05 October 2005

Focused Study vs. Cursory Survey

I just read a great quote as I begin another of Henry Petroski's books, this one named The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. The quote is from the Preface of the books and is as follows:

I believe that a person who is attracted to bridges, for example, can learn more about the method of all engineering-–including such seemingly diverse branches as chemical, electrical, mechanical, and nuclear engineering-–from a focused study of bridges alone than from a diffuse and cursory survey of all the past and latest wonders of the made world. Yet a focused study need not be overly technical. It need only place the artifact in a proper social, cultural, political, and technological context in order to allow the essence of engineering to be distilled by the receptive mind.
This has been true in my life. As I've focused my curiosity deep in a subject I love, I have been forced to learn more about almost every other ancillary subject. For this very reason, I'm excited about how my younger brothers are working to build an airplane in my parent's backyard. I'll paraphrase what I remember Burt Rutan saying in one of his presentations at Oshkosh when talking about how he hires people, "We will not ask you about your college grades, but we will ask, 'What did you do?' and hope to see that fire in your eyes." The focused study of anything over time in my experience has a deeping and broadening effect that like a deep tap root, makes for strength, but also well rounded influence and understanding. When someone says you need a "well rounded" education, don't think cursory survey of everything, think deep, focused study. With the "deep" will come the "breadth" and it will make a whole lot more sense in context.

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