How to Get Smart

This is my first day back at work after an unplanned, forced two-week sabbatical.

By Scott Sedam | July 10, 2000

Scott Sedam

This is my first day back at work after an unplanned, forced two-week sabbatical. I wish I could say I did something fun, interesting or at least relaxing, but unfortunately there was none of that. I was recovering from eye surgery -- a torn retina -- the kind of thing that happens to guys in their late 40s. Fine one day -- surgery the next. As these things go, it’s better than a heart attack, cancer and the like, but all in all, something I hope to never go through again.

I guess some people actually go through this particular procedure with little pain or annoyance. That wasn’t me. In trying to make the best of this, I have decided to call it "educational" because I did manage a couple of revelations that came right back to business.

In the first week, I could neither read nor watch television. All I could do was sit straight up or lie face down -- basically nothing else. Sleep was fleeting. The drugs made me feel beyond horrible. What would you do? Stop and think about it. The idea of what to do when you can do absolutely nothing is something that never occurred to me.

After a few days I got sick of feeling sorry for myself, so I began to invent mental games. I systematically went through every vacation trip I could recall since I was 3. I was amazed how much I had forgotten and how little things came back to me once I made the effort. I tried to remember every teacher I ever had, starting with Miss Delita Callahan, the kindergarten maven whom I loved. I found myself stopping and pondering on those who had influenced me. I think I got every single teacher I ever had until college, and even a lot of those. I went through every classmate I could recall from every year and speculated what he or she was doing now.

I did harder things, too. Like trying to do math in Spanish and conjugate verbs. (Hey, two weeks is a long time to do absolutely nothing.) I even tried to recall some of my single semester of Russian in 1970, but that was entirely too painful. I tried to remember some physics and chemistry. (Remember PV=nRT? I do, now.) Then I started in on cities and companies around the country. So if you felt your ears burning, it was probably me. I’d pick a city, think of every company or operation I knew there, and then think of people I knew. The only sizable city I could think of in this country where I knew no one was Spokane, Wash. (That’s my goal this year, by the way, to make a friend in Spokane. I’m taking applications.) I also tried to make a list of people who owed me money. I guess its good that the list started and ended at one.

So where’s the education in all of this? There was one big "a-ha" I came away with -- something I knew intellectually but never experienced so vividly, firsthand. Our brains -- mine, yours, anyone’s -- are amazing things. Of course I use my brain every day, but just how much goes unused, and what are the implications? When forced to use it, all sorts of things came pouring out of me that had been locked up for years. Names and places that had been forgotten were recalled. I went back to places that I had forgotten I had been. And something interesting happened. The more I remembered -- the more I remembered, and remembered, and remembered. And my mind is working better now.

Finally back at work today, I was remembering phone numbers and people’s names better than I have in a long time. I knew everything on my schedule without turning on the Palm Pilot, something that has become a crutch for me. Without intending to, I had put myself through a memory-building exercise that actually worked. I don’t recommend you get laid up for two weeks to try it, but there really is something to the "use it or lose it" theory applied to the brain.

Which made me think of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, whom I had the privilege of working with through the Deming Society of Detroit. Dr. Deming preached over and over again about the great and important difference between training, which relates to job skills, and education, which concerns the expansion of your mind. Deming, who was still teaching four-day seminars well into his 90s, said that continual learning was the most essential skill for both individuals and organizations. And it is critical to go outside of job skills. But how many of us do this on a regular basis, and how many of us advocate that for your people? I find so many companies get stuck on "gotta give ‘em skills" and forget that these are real, thinking people, fully capable of using their brains to figure things out given the opportunity and occasional guidance.

Deming lamented that our companies and our country were becoming so obsessed with job skills that we were turning every educational endeavor into a trade school. He had nothing against trade schools, but he said it is an insult to not give people the opportunity to learn, grow and develop by thinking -- not simply teaching instructions and procedures. And this goes for people at all levels. Knowing the fact or the thing is usually less important than knowing how it got that way.

My favorite Deming example that he used to illustrate goes as follows: Take two kids. Give them each an assignment. Tell one to go find out the name of the capital of Wisconsin. Tell the other to find out why the capital of Wisconsin is Madison. Deming would simply smile and say, "Oh, what a difference."

The difference, of course, is that student No. 2 would have to research, explore, think, reason -- work his brain. And here’s the key. The next day, at his job at the Costco warehouse, Student Two would be much more likely to think of a better way to do a job. Thinking begets thinking.

So go study something you’ve always wanted to know and encourage your people to do the same. Try astronomy or Shakespeare or navigation or herbal science or big-block Ford V-8s. Doesn’t matter. Your brain will thank you for it, and maybe you’ll start to think better on the job, too.

Me? I’m researching better painkillers for eye surgery in case I ever have to go through this again.


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