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I was working on a Master degree in the Boston area a few years ago.  Each week I would meet with a particular professor for lunch and conversation.  I had taken a couple of classes with this guy, and almost daily I would come away thinking, “How in the world does he know all this, and why hasn’t anyone ever talked about that subject in that way before, and how in the name of David Letterman can I learn to think like this guy.”  In short, he was brilliant.  You may not be surprised to find out that he is now president of a fairly sizeable liberal arts university in the U.S.

In one of our lunch meetings he asked me why I thought the particular division, of which he was the chair, structured the program the way that they had.  I had never thought about it really.  He went on to explain, “If you go to any other school in the entire country that offers a program in this field of study, you are going to learn the cutting edge, newest, most innovative techniques available in the field, but here we don’t teach any of those.”  Instead, the approach at my school was to teach us how to think about that field, not how to practice any particular technique.  My professor went on to say, “In the 70s, everyone in the field said (Technique X) was the end all, be all for our field, but then in the 80s, (Technique Y) came along and replaced X, and then in the 90s, everyone was sure that (Technique Z) was the answer to all our problems.” 

You see, with every changing season (it used to be decades, nowadays, it’s weeks), there’s a new technique that someone has discovered works.  And it does work, at least for a little while, and at least in one or two places.  But, the problem with techniques is that they don’t work for long these days and even if they do, they don’t usually work in multiple places.  Don’t learn a technique.  Or if you do, realize that it’s just a technique.  We need ways of doing things of course, but you can’t last long with just a technique.  You’ve got to be able to think about your field, your market, your competition, and respond.  That might mean that you create a new technique on a monthly basis, or refuse to play the game of the day realizing that it’s just a fad, and you can focus on more important things, but you have to be able to THINK.  It will definitely mean that you’re not the guy caught trying to just execute some technique that is SOOOOO 2009.  You’re not gonna be the woman wondering why that workshop she took 3 years ago isn’t paying off like it used to.  The law of diminishing returns in this globalized society is more enforced today than ever.

Sir….Ma’am…put down that technique, take a step back, and slowly put up your hands.  You’re under arrest for letting someone else do the thinking for you.

RECOMMENDED READING:  Dorothy Sayers, “Lost Tools of Learning.”  She used to hang out with a couple of guys named J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and has written perhaps the best article ever about what’s wrong with the way we THINK.  It’s focused on primary and secondary education, but WE NEED IT IN THE MARKETPLACE.  Find it online here.

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