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The importance of feeling stupid

September 26, 2009

You wouldn’t know it from the neigh-unchanging layout of this blog, but I work with web pages a lot.  Yesterday I bought an iPod so I could see how those pages look on an iPhone (the salesperson assured me that both iThings render web pages the same).

Hooking the iPod up to a Windows machine set in motion an inexorable process of updating and registration.  First, it wanted to update iTunes.  “Sure”, I clicked, “why not?”  And then it went to a registration process.  I got halfway through filling out the form when the window suddenly disappeared and a message said; “iTunes needs to reboot your machine.  Reboot now?”  I clicked the response that means; “Sure, since you just dumped what I was working on and I have no choice anyway”.

I eventually got the software and the firmware updated and everything registered including a bunch of snoopy questions which I answered with lies in haiku form, and found myself with a working iPod.  Then I went to the Apps store and bought a slide rule application for $1, neatly closing the technological circle.

When giving technical support, I often hear intelligent people say; “using a computer makes me feel so stupid.”  And when I say “often” I mean that during nearly every support call, the user will offer some kind of apology for not being as savvy as I supposedly am with the infernal machine and its software.  This should be a clue, or more correctly a warning, to the companies that create the software in question.  Channeling Don Norman, if two percent of users make a given mistake, then maybe those users are stupid.  But if sixty percent of users make that mistake, it’s the interface designer who is an idiot, and perhaps the company for hiring them.  As Paul Graham says, you need good taste to hire a good designer, other than by accident.

This explains the success of two companies: Apple and Google.  I often hear users of both say they love their Mac, or they love Google, which is kind of a funny reaction to software.  But the reason isn’t difficult to figure out: using the software makes them feel clever, like the mystery show where you figure out who done it, before the putative genius main character does.  Hey!  I’m smarter than Gregory House!  Or Monk, or Gibbs, or the contestant on Jeopardy.  What’s not to love about that?

Every good technology makes us clever, leveraging the cleverness of others and their creations.  Using it is a steady empowerment, broadening what we can expect to enjoy, to create, to get done.  I have a hunch people started writing more when ball-point pens were introduced, while their elders huffed about the decline in penmanship standards.  Sure, the “e” and “l” weren’t swoopy anymore, but more people were writing and that’s a game changer.  Likewise when bicycles were introduced, preachers thundered against the immorality that would surely result from youngsters with greater mobility than their elders.  Somehow it didn’t occur to their elders to get their own bicycles.

In a hunter-gatherer society, generations might pass between significant cultural innovations.  The process sped up considerably with the enlightenment and industrial revolution: the metric system, calculus, slide rules, Vernier calipers, movable type, standardized parts, steam power, telegraphs, high-speed steel, “scientific management”, telephones, assembly lines.  Each innovation seemed natural to the young and one more damn thing to learn for the old.  Then along came computers and software, and change shifted into hyperdrive.  It became possible to say; “Remember when?” referring to just ten years ago, or five.  And I’m about to do just that.

Think about the disapproving authorities and the young whippersnappers gallivanting off on their bicycles for afternoons of sweet debauchery.  Multiply that by some large number and you have… today.  Remember when people didn’t carry around general purpose computers in their pockets?  When people on street corners couldn’t Tweet what was happening around them?  When the police didn’t have to worry about twenty bystanders with video devices capable of sending out the images before they could even confiscate the devices?  When you couldn’t call up maps and reviews and comparison prices when finding a restaurant or buying a car?  The authorities had it easy way back then, five years ago.

One effect of this change is that the average age of people in the authority structure will start to decline.  And given the fine mess made of things by the change resistors, that’s probably all to the good.  Because we can’t go back, can’t undo, can’t rewind.  Today we find ourselves with a president who hires a CIO, and whose CDC director puts up a website called flu.gov as a central place for information about that annual scourge.  If we’re not careful we could end up in an actual participatory democracy, but again I digress.

If I weren’t bald my hair would be as gray as my beard, and like any other Good American I should long ago have settled into some unchanging, lifetime position to wait for retirement and death.  But there are fewer and fewer of those lifetime positions available now.  The work I currently do not only didn’t exist when I got out of college, it didn’t exist 15 years ago.  I won’t be surprised if it is later subsumed into some other description, which is why I keep trying to learn new technologies.  I’ve gotten used to buying groceries and besides, it’s fun.

Our education establishment K to 12, has not really acknowledged this rate of change, instead tasking kids with learning a testable set of facts and impressing them with the terror of making a mistake.  Not the best preparation for stepping off into the fast-lane of a technological society.  How can we make education policy-makers understand the difference between topics and skills, and that adaptability may be the most important skill a school could teach?

