Saturday, August 19, 2006

Book review: Self Renewal

My train-ride book yesterday was Self Renewal: the Individual and the Innovative Society by John W. Gardner. I'd recommend the first half to anyone who subscribes to the Phoenix Philosophy of continuous improvement. Some passages, like this one, seem tailor-made for idealistic Oliners:

The great virtue of a free people is to be that fertile seedbed; not - as some have supposed - to be always right or enlightened but to be the soil from which enlightenment can spring.


In other words, "keep trying, but don't get a big head about it." There's also a passage on the benefits of being normal.

...creative individuals as a rule choose to conform in the routine, everyday matters of life, such as speech, dress, and manners. One gets the impression that they are simply not prepared to waste their energy in noncomformity about trifles. They reserve their independence for what really concerns them - the area in which their creative activities occur.


If you look and act like most of the world, you've got a better chance of getting your crazier ideas accepted by them, because - well, you're practically one of them. Not one of those wacky loons out there. When you do something strange, they'll know you're doing it because you honestly believe it's functionally better, not because you want to look cool or get attention. It's like mellowing out the flavors in a soup so that one beautiful note of sweet butternut can come through.

My father once told me that he was ok with me going to Olin because "out of all the engineering schools we visited, it has the most normal people, and maybe you'll learn to be normal as well." I know, anyone at Olin (or IMSA, for that matter) starts choking with laughter when they hear someone referring to us as "normal." All right, maybe we aren't. But the reason we're so successful is because we can interface with most of the world. Sometimes who you can connect to is just as important as what you can actually do (although we're Darn Good Engineers as well). What use is a brilliant idea if it only stays in one person's head?

One of my worries about Olin is that we're growing less fearless and creative over time. "If it ain't broken, don't fix it" is a great philosophy for conservation of energy, but that's not what we're about. Olin's not supposed to be the best engineering school in the world. We're supposed to be the one that's least afraid of changing.

When there is an established way to do almost anything, people are apt to feel that all the pioneering has been done, all the exciting things tried. Though the need for innovation still exists (or may be even greater), it is far from obvious. [emphasis mine]


It'e easy to say that innovation should exist, but hard to take the risk yourself. Better to let someone else do it. Folks, this is a news flash: that "someone else" is us. Did some of my classes suck? Yeah. Did I gripe about them? Sure. Would I change the fact that we experimented with them? No. When designing a scientific experiment, you love negative results because they show you unambiguously what Does Not Work. Positive results teach you less; sure, that thing worked, but nobody knows why.

All too often we are giving our young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants. We are stuffing their heads with the products of earlier innovation rather than teaching them to innovate. We think of the mind as a storehouse to be filled when we should be thinking of it as an instrument to be used.


Here's to self-renewal. Guinea pig hackers of the world, unite!

Now go put on your crash helmet and go bump into things.

2 comments:

Simone said...

I share in your worry about Olin.

Ben said...

I have not firsthand seen these changes, but from the stories, I know they are there. They are there when we here someone say, "The first year is finally getting into a steady state."

The class of 06 was proud in saying that they had the worst Olin education ever. My class states that we have the fourth worst ever. I don't think the undergraduate experience will get worse in the next few years, but I worry that it won't get better. We can't just be a monotonic function; we have to be strictly increasing.

(On second thought, I think it would be better to have the education get worse than to have it stay the same) I had some similar thoughts a week ago at my blog (xanga.com/piguy31415926)