Follow Curiosity, Not Careers

A pair of chairs, a pair of coffees. About as good a way you’ll find to start a conversation, ask questions, answer them. Learn. Teach. Less than $10. At the Doughnut Plant, New York City. Around about here.

I’m feeling somewhat vindicated by the NYT opinion piece “End the University as We Know It” — a call for restructuring the old, creeky ways of the graduate university. The trajectory from graduate school to teaching positions is serpentine, at best. Specialization creates smaller and smaller communities of practice who talk to all seven or twenty or fifty of the other specialists. Ways of knowing become increasingly limited, confined to these small communites. Interdisciplinarity — worthwhile in spirit, certainly — often means getting some disciplines together in a room, rather than transcending the notion of the discipline all together, something that would allow more focus on problems from the top down, rather than as sub-problems of, say, economics or history or whatever.

Mark Taylor’s opinion piece is worth the read, positioning a long-running crisis in graduate eduction as “te Detroit of higher learning”, the allusion of course, to the crisis the automotive industry feels in the current credit crisis. Kids are paying way too much to go to school to become skilled up to perform in industries and job sectors in a way that prepares them to be calcified rather than agile. The ability to know how to learn is far more important than any one nugget of knowledge delivered in a lecture by a tenured professor who’s been teaching the same thing decade after decade.

This idea Taylor has of 7 year departments is quite provocative, as well as 7 year teaching appointments. I’ve thought about 3-5 year cycles — 3-5 years seems about right for me, personally, to shift areas of interest and practice. Maybe that’s just the way things have unfolded professional — sometimes consciously, sometimes the decisions delivered from elsewhere.

In any case, this idea of shifting ones practice and area of activity is quite important. Following your curiosity rather than a career path/ladder/trajectory seems incredibly wise. To do otherwise, seems naive and thoughtless. Yes — the practicalities of life intrude. You need (more likely want) nice things that money buys. Money comes from jobs. More money comes from certain kinds of careers. (Or it did, leastways.) You’ll certainly be nudged strongly toward that career ladder to cover the $150,000 of education you now have to pay back. I’m sure that one would learn much more following one’s curiosity for that same $50,000 a year you’d spend at the football university..which costs that much so that the football team’s jet stays maintained and fueled..but I’ve gone over this before.

How do you follow your curiosity? I dunno — you just do. What’s a plan? A template? Maybe something like this:

Spend a year listening, reading, learning about a new practice. Find out who the thought leaders are and why. Ask everyone who is in the particular practice community three questions: (1) what’s your story? how’d you come to be who you are and do what you do? (2) who’s your hero in your field? (3) who else should I meet? Go to the trade conferences and dive deep. Listen to everything. Read everything. Filter by simple keywords. (I do design now. That’s my filter, design. If there is design in the title/abstract/conference, that’s my criteria for reading/attending/giving a talk.)

Spend the next year helping out and apprenticing. Be a humble servant, asking questions but also getting hands dirty and trousers scuffed. Be active, modest and become a learner. Move about, but focus on the nuances of the craft aspects of the practice community.

Another year making/creating/building on your own, whatever the field might be. Prepare to be a contributor in a more active way. Find a voice of your own. You would’ve created a network that knits you into the community by this time.

And subsequent years, refining and polishing that “voice.” Keep moving, refining, finding ways to continue to learn and bringing all the other bits of learning, the other “fields”, the other ways of knowing and seeing the world, all the other bounded disciplines — let them intrude and change things. Let things get rather undisciplined and a bit unruly. Disciplines are self-satisfied, with is akin to apathy, which never solved any problems.

Anyway. Give it a read. Anyone who’s spent more than $50,000 a year getting educated should take heed. Anyone who’s getting paid about that much to teach those who pay that much should take extra heed. Anyone who thinks University style learning has hit an ivory wall will feel vindicated.

Mark C. Taylor, End the University as We Know It, New York Times, Opinion Section, 4/27/09.

By the by, Marcus Jahnke, designer, creator, teacher in the Business & Design Lab at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, who briefly taught me about how he transcended construction fashion norms in Sweden (and just about anywhere, I would guess) by introducing a well-received kilt called the Hantverkskilt for construction workers, spoke this phrase — you follow your curiosity, not a career — to me a few weeks ago after a kind of long biographical introduction to a talk. It made perfect sense and gave me a new perspective on why I do what I do, even when I get in trouble for it. He sent me a kilt. I’m mustering the courage to wear it. It’s quite Near Future Laboratory-y, as it turns out. Thanks Marcus, and thanks for the kilt.

Related is this post by Alex Pang: Want to reach your goals? Be oblique

Which points to this: Obliquity Strange as it may seem, overcoming geographic obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting global business targets are the type of goals often best achieved when pursued indirectly. This is the idea of Obliquity. Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people.

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More Than One Degree

No one should be allowed to do what they’re diploma (or whatever..) says, especially if they have three of those diplomas — e.g. BS, MS, Ph.D. all in Computer Science or whatever. Should be a law. The other law? Switch what you do every 3-5 years..really. Versatility & variety & polymathic approaches to doing things. Depth through expanse and experience beyond chasing the same stuff for an entire education, or an entire career.

Why do I blog this? A CV received from a willing candidate in a topic area I am curious can do one thing quite well, but only one thing. It made me think about how flexibility and agility can be expressed in education and skilling. How do you retool yourself in a context such as the current crisis (trust, credit) we are in? Especially as the discipline in question — three degrees all told — becomes increasingly commoditized with overseas South, East and Southeast Asian “knowledge” workers (the new blue collar) willing to work in their local economies for 30, 40, 50, 60 percent less than their counterparts in North America or Western EU. (Partially because they can afford to, but also because the expectations for materializing one’s wealth are a quite strong — or were — motivator in the western contexts.)
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