It’s not surprising schools do this badly.  Math is a skill, but especially in early grades (when kids are learning what math is) the schools are obsessed with teaching it as a topic.  Have you memorized your “math facts”, Jimmy?  Have you done all 25 identical problems in your homework assignment?  Sorry, kids, but with so many problems, there’s no time to think about the underlying idea behind them.  Now imagine an education policy-maker trying to go further: since there’s no testable set of “adaptability facts” they have no idea how to even design a curriculum for it. Or weave it into the existing curriculum.  Besides, it’s not as if they need to worry about adapting; barring the actual commission of a crime, their jobs are bulletproof.

Education should empower us from the inside just as good software should empower us from the outside.  It should enable us to handle not only new problems, but new kinds of problems.  I want to know, does our education establishment make us clever?  Or like badly-designed software does it pose constant pointless obstacles, making us feel stupid, so that we grow up with an ever-increasing resistance to learning?  Could we do better than the equivalent of Microsoft Windows for the learning child’s brain?

Our way of educating seems calculated to instill the avoidance of feeling stupid, but very little fear of being stupid. Ironically it’s the former that fosters the latter.  Because, if you can put up with feeling stupid for just a little while (and it doesn’t take very long at all) you can learn all sorts of stuff and not be stupid.  That may be the only important difference between the geek and the person picking up the phone to hit their number on speed-dial.

Is this something that schools can do?  How could we make it OK for kids to make mistakes? 


  • If you’re wondering “What the heck is he talking about?” scroll down to comment 4.

  • I may have posted this link before, but Cocktail Party Physics has a great post on math education with Game Changers
  • Using Windows is pretty much a hurry-up-and-wait experience.  I started working professionally with Windows in 1995, when systems had 386sx processors with 4mb of RAM, and the actual computing experience was about as fast as my dual-core with 3gb RAM.  You’d think with hundreds of times the processor speed, and hundreds of times the RAM and hard drive space, that the computer would run faster, but no, it doesn’t.  The software has successfully throttled this amazingly fast machine, but I digress.
Categories: Education
  1. September 28, 2009 at 04:25 | #1

    Participatory democracy? That’s just crazy talk…

    Still, things like Google, Macs, iPhones, and the like do make it a lot easier to find and be exposed to information. Soon, I think we’ll be wearing computers, although the difference between a wearable computer and an iPhone seems rather small just now.

  2. September 28, 2009 at 06:45 | #2

    I’ve thought on the subject of our public schools from different viewpoints over the last several years, the latest being with an eye toward what we’ll do with my new son in a few years when he starts going.

    Unfortunately I haven’t come up with any grand revelations.  We test and teach the tests because we look for some sort of benchmark for how well the education process is doing…but that’s not the core of a good education.

    The only “big thing” I know I’d like changed is how we fund our public schools.  Property taxes going to fund local schools is a sure way to make sure all of our schools are on an unequal footing.

  3. September 28, 2009 at 08:19 | #3

    This particular post, although I’ve read it twice, bamboozles me.

    What are you trying to say?

  4. September 28, 2009 at 22:06 | #4

    This particular post, although I’ve read it twice, bamboozles me.

    It’s almost worth it just to see someone use “bamboozle” in a sentence!  I miss Carl Sagan.

    Anyway, do not adjust your set; this post is confusing because of what it’s not.  It’s a recounting of the circuitous and barely-visible path through the thicket of my thinking, not an argument constructed from carefully selected logical signposts.  I don’t know what possessed me to write it that way but here’s the distilled version:  I am comparing education to software, in the context of rapid cultural and technological change.

    My original inspiration was the pointless obstacles put in my path by even a simple task in Windows software.  It occurred to me that our K-12 education works something like that: its main focus seems to be the punishment of error, often in unpredictable ways.  Bad design tends to make the user/student blame themselves rather than the system.

    Windows users compensate, in my experience, by establishing a few safe pathways through their software, and never venturing off those pathways.  Kids do the same in school; safety against the hazard of looking stupid is far more important than learning.

    Tolerance of looking stupid, however, is essential to learning adaptability, which in this century should be our number one educational priority.  We live in a world of unlimited information but too little consideration of what to make of it.

    The price of being afraid to look stupid is, ironically, stupidity.  But having enough tolerance for ambiguity, for error, and for looking stupid, to stick with a new kind of problem until you can master it?  Priceless.  If we’re gonna feel dumb about something, it should be the problem we’re working on, and not the system we’re using to work on it.  In education as in software.

    Now you know how my mind “works”, to the extent that it does.  Maybe my next post will be more logical.

  5. September 29, 2009 at 07:22 | #5

    Well, I’m just glad you got a Touch. ;)

    Yesterday I heard an interview on CBC radio (via satellite!) of a mathematician from Dalhousie University.  He had used mathematics to discover how the Beatles had made the opening chord of the song Hard Day’s Night.  He said thing same thing about math: it’s a skill not a topic.

    In my previous job responsibilities people would come to me asking for specific answers.  If the answr was within their ability to discover, my rule was to show them
    how and where to find the answer before giving it to them.  If they subsequently came back for a similar question, I would simply remind them of the resources they needed to use.

