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Oct 12, 2015   [permalink]

Education, Part II

The Self-Taught Genius?

I'm not opposed to the knowledge that comes from a good education. Far from it! However, I tend to think knowledge is all around us all the time, in books, journals, in the minds of our nerdy friends, and even on TV shows. People like to diss TV, but on any given day a tremendous amount of cool stuff passes through it, and if you dip in to watch the right things even occasionally you'll be soooooo much wiser about the world than almost anybody was in the 3-channel dark ages, it's not even a fair comparison.

Popular magazines? I've gotten a lot of benefit from reading Science News every week. Its short, punchy articles on all aspects of science are not too intimidating in any given issue, but if you absorb and metabolize them year after year after year, the cumulative effect can be pretty staggering. Your ideal blog or magazine may be different than mine, but the effect is the same; if you read enough, about enough different things, you can become one of those polymath types who seems to know at least a little bit about everything. That's a useful skill all by itself, and if it's coupled with detailed knowledge about a few specific subjects, so much the better, provided you're not constantly throwing your knowledge around like a complete twat.

I assume you've already learned to program your computer and/or your smartphone, but if you haven't, start immediately. The best kind of knowledge is the kind you construct yourself, painstakingly, while trying to reproduce the game of Pong or something. During the 80s, computer programming was a rite of passage even non-nerds experienced, but today it seems to have fallen out of favor even with the mainstream of nerd culture. Don't let it. Even if you have no intention of writing software for a living, you want to be able to hold an intelligent conversation with people who do. Fail, and they'll feed you bullshit just for fun, and even if you know they're doing it you'll have no way to prove it. The best possible defense for a manager on the rise is, "Never mind, Sheldon. I'll write it myself."

Also, on a related subject, don't be afraid to think in metaphors—even "stupid" ones with obvious flaws. In my various careers I've gotten a lot of mileage by treating electricity like water (voltage=pressure, amperage=flow rate), quantum mechanics like thermodynamics (Heisenberg uncertainty=pressure, confinement energy=temperature), and photons like actual physical objects (wavelength=diameter). Analogies can mislead as well as enlighten, but for the record, this is exactly how Einstein (an eccentric who was bad at math and probably had ADHD) cracked both relativity and the photoelectric effect, so how stupid is it really?

Now, Actual Experts may balk at this strategy; your analogies may be so full of shit that they simply can't be taken seriously, and need to be refuted point-for-point or even rejected in their entirety. That's OK, because that refutation is itself part of a creative process that kicks off new analogies and fresh ideas, and may jolt either or both of you onto interesting new paths. Or not; what works for one person may very well not work for others. Just suggestions, bro.

Obviously, too, some of the best, most useful knowledge is acquired on the job, and you should get as much of that as you humanly can. The true alpha geek should know not only the basics of physics, chemistry, and mechanics, but also software engineering and database architecture, technical writing (including grant proposals), the interpretation of circuit diagrams and Material Safety Data Sheets, the translation of mushy business requirements into rigorous schedules and technical specs (a discipline known as systems engineering), and if possible, a smattering of patent, trademark, and copyright law. These things are not taught (or not taught well) in schools, so OJT may be your only opportunity to absorb them. The more you know about this stuff, the less likely you are to find your level of incompetence when promoted.

The flip side, though, is that learning this stuff on the job will put you chronically outside your comfort zone, right out there in public where everyone can see. In fact, if you are in your comfort zone—if you always know exactly what you're doing—then you're both underperforming and failing to grow. So be shameless in your discomfort! The wise man or woman asks a lot of questions, and isn't afraid to share a cockamamie theory when things aren't quite making sense, and isn't ashamed if someone else has more information or a better idea. You don't have to be right, Watson. Just useful.

More anon.

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