Thursday, April 3, 2014

It’s Not the People who Do Nothing who Learn New Things.

We’re all trying something.

We plan things out. Or not. We work hard at things. Or not. And in a general sense we hope through our work that we get to see the end result of things. That’s why I’m working on the third draft of my novel Doleful Creatures, and why my wife and I volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America and why I teach part-time as well as work-full time as a technical writer.

It’s pretty much a given that most of what we touch won’t go anywhere. But I like to think we’ll find a success or two.

So I’m intrigued by this Code for America keynote that Clay Shirky gave last year, in which he discusses not only the value of listening to sincerely helpful critics, but also in simply trying things out so we can discover for ourselves what works, what doesn’t, and how we may have misunderstood the problem or task we have before us. Give it a listen.

He does kind of perambulate about his point – a Shirky trademark – but he does have some interesting things to say. First of all: Our biggest gift is the ability to change our minds:

All of this matters, this sorting out of the helpful from the corrosive criticism, and knowing the level of the problem you’re trying to take on, because the most important resource you’ve got isn’t your strategy, your plan, your tactics, it’s not your tools, your technology, or your project management. The most important resource you’ve got is your own ability to change your mind. That’s what matters over the long haul.

Shirky goes on to talk about two fellow New Yorkers, Patrick McConlogue and Leo Grand, one a minor figure at a venture capital firm and the other a homeless man living in a park that happened to be on McConlogue’s way to work. McConlogue decides to offer the guy $100 or a chance to learn how to code – and he accepts the coding challenge.

I remember when this happened, and how the Internet vomited on the idea, pointing out its impracticalities and pointlessness. I may have said a thing or two about it myself. But Shirky sees it in a significantly different light, a light that should ring true to anyone who has taken on a seemingly impossible project or dared call themselves a Christian (or any other religion in which we’re advised to watch out for our fellow man as we watch out for ourselves):

If things go well for Leo, it’s not going to be because this is a general solution to some problem of homelessness, this will be a fairy godmother story. The important part of the story is that [Patrick] McConlogue went from being a guy who felt comfortable characterizing people as the justly or the unjustly homeless, a guy who felt comfortable talking about the homeless without even bothering to learn the name of the guy he was targeting. He’s turned from that guy into a guy who takes time out of a work day to try to get his friend bailed out of jail. And I’ll tell you as a New Yorker, nobody voluntarily interacts with the NYPD. That’s a big change.

So far, things seem to be working out for Leo. And the events haven't been lost on McConlogue either. Shirky adds:

What is clear is that McConlogue would not have learned when he learned about the problems with homelessness if he hadn’t started out with the wrong idea and been willing to test it in the world. It’s not the people who do nothing who learn new things.

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