  6. September 29, 2009 at 09:07 | #6

    I once had a copy of the game Centipede on a floppy disk that I played on an 8k x86 (286? 386 at the most, but I think it may have even been a 8086). I Moved it from the 5 1/4 to a 3 1/2 disk and played it on my 486Dx2-66 machine, and the game was over before I could see the centipede eat my little guy at the bottom of the screen.

    That’s why I hate software bloat. It is possible to do things quickly on a computer, but only if you find that path away from the one everyone else is taking.

  7. RickU
    September 29, 2009 at 10:38 | #7

    David Engel,

    I had the same experience loading the original mechwarrior on a 333 mhz PC.  I loved the game on my parents 386 and I was able to play it on my first PC, a 486dx2 66 (with 2 megabytes of RAM! AND a 120 megabyte hard drive, and a 4 THAT’S RIGHT 4X CD ROM reader!!!) if I turned off the turbo and took the clock speed down to 33…but playing it on a modern machine requires an emulator.  I’d load up a mission on the 333 mhz PC and my mech would be dead before I could blink.

  8. September 30, 2009 at 16:04 | #8

    That’s a helluva post, actually.  A lot of thought from a little change. 

    Have you ever heard Hal Holbrooke as Mark Twain telling the story of “Grandfather’s Ram?”

    You didn’t doze once!

  9. Tamra Raiche-Skibsted
    October 2, 2009 at 23:38 | #9

    interesting point that our education is like an old 386 sitting on a shelf because it’s out of style.

    And so why is it that M$ is the only thing being taught in the schools? Could it be that this is exactly the problem you speak of? If you don’t challenge the young ones to think outside of the box, then how does the box get bigger? Or in this case smaller and faster?

    I wonder when everything we do will be taught by computers and not by people… hence the self teaching method. My just barely 2 year old niece is already an iPhone addict. She’s figured out how to get it off airplane mode and re-configure my sister’s speed dial numbers and no, it’s not just a fluke. She’s now done it several times after watching my sister push some buttons… amazing to me that she’s that smart. but then again isn’t it all about monkey see, monkey do? And the whole concept of the new iPhone is about the visual learning experience without having to know how to read? Memorization of what pictures to push to get the result you are looking for, but then I digress…

    So while we become a more visually stimulated society, how do we suppose to teach the kids of tomorrow by continuing to do it the old way? And why do we continue to test in the same way as well?

    I have an aversion to going to college. spending thousand of dollars and hundreds of hours, to get a degree, or a piece of paper so to speak, just to prove to others that I know what I know that I am already doing without that piece of paper. A long way to say that I want to make more money doing what I do and with this piece of paper I could get it? At what cost? The numbers just don’t add up to me, but then again, I’m not into math. So help me out here, at 45 I could go back to school for 2 years and get my AA degree and possibly a BS if I work really hard at it. It would cost me over $85,000, which I would have to finance and I couldn’t start paying it off until I got a job in 2 years. So right now I’m making $20 an hour and in two years I can be making up to $95 and hour doing the same thing, but with a degree and $85,000 of debt. How long will it take me to pay off the loan if I continue to live on just the $20 I make now per month, and will I then be actually making more money after all if I have to spend the extra $ on paying off the loan first? See my point or do I have one? What would the advantage be for me to spend 2 years of my life in living hell in school once again, where I can’t sit still or keep quiet, lose the business I currently have for the hopes of making more money in the future etc?

    So what does the piece of paper really prove? That you can stick to something and finish it? That you can sit in a boring class, take notes, memorize answers and then transfer that to a test and never have to remember it again until the final? I don’t see the point actually, but then again I’m a visual learner. Show me once and I’ve got it… I don’t see the point in spending all that time waiting on the other students to learn as fast as I do… just not patient enough I guess…

    I do know that there are some fields that will always require advanced learning and continuing education, but does the general public require such a thing? and if not, then what do they require?

    I agree that bloatware is the reason for for our need for new faster processors and RAM, in fact I feel as though that’s the only reason why we had to get faster… but why? Is it all the graphics needed now that are what we look at that make the difference? or is it the complicated act of protecting what is copy written so that your idea’s don’t get exploited and sold out from underneath you? It just makes me wonder, that’s all…what ever happened to keeping it simple stupid?

    Thanks as always DOf for your insight and analogies… and the ability to make us think outside of the box… Cheers, Taz

  10. Frank
    March 6, 2010 at 13:50 | #10

    Education serves a number of purposes; one is get a piece of paper to show you can be trained to pass a ‘test’ others are arguably more important but often less emphasised.  Once education has equipped you to read, write and count with reasonable proficiency what will enrich your life are other skills such as what languages you speak, what sports you play/enjoy, how you function socially or with others. For most people these types of skills will play a larger part in how much you enjoy life than mastery of the Jacobian, ability to recite Chaucer, or ability to map & interpret phase behaviour of iron carbon alloys.  But I might be wrong…..

  11. March 29, 2010 at 06:35 | #11

    havea nice thanks

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