Open Letter to College Admissions Departments

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” — Ken Robinson

I just returned from a week of touring colleges with my youngest daughter. Its been a few years since the last go round and while it seems the world is changing faster than ever, not much has changed about the tours and the information sessions since I first did this six years ago. The students who lead the tours are poised and charismatic, they have impressive memories and long lists of achievements to their credit. The admissions counselors give pretty much the same spiel with different sets of statistics as are relevant to the institution. They want us, the parents and prospective students sitting in front of them, to know that their student body is full of confident creative leaders who will change the world. They tell us that they choose students who by the age of 17, have demonstrated that they are this type of person. From one college admissions counselor I heard, “We’re looking for students who, when you read their application, you think, “When did he/she have time to sleep?”

My oldest daughter tried that routine. She fell asleep on a Friday afternoon while driving home from a swim meet because she was trying to live on about five hours of sleep a night. She was lucky and only hit a parked car a few blocks from home, but it was a good lesson that sleep has to trump “activities” or “bad things” happen.

When we, the adults, send the message to the next generation that the way they will succeed in life is to fill their lives with so much activity that they don’t have time to sleep, we send a very dangerous message. I’m not talking simply about falling asleep while driving, although that’s a pretty quick way to eliminate a creative mind. What I’m talking about is that if we take the brightest of our children, the ones who are already inclined to push their minds beyond the limits of what they already know, and we teach them to numb their creativity with incessant doing, their minds will not be open to the wildly creative ideas which we desperately need to solve the problems of a world at a tipping point in many arenas.

Wildly creative ideas do not happen when our brains are working overtime on multiple projects which are all directed at some goal we are working toward. Wildly creative ideas “happen”. They arrive unbidden when our minds are meandering in the garden inspecting the peony buds, or wondering when the leaves on the Japanese maple, which are indeed apricot colored as they begin to unfurl, change to the remembered bronze of their maturity.

Sometimes they descend upon us from the shower nozzle, or in a cascade of cherry blossoms blown from a nearby tree. Flashes of brilliance happen when we’re standing still. Perhaps we’re staring at the sky after watching a pair of young eagles seemingly tumble from a nearby tree, looking for sure as though they’re about to crash into the surface of the lake, cavorting like a couple of preteen boys wrestling over some random object, completely unaware of their environment. Transfixed, we marvel as they narrowly avoid disaster and somehow disentangle themselves just in time, rising above the level of the highest trees before we can catch our breath.

This is when the ideas “happen”, not when a student is blinded by all-nighters and dosed up on caffeine and/or Aderall which may or may not have been prescribed for them. This so that they can eek a little more focus out of their overly focused minds… So that they can get a little bit higher score on a standardized test, because they’ve been told that that’s what its going to take to get into the colleges they most want to attend.

While my oldest daughter was swimming in college, a former teammate of hers posted a world record at the world championships in a fancy racing suit. Shortly afterward, the powers that be of the swimming world banned that type of suit. Four years later her record still stands, as do a host of others from that time period. The style of suit literally allowed the athletes to swim faster than they could have without them.

I’ve heard reports from my college kids about the widespread use of Aderall before tests. I now hear the same from my high school junior. In general the students they’re referring to do not have Aderall prescriptions. They simply want the improved focus reportedly offered by the drug in order to rack up higher scores where they think they need them. The drugs are simply an external aid allowing them to achieve at a higher level than they could have without, like a now banned high tech swim suit, or the performance enhancing drugs that have spelled the downfall of high profile athletes.

If, dear college admissions staff, you take those SAT test scores and post them all over the internet, or tout them to prospective applicants, so that anyone who looks at your website sees that your average SAT Math scores range up to 760, there’s no way of arguing that this doesn’t promote an environment excessively focused on achievement as opposed to creativity.

We parents and prospective students need to hear the admissions counselors leading those information sessions say:

“We’re looking for well-rounded students who know how to think creatively and demonstrate that they have the maturity and resilience to handle setbacks; who get a lousy grade every once in a while and bounce back from it.”

“We’re looking for students who excel in the classes where they have a high aptitude and manage well in the classes where they may not be so gifted.”

“We’re looking for students who’ve had time in their lives for friends and family, not students who’ve received letters in several varsity sports, had part time jobs and volunteer jobs, been invited to join multiple different honors societies, are student body president and valedictorian.”

What message would it send if you said:

“We want to read essays about babysitting and mowing the lawn and family dinners. We want to read about the favorite book you’ve read 12 times or growing a vegetable garden or fighting with your brothers. We want to read about how much you hated folding the laundry and the creative ways you got out of it. We want to know what you haven’t done yet that gets you out of bed in the morning. We want to know what you’ve always dreamed of, or are deathly afraid of, or afraid to hope for, because then we know who you really are.”

