Learning from innovation

It’s probably an oversimplification, but I feel like people tend to fall into two camps: learners and innovators. This is how I will define each:

To learn is to take what someone already knows and apply it yourself. To innovate is to experiment, test, and play with ideas in order to refine a concept into a practical method, which the learners then can apply.

Innovation is no better than learning, and learning is no better than innovation. They are both vital. Nor would I say the skills are mutually exclusive to each person, but I do think people tend to lean more heavily one way or the other. However, I would say that I think it is much rarer for a person to be an innovator than a learner. Both because of how I think people are naturally wired, and because of how society operates.

I have an example. Think about adding fletching to arrows (those feathers at the end). adding three fins stabilizes the arrow in three-dimensional space and makes an archer much more accurate. To my (admittedly, limited) knowledge every society that knew about fletching added them to their arrows, because they are so much better than having arrows without. and yet, there are still some isolated tribes out there even today that do not use fletching. they have had thousands of years to invent the concept, and yet, haven’t.

You would probably think that it wouldn’t take a lot of time for someone to figure out that adding such a simple device to an arrow would aid so drastically in its efficiency, but I believe that is neglecting the effect of peer pressure upon an individual. Perhaps someone did indeed have that idea, but imagine how actively they would have to fight back against any backlash, because they would have to choose between experimenting and doing ‘work’. “Playing around doesn’t make arrows, Timmy. Quit wasting time.” You can understand the logic. I can’t imagine how many countless times this has happened in history, and I am genuinely curious how many inventions could have been made but weren’t for the simple fact that the innovators listened to their peers and ‘got to work’.

That is just a small example, but I think it happens in some form constantly in every society. Just think about having a great idea to speed up the workflow at your office job just to have it shut down because it would either require change on the part of others, or time to test on your own. Both disrupt the workflow temporarily. And even though a temporary slowdown may be worth the long-term benefits, it is often hard for humans to see the forest for the trees.

I do think that society tends to become more specialized over time as populations grow. You may have very well been able to manufacture your own arrows, bow, clothes, and learn to hunt, clean, and cook your own food for a living. Good luck trying to create your own automobile from scratch. You need assemblers to create it, you need miners to gather the materials, you need engineers to design it, and that isn’t even including the vast amounts of work hours and manpower that goes into designing and creating the machinery and technology, etc. You can only create a car after hundreds of years of buildup. It is hard to come up with how to create a car. But once you know how to do it, the challenge is much less.

Work specialization in theory is of benefit to innovators overall, because it tends to let them focus more on their innovative strengths when they have to worry less about their personal balance between ‘efficiency’ and ‘progress’, but that is just a generalization. And I doubt it changes life much for the learners, because they would still learn from others in the same way as a more generalized setup, albeit with a narrower focus.

It tends to be much easier to learn, and I would say that goes for not only the individual, but society as a whole. People are lazy. They just want to know how to do something and do it with minimal hassle. Having to discover your own way of doing things takes a lot of work. It takes a ton of work to learn how to walk when you are a child. But once you learn, it’s no big deal. Likewise, it takes grueling effort to learn how to ride a bike. But again, once you learn it is trivial. Now I ask you, would it take less time and effort to travel 50 miles by walking or by riding a bike? I say clearly the bike. But in our own lives, think how many times we metaphorically learn to walk and say “that’s good enough”, unwilling to learn to ride the bike. We do that as a society too, because society is people. There is a better way that exists (even if no one has discovered it), but it is a risk. There are people who may be willing to take that risk, but that is time they could otherwise be spending working in time-tested, safe ways. Their new way may be better, but it may be not. But they need time to figure it out to see.

I wouldn’t say I had some grand point, I just hope this will get someone thinking. Just please be careful that you don’t stop someone from learning to ride a bike when everyone else is walking.