Discovery Needs more legs



As a kid, I remember how much I loved Cracker Jack.  Sure, the caramel flavored popcorn and peanuts were tasty. But the discovery that every box had a prize inside hooked me.

Discovery, the process of realizing something new doesn’t have to happen joyfully. Discovery associates or naturally links in our mind with surprise, so why not celebrate the unexpected emotion, object, or idea too?  Considered as a process, discovery advances our understanding of our environment– its conditions, dimensions, contents and workings.

Discovery is how we learn

Yesterday, the United States celebrated Columbus Day.  I asked my 8-year-old niece what she knew  about Columbus.  She told me he found a new way around the world and “found” America.  Over lunch she and her older 14-year-old brother shared what has become the takeaway on the Columbus story.

Since I was in grade school, the basic story has undergone serious revisions.  Columbus shows how facts change when we acknowledge the legitimacy of other perspectives..  It’s reasonable that the language of the story would change based on your point of view and that additional information might challenge previous assumptions.

In suburban Chicago kids learn about Columbus for the first time in 3rd grade and by middle school they learn Columbus was lost, as in clueless. The facts we know today make it impossible for Columbus to have “discovered” America, particularly when he mistook for Indians the native inhabitants, which further exemplified that Columbus was dumb.

The turnaround of the Columbus story, from a brave, invincible, enterprising captain and discoverer of a new world claimed for Spain, saddens me.  My nephew further explained that  Columbus wasn’t brave, he was headed for jail unless he stepped up to take the voyage .  Really?  This was a new twist on the story, until I realized that my nephew merely turned around the order of the events in the Columbus story.  Columbus did end up in prison toward the end of his life, and may have died there.

Still, were it not for his persistent belief in his calculations that a faster route lay to the west, he wouldn’t have pleaded in royal court after royal court from Italy to Spain for the chance.  It still took courage, leadership once Queen Isabella  granted him three boats and paid for his crew to sail west across the Atlantic, a direction few were willing, and fewer succeeded.

Discovery, tactics to change beliefs

The fuller story of Columbus, the sum of all his activities in life may not suggest heroism, or show signs of a dignified, inspirational, gentleman, warrior or leader.  Kids learn the facts and left to balance them and maybe that’s appropriate.  Discovery is like that, sometimes our first beliefs of people or things shatter with additional perspectives, information, facts and context.

Nike the company, initially revered for its shoes was later vilified when buyers learned the conditions of the factory workers overseas.  Its founders made changes and once again Nike stands tall and stronger than ever. Apple has not yet had the same comeuppance, in part because few people are ready, willing or interested enough to look past the iconic reflections of the brand and its products. Discovery is like that too.

We like what we know and how  it makes us feel.The less I know about Apple, the easier it is for me to feel good.  I can be hipper, cooler with my Apple manufactured technology. Why do I want to know how Apple makes its products? Why does it matter?  Besides, will it suddenly reflect badly on me if I know what Apple does that’s bad and ignore it?

Imagine the SuperPacs using their political campaign tactics to pelt Apple for disregarding their overseas contractors’ working conditions and human rights violations.  Condemning those who profit from another’s misfortune might come back to haunt them.  Circulating this news might be considered shortsighted and run contrary  to the personal Super Pac investor and their interests.  Discovery can be selective.

Discovery and firsts

Children in discoveryDiscovery, doesn’t mean necessarily first. Discovery when nurtured, encouraged and celebrated rewards learning.   Successful businesses uncover markets for their products or services, and yes, I’d prefer business run responsibly but opportunity doesn’t always wait for all perspectives to align.  A responsible discovery process and attitude serves to remind every one of  possible consequences, as in “don’t cut off the hand that feeds you.”

In any first encounter, natural instincts raise our defenses.  In The prisoner’s dilemma model, the consequences of cooperating and not cooperating are very clear.  The dilemma presented reflects an inability to take into consideration what choices others have made before deciding whether to cooperate.  The model demonstrates the complex relationship between the learning and discovery process and our choice of actions. Another model is the Monte Hall problem in which the discovery of more information challenges our ability to win.  Both of these models illustrate that it’s not discovery that presents the problem, but the unsettling feeling of uncertainty that sometimes follows.

The absence of information, may represent a self-imposed limitation. though some problems are more complex and lay outside the bounds of present knowledge. Gaining more knowledge merely invites us to integrate it with what already know, and not dismiss it outright.  Open discovery processes increase possibilities for everyone, and we should begin to help others appreciate and respect discovery more if we want to play with more favorable odds.

Open minds filled with a sense of possibility, make them more accountable for their actions.  Columbus was ultimately accountable to the monarchs that invested in his voyage of discovery.  So the captives he took landed him in prison, impoverished in spite of the riches that resided in the lands he discovered.   None the less, we should do a better job of helping our children understand the value of Discovery and use Columbus day to celebrate and  promote adaptive, innovative thinking.  I hope that’s why Chicago Ideas Week began on Columbus Day, if not I suggest it become a tradition!

Can you think of other examples of the value of open discovery?  Please share them.



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