The Other Pythagorean Theorem

A passage I read in Chris Hedges’ book, TheEmpire of Illusion, so stunned me I had to check his references. Sure enough, it appears to be true:

“Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate–a figure that is growing by more than 2 million every year. A third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42 percent of college graduates. In 2007, 80 percent of the families in the United States did not buy or read a book.”

In summary, lots of people can’t read and lots of people who can read, don’t use that ability very fully. I don’t believe we can be a great nation while this trend persists. It is surely the harbinger of our undoing. It undermines our ability to compete economically because ignorance is the bane of innovation and efficiency, but furthermore–andperhaps worse–the vast vacuum of individual learning is quickly becoming the black hole into which the legitimacy of our democracy is disappearing. Knowledge feeds real power and is the key to true freedom,while ignorance sucks the life out of both. Watching television is the replacement for literacy, but knowledge doesn’t come via packaged messages over the airwaves. Those who can’t get their information independently are easy prey to propaganda and lies. They push “truth” into the brains of consumers in the same way they push Viagra and hamburgers. Ultimately, it’s actual beliefs, and eventually votes, that have been pressed into the informational vacuums.

One of the tenets of the Pythagorean brotherhood (a following of the mathematician and teacher, Pythagoras, who gave us the mathematical theorem without which we builders would be lost.) was that ignorance itself is not the problem, but ignorance of ignorance was to be considered a grave sin because it describes a personal abyss from which there is no escape route. When you don’t know what you don’t know, you therefore don’t have the self-awareness that would motivate you to learn.

As a kind of religious doctrine, what Pythagoras (circa 500 BC) preachedis that ignorance of ignorance becomes its own Catch-22, an avoidable condition that traps its victims in a vicious, dead-end cycle. For him, that trap was the equivalent of hell on Earth, and those in its thrall were to be avoided because they are generally unredeemable. On this point–and on his theorem), I too am a Pythagorean. I call the conditionCompound Ignorance (or Ignorance², or just I²) and have made it the number one personal deficiency to ferret out in job interviews. We can coach, teach and train (which we want to do anyway with new associates) but it’s pointless when individuals aren’t interested in learning anything because they think they already know it. I guess I’m admitting to a particular hiring discrimination, and as far as I can discern, it’sstill legal: the Compound Ignorant need not apply.

Chris Hedges’ writing about the American literacy problem got me to thinking about the literacy rate for those employed in the homebuilding trades. Is it more or less? I don’t know the answer, but I do think there’s a correlation between low literacy and compound ignorance, and there’s plenty of the latter populating the workforce of our industry. The building industry is a pretty good place to hide out if you don’t have an education and don’t have the means or desire to learn. Most of the building industry trades have no learning requirements in one’s past, and no specific learning expectations going forward. If you can physically accomplish the task at hand, that’s generally qualification enough.

I suppose my attitude might sound a bit rough. I do understand that those who aren’t literate or who are stymied by their own bullheadednessstill need to have decent jobs. I also have great sympathy for those who didn’t get a decent education, and I don’t even mostly blame them. Igive the blame primarily to us; to the priorities of our country. We’rea democracy, after all, so apparently most of us don’t think providing agood education for everyone ought to be a national mandate. How can we justify our low achievement in literacy rates among the industrialized countries? (#19, with Cuba #1 and Russia well ahead of us) All of this upsets me. But I don’t think the solution is to dumb down our jobs as a response to our deteriorating educational standards.

And I certainly don’t think the homebuilding industry is a good place for those without an education or learning potential. For most people, their home is their biggest financial investment, and for everyone, homes play too significant a role in our lives to allow the quality of this essential product to be diminished and compromised by low-performing workers.

