Learning to solve problems, or solving problems to learn?

This most excellent post by Lee Skallerup Bessette (@readywriting) touches on a key aspect my life.

I can (I believe) learn anything to solve a problem that matters to me, or that I really, really want to solve. When I bought my first PC in 1980, I knew it was important to learn….but I didn’t have a problem to solve. Plus given a mere 8k of RAM, and 8K of ROM with Microsoft BASIC loaded, the available solutions for interesting problems were kind of narrow. Again, in 1984 when I bought an Apple IIc, things weren’t much different. Much better tools and software, but still only a narrow scope of problems to solve…and even narrower were those that fit my current life in the infantry.

In graduate school, things changed. The concept of using databases to manage museum collections was a fascination. Desktop publishing was also of interest. Remember Ventura Publisher? A desktop publisher that used SGML tags – the progenitor of HTML.

The act of formatting and printing my thesis prepared me, completely unsuspecting, for a life on the web. And it made me an early standout in building dynamic web reports for institutional research in 1994.

Moving away from computers, the same thing has applied. If I have a problem to solve, I can learn it. The question is just one of how well I can learn it. I’m pretty good with with woodworking, middling with metal and welding. Electricity and plumbing are not difficult. Cars, I don’t mess with anymore as my they have gotten too complex (read: expensive) and I have had some spectacular failures along the way to success. I learned how to paint well enough to earn a degree, despite no prior evidence of ability. THe same with jewelry-making and pottery. They were problems to be solved – how to represent, how to make?

But, to just learn something to learn something, if it requires more than just reading, I am afraid it won’t happen. This used to be primarily a lack of direction and motivation. Now I can at least blame it on recognizing the time is the most precious resource I have.

Despite that, I waste a lot of time and money trying to solve the problem of golf. Or rather the near-total lack of ability to play well.

Lee’s post strikes a nerve. I’ve always admired her writing since I came across it, but this essay really is familiar to me. I appreciate it a great deal as I am thinking through a new set of challenges that have come my way since they may involve trading a short-term success and completion for a greater success in the long run if I have to bite the bullet and learn something new.

Or even just choosing to learn something new. For fifteen years I have tried to encourage my team to feel free to spend time to learn and try new things. Kind of tough in a bureaucracy with too much work and too few staff, but learning new things has multiple benefits, particularly in opening and expanding the way one thinks.

Emil Faber said it best, “Knowledge is Good.”

Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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