I’ve only recently learned of Temple Grandin from hearing her being interviewed recently on NPR. That piece made me stop and ask out loud, “Who is that?” She clearly has a message and delivery style that is out of the mainstream. However beyond her unique and unconventional look and enunciation is a powerful exposition about individualism and the priority we should all place on honoring people’s differences when assisting in career decision making.
Temple Grandin has become a renowned spokesperson for the humane treatment of animals and also for encouraging tolerance and civil behavior directed toward individuals impacted by autism-a reality she has lived with for 65 years. Her advice for the mainstream of society goes far beyond telling us to be respectful and kind to people who act, speak, and think differently from the norm. Dr. Grandin is putting us on notice that the talent diversity necessary to fuel an innovative workforce and culture requires us to encourage and cultivate the very idiosyncrasy so many of us shun and dismiss.
It’s no secret that STEM careers are all the rage. Many of the most lucrative and potentially available jobs for the future lie in industries seeking employees and contractors strong in science, technology, engineering, and math. To those of us not immersed daily in these jobs we tend to think of STEM work as heavily rules-based, formulaic, and straight forward. It’s helpful to have been reminded that American ingenuity results when deep scientific knowledge and creativity thinking merge. The development of the light bulb, integrated circuit, Internet, and many other inventions came from just such thinkers. NASA is chock full of geeks and nerds. Think about it. Where we would be as a nation without them?
Although it may be human nature, there is a downside to building a society that places too strong a premium on conformity when it comes to career development. You don’t have to be on an autism spectrum to sense the fear, insecurity, and lack of self-confidence that can come from the pressure to think and behave like everyone else around you. In so many ways we give each other the message that to be different is bad, but to conform is good. Yet our national value proposition as a global workforce is defined by our inclination to be innovative, inventive, and groundbreaking. This can’t be done unless individualism is encouraged and enriched.