Spence Green

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I work at Lilt. In addition to computers and languages, my interests include travel, running, and scuba diving. more...

Think Like a Child

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Tom Kelley, the General Manager of IDEO, began his much anticipated 12 November talk at Stanford with an anecdote. While doing research for his whimsical book ‘Orbiting the Giant Hairball’, Kelley’s friend Gordon Mackenzie visited a grammar school in search of artists. To the kindergarten class, he asked, “Who here is an artist?” An eruption of shouting, jumping, and enthusiastic gesticulations confirmed that everyone in the room made art. The first-graders responded similarly, albeit with perceptibly less earnestness. By the second grade, a few had retired from the vanguard, though the majority still remained. At the sixth-grade level, MacKenzie offered his question to a group of obviously annoyed youth: “Who here is an artist?” At first, no hands moved. Then a few timid adolescents volunteered, conscious of the snickers and grins that such an admission produced. MacKenzie resisted the conclusion that artistic skill deteriorates with age. For Kelley, the lesson is clear: creative potential must be nurtured, for there are forces–envy, criticism, and worst of all, inertia–that stifle it. “You’re too young to be stuck in a rut,” he exclaimed, “There is a difference between being ‘childish’ and being ‘childlike’. Creative people cultivate the attitude present in that kindergarten classroom.”

With this observation as his thesis, Kelley presented five ‘habits of mind’ meant to preserve intellectual youth. Start good habits was the first of these. In particular, ‘think like a traveler.’ Kelley made the observation that travelers experience a mental acuity unknown to the sedentary (but well-known to this writer). Small details–the make of a stranger’s shoes, the brands of gum in a newspaper stand, the smell of a place–demand the attention of a visitor in a new land. Kelley remembered walking through the turnstiles at Charles de Gaulle and realizing that their design was flawed. He installed himself just outside the terminal and observed one traveler after another wrestle bags through the narrow exits. That air travelers often have luggage had somehow escaped the notice of the airport architects. Kelley admitted that he must have walked through hundreds of American airports that shared the same deficiency. The traveler’s mind ‘spots opportunities’, and it can be controlled like any other skill. Mental habits like this separate intellectual producers from consumers. ‘You are the expert of your own experience,’ Kelley said.

The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes. -Proust

Treat life as an experiment. Creative people ‘fail forward’: for them, risk does not preclude action. Kelley then listed a series of innovations born out of failure: the lightbulb (Edison ‘discovered’ 10,000 incorrect filaments before he found a good one) and WD-40 (the first 39 mixtures were poor lubricants). Kelley conjectured that most people expect failure–indeed, it is the more probable outcome–and so avoid it by not attempting projects that lead to it. “This is why people don’t read,’ Kelley said with a sardonic grin, “A 300-page book is intimidating. What if it isn’t good? But if you start with 10 pages, and they are good, then try 10 more. Soon, you’ll have finished the book.”

Nurture an attitude of wisdom. Creative people have a thirst for knowledge. They must consider that human knowledge is in a constant state of revision, though. Kelley described a recent trip to Singapore, his home for several years in the 1980’s. To more than one colleague he had boasted, “I really know Singapore.” When he arrived, however, he immediately recognized that he did not know Singapore. His vision of it was rooted in 1985, and since then, the country had been reborn. An ‘attitude of wisdom’ therefore requires that a worldview be constantly compared to the state of things.

Use your whole brain. More than a few university students have had the strange experience of going to bed with a vexing question on their minds, only to wake up with the solution. Kelley calls this phenomenon the ‘tortoise mind’. The brain has a district that revolts against direct control. This is where rumination and contemplation take place. Noise can subvert the tortoise mind, though, as Kelley discovered during work on his first book. Audio books had given him great pleasure–he could consume them in vast quantities–but he realized that they were cluttering his mind. If the object is to produce books, then the brain must not be wholly devoted to the consumption of them. From this perspective, daydreaming is not the mark of an idler.

Follow your passions. Kelley recalled a conversation with Francis Ford Coppola about wine. The director-cum-vintner explained his hobbies with an axiom: “Do what you love. You’ll be better at it.” Implementation of this idea is more than just working out the coefficients of an equation, though. Many people hate their jobs, Kelley admitted, but can they find a passion that pays well? He described a lecture given by Jim Collins on that writer’s own search for vocation. For two years, Collins kept a journal of everything that he found satisfying. A pattern emerged: he liked to organize things, and he liked to teach. Fortunately, these two activities pay well. During this process, Collins developed a diagram:

How to choose a vocation

How to choose a vocation

The graphic, which Collins drew extemporaneously during his talk, was the exclusive subject of the audience’s questions. In particular, everyone seemed enamored with the lower-left circle. But there are three circles, and they overlap, Kelley cautioned. Think like a child, but don’t be childish. With a bow, he closed his talk.

Kelley’s observations inspired me on several levels. In particular, I have come to view my graduate education as a period of residence in which it is safe for me to daydream, ruminate, and fail. It is a time for me to develop skills, lean against hard problems, and think big thoughts. Education, if seen from this perspective, is an opportunity to shape the mind, not just to populate it with facts.

Addendum (29 December 2008):

In his excellent exposition on risk, Peter L. Bernstein explains how Galileo’s “traveler’s mind” led to a dramatic improvement in timekeeping:

One day in 1583, while attending a service in the cathedral in Pisa, Galileo noticed a lamp swaying from the ceiling above him. As the breezes blew through the drafty cathedral, the lamp would swing irregularly, alternating between wide arcs and narrow ones. As he watched, he noted that each swng took precisely the same amount of time, no matter how wide or narrow the arc. The result of this casual observation was the introduction of the pendulum into the manufacture of clocks. Within thirty years, the average timing error was cut from fifteen minutes a day to less than ten seconds. Thus was the time married to technology. And that was how Galileo liked to spend his time. (from Berstein, Peter L. Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, p.54)

Written by Spence

December 15th, 2008 at 12:56 pm

Posted in Ideas

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