Creativity, Education and Employment Simplified

If I Need Something, I'll Invent ItI’ve been thinking about creativity and technical stuff for… well, for most of my life. It was a few decades ago that I made peace with the two in the mind of a son of a poet and engineer.

It’s not complicated, but it continues to be unexplained by so many experts that I won’t bother linking them. And it is a real problem, as even NASA scientists have found.

In one paragraph:

Creativity is basically not thinking like other people do. Education systems create standardized ways of thinking.

Right there is the answer. Albert Einstein alluded to it frequently, speaking of levels of thinking that solve problems being different than the level that created them, or about imagination, etc.

So, in an education system – in any system – you see creativity in outliers. People who don’t think like everyone else are considered creative even when they themselves may not consider themselves creative.

And that is where things get complicated. If everyone approaches problems the same way, they are measured the same way in education and employment systems (the two are almost the same these days)… are we surprised that creativity diminishes within the systems?

Maybe the cause of that surprise is the education system. After all, people studying the systems are byproducts of the systems and are using the standardized tools to study things in the hope to find how to become… less standard.

This is why we should laugh at the world more.

Blind

BlindedWherever I worked, I usually tested the hierarchy’s patience with my ‘going out of scope’. It started in secondary school, actually – I remember the day – when I had gone off wandering outside of the Chemistry curriculum (but within the textbook).

I’d been doing my own notes independent of the class – things that I found interesting. I didn’t understand a curriculum. I was just having fun learning, and so I had foolishly thought that my work would be appreciated when I showed my work to the teacher.

He wasn’t impressed, particularly since I wasn’t doing too well in his class. He wanted me to focus on the curriculum – but no one had given me a curriculum, they’d given me a book. He told me I would continue to get bad grades in chemistry until I focused on the curriculum.

What we both didn’t know at the time is that I didn’t care about the grade, I cared about learning stuff. This could have been a pivotal moment for me in formal education, but it wasn’t. That would come almost 2 years later when I decided I needed to pass their tests.

Similar stories followed me throughout my careers. I was never interested in what society thought I knew, I was always interested in what I could learn. At first, there was little benefit, but later on in my careers in Medicine (USN), software engineering (all over) and writing it came in very handy because I not only knew things that others didn’t, I also didn’t think like others did.

Since I wasn’t interested in their prizes, I didn’t have to play by their rules. And since I didn’t play the ratchet game of educational landmarks, I didn’t limit myself and didn’t stop studying things after I got to a certain point. So many people languish, letting the fluid education they have become concrete, set in stone.

In solving problems, this became my greatest strength – that I was immune to siloed knowledge. It drove managers and CTOs nuts at times, having a software engineer wandering around and talking to users and people who supported software, an unheard of thing in modern software development, but well within normalcy in the elder practice. Know the users, know the uses. Know how it’s used, know how it might break.

Plan for everything.

But sometimes it doesn’t work that way.

As a software engineer, I usually found myself in trouble with management because I was always doing things ‘out of scope’. I’d wander around at times, talking to people who supported or used software I was working on for a few different reasons. At one of the last companies I worked for, I was told repeatedly that upper management saw me wandering from my desk too much.

My Director at the time thought I was unfocused, and yet every project I was given was done on time despite my wanderings outside the building or over to other departments. He wasn’t wrong, he just wasn’t right, and in retrospect I think he wrote that to pacify upper management. Either way, I didn’t really care, but saying that was a great way to make sure I got a crappy raise.  I ended up getting a crappy raise anyway, but in a way that was my fault for not negotiating harder.

What had happened was pretty straightforward. The company had some complex software systems, and when I started the then most senior software engineer was on his last week. I learned as much about the systems as I could over that week, trailing him, getting to understand the big picture of the spaghetti code that interns had written. The few with true specialized knowledge held onto it as their job security.

I learned a lot in that week, but not enough. Nobody who was interested in solving the problems actually knew anything, nothing was documented, and so I began writing things down as I had been taught as a young Software Engineer at Honeywell. Some of it was accused of being wrong by those whose job security was threatened, and my response was that they should fix the Wiki. They never did, of course.

Things changed within the company, part politics, partly near revolt in the Software Department (another article there!), and so structures that were once fluid became siloed. This isn’t as much of an issue as people might think if people actually document what they do appropriately, and it’s shared with the department overall – so there were problems that arose because the software complexity, and entropy, had gotten to critical mass – and problems arose that required someone to be outside of the silos.

