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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Project Management, Atlas Shrugged, The Glass Bead Game, and my Years at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

As a child, I was always building something, either alone or with a small team of other kids in my neighborhood. At the time I didn’t know it, but I was often acting as the project manager. My friends and I built model rockets, go-carts, high-gain radio antennas, a river dam, a raft, forts, working model airplanes, kites, and even a parachute of sorts. Alone, I built countless electronic projects including a robotic arm when I was 11 and a rudimentary laser when I was 12 or so. In middle-school, I wrote a grant proposal to my grandmother requesting funding for some of my experiments and won a modest stipend to pursue research about carbon dioxide’s behavior in a closed system to support plant growth (at the time, I wanted to go into the space program and Bio Sphere was a big deal). Until I was about 14, my hobbies were exclusively project-based, and then I spent a few years being a rebellious skateboarding adolescent.

Before my 16th birthday the movie Dead Poet’s Society was released. This movie had a profound impact on me, as did some rather uncomfortable run-ins with local authorities (related to skateboarding and generally just being a punk). I was grounded for a while during that summer and spent a lot of time reading. One of the books I read (and reread) was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which makes profound statements about the role of the mind and industry in society. Also that summer I read The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, which is one of my all-time favorite books. In this book, Hesse draws the reader into thinking about the role of intelligence, academia, and pure research in society. In Atlas Shrugged, the main characters give up on society and take their talents, profits, and products to the utopian Galt’s Gulch and effectively go on strike, thus causing the world to falter and civilization to crumble (Ayn Rand was born in Russia and her work is strongly opposed to any form of communism, redistribution of wealth or socialistic tendencies whatsoever). On the other hand, the main character of The Glass Bead Game, Joseph Knecht, lives as part of ascetic order funded by the state to run boarding schools, do pure research and master the glass bead game (the book’s namesake). It was interesting to read how Joseph slowly started to call into question the validity and value of living disconnected from the problems of the real world and how Rand’s characters were so important to the world that when they withdrew, the world collapsed.

In any event, those two books really woke me up that summer and I decided I should do something to get out of small-town Central Washington State and onto bigger things. Back to The Dead Poet’s Society (and in some ways, the Glass Bead Game given that its setting too was a boarding school)…

I wanted to go to a boarding school. I approached my mom about it and she was gung ho to help me research and pursue the idea even though we didn't know if we could afford to do something like that...

But never discount the single-mother and her power to perform miracles. We found a school about 5 hours away by car in Central Oregon called the Delphi Academy. I refer to Hogwart's of Harry Potter fame when describing what Delphi was like. At a staggering $25,000 a year for tuition, room and board my mother had to refinance the house, I got a scholarship, and other members of the family chipped in to pay my way. Even still, we only had enough to send me for 2 years of a 4-6 year program. While others had done the program in 2-3 years, it was extremely rare but I decided to try it anyway. Two years later, without a summer break, I graduated The Delphi Academy with a 4.0 GPA and college scholarship.

While at Delphi, I took on a very serious project: managing my education. The program at Delphi is largely self-directed (and from some people’s perspective controversial, but it was great for me) and with my hard constraint of finishing within two years and an immutable scope (Delphi’s graduation requirements are severe and nonnegotiable), I had only the schedule variable to play with. I petitioned the school to let me stay up as late as I wanted (bed check was usually 10:30 PM and I would study until midnight or beyond and get up at 6:30 AM and do it all over again). I didn’t take weekend trips like most and I participated in a work-study program during the summer.

In addition to directing my own education, I had to accrue a large number (measuring in the hundreds) hours of real-world experience in my major (like college, students at Delphi select a major—mine was science and technology). I took on a variety of projects but the three most interesting ones were working at a robotics laboratory, writing a database management system for tracking student physical education test scores (this was 1992 and the system was implemented in QuickBasic and subsequently rewritten in C++ by a 13 year old boy who at 16 was EarthLink’s chief software architect!), and building a laser interferometer.

The Delphian School employed interesting educational methods. There were three basic concepts:

  1. When reading, never skip a word of which you don’t fully understand its definition
  2. Always traverse a course of study according to specific levels of complexity and depth so as to ensure each concept is understood before moving on
  3. Always augment your lexical and conceptual understanding with practical application to ensure that the knowledge is both useful and durable over time.

These three ideas, although simple (know what you read, master each level of study, and apply what you learn), are extraordinarily powerful. Fifteen years later I still pause in my reading to lookup a word or backup when I feel like I am bogged down, and where possible I try to use what I learn—which in some cases is impossible because I read about 10 books a month that have no practical application in my work.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

i love how your brain works.


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