Friday, May 21, 2004

Blinded by Our Expertise

A wonderful bird is a pelican

His bill will hold more than his belican.

Dixon Lanier Merritt

Gliding only inches above the water, a group of pelicans sped past me as I walked the beach. It was near sunrise. Three layers of clouds provided the color for the sunrise over the ocean. The high clouds were already white with the full rays of the sun. The middle clouds were turning pink and orange, catching the first rays over their horizon. The lower clouds were still dark and ominous since they were not yet illuminated. Like the past, present, and future, the clouds provided a changing perspective of the sunrise. The past brightly lit for anyone to see. The present is rapidly changing. And, the future only poorly outlined. As if to amplify on this observation, the waves breaking along the shore, due to the tide, broke behind me first, alongside me next, and in front of me last. A cascade of sound coupled with the visual image.

The sun emerged over the clear ocean horizon. It was as though a ball of fire was plucked from a fiery cauldron of liquid. It seemed to emerge, change shape, and drip some of its fire back into the ocean. As the last edge of the sun cleared the horizon, an elongated drop seemed to form, due no doubt to reflection and refraction, adding to the effect of a cauldron source. It's no wonder that myths started the way they did. Our world is marvelous and not easily explainable if we only observe it, really see it, and not let symbols get in our way.

The pelicans rode what looked like a "ground effect," a compression of the air between the wings and the surface of the water. Without beating their wings, they sailed along in the troughs of the waves for long periods. Then they seemed to ride up the face of a wave, giving them a push higher into the air where they flapped their wings a few times and resumed gliding, skimming the surface of the water. What a marvel of perfection! The pelicans were exercising the skills that they had been given. Highly specialized and adapted to their environment, they seemed to revel in their abilities.

The brown pelican that inhabits the Florida coast where I observed them is a very large bird. It can have wingspans of up to 7.5 feet and flies with long wing strokes, alternating with glides. It commutes to work. Because of its flying skills, it has been known to fly for hundreds of kilometers between its nesting area and feeding area. I observed them every morning going to fish and every evening returning. The pelican prefers to nest in areas that are undisturbed. As a result of this and because of its susceptibility to DDT (making its eggshells too thin), it is becoming a rare bird. The pelican has been known to exhibit altruistic behavior, caring for its disabled. Groups have been known to provide food for a blind member no longer able to fish. In Europe, the pelican has been used as a symbol for man's altruistic activities.

The brown pelicans' manner of fishing is extraordinary.

They fly at heights up to 70 feet and with very specialized vision spot a fish swimming in the water below. The pelican sets its body into a dive, folds its wings, and plummets headfirst into the water, scooping up the fish in its bill. They are spectacular to watch: a marvel of skill and specialization carried out to perfection.

A common disability among the brown pelicans is blindness. Repeated diving with the tremendous impacts on the head damages the eyes and blindness results. The very practice of the skill so carefully perfected damages the pelican's vision, one of its highly developed abilities, necessary for the use of its other skills.

This is also what happens to people. We become so highly specialized and efficient at the practice of a skill that its repeated use blinds us to change and opportunity.

The development of a paradigm both enables progress to be made and hinders change - a paradox.

History has recorded many cases of experts making bad predictions. They were not sensitive to events occurring around them. They were not able to see what was really happening:

"For a century, as you know, steam has been the principal railroad motive power. It still is and, in my view, will continue to be."W.C. Dickerman, President American Locomotive Co.

"The abolishment of pain in surgery is a chimera. It is absurd to go on seeking it today. `Knife' and `pain' are two words in surgery that must forever be associated in the consciousness of the patient. To this compulsory exacerbation we shall have to adjust ourselves."Dr. Alfred Velpeau (l839)

"Nothing has come along that can beat the horse and buggy."Chauncey Depew, U. S. businessman

"I cannot imagine any condition which could cause this ship to flounder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modem shipbuilding has gone beyond that."E. J. Smith, Captain of the Titanic

"The bow is a simple weapon, firearms an very complicated things which get out of order in many ways, a very heavy weapon tires out soldiers on the march. Whereas a bowman can left off six armed shots a minute, a musketeer can discharge but one it two minutes."Colonel Sir John Smythe (1591)

"That is the biggest fool thing we have eve r done. The [atomic] bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives."Admiral William D. Leahy (1945)

I continued my walk along the beach, watching several more groups of pelicans play with the air and the water. There was no one else in sight but there were numerous footprints in the loose sand piled high by tides and the actions of the waves. It was just past high ride and the water had receded somewhat. Walking was tough in the trek over the sand. I moved down closer to the water's edge where there were no footprints. The walking was easier, but I had to keep my eyes open to avoid getting my feet wet by an occasional high-performer wave.

Walking over other people's tracks is always difficult and uninteresting. For a team of horses pulling a wagon, the scenery only changes for the lead horse. In addition, it's easier to get confused by other people's tracks. In Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, Pooh goes hunting for a Woozle. Joined by Piglet, they continue their search, following a set of tracks. As they walk, the number of tracks increases. They become frightened by the alarming number of Woozles that they are following and quit. Only then do they find that they have walked in circles and followed their own footprints.

When you walk along the water's edge on sand recently uncovered by a receding tide, you explore new areas not seen before. Your footprints clearly mark your path and will last until another tide washes them away.

There are cycles in innovation. There are time periods when bursts of innovative activity occur. We are in one of those time periods now.

Those who wish to make technological progress will dance with the tides of change, using multiple expert skills. Those who dare to deviate from the paths of others, who risk getting their feet wet, will develop innovations, like footprints, that will last until the tide returns 50 to 60 years from now.

Don't be blinded by your specialization. Don't be frightened by all the tracks in front of you. Many of them are yours. Move away from the footprints of the others and dance with the tides of change.

Paul Schumann

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