At around that time, I was asked to a meeting about some issues and I stayed quiet the entire time. One of the company’s officers asked me to stay after the meeting, and my Director was there too. He asked me, “Why didn’t you say anything?”

So I explained to him that since everyone was off doing their own things, and that I had no insight into how things were actually changing in the software across multiple teams, I felt blinded. Where once I had a working knowledge of the systems, I no longer had it because I wasn’t able to see what was changing, and how it would affect the systems on a larger level.

There was a silence. Nothing changed. And after a few system screwups that brought the entire system down, caused by undocumented and sometimes ill advised changes in the code by people, including myself (mine were documented)… I gave up.

I knew we were working blind. However, people who had never peered behind their version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave couldn’t see, and because they couldn’t see, they didn’t care.

Certifying the Negatives

blank certificateWe live in a strange society. People are running around getting certified for all sorts of things to prove to other people that they can do them. There are certificates of achievement, completion, graduation… and so on, and so forth.

How old are you? Oh, you have a birth certificate – which you only get once. You get death certificates once as well, but typically only posthumously.

You can get certified on all sorts of things. People will ask you, “So, are you any good at this?”, and you’re prepared: Just whip out a certificate on whatever this is.

But we don’t certify the bad things, such as:

  • Can’t keep a secret.
  • ‘Great personality’.
  • Being over 5 feet tall.
  • Being under 5 feet tall.
  • Exceptional Procrastination.

Think about it. Someone asks you to do something: You tell them you’re procrastinating. By the Laws of Certification, they should then wonder if you have the capacity to procrastinate effectively. Can you? Why don’t you?

“It’s clear you never took the time to get a certificate of procrastination, which tells me…”

The point is, we use certificates for things that we think are positives, but what did those certificates cost you? Did a Certificate of Perfect Attention cost you a Certificate in being a happy and healthy human being?

When you really think about it, certificates are silly things. Either you did something or you didn’t, either you are good at something or you’re not.

And don’t even get me started on degrees…

The point is, if we’re going to certify some things, maybe we should be certifying everything else.

Arts And Technology

Sisyphean TechnologyI found myself at my alma mater, discussing with the present Dean the divorce between Sciences and Literature a few weeks ago. It’s part of the concrete issue that I faced as a young man – in Trinidad and Tobago, then, probably around 1986, we were put into focused classes for Ordinary Level examinations.

There were paths for Modern Studies, Technical for the more hands on, and two Science classes. I made it into one of the two Science classes where we were driven down the science path – which most of us wanted. We were also required a language, which was Spanish. I was very happy with this at the time, only of the Computer Science aspect.

I was convinced Computer Science was my future, and to a large extent this was a self-fulfilling prophecy – as most prophecies seem to be.

In retrospect, as I spoke to the Dean of the school, a man younger than me, I looked back on how I wish I had the option to continue studying English Literature. I lost that when I got into the Science silo.

For 3 years prior, at the beginning of every summer vacation, I read all the books required for the next year. A voracious reader, I had read everything in the house already – all my father’s novels. Louis L’amour, James Clavell, Robert Ludlum, Stephen King, Zane Grey and Clive Cussler come immediately to mind. We also had an Encyclopedia from the early 1980s that I had read from end to end.

As I look back, I had two main passions but at the time I only understood the passion for one: Computer Science. The second, which I didn’t understand as a subject, was literature in it’s many forms – except plays. I thought reading plays was silly, and to a large extent I still do – you lose the forest for the trees, in my mind, and to write a forest one does not study trees but the forest. An opinion.

Now, what would have happened if I had been able to trade Spanish or Geography for English Literature? We could speculate a lifetime. I could say that the system failed me, but it’s not the system’s job to create individuals. In fact, when it comes to Education, what the system’s job is probably one of the most debated topics on the planet.

I can’t fix the Education system. That’s not the intent here. Nothing works for everyone, and it’s a fool’s errand to try to – but we set humanity’s most horrendous weapon to task, bureaucracy, and it grinds at young minds enough so that Pink Floyd wrote, “Another Brick In The Wall” as I began my very journey through the grind, beneath that wheel.

