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Thinking Outside the Book (by Paul W. Smith)

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As I was growing up, we had a kindly old family doctor who would make house calls if you couldn’t come to his office (yes, I’m that old).  When he retired, his son took over the practice and took care of me during my anxiety-ridden teenage years.  There was a time when I had difficulty sleeping and Doc Jr. prescribed warm milk with a drop or two of vanilla before bed.  Although I can’t prove it, I’m pretty sure he’s the doctor on whom the character Marcus Welby, MD was based.

Fast forward to more recent times, and medicine (even on TV) is a bit different.  One of my favorite fictional docs is Gregory House, whose medical genius far surpasses his bedside manner.  With his A-Team of talented young physicians in tow, House solves the most difficult diagnostic puzzles, often trying 3 or 4 off-the-wall treatments before finding the correct one.  His best line to a patient?  “You’re going to die, but at least we know why.”

The medical profession has known since Galen that classroom knowledge can take you only so far; actual practice on real humans is the only way to grow the experience base and nurture the requisite intuition.  When my primary care physician begins a statement with “In my 16 years of practice….”, I feel reassured.  I’ve checked, and the Physician’s Desk Reference doesn’t list warm milk with vanilla as a substitute for Xanax.

Of course experience also counts outside of the healthcare field.  We have good friends whose son has just started a career in law enforcement.  By tradition, a rookie officer’s first assignment is guard duty in a jail.  While this may appear to be a hazing ritual of some sort, it is actually a crucial practicum.  By getting to know the types of people they will be dealing with, and learning how to develop working relationships with them, young officers start forming the street smarts they will need to succeed (and survive) on the job. 

My own experience as a Mechanical Engineering Professor taught me that students are often clamoring for “real-world” examples. Most are well-aware that the problems in their textbooks are substantially different from what they will face once outside the classroom; life is an essay, not a Scantron.  In the meantime, Higher Education remains anchored to the more traditional methods of teaching to an exam and labeling the final product with a GPA number.  Researchers may debate the exact recipe, but most acknowledge that success requires some mixture of innate ability, textbook learning and deliberate practice, seasoned perhaps with a pinch of Socrates

Doctors, Law Enforcement Officers and even Network Analysts face another challenge; society and technology are ever-changing, particularly in our age of Big Data and instant information.  Perhaps when you graduated patients didn’t have WebMD, criminals weren’t using Creepy, and the Internet of Things wasn’t a thing. 

Tim “Oldcommguy” O’Neill tells of a friend who had become frustrated with his iOT Smart Refrigerator, and wanted it lobotomized.  While you could find a code prodigy and hack the darn thing to halt the flow of hummus from Amazon Prime, experience would tell you that it must have a Wi-Fi radio, and that it’s probably not far from the antenna.  Sniff out the antenna, disable the radio, and you’ve got a quick fix that can easily be reversed if you have a change of heart (or taste).   

In my first job as a newly minted mechanical engineer, I worked for a hyper-practical old curmudgeon who had scant interest in my stacks of green engineering paper covered with textbook slide-rule calculations (yes, I’m that old).  His maxim was “If it works, don’t fix it.”   The ever-pithy Dr. House had a similarly crisp take on experience; "We treat it. If he gets better, we know that we're right."

Although age is not optional, experience (the right kind) is.  Ideally, we will get as much as possible of both.  I’ve long since replaced the vanilla milk with Pinot Noir, and in my 44 years of experience with it, it keeps getting better. 

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Author Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development.

Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.  

Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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