Thursday, September 24, 2009


I never could ice skate. They'd flood the asphalt tennis courts and let it freeze, turning them into a skating rink. My dad would take us kids on a Saturday. We'd have the skates and hot chocolate in a thermos. My older sister was ok at it. We had home movies to prove the point. So when I got old enough, I had to give it a try. It wasn't the falling. Though I was poor at it, I could roller skate after a fashion. And later I learned to skateboard. It was the ankles. The roller skates and the skateboard had four wheels. The ice skates had blades. My ankles caved. So I walked with the outer part of my boot touching the ground along with the blade also touching the ground at an angle. I had some balance this way. But it wasn't skating. And it wasn't fun.

Growing up, the incapacities came first, before I found something I was good at. Fine motor skill was a problem. What other kids found ordinary, I found a challenge. I needed coaching to overcome this. I got a lot of that at pre-school and some in summer camp. It helped. I improved. But you can't get coaching in everything and there are some things you're just supposed to be able to do. What's the big deal? Put on the skates and skate.

If truth be told, I also had some incapacities at school, even after it became clear I was an elite student. I didn't know how to look into a microscope - take the glasses off or leave them on, what was I supposed to be seeing versus what I actually saw, was it the stuff on the slide or a reflection of my eye? And I had no clue about poetry. That was totally opaque to me.

I can write about this because it was a long time ago. It is much harder to write about those incapacities that are relevant to the present. I'm afraid much of that remains concealed rather than being brought out into the open.

* * * * *

In the 1970s when the Miller Brewing Company came out with Lite Beer, a product pitched at women for when they were out with men who were drinking beer, they came up with an ad campaign that caught the national attention. The ads included a lot of high testosterone types, many former professional athletes, engaged in a mock argument - tastes great versus less filling.

A couple of the ads featured Steve Mizerak, who was the next generation great pool player, following in the shoe steps of Willie Mosconi. This tribute video has the ads, one at the beginning, which will give you a flavor of the type of commercials they were making (I wonder if you know anyone of the people featured in it) and another one, "just showing off" at the very end. I believe that last one took over 100 takes to get it right.

Very good pool players are like peacocks. They strut their stuff. If you're good and you know it, why not? Others will be impressed. After a while that may become habit. You do it because it feels like the thing to do. Maybe you do it because the expected affirmation is like the sugar that makes the medicine go down, so you are comforted and need not confront your own incapacities.

But what if the audience you are performing in front of is also the group where your incapacities come to bear? Then they may not be impressed at all. The habitual strut becomes the cause of the problem. You may sense this possibility in advance so dread the situation even more than you would otherwise. And you don't see a way out of the dilemma.

So you bluff your way through it, taking control of the situation because you have the authority to do that. There is a conceptual error that underlies it all. Your authority derives from your expertise. The error is to assume that expertise in some domain implies expertise in all. Internally you know that is false, but because of the authority and the incapacities you wish to shield, you act externally as if it is the truth.

This, I believe, is the source of Argyris' Model 1. When we get to Senge, he will talk about something similar, treating the symptom rather than the cause. It seems like human nature to do this. It takes an enlightened view to do otherwise.

* * * * *

Though this course is of my own design, I'm beginning to question my capacity to teach it. I will illustrate with two issues. The Ross article from Scientific American seemed to grab most of you. So we now have the notion of deliberate practice, which seems to convey that learning is a struggle. My own view is that is correct, but it is not the full picture. There is a different view, that learning is play. (If you had Legos as a kid, that's a good example to illustrate.) My view is that most of the time learning has to be play, but then we hit plateaus and to get on the next growth path there must be struggle, until the next growth path is found. I'm not sure what the right balance is for the class, but I sense I'm making it too much of struggle and getting some of you neurotic (or more neurotic than you already are) in the process.

The other issue came out in the discussion yesterday. It was interesting for me to hear that at least some of you prefer a blunt, direct approach to communication. Perhaps that is only confined to situations with conflict, but maybe the scope of the preference is broader than that. I, in contrast, have a preference for subtlety, most of the time, and then asking for clarification when necessary. It is my way of dealing with the complexities of life. In writing and in film making and I suspect in may other creative arts, leaving important points to the reader's (or viewer's or listener's) imagination is part of the craft. So as an aspiration, subtlety seems the appropriate goal. But making some sense of a situation would appear better than making none at all. So a straightforward approach, especially at first, does have its advantages. Most of the time, however, I'm not conscious of when I'm doing one or the other.

Attempts at introducing subtlety, especially when the class isn't ready for it, looks like showing off. With that we have the ingredients for the class to turn into Model 1.

Someone suggested a while back that we try breaking into smaller groups. That might be an interesting alternative to what we have now. When we're done with the student led discussions, I think we should give that a try.

1 comment:

  1. I think there's a lot of times when it's the direct communication that's the goal, and the subtleties surrounding it distracting at best and detracting in most cases.

    Subtlety is probably a goal in creative arts, but not when things need to get done without confusion and mayhem.

    This class is neither purely creative nor simply about getting one thing done. We have to respect though, that while we are all trying to learn together and come up with new ideas, there are times when all we need is a pure and simple exchange of information. At those times, being subtle isn't helping anyone, it's hurting everyone.