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Creativity–It is not that they cannot…

by David Dayton

…They’ve just never been asked to do it before.

Interesting article in the WSJ about the lack of creativity in Asian graduates.  But I think that the article misses the point.

The conclusion is that Asian grads aren’t creative because they don’t have he soft skills that come from a liberal education.  Ironic that this is the conclusion since the rise of the liberal arts education in the US is blamed for the demise of the US worker, the plight of the ’00 generation, the worthless degrees being offered (at outrageous prices) at most US institutions, the lack of engineers, etc., etc.

Having worked and lived in Taiwan, Thailand and China for almost 20 years, I don’t think that this is the problem at all.  The problem in Asia, like the real the recent problem in the US is the lack of any development of young people and development of practical skills OUTSIDE of formal education.  Specifically, the first job that most Asian grads have ever had is the first job that they get upon graduation from college.  Prior to that time they’ve done NOTHING but study for tests for 20 years.

Here’s a great look at the life of the typical student in Asia.  They are not only forced by their parents NOT to do anything but school work, they don’t have time to do anything else even if their parents would let them.  And most parents won’t let them do anything else–because an education had traditionally been seen as the THE pathway out of poverty not just for the student but for the entire family (two to three generations prior as well as the future children).

The onus isn’t all on the parents, though–they are well intentioned and other factors play into this situation as well.  The economy in most Asian countries is such that many or most of the menial tasks that kids do at home or in a family business in the US are done by (very) low wage laborers in Asia.  Sometimes, kids are not even allowed to have jobs outside the home anyway.  Kids never get to build a tree house, never get to work on a car with their father, never get to have an after school job, never build Ikea furniture (it costs 10Y to have someone off the street do it for you, so why would you?).

The knock on the US education is that while it’s broad and pushes independent thinking, kids spend time in the most stupid of majors.  But kids graduating from college in Asia with their skulls full of more info than American kids could ever imagine don’t know how to use any of that info because they’ve never had the chance to try.  Stupid as basket weaving or X studies may be, the life surrounding the typical US high school and college campus forces most students to at least learn to budget their own time and money and often work at a job too. Internships in Asia are few and far between and not valued anyway.  After school jobs are seen as both socially demeaning as well as a waste of time.

This is why you can hire someone with straight A’s from a great school and they can’t solve practical work issues or won’t do anything that isn’t specified in their job description.  Liberal arts classes might give them some thoughts about diversity but not practical application skills.  My own personal theory is that this is why 20 something Chinese women still love Hello Kitty–they’ve never had the chance to “do their own thing” prior to graduation.  And this doesn’t even address the concept of work-place (and certainly school) pressure keep your head down and to follow the crowd and not promote yourself (at the assumed expense of others).  Work and school in Asia just typically are not safe places to be creative.

I do not believe that the education in Asia is the problem.  Nor do I believe that Asians aren’t creative.  But I know that most of the kids I taught in High School in Taiwan, College in China and the recent graduates we’ve hired in China and Thailand had little to NO practical experience doing anything other than school work up to age 25.  They’d never been allowed to be creative before.  When your entire developmental stage of life is managed by your teacher and mother, you can’t be expected to be a “leader” in the workplace no matter what school and what grades you’ve achieved.


David Dayton is the owner of Silk Road International and currently lives full-time in Shenzhen, China. He speaks English, Thai and Mandarin and has worked in Asia for more than 15 years. You can contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at www.silkroadintl.net.

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