This is the 200th post on my blog.
Because I wanted to make it substantial, I’ve decided to combine a few threads and ideas I’ve had into one post. I wrote most of it as part of my NaNoWriMo goal to write a novel. It’s taken me a few days to actually get it all down, because I keep wanting to add more, then not wanting to stuff it with too much, and I end up procrastinating and putting it off.
That said, in what I’ve written, I take a look at three main things:
1) What I’ve done this year and how my blog interacts with that – with a special focus on the events over the last few days and weeks here in Brazil.
2) Education. An issue I’ve been thinking more and more about recently, I’ll be weaving my experiences into what I’ve learnt about education and why I think it needs to change.
3) A few of my favourite posts along the way.
After all, it’s a milestone for me (even if it’s largely inconsequential), and I’d like it to be meaningful, if possible. I know it’s unlikely that you’ll read through this whole post. Friends interested in my travels might be uninterested in my observations about education. Tumblr people might not care for my travel experiences, or the personal history I inject into the post. At the end of the day, though, it is a post collating the things I’ve found most interesting, and a way for me to extract my thoughts and place them in a medium that doesn’t degrade or fade. Finally, I don’t expect many people to read it because it’s over 18 pages long and in excess of 7,000 words.
That said, I’ll start with something easy to read - my top 3 favourite posts:
1) Wanderson’s Story: A write-up of a tale that inspired me. I’ve since run into Wanderson again, and it’s a surreal experience to be in such informal and relaxed environments with someone who has been through what he has. I’ve also received some positive feedback about the post itself, which I’ve enjoyed (as someone who usually keeps writing private, sharing and receiving positive feedback is a wonderful reinforcement). Read more…
2) This is Home: A picture I’m particularly proud of, and I feel captures the essence of my feelings about my home - Cape Town, South Africa. It also has more meaning than most people know: the globe was a gift from a very special person in my life, and was given months after I had explained an idea that I had had, which I didn’t realise was possible. View photo.
3) Supergrannies on Kickstarter:A fantastic initiative that needs your support. I’ve already spoken about it, but I would place it amongst my favourite posts as I like the idea of being able to use this space (originally just supposed to be a place to store my ideas and thoughts) to affect positive, real-world change. Sharing this with even a few people has again made me realise the value of online networks when it comes to working towards solving real-world problems. Find out more…
It’s interesting to see how my blog’s changed over the months. What started as a place where I thought I could share arguments, debating motions and so on, has evolved into a travel blog with some tech news, aspects of social movement, analysis of political events from around the world… and everything else besides. I sometimes compare my stated interests (as presented in my description at the top of each page) to my tag cloud, to see the discrepancy. Poetry, for example, I’ve hardly engaged with on this blog. There are numerous reasons for this, but it’s interesting to see it as a stated interest and not present in the posts (based on the tag cloud stats). While I don’t really write for other people much anymore, I sometimes wonder if other people notice the subtle incongruities that I present. It interests me, at least, to see how my focus shifts over time.
On the note of focus, let me delve into the next topic.
School teachers often told me to keep focussed. I would like to ask them: why?
Their lessons were not so much teaching me, as they were telling me that I needed to know a specific set of facts in order to achieve the maximum number of marks that would be an indication of my ‘intelligence’. When I focussed on their lessons, I missed the larger lessons. This year, above all else, has been an exploration of my ideas and my perception of the world - an examination of the real lessons that I’ve learnt, that are useful in a practical sense, and that do interest me.
Almost my entire school life was based on the assumption that intelligence is measured in terms of the number of facts one can recite, the ability for someone to check marks on a rubric. In Matric, I coded a project for Computer Studies. As part of the project’s rubric, we were allocated marks for using ‘insert’ statements. My project didn’t require insert statements - in fact, they didn’t make sense in the project. Nonetheless, I included one purely to get the 4 marks allocated for it - although it was entirely irrelevant to what I was trying to achieve. So too, once I began writing the documentation for the project, did I realise that most of what I was doing was reading the rubric, copying it into a word document and editing some words to make it relevant to my project. There was no thought put into it, there was no purpose. It was entirely designed to check boxes.
School taught me to abandon creativity, in favour of ‘focussing’ on things that have no bearing on my life right now. I was told not to draw on my exams, that I would have marks taken off and that that was bad. The drawings were comics, cartoons, ideas, quotes, fragments of inspiration. The exam was about factorising algebra. Since leaving school, the usefulness of the latter has been marginal (although I won’t dismiss it as being entirely useless - a basic understanding is valuable). Sadly, the former has been largely bred out of me: I hardly doodle any more, and my notebooks aren’t covered in miniaturised designs for solutions to problems I’ve faced in my own life.
