Susan Riley | August 2013

The Lone Wolf or the Social Butterfly?

As a child, I always preferred to be by myself.  I remember summers where my mom had to force me to put down the book I was reading and go play outside with my brother.  Better yet – get involved with a camp and play with a bunch of other kids.  All I could feel at the time was resentment – just leave me be and let me do my own thing!

Now, it’s my turn to watch my daughter choose to tap into her own imagination, rather than play with the other kids.  It drives my husband crazy.  “She needs to play with others – it will be good for her,” he says as he takes away her coloring book and points her towards the front yard.  And I watch as her curly blond head casts that same resentful look towards him before sighing and walking towards the other children.  I can almost read her mind as if it were my own.

She and I are the lone wolf.  Our natural inclination is to work independently and show you our masterwork after we’ve shut the door and done our best.  My husband is the social butterfly.  He thrives on collaborating with others and developing something with all of his friends’ input.

Which one thrives in the 21st century?

There are many opinions and varied research out there for both sides of this coin.  On the one hand, collaboration is a coveted skill by employers in a 21st century global job market.  Being able to work well with others and innovate beyond your own mind is an area of great need.  On the other hand, being able to work independently on a variety of tasks without a lot of hand holding (or even direction) is also the mark of innovators and leaders in the 21st century.

Here’s my take: we need more of both.  We, and our children, need to have a clear understanding of our own strengths and continue to honor and refine those until they are more than a strength: they are part of our fingerprint on the world.  We shouldn’t just stop developing them because we have other areas that need more work.  Hone those strengths consistently and purposefully.

At the same time, it’s critical that we acknowledge our areas that require us to step outside of our comfort zone and to push forward in stepping out of our box.  While these pieces may make us resentful in the beginning, they lead us to an understanding of the world that we cannot possibly receive without the practice of developing them.  The combination of these two sides are what makes each of us a change agent in the world.

Let’s take a look at a real-world example: curriculum writing.

It’s easy enough to sit at a desk for 8 hours a day and knock out some curriculum.  Aligning objectives, high-quality assessments, and sequential lessons can all be done effectively as an independent task.  It could also be done well as part of a collaborative group.  If you only ever write curriculum by yourself, though, you’re missing out on ideas, strategies, and resources that others around you may know about that aren’t in your toolbox.

And if you only ever write curriculum as a group, you never have a sense of cohesion or true understanding about how each element works in tandem with the other.  The curriculum tends to be very loose and unfocused.  When you do a little bit of both, however, magic happens. We can polish, edited, and connect independent ideas in ways that spark curiosity, imagination, and creative thought and action.

We must make time for building both our butterfly wings and our wolf sense of direction and purpose.  Leveraging both will lead us to a path that would never have been on the map for either individually.  So the next time my little curly-head girl gives that resentful sigh, I won’t feel so badly about guiding her toward the opportunity to work with others.  Though I may have the coloring book for her with a new set of crayons waiting for when she’s ready to come home to herself.

About the Author

Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, STEAM, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education. Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter. Email Susan