How would you learn something you’d never been told?
When you were in school, were you the type of person to raise your hand right away and ask a question? If not, how did you learn? I suppose you could read the book assigned by your teacher. Or you could just listen to the answers for all of the other students’ questions.
What about at work?
Do you remember your first day going to a new job? Were you over dressed or under dressed? Did you worry about what time to show up and what time to leave? Did you work too hard? What did you do when you were told to do something for the first time that you didn’t know how to do?
I remember my first shop class in 8th grade. We all wanted to use the machinery. But first, we had to practice several weeks learning how to count 16ths on a ruler and design projects to scale on graph paper.
There was a yellow and black caution line painted on the floor that weren’t allowed to cross or we’d be sent to the school office. The caution line divided the design area from the machine area. Everyone wanted desperately to cross that line. Everyone was sick of rulers and graph paper. We wanted to do some real work!
Well, finally the day came. We were all standing around with our safety goggles and aprons on waiting to cross over that yellow and black caution line. We were itching to get our materials so we could start working on the jigsaws and band saws, the sanders, the lathe, and the drill press. But before the teacher let us go, Mr. Carver, (yes, that’s his real name) asked all of us, “Now, before we begin, has everyone been trained on how to use all of the machines?”
Many people began nodding their heads and mumbling their assent.
“Has anyone NOT been trained?”
Now for some reason I can’t recall, I hadn’t had any training. I hadn’t known I needed any training. I thought he was going to go over how to use the machines in class. I stood there pondering. Had I been out sick or had a dentist appointment some other day? How did I miss the training? I searched the crowd for anyone else who might not have been trained.
No hands hands went up.
So, I too, stood there and kept my hands at my side trying desperately not to sweat. Could I fake it? I mean, I had made pine wood derby cars with my dad. For that we had used some handheld tools. This was different.
Sadly, I didn’t have the courage to admit that I hadn’t been trained. I mean what if my ignorance kept back the whole class from starting their projects? We’d all waited so long. I didn’t want to add another delay. I could just imagine the eye-rolling and ridicule I’d endure.
So I stayed silent. Mr. Carver released us to the machines. There was a rush of energy as we all dispersed to find the wood or plastic or—for the rich kids—metal to make our designs. After gathering my materials, I went the first machine: The jigsaw.
I watched another student ahead of me remove the wood blade and replace it with a finer blade to cut plastic. All he he had to do to release the blade was adjust one screw that had a head so big that looked like it had moth wings, He loosened and tighten that screw with an adjustable wrench.
He had been cutting plastic and I was going to cut wood. So I needed to put the wood blade back in. I picked up the same wrench sitting nearby and clamped it onto the adjusting screw. I gave it a turn to the left and the blade fell out. I put in the wood blade and began to tightened the adjusting screw when--Snap! The giant moth-shaped screw head sheared right off.
I turned to a classmate beside me and pointed out what happened and he said, “Yeah, they break.” So somehow I thought that must have been normal. Since the blade was in tightly, I completed my cut and moved onto my next machine. However, it only took 5 minutes before, I heard over the roar of the industrial equipment an ever louder roar…
“WHO. BROKE. MY. JIGSAW?!”
Yes, that was distinctly Mr. carver. I went over to him and explained what happened. He informed me that we were not supposed to use wrenches to adjust the screws on the jigsaw. The whole reason that the head on the screw was so big was to provide enough leverage to tighten and loosen it by hand. If I had been at the training I would have been taught that we were never supposed to use a wrench to adjust the equipment. I told him that I was just doing what I saw the other student doing.
But guess what? He didn’t like that excuse. That didn’t makes things better. That didn’t fix the machine. So for the next two weeks, no one was allowed to use the jigsaw while Mr. Carver’s assistant worked to drill out the broken screw, and re-thread the machine so it would be adjustable again.
This is the danger of following the culture you’re in. Sometimes you may feel like you’re the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on. You may think you can get by doing what everyone is doing. And, sure, that may be true. But you also hold the risk of following someone else who doesn’t understand the danger of the situation. You might be following someone else who hasn’t been trained and is too scared or too proud to admit it.
That’s why it’s so important that you know not only what you’re doing, but who you’re following. Who are your mentors? Why have you chosen them as mentors?
Don’t only do what your mentors do, but have the courage to understand why they do them. The only way to get to that understanding is to be brave enough to ask the question: Why? I have learned that you are really only open to learn when you willing to admit your ignorance. Wise people know that the only way to gain further wisdom is to first admit their ignorance. As soon as a fool is willing to lay down their foolish pride, they have taken the first step to becoming wise.
However, it’s also important to note that no single other person holds all of the answers for your quest. And so remember a great saying from the Japanese Poet, Matsuo Bashō
“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.”