Of course, I learnt some useful things in school. Yes, writing essays in English was valuable, as were graph-reading skills in Maths, or an understanding of South Africa’s history. However, by my 3rd-last year of school, I felt like I’d gained everything of significant value that I could. I felt like I was going through the syllabus with robotic repetition. Every time I engaged with vector diagrams, every time I was told to write an essay on ghosts in Afrikaans, every time I drew graphs of the population of lynx compared to hares; I was forced to dismiss originality and think in very specific terms.
I questioned myself for three years - “what’s the point? Why am I doing this? Where is the value?” I lived for the moments where I could spread my mind, rather than funnel it into yet another exercise on Bywoorde. My years became oriented not around the school terms, but around when I would travel to Johannesburg for the African Schools Debating Competition; when I would visit Dusseldorf for a Global Issues conference. The highlight of my years became the World Individual Debating and Public Speaking Championships, for many reasons, but largely because it was a place where I felt engaged - my mind was working on things that fascinate me. The highs of my experiences were counteracted by the drudgery of ‘regular’ school, of tests and assignments designed to standardise each student into a set of numbers that can be compared.
Education is changing. Particularly over the last few weeks, I’ve come to realise that the vague feeling I had while in school is absolutely justified: that the education system we’ve come to know, based on a pre-defined set of subjects (languages, sciences, maths, social sciences…), has passed its time. We require something new. We cannot simply check the same old boxes, because they are the boxes that define our current collective knowledge: the problems we’ve already dealt with, the solutions we’ve used in the past are what we teach.
In school, what I was learning was uninspiring. If there’s one thing that education absolutely should be, it’s inspiring.
What has been inspiring is the year 2010: my year of international exposure, travel and self-sufficiency. My life in the ‘real world’ - that strange concept that I’ve never really liked: particularly because I have, in the past, been told to ‘get real’ by my teachers and elders. I’m not really sure what that means, because the skills they tried to teach me shortly after saying that have made just about no difference in my interactions this year. I find it deeply ironic that I am told to ‘get real’ when I’m trying to be creative, only to be taught things less relevant to ‘real life’ than creative solutions.
The point, though, is that I’ve learnt more about the world - and certainly more about myself - in the last year than I did in a decade of schooling.
In a feat of fantastic irony, I started the year by managing to work at a school just after leaving one: I swapped being a student in Cape Town for being a student-teacher in Gaborone, Botswana. This isn’t to say that it was a bad thing: it was an interesting experience being on the ‘other side’, and further moulded my ideas about education, what it should be like - and what it shouldn’t.
One of the very relevant things I took away from MaP was the emphasis tertiary education. There was a significant amount of pressure on stellar university entrance at Maru-a-Pula: students were encouraged to go after the top institutions in the world - Oxbridge, Ivy League and other pinnacles of excellence. Failing that, a South African university was the next best - the University of Cape Town, Witwatersrand, KZN… all good choices, and generally perceived as being far better than the University of Botswana, which was the ultimate ‘last resort’ for many ambitious students.
The pressure was understandable (it does, after all, market itself as one of Africa’s top schools), but a difficult thing for me to come to grips with. Firstly, while I’d been accepted to UCT, I hadn’t actually been to university and had no degree. Secondly, my own school was one where university was taken for granted, but not really emphasised: there was an assumption that students would go to UCT or Stellenbosch, depending on your preference for English or Afrikaans. It wasn’t so much about entrance - that was usually assured - and more just a natural extension. The stereotypes of students going on to do a Business Science degree had grounding in reality. Those ‘exceptions’ were often based on a dedication to art (in which case Vega, a design and advertising school, became a popular option), or a focus on sports and less on academics (the result often being an application to Varsity College, perceived as tertiary institute for “jocks”). A snap survey done one of my classes in my last week of school indicated, out of a class of 26, fewer than 5 (if I remember correctly) were not going to UCT or Stellenbosch: one to Wits in Johannesburg, one on a religious journey with a Christian organisation… Overall, there wasn’t much variation.
One of the things that I did enjoy while at MaP, though, was that they appear better at promoting ‘true’ education (in my opinion) than my own school. I was told of a 16-year-old student who had applied to MIT and performed so well in the entrance exam, that they had been accepted - even without an internationally-recognised high school qualification. There were a few examples of students who were so empowered by their passions that they could go further.