Or if you said:

“If you have too many activities, we will throw your application in the trash because that means you didn’t take the time to lay in the grass and dream, to imagine a different kind of world and how you might play a part in creating that dream.”

Because we need a different kind of world right now and we need it fast…

The students who will graduate high school in 2015 can have a different kind of experience if you decide to do it differently.

The institutions of higher learning hold enormous power. By changing your expectations, you can ask our children to show you who they are, not what they have done.

You must start asking your applicants to share with you their dreams rather than list their achievements. Ask them to finish the question, “what if…?” and then answer it with whatever they can dream up. Challenge them to ask a question you haven’t been asked and don’t know the answer to…

Asking students to demonstrate their literacy is expected before they attend college, what about asking them to share their creative ideas?

Thank you for listening.

P.S. My children (young adults) have been involved with some wildly creative shenanigans in college. I’m not making the point that colleges are inhabited by robotic automatons, simply that the message I hear from admissions staff is by and large one that promotes over achievement and over doing, that the application process itself further emphasizes those values, and that in general, the process that faces a 17 year old asks them to present a resume that provides little room for creative exploration, and that its past time for this to change.

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Lyon

As a 17 year old, I spent part of a school year homesick and lonely in Lyon, largely missing the city’s charms. Living with a French family who spoke no english and attending a local “lycée”, I was so far out of my comfort zone that I truly couldn’t appreciate it. I arrived just after Christmas to snow on the ground, which, in Seattle, is a rather rare treat. In Lyon however, the snow sat on the pavement of the sidewalks and streets getting filthy and smelly (think lots of dogs, few parks and lots of poop mixed with melting snow on the sidewalks). It was cold and gross and I had no one to talk to as I walked to and from school trying not to slip in the brown slush. With only two years of high school french under my belt, I sat through eight hours of philosophy a week, falling asleep in class nearly every day from the sheer exhaustion of trying to understand what was being said.

Returning to Lyon as an adult, I’m always surprised at how much it offers. For the last 20 years one of my Irish cousins and her husband have lived just outside the city, giving me reason to come back on several occasions. Usually, its been a stopover to meet her and her family to head off on some crazy adventure with our combined lot of six children. But this time, with the kids all well on their way to grown, I arrived to spend some time with her, her husband and sister. It had been over 10 years since I’d seen any of them, so we had a lot to catch up on. No grand adventures were planned, just being together.

Mornings usually found us long at the kitchen table munching croissants and drinking coffee regardless of the schemes concocted the night before. Whatever it was seemed to take on less urgency on the heels of yet another 2am bedtime. Some time after noon, we’d all of a sudden realize that the day was escaping and come up with an improvised plan based on how many hours remained until dinner. On one outing into town we checked out an area called “the docks” – previously warehouses along the river – which is being completely redone to house clubs, cutting edge furniture and interior design stores that cater to a hip, young, multi-cultural, international set.

An orange cube building initially caught my attention, but at further inspection, the buildings on either side matched the orange cube with their own innovative but less outrageously colorful elements.

We wandered through the medieval warren, “Vieux Lyon”, with its narrow alleys, covered walkways, and secret passages built to protect bolts of silk, (an industry for which Lyon was known up until some time in the 19th century). Theoretically, we were trying to decide where to eat dinner but got sidetracked by ice cream in a central plaza near the river, which gave us the opportunity to spend more time teasing each other, laughing and telling stories. But this is Lyon, and meals are serious business here, so after wandering and window shopping a little more, we retrieved warmer clothing to ward off the evening chill and launched ourselves into the evening’s next culinary adventure.

Some time since 1979, Lyon became home to a collective of artists who paint giant murals on the walls of the very ordinary urban residential buildings that line the banks of the Rhone and Saône rivers. Now, every other block sports a building or two painted with elaborate trompe l’oeil designs and enormous pictures of life in Lyon. I’d seen a few small, decrepit versions of these in the old part of town, but crossing the river, I looked up, stunned to see the playful, colorful paintings ornamenting the same buildings I had trudged by daily lamenting to myself the dreariness of this town where I’d landed.

After four days of hanging out with cousins, exploring the country lanes near their home as well as the contrasting newer and older parts of Lyon, I headed off on an early morning train to Italy, the second leg of my pilgrimage to reconnect with people I hadn’t seen in too long.

Saying goodbye, we vowed to do this again sooner. It was a new way of being together for all of us. No major plans, no destinations, no need to entertain young children, just hanging out, talking, eating and being. As I’ve said, I’m still learning how to do this thing, and I can’t say that there weren’t moments when I looked at the clock and thought, “Are we going to do anything today?” without an accompanying feeling of anxiety that indeed, we might not! In retrospect, I look back and think how silly that thought was. The idea behind it is that “if I’m all the way over here in France, shouldn’t I be doing something?” And being all the way over here in Seattle, I look at that and think, “how ridiculous.” Those memories of watching the royal wedding at 1am after finishing dinner somewhere close to midnight, sitting at breakfast until after noon and grilling steaks in the back yard are the ones that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the images from the cool trompe l’oeil paintings.