This isn’t about Education, though. This is about Learning, and the need to be balanced to at least be competent to some degree in sciences and art.

Just because you like being an individual who writes poetry doesn’t mean you won’t gain from understanding how a tree lives. Just because you like to know how things work doesn’t mean that you have to be spartan in your reading.

It was later on in life where I was rescued and given challenging things to read that tested my mind, poked and prodded it and teased out the importance of other things. It was an openness to knowledge that allowed me to do that, and while I was in a secondary school silo I did not feel that I had the time for such… luxury… such freedom to allow my mind to explore.

Yet I worked for decades with people who were generally horrid to communicate with, who weren’t aware of some of the lessons available in the Arts – about why society maybe should do some things and maybe shouldn’t do others. Ethics, and the roles as builders technologists play on the world stage. Philosophy. Being human. And in doing so, we forget what our role is, shrugging off the responsibility and putting it on others because we like our paychecks.

We should be better than that.

To Contemplate, to Understand.


Contemplate
I’ve been reading “Labyrinth of Solitude” by Octavio Paz – an overdue read – and he made a point about how the Mexican way is to seek contemplation, and the North American way is to seek understanding.

My inner Mexican contemplated because my inner North American didn’t understand. Of course, I’m not Mexican, and to label myself by a continent is pretty foolish – the latter not stopping people from doing it – but the point is that there is a cultural difference between the two, and I have always preferred contemplation.

The world I have lived in has constantly tested my understanding, giving grades along those lines, and I often find myself in conversation with people who believe that they understand something because someone told them, or they read it somewhere… someone else’s contemplation becomes their understanding. It isn’t earned.

I suppose in a world that constantly moves faster, borrowing the contemplation of others and making it one’s understanding is the way forward for a lot of people through formal education systems. It’s probably why I never truly thrived in them consistently, only thriving in demonstrating understanding subjects I had contemplated. This might be perceived as a flaw. I see that it demonstrates a flaw in society.

A borrowed understanding is not true understanding; a borrowed understanding comes from a context that is not your own. An understanding – a true understanding – comes through contemplation, and therefore is never complete.

If you understand that, I do believe you missed the point.

 

 

Alma Matters.

IMG_20170610_181942Last weekend I spent some time at the reunion of my alma mater, Presentation College. It was odd measuring myself against the school again after all these years – there have been 29 of them so far. I met old classmates and new ones. There was a sense of brotherhood.

Alma Mater. Many people use the phrase without knowing it’s root Latin meaning – Nourishing (Alma) Mother (Mater). The Mother aspect comes from the Roman Goddeses Ceres (agriculture) and Cybele (‘Great Mother’), the latter having a history that can easily eat the time of an interested reader.

Nourishing. When we look at plants, we know that there is more than one nourishment – there are different types of nourishment and if we keep it simple, we have water, earth and sunlight.

The Monday, on invitation, I went to the school during regular class-times. I interacted with staff, mainly, and watched how the interiors of buildings had changed – how the people had changed… and how much stayed the same.

A friend of mine from my year was collecting some data for a thesis, and students were voluntarily filling out surveys. As I walked in, my first shock.

Young students in uniform, without knowing me, made eye contact with me and said, “Good morning, Sir.”

I blinked. ‘Sir’. Not ‘sir’. You can tell the difference between the two; the capitalized ‘Sir’ conveys sincere respect, the lower case conveys the casual respect. Suddenly, I was an alien in my old school, someone automatically given that respect by simply being present, having made it past the guards and the staff. And we former non-commissioned officers balk at either use, returning, “Do not call me ‘sir’, I work for a living.”.

These young students had served me notice. They had their end to live up to that they would uphold, and I had my end that I must uphold. “Good morning, Sir” had ushered me into a calm and pensive silence. I looked over the young men differently, wearing the uniform that I once wore.

The hairstyles had changed. Little more. I thought about the young man I once was and I looked around for him, not seeing him in one young man – that would be too easy – but aspects of myself spread across many of them. It has been a while since I taught.

There were the side conversations, done quietly. Some of the young men busied themselves with French textbooks, others quietly passed notes back and forth (yes, I saw it), some told each other jokes at the back and some were in their own little worlds, daydreaming.

I helped a little with the survey set up on the machines. Nothing noteworthy. I’m curious what my friend will find, and when I told him so he gave a half laugh and said, “Me too.”