As I wrote this over a number of days, and in a very incoherent and backwards way, I’ve had to splice each piece together. Because of that, you’ll sometimes see statements like the following one appear as a result.
I started writing about education on Sunday, mentioning my experience at school, followed by a brief introduction to what I’ve learnt this year.
Today, I will continue explaining my experiences this year - particularly my work on the World Cup, flirting with unemployment, and finally my current experience - volunteering in Brazil.
Following MaP, which was an interesting experience given the perspective shift, I geared towards the highlight of the year - the reason that I took the gap year in the first place: working on the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
While I could write pages and pages about it, I want to keep focussed in terms of what I learnt and the skills gained from it, which immediately brings one major issue to mind: ‘real-world’ experience. While I’d been told I’d been gaining ‘real-world’ experience in a number of other places up to the World Cup, it was clear to me that this was different. It was my first proper, contractual job, and I didn’t really know what to expect (even though I’d volunteered for the company during the Final Draw and WBM2 at the end of 2009).
It was a company committed to delivering a specific set of objectives, that had to be followed or the company had failed in its very raison d’être. Because of this fact, everything had a clear timeframe and deadline, something that for me had been nebulous at best in the past. My days of getting extensions for projects were over: if something wasn’t done in time, it would have meant that people couldn’t get access to the IBC, or that they didn’t come at all, or any other variation of major problems. I think that this has been one of the most challenging tests I’ve had to live up to: a true deadline, based on an important event of massive proportions, and not some construct of the imagination - a teacher saying on “Wednesday” because they feel like it.
During the World Cup period, I felt a number of reactions to my place within the company. At one end, I was a cog in a machine that let the World Cup run smoothly - along with thousands of other employees, volunteers and interns. This is something I don’t enjoy being: yet another replaceable, faceless, ‘employee-with-a-laptop-sending-emails’. I felt a sense of individual unimportance within the hierarchy of the company, that I wasn’t truly valued as a person. It was both humbling and frustrating, and I believe that it taught me to be happier with what I have, without assuming I will always be important, valuable, unique, or otherwise special.
At the same time, I was important, valuable, unique, and special. Within my department, I served a purpose and brought a different, local, perspective to discussions. I spent a lot of time talking to the head of my department, and I learned from her. Specific lessons are not so easy to pick out right now, but simply the process of being treated as an employee - but also as a person by my boss - has made me more mature, I believe. I see work in a more serious light than ‘something to earn some cash so I can go partying’. I see it as productive, and actually having the ability to impact upon other people. Of course, I see it this way when I believe that it is actually of value, but in the case of being a part of the hosting of a World Cup - I believe that is of tremendous value, particularly when hosted in my own country.
One of the biggest things I took away from my experience in the World Cup is a new perception on age, maturity, and capability. I was the youngest person in the company by a few years, including interns, and the youngest paid staff member by at least 5 or 6. I quickly decided to hide these factors, for fear they might interfere with the work I had to do: although ‘young’, I was managing four other employees - all older than me, one by more than 10 years - and I felt a need to create a reputation based on ability and not age. I presented myself in a way to take age out of the equation: before the World Cup, I was working at a school in Botswana. After it, I didn’t know what I’d be doing. No mentions of school; no mentions of university. I was just me, with an interest in a few things, and ready to get the job done.
As a result of my public persona during the World Cup, I’ve adopted a more ageless attitude - something that’s apparently made me seem mature for my age, and something that makes people think I’m older than I am. It intersects interestingly with the ‘standard’ form of education that we’re familiar with: people are put through school based on their age, and not other factors. We go from grade to grade because we will be a year older in the following year (assuming a pass, of course), not necessarily because we are prepared for that ‘level’ of content. We are continually separated by how old we are - sports teams, competitions (‘senior’ and ‘junior’ art competition categories, for example), and even socially - largely because we make friends from our age group in the other activities, but also because it’s just ‘normal’. It’s seen as unusual, or even weird, if you’re friends with someone a few years older or younger than you in school. Relationships get even more convoluted during the school years.
However, with a different perspective on age, one is able to have fulfilling conversations with others on equal terms - even if they’re a decade older than you. This is rare in school environments, and is (in my opinion) a result of the increasingly-unimportant age categorisation. Apologists might argue that it is the easiest way of classification: that age is the best - or at least, a ‘good enough’ - way to divide children when entering school, and it’s just easier to keep them like that until they finish. Frankly, it’s not enough to do something because it’s easy. Better solutions can be found - and should be searched for, on this and many other issues.