On Vulnerability

Since beginning this post almost two weeks ago, so much has shifted that I’m not sure I know where to start anymore. Yesterday, I sat down to write and got sidetracked reading my friend Jeffrey Chapman’s blog post and the comments following it. What I had already written seemed directly connected to what I was witnessing on Jeffrey’s blog. I was writing about watching Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability prior to my recent travels… that it must have set a tone for the way that I traveled throughout the next three weeks.

Having traveled a fair bit in France and Italy, I have a decent repertoire of memories to draw from. This time, something felt different. It wasn’t until I reflected upon the possibility that I was doing it differently that it all started to make sense.

Jeffrey’s post elicited a landslide of comments. Thoughtful and sensitive, full of depth and very personal, they came from the heart… The original blog post itself was unusual. In it, he was open and vulnerable about personal grief and loss. It was this vulnerability that elicited the ensuing rare conversation, which I found refreshing, exciting and heart-warming.

Waiting for the TGV to Lyon

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Wandering in Paris

Awakening to rain my last morning in Paris with my feet still tender from miles logged the previous 36 hours meant rethinking how I would spend the time remaining until my late afternoon train to Lyon. So after packing up and stashing my packed bags, a buzzing boulangerie around the corner lured me in with the promise of a cafe creme and a pain aux raisins, which provided an excuse to sit and people watch while writing in my journal. As I sat, I flashed back, “Proustian” fashion, to pleasant memories of this very activity. Usually, it wasn’t a way to get out of the rain and decide what to do next, but an end in and of itself.

I felt my body relax and settle into the corner I had chosen, simply enjoying the flow of tourists and neighborhood residents which seems to be characteristic of the Marais. There are other neighborhoods in Paris that have this same feel, and 33 years after first visiting Paris, I still search out the corners of the city where I can sink in and feel what its like to be a part of this flow rather than apart from it. Its easy to go to Paris, or other five star travelers hot spots, and be so intent on seeing what is there to see that one misses this element entirely. You arrive somewhere with a list of “must see and dos” and proceed to check it off, feeling like you’ve failed the place if you fail to see its Mona Lisa. On the heels of this trip, I realized that it is this element of feeling the spirit of a place that draws me. It’s connecting with shopkeepers, street vendors, waiters, and other travelers as well as witnessing the ebb and flow of ordinary people’s lives that draws me to new places at home as well as to foreign lands. I’m not sure I could have iterated that previously, but having the two contrasting experiences back to back on this trip brought it home. Continue reading

Paris, continued…

The other morning, while writing about turning 50, the image of a pretzel came to mind. No, I don’t feel like a pretzel, but the dot to dot path through my daily life seems to trace a similar shape. Only rarely do I allow myself the liberty of locking onto one of those dots and allowing it to lead me away from this prescribed circuit. Between professional and personal photography projects, writing, parenting, selling eye wear, outdoor adventuring, buying groceries for teen-age appetites, and failing at all attempts at domestic order, I feel pulled so many directions that if I become completely absorbed in any one, I will more than likely drop a thread that forms part of the weave and find myself dealing with the consequences later. At least that’s how it seems most of the time.

Having recently spent 3 weeks traveling, I know that the world doesn’t come to an end when I let go, but translating that into being home AND letting go is a bigger challenge. Being home and making space to pursue what calls me rather than simply falling back into the well-worn ruts of “what I’ve always done”. For the last 20 years, I’ve allowed my children’s “needs” to dictate the pace and parameters of my life. Now its time for that to change. The line a pretzel follows goes first in one direction, then another, overlapping and doubling back upon itself. In then end, a graceful shape is formed… a cohesive whole. If I stop and dwell a while at any of the points upon that line, the whole will not be impacted. The next point will still be there to guide me back toward the center, only to be drawn away and back again. The weave may change, but I don’t have to hold all of the threads anymore.

I write all of this in Seattle after rereading Parisian journal entries and editing more photographs from a month ago.  I smiled to myself noting the remaining mild discomfort of being on my own in Paris, footloose and completely free. I had forgotten that I felt that way on day 2. I wrote that I was having a hard time with the idea of no agenda and that I was feeling the need for some kind of “organizing principle” around which to orient. While my memory, and the photographs, clearly attest to the fact that I had no difficulty wandering here and there as ideas came to me, I was also up against some internal resistance to doing just exactly that. Continue reading