but, frankly, unlikely. It’s just the way most people are.

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