John Maeta and Diego Rodriguez have an interesting conversation about simplicity, hosted by the fellows at 37 Signals. A comment that John makes is a valid insight about learning.
I’m trying to reduce what I teach. I used to try to mix computation and visual art. I realize now that MIT students get enough computation for their entire lifetime. I’m trying to simplify things by just teaching them "how to see."
Learning to see is an important skill in leadership. It is a kin to learning to listen.
Last weekend, our scout troop went camping as we do every month. One of the things that we try to instill in the scouts are the skills that can help them survive in a time of crisis. This weekend we worked on observation skills. Ever tried to describe the difference between a maple and an oak leaf. Not as easy as it seems.
We played a game called Kim's Game, named after Rudyard Kipling's Kim. Each patrol was given a limited amount of time depending on their size to look at a collection of objects placed on a mat. Then they had to hike 100 yards back up a hill, and write them down. Three patrols. Eleven objects. One patrol got 10 of the 11. No one. No one, except the two scouts who put the game together, new the precise number of objects.
We then talked about how observation, using one's eyes, is important in knowing whether one is on the right trail or lost. Observation for a hiker means that even without a map and compass, you can figure out where you are. Just be observing the attitude of the sun in relation to your shadow can provide enough information to know where you are.
Michael Polanyi in his book Personal Knowledge has a chapter on Objectivity. What he says there is that theories help to objectify our subjective experiences. A theory is like a map. It could be wrong or it could be right, but it isn't something subject to the heighten emotions of fear at being lost. Theories, like maps, like categories of observation provide a way for us to know where we are. And the simpler it is without being simplistic enables us to have confidence about the direction we must take.
After we played our observation games, we went hiking. At a juncture in the trail, we talked about what they observed, and some of them realized that this was a trail that they had passed the day before, just coming at it from a different direction.
The point I believe John Maeta is making is that our minds can construct a picture of reality that is not necessarily accurate. It requires testing by observation and based on his first rule of simplicity thoughtful reduction. There is at work a contiuum between the abstract world of ideas and the concrete world of sense experience. And the only way to make sense of them is to work at the testing of ideas through practice and observation.
I know this all seems a bit theoretical, but not if you find yourself a mile and a half down the wrong trail at 7 in the evening and at least 5 miles from your expectation destination. Then the practice of applying theory - map and compass - to observation - "Where the heck am I?" will make more sense. Believe me I know.