Stop stealing dreams at work

What are all these rules for?

In “Stop Stealing Dreams,” Seth Godin asks “What is school for?”

He describes why school is the way it is and what it should be instead. And he dedicates the book “to every teacher who cares enough to change the system, and to every student brave enough to stand up and speak up.”

As I read his book and watched his talk, I noticed how his arguments about school also applied to large firms. And I found myself asking “What is management for?”

At school

Seth’s main argument (one also made in the excellent documentary, “Waiting for Superman”) is that schools were designed for creating workers in the factories. That we are all products of the industrial age.

School was built “to train people to behave, to comply, to fit in.”

“We sit you in straight rows, just like they organize things in the factory. We build a system all about interchangeable people. Because factories are based on interchangeable parts. If this piece is no good, put another piece in. And org charts, those little boxes, are all designed to say ‘Oh, we can fit Bob in there because Rachel didn’t show up to work today.’”

He tells a poignant story about a teacher at his son’s public school who’s working with the class on a crafts project involving putting nails in a board in a certain pattern. When one boy doesn’t do it correctly, the teacher sternly tells him “I told you not to do it this way” and, one-by-one, she removes the nails and throws them on the floor.

“And that’s what she believed school was for. School was about teaching obedience.” She showed him who was boss. Next time, he’ll just do what he was told.


And that is what we teach at work. The very phrase “Stealing Dreams” can apply to what we do to the bright young people we bring into large firms. The same approach we use at school carries over into work:

You will listen to your manager.

You will adhere to this code of conduct.

You will observe this dress code.

You will follow these policies.

You will be graded on a curve.

Management, as it is today, is not about getting the most from each unique individual. Rather, it’s about mapping each individual to their slot in processes and org charts, making sure they fit in, and making sure there’s another person to take their place when they go.

Interchangeable people, interchangeable parts. No wonder even the brightest can succumb to learned helplessness.

The consequences

When both school and work produce sameness, people produce less value than they could. And both the individual and the firm lose.

Midway through his talk, Seth asks everyone in the audience to raise their hand as high as they can. They raise their hands. Then he asks them to raise their hand a bit more. They raise them higher.

“Hmmm. What’s that about?”  You’ve been trained to hold back. To meet the objective but no more. To optimize on the test or the rating and not on the work.

“What people do quite naturally is if it’s work, they try to figure out how to do less. If it’s art, they try to figure out how to do more. And when we put kids in the factory we call school, the thing we built to indoctrinate them into compliance, why are we surprised that the question is ‘will this be on the test?'”

Our focus on improving productivity through sameness and repeatability has produced tremendous results for certain kinds of work. But more and more of that work is now controlled by machines. And what we need now is something very different.

What we need and want is not passing the test but more innovation, adaptation, and agility. Our schools and management systems are simply not designed for that.

What you should do, every day, at your firm

The main contribution of “Stop Stealing Dreams” is to inspire us to question our institutions, why we do what we do.

If you have kids, think about what and how you want them to really learn. And when they go to work – when you go to work – think about the kind of system that will help you realize your potential.

“Are we asking our kids to collect dots or connect dots? Because we’re really good at measuring how many dots they collect, how many facts they have memorized, how many boxes they have filled in. But we teach nothing about how to connect those dots…

Persistence in the face of a skeptical authority figure is priceless. And yet we undermine it. Fitting in is a short-term strategy that gets you nowhere. Standing out is a long-term strategy that takes guts and produces results.”

At work, every day, ask the question “Is this what management is for?” Whether it’s the next re-org or HR process or training program, don’t just accept what management is and does. Much of it was designed for another time and another set of problems.

Unless we question what we’re doing and understand why we’re doing it, we’re not going to get what we need.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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10 Responses to Stop stealing dreams at work

  1. Jon Bidwell says:


    This really hits a nerve. I’ve probably watched this particular talk by Ken Robinson a dozen times.. as it hits on the same point about how most firms profile hiring, training and performance management. Or as I’ve put it more than once “employees are trained to think small”. Conversely, if one views hiring as a big game of “moneyball”, all sorts of interesting, capable people can be found–and often at a much better price than those who market themselves solely on education credentialing. That’s how my firm has ended up having the primary internal social platform largely built by someone in their mid 20s with degrees in Studio Art and Library Science.

