This is Why I Never Read the Instructions

This is Why I Never Read the Instructions

And why maybe you shouldn’t go to college.

We’re approaching summer and I can’t help but think about the mistakes of the spring seasons of old that I made time and time again in anticipation of outdoor cooking weather. Purchasing a brand new grill that cost me something under one thousand dollars.

Two seasons ago, I purchased one that sang to me from its perch in the store. The note that caught my attention the most was the price. The big box store I bought it from was able to provide a very affordable price for an attractive yard appliance. In addition to using sheet metal that wouldn’t stop a bullet if you gently tossed it toward the hood, one way the manufacturer is able to keep the price down is by shipping the product completely unassembled.

Putting together your grill requires you to have light electrical skills, knowledge on how to plumb gas lines, and very small fingers. Open the box and you’ll find, wrapped in tape and enough styrofoam to build a small fort, hundreds of pieces including every little bolt and wingnut required to create your very own grill.

I thought I ordered an appliance that completes backyard parties and easy weekday burgers on the porch, when in fact, I actually ordered an erector set. I feel like the kid (that was never me of course) who had that lego set with which he could build literally anything he wanted, as long as it was a Star Wars X Wing Fighter. Or in this case a cheap grill.

It looked great in the store decorated in those shiny stainless steel features and a clearance sticker. I’ve determined I made a mistake. But I better get to work, because now I have to make a grill.

I began to panic as I realized the situation I was in. So naturally, I did what any smart modern man thinking on his feet would do.

I grabbed my phone, took a picture and tweeted about it.

I got no support on Twitter.

I explained to my wife that I was in deep squash and didn’t know how I was going to solve this problem. This grill is far too complicated, my fingers are too big and I’m worried I'm going to end up causing a propane gas leak that will blow up our backyard if I do something wrong.

“Did you read the instructions?” she said.

Of course I didn’t. For one thing, all the pictures were in black and white. Also, it had too many steps (the first of which was the most boring one). And I never really found the section written in my native tongue anyway.

My wife of course drew on her years of studying emotional health by expressing her understanding, acknowledging how hard this must be for me, after which she left me to assemble the grill on my own.

Eventually, I completed this small manufacturing project and cooked a meal, but I’m going to have to do this whole thing again this season, because a common grill is not designed to last (this is on purpose).

I learned a lot. Not only did I learn about every component of a grill and how to build one, I also learned about the whole “buy cheap, buy twice” factor. I learned about the value of time and I learned how to cut my own butterfly bandage.

Learning is not a linear process that consists of knowledge input followed by life application output. But this is how we have constructed most of our expectations when it comes to education.

Take a trip with me back in time to your own school experience.

Picture this, you’re midway through your freshman year, preparing for another boring math class. You walk in, sit down and stifle a yawn, as the teacher begins reading instructions. She ends class by giving you an assignment. You walked out of the classroom, making jokes with your classmates, you complained about doing homework, and swear you will never use algebra, ever.

If you’ve ever taken a classic cocktail and modified the recipe to create your own twist, you’ve used algebra. I use algebra every day (although I intend to cut back to about four days a week).

Now, imagine sitting in a classroom today, and the instructor reads the entire contents of the instruction manual to build a hypothetical grill, reading from front to back. After a quick test, you’re sent home with a grill assembly diploma, and the expectation that you have gained the competency to build a grill in real life, should the opportunity present itself.

Simply receiving new information is not learning. The motivation to learn comes from an experiential interaction with a challenge. Having the problem in your hands, waiting to be solved.

To really learn something involves many steps. There’s data, mapping that data, testing it, reflecting on the test, retesting, solving, and application. All this is before a connection is made. It's that moment of connection, the aha moment, when you have actually learned something, and that is almost always experiential. In fact, studies suggest that students learn thinking skills better when they fully understand the problem they are solving and its context. In other words, it’s easier to learn how to make a cocktail with precise measurements than it is to learn algebra (Note: please math responsibly).

This is why diplomas and degrees can be a difficult way to qualify someone for adult life. They often come out of a set of instructions that don’t prepare you for their real life application. As valuable as it can be, acquiring a degree is not learning. It simply catalogs a set of competencies based on data.

When you hold a problem in your hands, you have the opportunity to see details, notice patterns, imagine solutions and explore them until an aha moment is reached.

As a business owner, I’ve learned about business structure, marketing strategy, taxes, business law, construction, leadership, finance and so many other things (none of which I learned in school) because I’ve had my hands directly addressing each challenge.

Learning is not linear, it is immersive, and this is why we need to rethink how we educate our children and prepare them for the real world. Studies demonstrate that students feel like they are learning something when they sit in a lecture. When asked, they will credit the lecture environment higher in terms of how much they believe they have learned. But the results show that learning outcomes are far greater in an active learning environment.

Despite enormous advancements in technology, digital media communications, and brain science, education and corporate hiring standards remain largely the same. Technology innovation is moving fast. School is not. Corporate job requirements are moving slowly at best. Hiring managers are biased toward academic achievement, especially from top rated colleges. This form of bias becomes even more impactful when you introduce bias related to race or family pedigree–a bias most people don’t realize they are subject to. Students are convinced they learn more from lectures, evidently so do employers.

Perhaps school should look more like theater class with the teacher in the seats and the student acting out the lesson. Maybe, we’ve got the classroom backwards. Judging by the way people get hired, I’d say maybe we have a lot of things backwards.