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Timothy R. Clark: Job-creation begins at home

Published: Friday, May 11 2012 1:50 p.m. MDT

Not long after I was married, I lost my job. My wife was expecting our first child and we suddenly found ourselves without health insurance.

After the baby came, I went to the bank to get a loan to pay the medical bills. I had no assets to pledge as collateral, but I convinced the banker to give me a signature loan. As a jobless husband and soon-to-be father, I became acquainted with a kind of desperation that was new to me.

The economy was in a downturn and I couldn't find a job. After nearly three months of joblessness, I found an $8-an-hour job. The relief brought tears and welcome relief.

At a street level, I learned that work is a temporal and spiritual necessity, that it is inherently noble and necessary to a happy life. And yet there are millions of people in the world who suffer joblessness and the collateral damage of cratering confidence and a loss of hope.

What can we do? Shall we rely on policymakers to create a central industrial policy? How about CEOs? Maybe the president of the United States will hand us a job based on a new program or stimulus or grant or subsidy.

I invite you not to wait for these things.

Question: Where do jobs really come from?

Answer: A growing economy.

Question: What makes an economy grow (assuming that we hold constant the ebb and flow of the business cycle).

Answer: New or more demand for goods and services.

Question: What creates new or more demand for a good or service?

Answer: The lower cost or higher value of that good or service.

Question: What creates lower cost or higher value for a good or service?

Answer: Innovation, which Peter Drucker defined as "change that creates a new dimension of performance."

Question: What creates innovation?

Answer: Lots of things such as leadership, strategy, resources, technology, expertise, existing need, incentives and so forth.

Question: Sure, but that's all secondary. Where do innovations, themselves, come from?

Answer: They come from ideas. An idea is always the kernel of an innovation.

Question: Where do the good ideas come from that lead to innovation?

Answer: People's heads.

Question: So it's really simple. Just think of an idea?

Answer: No. It's really hard. Good ideas are very hard to come up with.

Question: What does it take to come up with a good idea that could lead to an innovation?

Answer: Intelligent, curious people who relentlessly examine things and think of ways to change or improve them.

Question: Where do people like that come from?

Answer: They come from environments that promote informed curiosity. Nir Vulkan from Oxford University and Sabrina Boew from Humboldt University in Berlin have found that people who innovate score significantly higher on two personality traits in particular: self-discipline and motivation.

Question: Is our K-12 educational system the root problem?

Answer: No. Our K-12 system is a symptom of the problem. When we look at measures like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 rankings that place the U.S. in 31st place for math scores, we think it's the system. It's not the system.

The real problem is the culture that gives birth to the system. As Cameroonian development expert Daniel Etounga-Manguelle has observed: "Culture is the mother. Institutions are the children." Our K-12 system reflects a culture that is declining in self-discipline and motivation — two essential traits for innovation and job growth.

Question: What do we do?

Answer: Cultivate a pattern of mental exertion in the family culture. One thing seems to count more than anything else — a child's ability to exert mentally, to focus and concentrate for long periods of time. It doesn't matter so much how fast the child learns but that the child learns through the acquired habit of persevering effort.

If this habit is nurtured in the home, the child gains intellectual agility and tenacity. Mental exertion creates confidence and an appetite for problem-solving. Confidence and competence increase together as the child learns to persevere through extended mental challenges, such as reading a longer chapter book, practicing an instrument for an hour or learning a new math concept.

Ultimately, this is where jobs come from. Before you think about public policy, think about family culture. Job creation begins at home.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. He is a former two-time CEO and earned a doctorate from Oxford University. EMAIL: trclark@trclark.net

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