As I have gotten older, I have started to think more about how I got to where I am. Not so much in terms of physical things or financial things, but in terms of my learning capacity. What did I learn and when did I learn it? Did I learn what I needed to know? How did I manage it — or not — as the case may be? Do I use what I learn? Does it lead me to new learning or cut off new learning? Lots of questions.
Like most people, I think that I was successful in some ways, and less so in others. That is interesting because if I can identify where I failed, I can verbalize how to improve — myself and others. That is worth exploring.
One of the sore points in my own learning history has to do with my eyes. At a very early age, I became very near sighted. That started so early that I had no awareness of it My world was a blur, and I had no idea that everyone else around me could see!
Not seeing well caused me problems in first grade when I was assigned a seat way in the back of the class. I could not see the front of the room, but I was used to being in that situation. It did not occur to me to complain. Nor did I identify my poor vision as the reason for my difficulties. I didn’t realize that I had poor vision. BTW, nor was I overly concerned about those difficulties. I accepted that I was a poor learner and that was that. I barely made it to second grade, but the powers that be crossed their fingers and let me go forward as long as I did remedial reading lessons over the summer.
My dear old dad — who had extraordinarily limited teaching skills — handled that summer chore. But that is a different story.
I was fortunate in the second grade to sit in the front of the room. My grades radically improved. I was told that it was because I was learning how to work, and dear old dad took the credit. I had had an ethical rather than physical challenge and harder work was the cure. I had to stop being lazy!
I did not feel that I was working harder, though I did have a much better idea of what was going on in class. . But as before, I accepted what I was told. I did not question it, despite the rather obvious evidence about why I was doing better. I persuaded myself that I was essentially a lazy person who needed a strong push to get anything done. Learning, of a sort, I suppose. But learning that once again, ignored a huge environmental factor — my poor vision.
As an aside, where did that come from? Was it a genetic inheritance? Did it have something to do with my early environment? Could it have been cured in some way? Interesting questions — and questions that I cannot to this day offer an answer.
My eyes were finally tested when I was in the third grade. I can still recall the disbelief of the technician when I failed to read even the larger letter sequences on the screen. “Are you sure you can’t see that?” I was asked again and again. I got glasses. Thick ones. It was a major change, though the new glasses did not make me happy. I thought I looked terrible in them and I didn’t want to wear them. This got much worse when the eye doctor decided that I had a “lazy eye” and prescribed a ridiculous looking eye patch. The experience triggered a bit of stubbornness. If I had to look terrible to learn better, learning was not all that it was cracked up to be! Aha! Once again, a form of learning, but not the sort that was intended by the adults around me. The seeds of rebellion were sewn.
The interesting thing looking back at this scenario is how limited were my abilities to identify an obvious cause of a serious problem and diagnose the various effects of the problem. Why was that so? I had shown in second grade that I was not a total idiot. I could learn. It was something else. I think now it was more that my immediate sense of well being rested less on my own capacities to do things for myself and more that I was doing what I was told to do. I had the vague sense that learning was doing what you were told to do. It was not about seeing more broadly. Nicht gut, but not so unusual in those days.
The result? I learned to become rather clever in class in figuring out what I was expected to do on tests. I passed through grade school and high school and college thinking that this was learning – figuring out how to do well on tests with a minimum of work. I became trapped in a less than optimal learning paradigm. And btw, it was boring. But I did not see an alternative at the time.
It took me quite a while to realize that this was not enlightened And one reason I was so slow was that I got very busy. As Greg Satell writes
The problem we often run into in our over-optimized, modern world is that we are too quick to discard ideas that we can’t immediately make use of.
Put more colloquially, I was too busy coping with life to think about what affected my capacity to learn to do it better. And the busier I got, the less I looked at myself. The more my identity became a fixed thing. It was me against the world rather than me in the world. Strange but true!
That started to change radically when I began to practice law. I found that when I had to verbalize what I thought was valuable to an audience (for example, a client or a judge), I had to go deeper into why I thought it was valuable. That opened a door to challenging and discarding lots of old assumptions. I became more open and curious about new ideas. Practicing law and later on teaching, enabled me to see reality in new and surprising ways.
One rather large new idea hit me around six or seven years ago. It was in the form of a question. What will the future be like? Around that time, many people were doubting whether the 21st century would offer mankind much new value. We had just experienced the 2008 economic meltdown, we had concerns about global warming. There were concerns about resource shortages, pollution, international instability, terrorism, and so on. You get the idea.
My intuition was that our future is essentially a race between mankind’s destructive and value adding capacities. BTW, negotiation expert Bill Ury points out that mankind is very creative in being destructive. So, if Bill is right, we cannot assume that the race will end well. Will we wean ourselves from dangerous stuff by finding better alternatives before the bad stuff does us in? Good question!
As I thought about this, I bumped into the ideas of the economist Carlotta Perez. Professor Perez offers a model that gives a sense of the value of discovery and economic change due to technological revolution. Here she is talking about that model with VC Fred Wilson in an interview that took place in 2011. Check it out! Ask yourself, is there anything to learn here? And if so, can we use it? Does it give us a path forward to learn more? To live better?
BTW, I do not propose that you take Carlotta’s model as gospel. In fact, my main criticism of her presentation is the degree of certainty that she expresses. It is instead to use it as a possible framework to test what you see happening around you over time. Is it consistent with those events? And does it offer value in making choices? Does it help open our eyes? Errr … even if we are as near sighted as I was as a young lad?