I confess I have different ways of learning and processing information than most people. And that has gotten me in much trouble over the years, especially while at a work place. I never could read people’s body language well enough to be good at socializing. I can’t tell what they think just by watching them. I can, however, read through the lines of what they write. I have always been a much better reading learner than a hands on or auditorial learner. I think one of the reasons I never became as good with my hands as I am with my mind or communications is that I couldn’t see diagrams or in some cases, even what I was doing. And I never got enough repetition in to get good. It always frustrated my teachers, bosses, and even family that it took more repetition for me to learn something than most people. But once I learned the skill, I remember it for life. I think I was given up on by teachers and employers too early in some cases because it takes me longer to learn through doing than most people. But once I learned something through doing, I have never forgotten it.
Even though I am pretty intelligent in some ways (though some would argue this), I never did get the top grades in school or most of the accolades at work. I did well enough that I gave my teachers and bosses that false hope I could be a superstar student or employee. Yet, because of my mental make up being so much different than the norm, I couldn’t develop my skills fast enough for my employers and teachers to really see my potential. I never could read a teacher well enough to know what was on a test. So I had to study the entire subject. It will make you well grounded in a subject, like biology or history, but it is not conducive to getting good scores on tests. Likewise at work, I couldn’t read my bosses, coworkers, or customers very well. I certainly couldn’t the first time I met them or even the first few. Like I said, it takes me more repetition to learn things than many people. Yet, once that knowledge is learned, it is learned for life. Even though I haven’t played football since 1999, I still remember many of the plays we used in games and practice simply because our coaches believed heavily in repetition and details. I loved that kind of take on sport. I didn’t want to be fancy or eye catching, I just wanted to win and be good at what I knew and was doing.
Yet because I couldn’t learn in the way my bosses and clients preferred, I didn’t make a very good employee. For years I was convinced I was defective and was damaged goods. I believed it so much it’s why I went on disability insurance in spite having a college degree and good intelligence test scores. Sure I may have the natural brain power many employers are looking for. Yet, the way my mid works and learns is not what gets a person ahead at a job, most of which are service sector jobs. Attention to details and throughly learning your field was the way to go for a renaissance era craftsman or a high end scholar.
Yet, good luck finding those jobs today. I have ability. I have talent. I have intelligence. I have the ability to learn new things and remember those new things my entire life. In many ways I am far smarter now than I was when I graduated college in 2004. But that is because I found out through trial and much error how I effectively learned. I learn by reading and by doing many times, not by listening to a lecture or two and doing a few trial runs. It does take me longer to learn the basics than most people. But I remember the basics far longer. And I can build upon those basics to even incorporating some of my own takes on work tasks and ideas.
Sure it is an odd way to learn. It is also one most teachers and employers especially don’t like. I lost more jobs than most people have had in a fifty year career simply because my learning style didn’t fit modern corporate or service sector styles. I may have done extremely well in an old style apprenticeship that took several years. But, as it stands now, I’m halfway through my life and don’t have the energy or the courage to start over in something that I know will not accept my skill set or way of learning. And it is a classic Greek tragedy as far as I’m concerned.
I have to wonder how many millions of people just in our day and age that live lives of quiet desperation and poverty yet would be model employees, crafts people, or business managers but never get the chance mainly because they learn things in different ways. I have met only a handful of people in my life that I know was on the Autism spectrum. Some of them were extremely intelligent, much more than even I am. Yet most of them struggled socially and especially at work because the learning styles and ways of communication didn’t match up with the culture around them.
I think that things we classify as mental illness like schizophrenia, bi polar, autism, etc. (even homosexuality and bisexuality were considered mental illnesses until quite recently in many places) have always been with our species. It just wasn’t as much of a disadvantage in a less structured Stone Age civilization. In fact, I imagine that many of the first medicine men, shamans, astronomers, and priests were men and women who would be considered mentally ill by modern standards. But they had a different way of learning and looking at the world than most other people in their little tribes and bands. And it helped to eventually launch civilizations. It’s the eccentrics and the odd fellows and odd ladies who took our species from only a few thousand scattered wanderers many thousands of years ago to the teeming billions who are actively making plans of colonizing other planets and celestial bodies. Providing we don’t seriously screw up this transition, who knows what the human species will be capable of given thousands of years scattered across a few star systems. And it was mainly because of the oddballs and mad men who, while scorned and condemned among their contemporaries, led the way forward out of the Ice Age caves to now standing at the entry way to the cosmos.
It’s been a long and strange journey. And it’s one I hope is only entering a new phase rather than reaching it’s climax and decline. The choice is up to us who are currently alive and how much we chose to nurture and value those who don’t think like the norm. I may never be one of these innovators who profoundly changes the world. For now, I am content to be among those who appreciate the eccentrics and encourage them onward. The road to the stars is fraught with great difficulties. But, because of the odd ones, I believe we are up to this task.