I have heard this same underlying adage in economics departments for many years, though in recent years I haven't heard it as often:
From Gunpowder to the Next Big Bang, by Thomas L. Friedman, NY Times: There is a techie adage that goes like this: In China or Japan the nail that stands up gets hammered, while in Silicon Valley the nail that stands up drives a Ferrari and has stock options. Underlying that adage is a certain American confidence that whatever we lack in preparing our kids with strong fundamentals in math and science, we make up for by encouraging our best students to be independent, creative thinkers.
I've always wondered if it the adage is a rationalization for poor U.S. performance in math and science, but apparently the belief has support in China as well:
...Even the Chinese will tell you that they've been good at making the next new thing, and copying the next new thing, but not imagining the next new thing. That may be about to change. Confident that its best K-12 students will usually outperform America's in math and science, China is focusing on how to transform its classrooms so students become more innovative. ...Harry Shum, a Carnegie Mellon-trained computer engineer ... said: "A Chinese journalist once asked me, '...what is the difference between China and the U.S.?...' I joked, '... the difference between China high-tech and American high-tech is only three months - if you don't count creativity.' When I was a student in China 20 years ago, we didn't even know what was happening in the U.S. Now, anytime an M.I.T. guy puts up something on the Internet, students in China can absorb it in three months.
How do you create imagineers?
"But could someone here create it? That is a whole other issue. I learned mostly about how to do research right at Carnegie Mellon. ... Before you create anything new, you need to understand what is already there. Once you have this foundation, being creative can be trainable. China is building that foundation. So very soon, in 10 or 20 years, you will see a flood of top-quality research papers from China." Once more original ideas emerge, though, China will need more venture capital and the rule of law to get them to market. ... Dr. Shum said. "... I will be teaching a class at Tsinghua University next year on how to do technology-based ventures. ... You have technology in Chinese universities, but people don't know what to do with it - how to marketize it." ...
How do you say "Ferrari" in Chinese?
Creativity is built like everything else of value is built, with long hard work and as the commentary notes it starts with the construction of the proper foundation, a thorough understanding of what is known and how it came to be known, what is unknown, and what among the unknown is the most important to solve.