De-schooling Minds

I have a keen interest in learning from psychological profiles of creative individuals. My curiosity has led me to read Charlie Chaplin’s, My Autobiography,” and “Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi,” by Howard Gardner. Behind my curiosity is an innate desire to know how best I can learn from, interpret, and be inspired by the experiences that drive creative individuals to produce their creative works.

Over the years, while pursuing the philosophy of participatory design and co-creation, I have, however, begun to question the monopoly of creative individuals over creative processes, and have developed respect for the creativity of everyday people. During this pursuit, I became intrigued by a book, “Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success,” by James Marcus Bach. This book turned over a new leaf in my interest in studying the creative potential of the mind. The book contains a personal account of a high-school dropout — of how he discovered the rhythm of his mind and applied that awareness to maximize his career opportunities and to draw a sense of fulfillment from life.

After browsing through a few pages of the book, I was reminded of the argument I have often heard from people who dropped out of school, “Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, was a college dropout, yet he was able to build Microsoft and he became the richest man in the world.” I often wanted to remind them that every college dropout was not likely to follow the success story of Bill Gates. I held a belief that the creative genius of Bill Gates was not necessarily accessible to everyone eager to drop out of formal education. I was wrong. I realized that I was indoctrinated, through my education at a design school, into believing that creative thinking was the monopoly of a person trained in creativity.

After becoming a design researcher and conducting hundreds of conversations and co-creation workshops with common folks from around the world (which includes people in our client companies), my interest has grown to tapping into the creative potential of everyday people, not just in studying the mental makeup of geniuses. This is so because I have learned that it is only through helping people on the street invoke the creative potential of their minds can we solve complex problems faced by individuals, families, communities, organizations, and the earth’s eco-system

In this context, reading James Bach provided a timely reminder to me that in order to pursue my interest in harnessing the potential of minds, I need not just confine my reading to the analysis of the minds of creative individuals. James Bach has demonstrated that there are opportunities for each one of us to expand the innate capacity of our mind to learn and be creative, without surrendering to the dictates of an academic establishment.

The author has used the metaphor of buccaneers, seventeenth century Spanish pirates, because he finds several parallels between his own learning process and the independent spirit of the buccaneers. He is drawn to them because, “They were bold and aggressive, they lived free and they lived by their wits. That is how I want to be, an independent thinker,” he says. This is how the buccaneering metaphor works, in the words of James Bach,

“The original buccaneers sailed in ships on the sea. The vehicle used by buccaneer-scholars was their minds and they sailed in the world of ideas. Buccaneers embarked on cruises in search of treasures. The cruise of a buccaneer-scholar takes the form of a self-determined curriculum. A buccaneer-scholar embarks on a cruise in search of knowledge. Buccaneers used the threat of violence to achieve their ends. Buccaneer-scholars are not physically violent, they are audacious and intellectually passionate. They use irreverent inquiry rather than malevolent artillery to seize the treasure that they seek. Buccaneers quested for material wealth, such as gold bullions, jewels, and silver coins called “pieces of eight.” The wealth that buccaneer-scholars seek is less tangible but no less valuable: knowledge, skills, great secrets, connections with other minds, and an evermore powerful self.” (Bach)

To my mind the parallel drawn between buccaneers and buccaneer-scholars is inspiring because, according to the author, buccaneer-scholars are both disruptive and also know how to prosper in times of disruption.

James Bach has outlined the traits of a buccaneer-scholar. Buccaneer-scholars live free. They seek firsthand knowledge over knowledge imparted by an authority. They follow self-directed, heuristic learning processes; curiosity drives them; puzzles intrigue them; complexity drives them. They construct themselves, as opposed to subjecting themselves, to a culture of indoctrination. Above all, they earn their reputation; they care more for their reputation than for their qualifications.

Today we live at crossroads of big changes, which are being forced by invisible or unanticipated breakdowns of established systems (e.g., the subprime mortgage crisis) and disruptive technological innovations (such as the emergence of mobile and bio technologies). Experts trained in old ways of management will need to cultivate the mindset of a buccaneer-scholar in order to think beyond traditional ideologies and outmoded economic models or methodologies, and innovate beyond the tools and processes that have served us well for many years.

I find eleven elements of his own method of learning very useful for a person who wants to approach learning buccaneer-style: 1. Scout obsessively for information from a variety of sources; 2. Engage your mind with authentic problems. An authentic problem is one that personally means something to you and motivates you, not something that is imposed on you; 3. Cultivate cognitive savvy by discovering the rhythm of your mind. Let your mind wonder around, let it work while you sleep, and breakthrough ideas will come to you; 4. As you plunder knowledge, knowledge will attract knowledge. Build a mental schema (map) of the knowledge territory you want to explore — it’s like building an inner map of knowledge — and you will discover new pathways to explore the knowledge territory; 5. Experiment relentlessly by getting close to a problem, questioning it, playing with it, poking at it, and learning from what happens next; 6. Seek and relish disposable time — the time you can afford to waste — and the ideas will come to you; 7. Advance your understanding of the world and share it with others more effectively through the medium of stories; 8. Search for innovative solutions by comparing, contrasting, and synthesizing contrasting ideas. This process is called dialectical learning; 9. Reinvent yourself by subjecting yourself to other people’s ideas; 10. Combine words, pictures, and symbols to understand and communicate meanings; and finally 11. Embrace systems thinking by developing the ability to develop tolerance for complexity and the ability to discover simple patterns underneath.

As I completed reading the personal struggles of James Bach in, “Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar,” I was reminded of Ivan Illich’s book, “Deschooling Society,” in which he suggested creation of “educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.” (lllich, 71).

Today, with access to methods for self-initiated and self-directed learning becoming available through the worldwide Web, it is not difficult for people to pursue lifelong learning opportunities as envisioned by Illich. Even without the worldwide Web, James Bach followed his heart, discovered the abundance of learning opportunities available in his environment, challenged the outmoded educational establishment, dropped out of school in the eighth grade, and ended up building a career for himself on his own terms. His impeccable credentials include employment at Apple Computer as one of the group managers in the Product Quality Department, authoring numerous books on software development and product quality and testing, delivering keynote presentations at software testing conferences around the world, and writing papers that are often referred by universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University.

It is obvious to me that our options for learning increase by following the methods suggested by the buccaneer-scholar James Bach. I realize that a mind free from the tyranny of an authoritative education system is what I seek, because as Jean Paul Sartre once wrote, “We are condemned to be free,” (Sartre quoted by Bach in his book).(Sartre quoted by Bach in his book).