More on journeys and destinations



That used to be an iPhone. And if I’d been alert and I’d followed my father’s advice, it would still be an iPhone. One of his favourite sayings was “Nothing mechanical needs forcing”. Over the years I’ve sort-of expanded it to read “nothing mechanical that has been designed properly should need the use of force to make it work”. He first shared this advice with me when I was about 7, half a century ago. So how could it have saved my iPhone 5?

Simple. I went with my family on a short break to Dubai just before Christmas. We were expecting a houseful of guests to descend on us, and the idea of a brief injection of warmth appealed. I booked the flights and hotels, had everything prepared except for one minor issue. My visa hadn’t come through. This, despite the fact that I’d already been to Dubai a few times that year, obtaining visas each time without even the merest shadow of delay. I’d called a few friends to see if they could find out what the blockage was, but nada. Nothing. The application was stuck somewhere in the system. And nobody could tell me why.

Anyway, I told my wife and children that all would be resolved when we actually got to Dubai, that they were all on UK passports anyway, that it only affected me, and that I was confident I could sort it out upon landing. Which is what actually happened: 45 minutes after disembarking, I had the visa in my hand and we were heading for the hotel.

We had good news as we boarded: we’d been upgraded. It was a daytime flight; I’d had a hectic few months and I was exhausted, both physically as well as mentally. I fell asleep as we took off, woke an hour or so later, slightly disorientated. Realised we were airborne, and set about adjusting my seat into the stretched-out position. And it wouldn’t stretch out: I could hear the motor of the mechanism, but the seat stayed where it was and at its original angle. I persevered, and after a while it juddered into the extended position. I resumed my nap.

Nothing mechanical needs forcing.

I was too tired and too distracted to remember that.

I woke an hour or so later, and after a few minutes patted my pocket for my phone, to see what the time was. No phone. Hmmm. Perhaps I’d put it away before the flight took off? I was sure I hadn’t, but I checked nevertheless.

You’ve worked it out by now. Nothing mechanical needs forcing. There was a good reason why the seat mechanism wasn’t working properly. A very good reason.

My iPhone. Which was duly found, underneath the seat, in the condition shown at the start of this post.

Seat mechanisms, especially those designed in the reign of Methuselah (and the aircraft was at least that old), aren’t particularly good at dealing with iPhones. Especially when they come in the way of what needs to be done. This one had huffed and puffed (as I persevered with trying to force it) until the mangling of the phone was complete.

Nothing mechanical needs forcing. I should have remembered. I would have remembered but I was tired and distracted. And didn’t respond to the signals. My bad.

Every time I pick up something that’s mechanical, I tend to remember what my father said. I spend time trying to understand how and why something works, so that I don’t do what I did while on the plane. Using force with mechanical tools is a bit like speaking loudly and slowly in English to someone who doesn’t understand a word of what you’re saying: it achieves no purpose at all, gives you a misguided belief that progress is being made, and potentially risks something breaking down as a result.

I enjoy food, everything about food. Eating it; cooking it; discovering the new; luxuriating in the old. You probably know that already, especially if you’ve seen this TED Talk.

Over the years, I’ve learnt a lot about food. Most of the time, it’s been by watching people. My mother. My father. The family cook. Chefs at the restaurant. It’s amazing what you learn by observation. If you can combine the ability to observe with the ability to listen, you can learn even more. Most of the cooking at home has been done by my wife, day in, day out. I’ve tended to help out with special meals, occasional weekends and when on vacation. But the brunt of the load has been hers. Which means she has a lot of experience. We’ve been married thirty years this year, and over the years she’s helped me become a decent cook. Simple things to begin with. Work with a recipe; shop to the recipe. Check that you have the vessels in the sizes needed; occasionally this may also need to be shopped for. Sketch out the elapsed time, get your ingredients accessible, make sure the work surfaces are clear. Work backwards from when you want to serve. Taste taste taste. And taste again.

