Stagnation and Tunnel Vision

It is easier to learn when you are young. So I have been told all my life.

According to research on neuroplasticity the brain continues to grow and learn from what it is exposed to—it never stops.

As we get older, life is filled with more routine. Get up, 9-to-5, relax, cook, sleep, repeat. That is a pattern I see in many adults around me.

I am 24, and in a sense I have refused to grow up (“it’s a trap!” I was told). I have refused routine. I could never make it work.

Adults are much busier with the little things of life. That I have not escaped.

Just recently I picked up a musical instrument for the first time, a Ukulele. I’m not very good but I taught myself some chords and some strumming quite quickly. It didn’t feel like I was slow at learning.

Sure, I haven’t become a master of the instrument, but I haven’t invested the huge amounts of hours into it that I would invest into learning things when I was a child.

I used to spend four to five hours a day exploring the wonderful world of computers. Today I am a software developer. I fell into learning about computers, put a lot of hours into it, and eventually it became a happy inevitability that I would spend my life doing something related to them.

Maybe it isn’t that children inherently learn more effectively. Maybe it is just that as we grow up our lives are structured in a way that stacks the odds against us.

Children have to learn. Everything is new. They have to learn how to learn; how to adapt to an ever-expanding world.

Through education and work we become more and more specialized in fewer and fewer things. There’s that saying that some people with PhDs are the world’s leading experts in nothing at all—a field so small that it is indistinguishable from nothing, that is.

Routine enforces this. Being busy all the time enforces this.

The consequence is a lack of breadth of knowledge, a lack of understanding of other disciplines. A lot of software engineering research, for example, attempts to reinvent the wheel for this reason; Osterweil, for example, argued that “maybe the human processes of developing software can be specified as code,” ignoring the wealth of existing research on human behaviour, interaction and psychology.

Research becomes too specific, ignoring related research in other fields of study.

This tunnel vision, “only my perspective exists, probably”-approach is less than optimal for the furthering of human knowledge (but is good for publishing papers).

Ironically, what I am prescribing experts is more learning, but from research in a broader field.

Knowing of approaches in other fields makes it easier to make informed decisions. This is also the motivation behind looking for T-shaped (one expertise, broad knowledge) people in tech.

Maybe in the time we are entering now, of ever more rapid learning and change, it would be good to refuse to grow up. We will get busy, but maybe this next generation can break away from the routines and the busywork, and find a better balance.

Looking at tendencies towards more remote workers, more flexible hours, etc., I think we are already on the way.


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