10/19/2012 08:59 am ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

From Whence Comes Innovation?

"Higher education is not worth the higher cost" is the response I received from China to a blog piece I had written earlier this summer. I was somewhat surprised to have touched a nerve on the other side of the world.

Making his case was the son of two Chinese educators, both high school teachers. They had encouraged their son, Haozhi Chen, to continue his education, but he instead decided to drop out at age eighteen. Why? He thought it unfair that his parents earned only one-fourth of what business people typically were paid in China. "That differential inspired me to start and own a business, not pursue further education," said Haozhi.

Like many young people in this country, Haozhi went to work for a telecommunications company at age 18, saving his money. He also convinced his mother to save her money as well. His fourth start-up, CocoaChina's Fishing Joy, has a reputed 100 million downloads and is currently is one of the top-ranked games in the world.

Are entrepreneurs born or made? Haozhi's response was, "They are made by the environment." His answer made sense to me, as I've observed a unique blend of characteristics in the entrepreneurs I have known. Teresa Amabile, in her 1996 Harvard Business School article titled, "Creativity and Innovation in Organizations," concluded the social environment can influence both the levels and frequency of creative behavior."

What about innovation? As some one who has experienced some success in this area, I asked Haozhi where innovation comes from. He replied, "That's simple: from one's experiences as a consumer, as a user of lots of products with many interests." He went on to make the case that his success was due in large part from not having been restricted by the typical educational system. Commenting on his having dropped out of school at an early age, he stated that "it made me fearless, willing to attempt things and endure the consequences."

It surprised me that some of the same dynamics influencing educational decisions, entrepreneurship and innovation in this country could be in place in China. I've not done research on this topic, but I suspect that a number of the same issues apply to many other developed countries throughout the world.

Research I have conducted on brain function has explained a great deal about why the brain becomes comfortable with familiar patterns and routines. Furthermore, it has demonstrated why innovation often occurs in the minds of younger people. Consider Jobs, Zukerberg, Brin, Bezos and other bright, innovative minds. Indeed, looking to the past, Albert Einstein is said to have done important work on relativity in his twenties, as did Isaac Newton in calculus and Werner Heisenberg in quantum mechanics. Amabile reported in the article quoted earlier, "Intelligence can contribute to creativity, but research shows that there is a much more to creativity than just 'smarts.' In fact, above modestly high IQ's, there is no clear relationship between intelligence and creativity."

Are we to conclude, then, that the path of dropping out of school at age 18, taken by Zuckerberg, Jobs or Chen in China, is the path to riches? Peter Thiel certainly thinks so, as his Thiel Foundation encourages students to drop out and even offers grants to those who do so.

Where does that leave the rest of us, however, who are way past 18 and who have spent decades in the system? We're "married and mortgaged," as the saying goes, and we cannot drop out or we'll lose what we've built throughout an entire career.

We may not be able to get our brains to work like those of a twenty-something, but what we can do is to "drop out" of our conventional approaches to problem solving and innovation. If we're currently in a good place, that's fine. If, however, we're trying to break out of our tried and true ways of thinking in order to compete in today's Conceptual Age, a good first step in the process is to engage in accessing our right brains to stimulate new and creative insights.