Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Brickhead's Confession from 2003


It would be dishonest to state that I have not done stupid things in the last decade. It is definitely a long list. And Jan 1st 2010 is an opportune moment to confess what I believe tops that list of stupidity. My friends/well-wishers may disagree and quote competing incidents which are in the same league. But let's tackle those in separate posts.

The idea occured to me yesterday while watching 3 Idiots. In typical Rajkumar Hirani style, the movie was quite preachy in its core message - of not learning by rote, that mastery of the subject does not happen by replicating the old, with an overaching theme of following your own dreams. While nodding at the presented philosophy, I knew that at least once I had been on the wrong side of the divide between thinkers and brickheads.

In our fifth semester at IIT Kharagpur (July-Dec 2003), we had a week-long workshop which involved a design problem for a team spanning 2nd year, 3rd year and 4th year batches. As 3rd year team members, we were the workhorses, neither having seniority like 4th years or established inexperience like 2nd years to do kaam-chori. The design problem was to create a new building block for the Dalhousie Building in Kolkata - a classic conundrum of creating something new while retaining the old. The existing building was a overpowering four-storeyed British creation, with graceful arches and tall ceilings. In comparison, structures built in the current age were a lot more compact from floor to ceiling. So a critical piece in the design problem was creating a service link between the two structures (i.e, stairs and lifts), since the floor levels for the old and new structures would be different.

So Swapnil, Sabyasachi and I sat in the initial days of the assignment, trying to find a solution. Just installing normal lifts wouldn't work because....forget the explanation. It's to do with the misaligned floor levels. Swapnil soon came up with a then curious solution of having lifts which have doors on both sides - one for the old and one for the new. It was new to our system of thinking. It could have been a good solution.

So what did we do?

We fought. We resisted. We applied all the classic barriers.
'I don't think that'll work.'
'I haven't ever seen anything like this before.'
'Who makes two-door lifts!'

'I don't think the professors will agree.'

Swapnil of course fought back. If you know Swapnil, he can be quite persuasive (Like the time he convinced the store salesman to let him try out new trousers even though he wasn't wearing undergarments). But this time his persuasion skills were no match for our mammoth brick-headed brains. Or his overwhelming apathy for the architecture subject diluted his energy. In any case, the idea was duly killed and buried. We ended up using normal lifts and added stairs for connections. It was an unelegant, ugly and safe solution.

Of course there are two-sided lifts in the world. And everytime I enter one of them, I am reminded of this incident. I have aplogized to Swapnil about this over the years. The scary thought is that back then our resistance to the idea seemed logical and reasonable. And I wouldn't know if I am being the same brickhead in the coming years.

To the readers I pose this question - How would you know if you are being a brickhead? Can you be cognizant of your own irrationality? Because if we don't practice caution, we might end up rejecting things merely for being different. To quote Seth Godin - Big ideas are little ideas that no one killed too soon.

4 comments:

  1. The bad thing about examples is that the wrong ones stick inside your head. So, despite the great message of the post - the only thing I'd probably remember is Swapnil trying out those trousers! :D

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  2. I guess it is very difficult being cognizant of one's own irrationality.

    Caution is dangerous. It is caution that makes us reject big ideas. I think if we start being less cautious about things and be open to ideas, we would stand a better chance of letting the big ideas flourish.

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  3. and I end up remembering 'Men in Black' . The first time I saw 2 sided lifts :)

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  4. Just had lunch at Iyer's Delhi hoom that very soon won't be. This made me open up his blog after a long time, and this is the blog I landed upon.

    I have been reprimanded so many times for thinking about solutions that don't exist. Now, many times I have been able to persuade people to try the not-so-obvious, and many times, the ideas have failed, but they have been successful as well many times.

    Over the years, as I led a team whose job was to crack what most people thought was an impossible task, I have learned to be careful to not throw any idea into the bin without thinking it through, especially if the idea sounds stupid initially. I follow the rule given below to help myself not be a brick-head, as much as possible.

    ...And the rule is --- if something sounds stupid, DO NOT throw declare it stupid. Give it a good thorough open-minded hearing.

    @Akshay: the underwear kissa was a hilarious one; write to me to know more about it.

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