Last week, I made the perhaps-curious claim that the Army recently provided me with a useful analogy for parenting. I only say that because I shave my toddler’s head before he embarks on an obstacle course.
Kidding! He has little red curls, I’m not shaving those.
Ok — serious face — I want to explain what I meant.
In a sudden shift in the 1990s, the Army began hemorrhaging people it had identified as future leaders. Basically, the more the Army funded someone’s education and training, the more likely that person was to quit the service almost as soon as they were allowed. The Army was losing, in droves, the people it had identified as potential future leaders.
In an attempt to stop the bleed, the Army threw retention bonuses at young officers. Those who were going to stay anyway took them, and those who wanted to leave left anyway — half a billion dollars of taxpayer money, and it didn’t improve retention. Whoops.
I go into more detail about the retention issue in chapter six of Range, but — long story short — the Army eventually realized that it had developed a “match quality” problem. Individuals’ interests and abilities did not match up as well as they should with the work they were doing. And that turned out to be detrimental to their performance, and sense of fulfillment, and ultimately to retention.
The Army’s own research concluded that it had persisted in a traditional model of talent development: assigning future officers (who could express preferences) to a career path before they knew much about themselves, or much of anything about the career. That had worked fine when lateral mobility for officers was limited. But enter the information and knowledge economy, in which creative problem solvers could quickly move into better matches in other sectors, and it stopped working so well.
Eventually, the Army started pilot programs to attempt to improve match quality, some of which helped improve retention where money bonuses hadn’t.
One newer program, called “talent-based branching,” aims to help young officers get a better understanding of potential careers earlier in the selection process, and discover their own interests and strengths (and weaknesses) at the same time. Essentially, it provides them with the sampling period I’ve written about in other areas.
As officers-in-training cycle through classes, internship-like work experiences, and field training that exposes them to different jobs, they’re encouraged to take part in constant self-reflection, both on their own (which they can track in an online portal) and with mentors. Learning about and reflecting on their own strengths and weaknesses, according to an Army Strategic Studies Institute monograph, “can sometimes be a bit of a shock.”
The idea is for the individual to gain more knowledge about themself and their options, and in turn to improve performance and satisfaction. When talent-based branching was piloted with West Point cadets, nearly 90 percent of participating cadets changed one of their top three career preferences.
As London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra once impressed upon me: we learn who we are in practice, not in theory. Our knowledge about ourselves is constrained by our roster of previous experiences. So providing more experiences, and more reflection on them to enhance learning, leads us to new ideas of what we can be doing, as well as what we should be doing.
So What Does That Have to Do With Parenting?
I think talent-based branching is a useful conceptual model for parenting. First, I’d like to facilitate a sampling period for my kid — expose him to a variety of experiences and possibilities. (A 2019 OECD report found that children already significantly narrow their ideas of possible careers by age seven. “We must fight to keep their horizons open,” said Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s director of education and skills.)
And then part of my role, as I see it, is like that of the mentor in talent-based branching — supporting my kid by helping him get the maximum amount of signal about his own talents, interests, and options from each experience. (I won’t go into detail here on how one might facilitate reflection with a very young child, but I found the book The Whole Brain Child useful, with its emphasis on Socratically guiding a child to tell their own story of their experiences.)
This also reminds me of Harvard’s “Dark Horse Project,” in which a pair of researchers studied people who found extremely good match quality with their work. Those people were very self-reflective about their experiences. They would basically say to themselves, repeatedly:
I think helping individuals get the maximum match-quality signal from each thing they try is a good idea, whether one is “managing” kids, teammates, employees, or, as management legend Peter Drucker put it twenty years ago in the title of a prophetic Harvard Business Review article, “Managing Oneself.”
The subtitle of Drucker’s article:
For most of human history, he wrote, people had little need to deeply know their strengths; they were born into a position, or a very limited array of options, and that was that. “But now people have choices,” Drucker wrote. “We need to know our strengths in order to know where we belong.”
And how do we get to know that? By trying things and with systematic reflection. “Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen,” Drucker wrote. Months later, “compare the actual results with your expectations.”
Need some suggestions? Here are questions Drucker recommended we ask ourselves regularly, with an eye toward what we learned from recent experiences:
What are my strengths? (Or: What results am I skilled at generating?)
How do I work? (A more detailed example: Do I work best when things get stressful, or in a highly predictable environment?)
What are my values?
Where do I belong? (Consider your strengths, preferred work style, and values.)
What can I contribute? (Based on what you’ve learned about yourself, how can you make the most impact?)
Systematic self-reflection is part of “self-regulatory learning,” which is how we monitor our own learning and take accountability for our own development.
When I was writing my first book, I interviewed Dutch researcher Marije Elferink-Gemser about the work she’d done on the importance of self-regulatory learning in students and athletes. She began studying kids when they were twelve; nineteen of the kids in her sports research later went pro in the highest level of soccer in the Netherlands.
At the time, I was struggling to figure out how to write a book, never having structured a piece of writing longer than a magazine feature. Marije gave me a series of questions to ask myself regularly. At first I thought it seemed a bit silly, because I assumed the answers wouldn’t change over time. I was wrong! Here are the questions she gave me:
As clearly as possible, what is your current goal? It doesn’t need to be realistic. Dreaming is allowed!
Do you have an idea of what is needed to perform at the level you aim for?
How do you make sure that you get an even better idea of what is needed to perform at that level?
How are you going to arrange that?
Who are the people you need to help you to reach your goal, and how can you make sure they will help you to reach your personal peak?
Are you sure you want to reach this goal? Why?
I don’t think the specific questions are nearly as important as just having some regular practice of reflection to make sure you’re squeezing every drop of self-knowledge out of each experience. So consider opening a notebook, or a notes or voice memo app and giving it a try.
P.S. On Friday, I'm doing a live conversation with Malcolm Gladwell about how experimentation fuels creativity. I'm especially excited to discuss Miracle and Wonder, his new audiobook of conversations with Paul Simon. If you're interested, you can see details — and get a reminder — at the pinned post here.