All this wasn’t drilled into me in structured lessons or, heaven forfend, PowerPoint. [More on that later, perhaps in a separate post]. The lessons came to me in conversations that took place in the kitchen as I’d be preparing the meal, as she pottered about doing something else. Gently guiding me somewhere without seeming to interfere. Independent of the meal itself, or the dishes, or the guests, or the time or place. They were “journey” things, not “destination” things; flow things, not stocks things.

Of course there were tips and tricks to bring into play, and my wife would help me with them as well. You’d better cover those with water, or they’ll go grey. That dish needs stirring gently, at the bottom, so that it doesn’t catch. You’ll find it easier to cut if you held it like this.

I was lucky. My wife enjoyed cooking, and was willing to share her expertise with me.

The internet, the Web, YouTube, the connected world we live in, all this means that more of us can be lucky. Learn from observing others at a distance, in our own time, at our own pace. Recipes are now easy to find, discovery is simple. Selection is also made easier, given the filters and ratings and reviews available on most decent cooking sites. The how-to bits have also become easier to find, you’ll be amazed by what you find when you look. It’s what Clay Shirky called Cognitive Surplus meeting Lewis Hyde’s Gift. People, all over the world, able and willing to share their expertise with you and me, free gratis and for nothing. Some have patronage models where you can show your appreciation or support, some have products and services you buy because of the relationship and the trust engendered by their willingness to share their expertise, yet others do it for the same reason that Hillary climbed Everest. Because it’s there.

I’ve been privileged to be able to observe chefs “in the flesh”: Richard Corrigan is a personal friend, as is Vineet Bhatia; they’ve both shared some wonderful insights with me over the years, from the simple “how to avoid the sea bass flesh tearing away from the skin as you try and make the skin golden-brown and crispy” to “how to get the tandoori chicken to stay moist yet fully cooked”. Their staff have been as helpful, particularly Chris over at Corrigan’s, who’s even come home to cook for me. [Sent, of course, by Richard]. But most of the time, what they’ve all been able to teach me is the principle, the method, rather than just the simple instantiation of the method. Once I learn that, I can mutate it, fit it into different circumstances, make it “grow” …. and share it.

A lot of what I learned was learned in person, because someone else was willing to share time and experience with me. Rather than feed me, they taught me how to cook. Thank you every one of you, particularly my parents, my wife, Richard Corrigan and Vineet Bhatia. I had to make myself available; I had to observe; I had to listen; and I had to be willing to apply what I’d learnt in front of them, so they could continue to guide.

Some of that is harder to achieve when separated by time and distance, but it’s getting easier every day. That’s why I love what I see of Khan Academy. That’s why I love what Sugata Mitra has been doing. That’s why I’m fascinated by what Howard Rheingold has been doing. That’s why I am convinced about the promise of MOOCs. [I’m not at all worried about reports to do with drop-out rates and completion levels and standards. But that’s for a different post, some other day]. I’ve learnt so many tips and tricks from the Web I’ve lost count, from the simple Here’s How You Peel Garlic and Here’s How You Separate Egg White From Yolk to Here’s How To Make Pancakes For Duck Restaurant-Thin. In my own time, at my own pace.

Cooking is a platform. Learning is a platform. Travelling is a platform. Healthcare is a platform.

In each case, you have the opportunity to look at the specific instantiation, the “reference application”, and to stop there.

Or you can look at the platform, the principles that underly the instance.

You can look at the destination. Or you can look at the journey. The stocks. Or the flows.

Sustainable learning is about the flows, not the stocks. Where learning itself becomes both a destination as well as a journey.

They say the Hoover Dam was responsible for the “invention” of cement. The dam is an instance. Cement is the enduring principle.

More to follow. I’m going to look at education and at healthcare in this context before homing in on the workplace in general. Keep your comments coming.


5 thoughts on “More on journeys and destinations”

  1. “learning itself… both a destination as well as a journey”

    Beautiful and true.

    Thank you for this fantastic musing. I enjoyed every morsel.

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