Noam Chomsky—Linguist, Philosopher, Cognitive Scientist, Historian and Activist whose work has influenced computer science, mathematics and psychology.

What, Why & Who

The most talented people in the world are the individuals who have become extraordinary innovators because they are remarkable problem solvers. This is due not only to their mastery of the current technological and programming tools now standard in their industry but also, in many cases, a proficiency in the traditional craft(s) of their trade—knowledge and know how that’s often supplemented by other mechanical or creative interests. Currently, these same professionals–most of whom are mid to late career–are telling us that many of the young people entering their fields are struggling. What they are seeing is that a majority of applicants are trained almost exclusively using the current tools (mostly digital) and, in most cases, do not have a good grasp of the basic mechanics or of the fundamental structure that essentially defines what it is they’re creating, whether it’s making a dress pattern, designing highly specialized duct work or even reconciling a storyline for a film in the editing room.

The purpose of The Most Talented People in the World website & blog is to highlight that few professions are dependent on a singular concept &/or tool and that success in many areas is as much about intellectual and creative prowess and basic skills, as it is to work with and incorporate new technology. To illustrate this, we will be interviewing successful professionals working in a wide variety of occupations, from Art and Design fields to Engineering and areas of Financial Services, and everything in between. The professionals we will be talking to will be asked to tell us about what they do, what their most valuable education was and the changes they’ve seen in their industry, especially since the 1990’s, when computers became standard for most all aspects of work and commerce, which also affected education and training practices. You may notice, as we have, that many of the interviews relate to each other at a very basic level, no matter how disparate the vocation, to the extent that they reveal that technology has a negative side, of varying degree, in relation to its benefits.

In addition to the interviews, one section of the site is devoted to articles and research about elementary and secondary education practices, touching on neurological, cognitive as well as problem solving skill development.  Why include this? Because, based on the feedback we have been getting from our interviews, problem solving skills of the younger generation have declined dramatically.  The suspicion is that, while technology is efficient and incredibly accurate, it often provides a pre-programmed (or algorithmic) solution for the user. As a consequence, the ease of use is fostering a culture of conceptual intelligence.  A simple way to illustrate this is, if you only balance your checkbook with a calculator, the math skills you once possessed are still understood but not as easy to apply as they once were.  Basically, if you don’t use it, you lose it.

As mentioned above, what we are hearing from current professionals, especially in the creative industries like Industrial and Fashion Design, Filmmaking, Architecture and Engineering, is that the new generation entering the workforce—many of them college educated—have been schooled solely in concept and how to use the latest technology; they can generate ideas and render them, but do not have the craft or vocational know-how to implement their idea, structurally or mechanically.  As well, mid-career professionals who were part of the initial wave of the computer revolution—trained in traditional methods as well as in the maturing computer age—have become intimately familiar with the pros and cons of the software, such that there is a recognition of not only of the computer’s efficiency and capabilities, but also what issues can be missed or unconsidered due to the fact that the software is so easy to use.

Many of the greatest innovators in history have been people with multi-disciplinary backgrounds. It should be no surprise then, that, many of the successful professionals we are talking to have backgrounds in disciplines other than their primary vocation—sometimes it’s science, math or mechanics, but in many cases it’s history, philosophy, literature & poetry, art, dance &/or music.  As a consequence, there are a lot of articles and profiles present on the site that delve into integrated arts education and individuals engaged in extraordinary projects, professionally and at liesure.

2010 was when I got the first inkling that professional training had shifted dramatically over the last two decades. It was a comment from a gentleman with 40 years experience working in, managing, and building electrical power plants who mentioned that many of the early career electrical engineers do their work exclusively in the office.  Candidly, he told me that these young engineers are not interested in doing the hands-on work out in the field, but prefer to work on their laptop.  In fact, he said, a colleague of his had started teaching at the local university, in part to pass on his knowledge but also as a way to recruit capable individuals to work out on the line.  Sadly, in the seven or so years he’s been teaching, his colleague has found but a handful of electrical engineers willing to work outdoors, despite the decent salary that goes along with the job.  In my mind, that meant that the number of people who have the mechanical know-how to physically build a power line or system that they design, much less work on or repair them, is decreasing dramatically with every graduation.