    One observation on social systems– which have always been there–but with software platforms creating more “explicicity” (a word?) we find that the org chart matters for fewer and fewer things, most certainly not knowledge and expertise.

    Bear in mind that these opinions are my own and do not in any way reflect those of my employer.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks for mentioning the Robinson talk (excellent!) and referring to Moneyball and your own firm’s experience in finding talent. Reminded me to share in a future post another great talent story I heard recently.

      p.s. “Explicicity” I like it. But it might take a while for the OED to catch up to you on that one. 🙂

  2. Great article! I love the talks of Godin and Robinson and I think it’s great you make the connection to management. I think enterprise collaboration programs and social software enabled transformations need to be be grounded in this type of reflection and insight to unfold their transformative power. Feels like too many companies just follow a trend instead. Still, it’s never too late to ask: Why are we doing this? Thanks for reminding us!

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Bernd. Ken Robinson, Sal Khan, Seth Godin and many others are making similar points and calling for change. At work, we need more managers and more employees to think and do differently. That’s why I particularly liked Seth’s dedication: “Dedicated to every teacher who cares enough to change the system, and to every student brave enough to stand up and speak up.”

  3. plerudulier says:

    Reblogged this on Things I grab, motley collection and commented:
    yeah! Stop that already! 😉

  4. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    Thanks for this piece – both you and Seth. It raises so many issues, both pertinent and poignant.
    What I find interesting is that you see the opposite of “fitting in” as “standing out”, rather than “not fitting in” – as the latter two can be viewed as very different concepts whether at school or in the work place.
    Standing out certainly takes guts (as you say) but usually refers to people who excel and shine and produce results . But not “fitting in” can mean something quite different. A child who has a learning disability, but has high intelligence, is usually unable to collect the dots in the traditional manner (but often can connect them) so is marginalised by the education system and finds their dreams are often stolen before they are made. They just don’t fit in even if they stand out.
    An adult in the work place who is seen as not “fitting in” because their perspective on how to reach their goals (however profitable) do not align with managements views may also be marginalised. They may stand out for not fitting in, rather than producing results – because that is how they are perceived without consideration of the actual results.

    We will get what we need when we are listened to, and when what we are questioning, or how we are not fitting in is understood -whether a child at school or an adult at work.

    – or the best might be missed.


    • John Stepper says:

      I love this comment. It made me think even more broadly about the need to connect people to jobs in which they can realize their potential. The shame and the promise of large firms is that we have so many different kinds of work and such opportunity for these kinds of matches – but that opportunity is largely wasted. Yet, Im convinced we can change that.

  5. savvinov says:

    Thanks John, a great post as usual. Brings back some memories from the high school…

  6. Dhiraj says:

    Hi John-
    Really enjoying reading your blog and love your “voice.” Also laughed out loud at this week’s photo 🙂 I’m working on a presentation and looking for photos which capture the audience’s attention rather than lots of words. Where do you find your photos? Do you have any advice on sourcing interesting photos which are not copyright restricted (are free to use or re-use)?
    Many thanks!

  7. Fred says:

    Hi John,

    Great insights and post. I personally believe that it’s technology, particularly internet and social networking, which expose and heighten the transparencies and communication gap which the traditional (industrial) system never designed for. It’s almost a paradox, or perhaps a dilemma, in which people as individuals and businesses as a whole, face in today’s challenges. I do very much agree with you, the design fundamentally needs to change, and people need to adopt. The social transformation gap is vastly huge to close off in the short interim, but a seed at a time things can change. We are tackling this problem from a human experiential design perspective, as a social enterprise, and we’re facing a lot challenges just raising the awareness around the problem alone. People just aren’t that adaptive and responsive to new changes.

    Love to hear more feedback on your end!


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