For the past 60 years, the homebuilding industry has gone in the direction of accepting low education and skills in construction, using the excuse that it is a smart strategy for reducing costs. It’s not smart. By allowing the uneducated and the compound ignorant to play sucha big role in the building of America’s homes, we’ve ultimately paid the price in a half-century legacy of low quality in our housing stock and paralysis in progress and improvement. The entire industry–including all the suppliers, equipment and fixture manufacturers, builders, developers, and designers–have acquiesced in ways large and small to the inevitable drag of ignorance and its demand for stasis.

I have been in discussions with executives and representatives of the manufacturers and suppliers to the homebuilding industry. When confronted with the gap between their own capacity for efficiency and quality improvements, and the final product in which their materials andequipment become a part, they always talk about the inherent inability to bring change or innovation to the homebuilding process. They always point to the fact that is too fragmented and under-skilled to be able tomove or shift beyond a snail-like pace. Therefore, the vast majority ofAmerican homes have been designed so that mostly unskilled people can build them. Everything in the design and construction of the typical home has been oriented to the idea that innovation and improvements mustbe avoided because, essentially the problem is, “our guys can’t handle new information or change.”

Because of this built-in industry resistance to change and improvement, the homebuilding process and product is pretty much just as it was a century ago. We’ve substituted in some good new materials, more advancedequipment and fixtures, and tons of cozy-comfort amenities, but the underlying home itself is stuck in a time warp. Much of this is attributable to prevalence of low skills and compound ignorance.

If you can find one in this recession, walk up to a home construction site and ask the first worker you see how he knows how to do what he does. The answer will be that he learned it there, on jobs just like theone he is on that day. Ask him (there are precious few women–they are much less prone to I² and just might a part of the solution) if he ever took courses relevant to his trade, or even a seminar. If he’s honest, the answer will almost certainly be no because he’s not required to do so, and besides, there’s almost nowhere to go to get that kind of education and training. And then ask him if he’s sure he knows what he’sdoing. If he’s typical, he lacks a lot of things, but not certainty of his knowledge and skills.

In my early carpentry experiences, I worked on job sites with the dumbest, foulest humans I had met up until then. I didn’t know so many expletives could be strung together. I didn’t know the wide variety of ways the F-bomb could be used in speech. Noun, verb, pronoun, adjective;whatever; it was hard to tell. I didn’t know every lunch and break conversation could be x-rated. These guys had nothing to teach and nothing to learn because in their minds there was nothing they didn’t already know. I cringe now at what I built with those guys back then.

Later, I was fortunate to work with crews where there were a few shiningexamples of true building craftsmen, people with real knowledge, deep skills, a love of their work, and a reverence for their trade. Just as ignorance tends to compound itself, knowledge does too (K²). The best craftsmen know what they know but also what they don’t know and they spend their lives continually pursuing higher levels of trade excellence.

Having experienced both sides, I developed a conclusion about those in the homebuilding trades: The deeper the ignorance, the more you’ll find arrogance, uncivil behavior, and incompetence; the greater the knowledgeand experience, the more likely you’ll find humility, civility and mastery.

When I founded our company, the primary goal was to create a model for better homebuilding. A key ingredient of that model was to somehow establish a true craft discipline and a learning culture. After more than 35 years of building, my proudest personal accomplishment is my role in helping to engender an atmosphere of learning and ongoing improvement. At this point, I can’t take more than a small share of the credit for this. Good people draw in good people; good learning and skills draw in more learning and skills. I may have been a prime fractalfor this kind of culture at the beginning, but I feel more like a beneficiary today. Surrounded by great people, good skills and deep discipline, my worries are few and my job is easier.

As we now launch the company renewal and reconfiguration I talked about in a previous blog, one big component is to give a more formal structureto our education and training. We’re working on establishing a completecurriculum, with a full complement of courses and training opportunities. While we have always had in-house education and training,we feel it now needs to be ramped up as we ready ourselves for the challenges of trying to set the highest standards for 21st century homebuilding.

I’ll say more about that curriculum as it develops. In the meantime, what top ten courses would you include?

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