One unit in the prescribed social studies curriculum was on American Indians, or Native Americans. The kids in his class found this unit of particular interest. When the two weeks spent on the unit was almost over, they asked if they could continue it for a few more weeks. The teacher wanted to extend the unit and was willing and able to provide more content. The department chairperson said that this would not be allowed – the teacher had to stick with the prescribed curriculum.
I argued on the side of the teacher. My view was this: There was very little that these kids would remember from the prescribed curriculum 15 or 20 years later. But this was a rare opportunity to help these students develop a love of learning – they had found a topic that greatly interested them and commanded their attention. I argued that it was more important to feed this impulse than to move on to another topic that they would find of lesser interest. This happened in an era (the late 1960s and early 1970s) when there were no standardized tests which required that students learn a specific set of historical facts that would appear on state achievement examinations, so why not feed this love of learning, even if it meant that some other unit in the curriculum would not be covered?
Working in the corporate world, do we enable employees to follow their passions? When we find an employee who loves their work, whatever that may be, do we allow that employee to continue doing that work, or do we tell them that if they want to get ahead, they must change what they do and focus on tasks that they find less interesting and for which they have less talent? This is one reason why many companies create technical (or professional) career ladders. If you have an engineer, or an insurance underwriter, or a nurse, or a salesperson who is doing an outstanding job and who loves his or her work, do you tell them that they need to move into management to get ahead? Or do you provide that person that they can keep on doing what they do so well, and which they love, and still make progress in terms of job ranks, salary, and perks?
The Peter Principle, coined by Lawrence J. Peter more than 50 year ago, states that “In a bureaucracy, people tend to rise to their level of incompetence.” And if you think about it, this principle holds almost universally true – if some is doing a great job, we tend to promote that person. If they do a great job at that level, we promote them again, and we keep on promoting them until they aren’t doing such a great job – until they reach a job at which they are not fully competent. Then they either get stuck at that level, doing a fair-to-poor job, or they get fired. It is very rare that some goes back to a lower-level – that would be too great a blow to the ego.
We should encourage employees at all levels to find some type of work that they love and at which they are competent, and we should help them plan their careers so they can keep doing what they love while contributing to the organization’s success.