Dear Jeff Schmidt,
I am grateful that you wrote Disciplined Minds. I must admit that I had always held higher education in greater esteem than it deserved, naively believing that “professionals” held themselves to higher standards. I was just brainwashed. Your book was a breath of fresh air, and it was timely: With our culture becoming ever more technologically complex, the last thing we need is for the technical experts and the everyday users of the technology to not think clearly and critically. People need to be taught to be skeptical, to be street-smart in the area of the politics of work, and your book is a good start in that direction.
What I think I observed in your book was the tragedy of the betrayal of the educational system toward those who love — that’s the appropriate word, love — the science and math they discovered. The system seems to be seriously flawed when the awe and wonder that science and math can inspire are shunted aside only for the purpose of performing a job. The killing of that passion is not right. It’s like cutting down a grove of mature fruit trees just for the firewood. Those trees produce not just seasonal fruit year after year, but they provide a welcome reminder of the seasons, food and cover for wildlife, places for children to climb, summer shade, and that intangible that makes us stop and stare — sheer beauty.
To this day I wish I could find a job where I could use the trigonometry and calculus that I worked so hard to master when I took night classes at the local community college over ten years ago. It was a struggle; math doesn’t come easy for me, but I have always enjoyed it, always felt a sense of amazement at its power to solve problems. I took four terms of calculus, earning A’s and very much enjoying the discovery process. I had a dream of being an engineer, but gave that up because of the responsibilities of a job and a marriage and helping to raise three daughters.
One of the insights I gained was that our school system arbitrarily sets us up to learn when we may not be ready. Maybe my experience was unique, but it seems that my brain was more amenable to learning math when I was in my mid-thirties than when I was in my teens. In high school I really struggled, and earned only average grades. As a result I thought of myself as mediocre in math. When I gathered the courage to try again 20 years later, I was just a lot better at it. Certainly I had more discipline, and I wasn’t at the mercy of my glands as much, but it still seems that I was just at a better place in my life to learn. There were times when I would be working on a calculus problem at the kitchen table, and I would ecstatically shout to my wife my thrill at finally understanding a concept, or solving a difficult problem.
As a water plant operator, I taught math classes for a time to other water works employees, and it was a fulfilling experience to see the understanding dawn in the faces of the (mostly) men, who had always been afraid of math. Were there just a lot of poor math teachers, or were they introduced to it at the wrong time of their lives? I don’t want to rag on the school system; I know the teachers are often facing too-large classes, and contending with discipline problems and administrative details that preclude effective teaching. But I just wonder if there isn’t a better way.
Well, time to end this long ramble. I have to get up in the morning to interview for a job at a new, state-of-the-art water treatment plant. I’m highly qualified and I’m feeling hopeful, but I know that despite having adequate credentials and considerable experience, the politics could derail my chances. My general plan is to listen for the fears behind the questions, then offer reassurance. Wish me luck. I will continue to recommend your book to my friends.
[Note from the same writer to Charles Hayes, publisher of the on-line Self-University Newsletter, which reviewed Disciplined Minds]
Dear Mr. Hayes,
A few months ago I changed my ISP and forgot to notify your provider. I was missing the newsletter until I remembered my slip, and I just corrected that. I enjoyed reading the fall 2001 newsletter.
It just so happens that I finally got around to reading Jeff Schmidt’s book, Disciplined Minds. More than any book in a very long time it had a profound impact on me. It significantly changed — and is changing still — my view of the world of work and of the corporate structures that I encounter.
I am not a “professional.” I worked as a water filtration plant operator at a small utility for 18 years, then quit over a combination of wage dispute and burnout. I returned to school to earn a two-year degree in engineering technology. That whole experience was an education in itself; it was good for me, at age 48, to go back to school where I found that in some ways I was a better student than I was 30 years before. I did well in the technical classes, even winning a scholarship.
I had a lot of anxiety when I quit my job, worrying about losing our house etc. But my wife and I did just fine, and my three daughters, who struggled to work their own way through college, were proud of me.
During school it felt like a sabbatical, and I realized that it was just a very welcome break from the sameness of a no-longer-interesting job. I wish that more workers could get out of their routine for such a restorative break.
My job caused me so much anxiety that I was seeing a psychiatrist. After I quit I visited him one last time. His comment, after staring off into space for a time, was, “I think...that if more people did what you just did...there would be far fewer divorces in this country.” He could be right; I see many people determined to stay in their jobs “for the security” even when their physical and mental health and their important relationships are deteriorating.
After school I found a job with a small engineering firm. It had a very strong corporate mentality, and during the two years I was there I was in a near-constant state of anxiety. I felt that I had conflicting direction depending upon which project engineer I was working for. I had naively concluded that all decisions would be based upon nothing less than sound scientific engineering principles. I was frustrated and confused that decisions at times seemed arbitrary or conflicted with previous direction. I became painfully aware that as “just a technician” I was treated differently than the professional engineers. I saw some of the young engineers become slowly less friendly and more distant and arrogant. The company principals were highly intelligent, but also some of the most manipulative people I had ever met in my life.
After two years and one month I got laid off, along with three others. I was actually relieved. I am receiving unemployment benefits and looking for other work. Since then I read Disciplined Minds, and “the light went on” regarding some of the experiences I had had at work. Things just make more sense now, and I realize just how politicized the consulting engineering process is.
I have always been an avid reader, and I fully agree with the Self-University idea that our education is up to us as individuals. I very much enjoy reading the newsletter, and it is a good source of ideas for continued reading. Keep it up.