We broke for lunch. I went to the new cafeteria. They have rotis, burgers… I had a chicken burger. And we went to the old Dean’s office area that had been reinvented.

My relationship with Staff and Deans in my day had been less comfortable. I’d found out years later that I had almost been expelled at one point – perhaps more. I wasn’t a very nice young man, a simmering rage I couldn’t understand always below the surface, a bored intellect I couldn’t understand constantly being told to stay on the rails of the education system. With creativity, those two were dangerous things.

Despite my weed-like appearance, it was decided to nourish me instead of weed me – something I am grateful about in no small way.

The Deans had these fidget spinners that they were collecting. I’d never seen one before. Honestly, having now seen a collection and live demonstration, I don’t see the appeal.

The Vice Principal who suffered me as a French student – an abysmal one at that – looked no different to me but frowned significantly less at me. In fact, I don’t think she frowned. She did smile, something she didn’t do very often around me when I bore the school uniform. We all spoke about things that I would not have thought, 29 years before, I would ever discuss in that area of the school – analysis of data, the challenges of the infrastructure, etc.

How peculiar after all these years to find that the alma mater still nourishes, and can help make sense out of the nonsense of life indirectly. The casual conversations break the old chains and ways of thinking, even as back then they did as well. To me, that is the true mark of education – when 29 years later, I can walk into my old school and still learn things of value.

This goes back to the German concepts of Lehrfreheit and Lernefreheit – of Academic Freedom. This is a part of the Presentation College that I remember, where the Principal or someone else would talk about present events and give we young men food for thought – nourishment – even as we pressed along the road-map of formal education.

Nourishment matters. We forget that too often, filling our lives with things that aren’t nourishing and even rob us of our health – be it the fast food, or the fast ‘facts’ circulating on social networks. It is possible to starve when overweight, our bodies seeking the nutrients we need in the gluttony of what we want. Yet in this case, nourishment is a communal effort, and to be nourished, you have to nourish.

Nourish, be nourished. It matters.

Dear Diary. [Rant]

 

Dear Diary,

16,506 revolutions of this planet around the yellow dwarf stars have happened since I started spinning on an accidental planet. This one. I think I’ve mentioned a few things about that to you in the last 12,853 days, since I started writing you and stopped as soon as they stopped forcing me to write a report of what I did for the day.

How many times can you write that you went to school, that you went home, that you might have played or balanced a quadratic equation? In Primary school in Trinidad and Tobago, they were determined to find out – determined in the way you think of a Catholic Nun when she approaches you with a wooden ruler. Determined, like an oversized SUV sliding at you in the middle of the road because the owner thought it was more safe despite increased braking ability. Wilfully Ignorant and Determined.

It killed my thoughts of writing as a child. I didn’t want to tell a story of my day that was as uninteresting as the one before – it wasn’t as if I would write that I got smacked at home, or that I smacked someone or got into a fight, in that diary – that they had the audacity to grade.

How do you grade a diary? “Great writer, terrible life. We’ll give him a C” versus, “Horrible writer, terrible spelling, awesome life or imagination. The bits on the magical guinea pigs – so good. We’ll give him a B”.

And so assignment is graded, kids recall that and just give up. We could tell them to buckle down and get it done – the system sucks, but we did it… but then we get back to The System Sucks, that we swore when we were too young to remember swearing that we’d fix it. We stared at things being done with the wide-eyed horror of children uncertain how to react – which is exactly what we were.

It’s crappy. Don’t grade a kid’s life. Don’t ask them to write an essay about their life and then GRADE them on it. Who are you to go around grading other people’s lives? Oh, you say you’re grading the writing, but really, you aren’t. You’re grading the writing, which includes the story, the setup, the characters… yes, you’re grading the whole thing even if you think you aren’t. You know it.

So Diary – make that so. No more of that stuff. It gave us the Kardashians, and I won’t have any truck with that. Kids lives are different. They can speak among themselves. They do anyway. Have them write stories that are imaginative or, for those lacking, reporting. Likely both, really.

Anyway, I always tell you in my diary that this is boring. My little protest logged every day. I did win that. They stopped circling it in red. I thought was clear above, but if not, circle this paragraph to get back to.

Yeah. And I wrote something after that protest.

The End.