Brute Force and Ignorance

For generations, we have spent the first third of our lives acquiring the college degrees we need to find jobs. These degrees are the stamps on our professional passports that paved the way for the remaining two-thirds of our journey.

                                                ~ Ravi Kumar and Steve George

“Don’t use force; get a bigger hammer.”

                                                ~ My Father

When we moved into our 100-and-something-year old house, it was in fair shape but required a whole lot of attention. We focused on the wooden floors, plaster walls, funky heater and decrepit plumbing. (Did I mention the plumbing?)

Since we had little spare money, we did most of the work ourselves with a little guidance. Neighbors were helpful with advice and tools. They showed us how to remove the old wallpaper from over the plaster, but we had to get a contractor to replace the plaster ceiling that — it turns out — was only held in place by the wallpaper. We put off doing the floors for as long as possible, but eventually had a contractor do that as well. I could remove old cabinets and shelves, even walls in a few cases, but was less capable at replacement. (My skilled neighbors and I would collaborate on projects, but I was usually relegated to doing demolition and hauling. I was the “BFI” — brute force and ignorance.)

As a civil engineer, I knew something about plumbing on an academic level. While in the Indian Health Service, I nominally supervised a plumbing crew on the Navaho and learned a lot about what I didn’t know from them. My early plumbing attempts on the house were not very successful. I often woke in the night and held my breath, listening for the sound of running water — was that just a toilet leaking or a burst pipe? I cannot watch plumbers at work because I know what needs to be done, but lack the necessary skill, so am forever fretting.

Lots of paint and elbow grease made our house quite livable, and over the years we’ve continued to do small projects ourselves and hired contractors to do big ones. The small projects are easier to redo if we get it wrong, or we can always bring back the contractor.

This whole 40-year experience has made me painfully conscious of the gap between knowledge and skill. Often, I’ve had the old guy at the hardware store or a skilled friend to explain to me how to do some job. I get it, I understand and know every step to take. However, my mind and hands — lacking practice with the particular task — don’t work as well and my patience runs thin, and I tend to try to force some things when more finesse is required.

In my career, however, I did pretty well. I have noticed that my strengths were less in the specific engineering knowledge that I got in my college education, but in various ways of thinking and approaching problems. Formal education taught me a lot about how to learn, how to think, and how to apply myself. It also exposed me to and taught me to appreciate a wide range of experience outside my known universe, and made me more open to learning new things and addressing different circumstances.

In a recent article from the World Economic Forum, Ravi Kumar and Steve George report on today’s changing workplace and what is required. “While our parents likely held one job for life, most of us have had several — and not just jobs but careers, too. Our children can expect to have many jobs and careers through their professional lives — perhaps even at the same time …”

My father was an attorney, one grandfather was a teacher, the other a judge, and most of my classmates picked a career early on, their trajectory usually only interrupted by military service. The undecideds often went for business, and I was unclear about what I wanted except that ‘engineering’ sounded like solving problems so that appealed to me. Civil engineering is the broadest engineering, so that’s where I landed. I found the environmental material to be the most interesting — water, sewage, pollution — it was a fascinating field, and still is.

But in my first job, I quickly learned that while my engineering knowledge was important, communication was the most critical skill to be had. We didn’t learn much about that in school, but when I worked with my peers, bosses or customers, I found that explanations were the hardest part of the work. I was quickly faced with explaining technical projects to non-native English speakers that were generally poorly educated, but usually very canny and often suspicious. “Just trust me,” didn’t get me very far.  I learned to rely on a translator, but had to decipher the reactions of people from a totally different cultural background.

Later, I found that perspective to be helpful with co-workers and bosses, as well. I often worked on multi-disciplinary teams and found their diversity of thought, knowledge and approach to create stronger, more vital solutions. The constant tension between process and flexibility make for sounder, more durable answers.

But the world is constantly changing, and this affects the work environment. Kumar and George note, “According to the World Economic Forum, more than 1 billion jobs, almost one-third of all jobs worldwide, are likely to be transformed by technology in the next decade.” Managers and workers will need flexibility and the ability to learn new skills again and again if they are to survive and flourish.

They continue, “Interestingly, the future of work will not only be about hard skills; it will be about holistic job skills. When it comes to skills, employers look for more than just task-oriented or technical skills. Companies want people with an eye for detail, creative problem-solving skills, a collaborative mindset and an ability to deal with ambiguity and complexity.”

Sounds about right. But I can tell you, I’m glad that I’m retired and out of that rat race.

Oh, and can you show me how to operate the TV remote again?

Additional information:

Ravi Kumar and Steve George, Why Skills — Not Degrees — Will Shape the Future of Work, World Economic Forum, 9/21/20

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