A couple of months later I was chatting with a friend who was telling me about the new applicants she was testing at work, to fill an opening in her department.  Cindy is what’s called a “fit designer” in the garment industry—she creates the technical patterns from a designer’s sketch, such that the garment can go to manufacture—and each applicant for the job needed to be tested to be sure they could complete the tasks given to them.  All of the applicants had been through a fashion program at a design institute, but unfortunately none were able to pass the company’s competency test for the job.  What Cindy realized is that these young designers were exclusively dependent on the software, and if it was a particularly complicated design, the program wasn’t able to complete the pattern rendering and the applicant didn’t understand how to work through it without the computer. (While Cindy has become proficient with the software to do her job, she was taught using the traditional methods, such that she has the ability to create patterns from scratch.)

Sadly, I have many other anecdotes as well, from tales of early career bookkeepers who are not able to track through their work to discover the faulty equation in their Excel spreadsheet, to the film editors who spend as much if not more time using digital software to edit a film and often splice in the first sequence that follows the script, rather than reviewing all of the shots to find the best scene that suits the story being told.  Essentially, the more people I talked to, the more stories I heard, and all with the same underlying theme—many professions are coming to rely on one tool and, as a consequence, the young people on those career paths are getting educations on a very narrow track.

With the lack of vocational skills and traditional working methods being passed on, is ‘know-how’ becoming a rare commodity?  There is no doubt that technology can make many tasks more efficient, but many of us have also experienced times when computers and software are more frustrating than accommodating. My point is, I think it’s important to reiterate that computers and software are a great tool, but only one of many. In addition, I don’t think many people realize that it’s not just alleviating a task, it’s potentially weakening a skill, depending on what you are working on—for example, if you only balance your checkbook with a calculator, you eventually lose the math skills you once had and if you don’t use it, you lose it. With the latest generation of graduates entering the workforce, it’s becoming clear most of them don’t get the vocational or craft training in Fashion, Industrial Design, and Engineering as earlier generations did and the consequence of that is that they are have a hard time solving complicated problems or issues that come up because the algorithm doesn’t understand what it is they want to accomplish (and, of course, its abilities are as limited as the individual who programmed its code). All this is to say that, based on the stories I was hearing and the interviews I am doing for this site, it is sounding like we need to take seriously the loss of traditional skills and that, as a society, we risk greater problems down the road should they disappear altogether.

I am a professional and am working toward becoming an educator, but am only beginning to understand issues in education and the variety of teaching methods.  My point being, there are an infinite number of people who understand what is going in their areas of expertise and in education to a far greater degree than I—I simply noticed a pattern.  This website is meant to be a platform for those professionals and educators who are in the thick of it and that their insight will benefit the next generation.

—J. Stoots (February 2012)

Jennifer Stoots, AAA

I am a fine art appraiser, Certified in Photography with the Appraisers Association of America. I have been working in the museum and gallery industry since 1995 and in the photography marketplace since 1998. I received my B.A. in Art History from the University of Oregon (1994) and am currently in the graduate program for History of Art and Design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

For more than 17 years I have worked with a number of non-profit institutions in a volunteer capacity, most of which are dedicated to the photographic arts &/or education, including the Newspace Center for Photography, Northwest Documentary Arts & Media, the Photography Council of the Portland Art Museum and Photolucida, among others.  One other organization I support is ArtsWork in Education, which has a beautifully simple program for getting integrated arts education into public schools at a reasonable cost.  Located in Eugene, Oregon, it is one of the few programs that focuses attention at the middle and high school level.  A.W.E. is championed by the teachers who’ve worked with the organization, as it has proven be an incredibly effective program for engaging students of every academic level and background. (ArtsWork in Education is a Non-profit organization dependent on grant and patron support.)

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