After the World Cup ended, I ‘experimented’ with unemployment. I met a number of people in the months after it ended, and I tested reactions by telling people I was ‘on holiday’, or that I was ‘between jobs’, or simply that I was ‘unemployed’. It was an interesting experience for me to do that, because I usually care about what others think of me. Passing myself off as an unemployed person who didn’t really know what to do with life, I discovered a bit more about what I actually did want to do, and I was provided suggestions and ideas with things to do, which was interesting and helpful in itself.
As I truly didn’t know what I was going to be doing, but hoped to be working for an NGO in Brazil, I procrastinated and half-applied for a number of positions, doing a little research into this or that organisation, but never really engaging. All the time, at the back of my mind, I was operating on the assumption that “Brazil would work out”. It took about 2 months before I finally received confirmation that I could volunteer in Rio de Janeiro. That process went from person to person, as I didn’t realise many of the people I was talking to have no part in recruiting volunteers.
Still, I discovered that my persistence with the organisation paid off. My short bit of writing yesterday - the response to a friend’s request for help on a debate about “attitude is more important than talent in terms of success” - is ingrained with my own experiences, particularly with applying for the volunteer position here. Even throughout ‘unemployment’, I still had hope for things to work out as planned. In fact, it almost crossed the boundaries into arrogance that it would certainly happen, as I neglected to make meaningful alternative arrangements.
What I learnt from this is that I can be very single-minded about what I want. Even though I might make ‘backup plans’, they’re not really more than ‘backup ideas’ that I can develop into a proper plan of action if things go wrong. Things like this aren’t taught in school, because everything’s already provided: “you need to hand in an essay on this date, there’s a test on that date, and you have to do this for homework”. Dedication to a single cause relies on it being a cause that you decide to pursue because you want to, not because you’re told to. Backup plans don’t exist in school, because there’s no ‘grey area’. There is only true or false, hand in this assignment or you get 0 for it.
I was lucky, in a sense. I gambled the rest of my year on a trip to Latin America, and it paid off: I’m here - Brilliant Brazil. Resplendent Rio. Languid Laranjeiras.
My experience in general terms in Brazil has been wonderful. I’ve felt right at home, with a minor issue in that I don’t understand what anyone says because I speak minimal Portuguese. I’ve already done a summary of my experiences in Brazil so far - it was the start of my NaNoWriMo effort.
Because of that, I want to focus on the discussions about education that I’ve heard and participated in.
It started with Jimmy, an American researcher, consultant, and innovator from MIT, who works with Peter Senge. It was a discussion that we had in Carioca da Gema that initiated a definitive change in thinking about education that I’ve experienced in the month I’ve been here so far.
His argument was that we should doubt what we know. The assumptions that we’ve adopted should be challenged, and we should try to understand why we think what we do. He further argued that the limitations we see for ourselves are a construct of our imaginations - and limits that society falsely places on us. In effect, he claimed that anything was possible, and that we should create new paradigms to work in, rather than stick with ‘traditional logic’.
While I agree with his first argument (in that it produces better, more rational ideas that would be better for us if put into practise), I disagreed with his second argument. I wasn’t convinced that a space shuttle could be designed by someone in their back yard with limited experience. His answer was to question whether I’ve tried and, for the sake of argument, I said that I had and it hadn’t worked. We agreed that for some people, it had been possible to ‘reach space’ - there have been recent cases of the iPhone sent up into the atmosphere, where it took a video clip. That, however, did not constitute a space shuttle in our standard understanding of it.
The question he kept asking me whenever I questioned his logic was “where did you learn that?” - and inevitably, the answer would run along the lines of “in school, from society, from my peers, from books written by people in society”. Sure, how else do you learn? The problem is that if everyone’s thinking the same way, then the ‘new’ ideas aren’t going to spread, because it’s not seen as ‘correct’, unless significant groups in society adopt the new way of thinking.
While I largely disagreed with Jimmy’s logic, I admit freely that the concept of freeing your mind and yourself from your inhibitions, your barriers, and your limitations is an enticing concept. I truly want to be able to think like Jimmy, but if I can’t logically justify why he is correct, I can’t adopt his position, because it would run counter to the very point of saying that we should question concepts until we’re personally satisfied with them, rather than being satisfied with society saying they’re fine.
Luis, a consultant-turned-strategist, told me to take Jimmy’s advice seriously, as he had been to a course run by Jimmy’s mentor, Peter Senge, and that it had revolutionised his world view. Sadly, at the time, I wasn’t able to establish what replaces our ‘broken’ education system, if the traditional methods have failed and we should do away with them.
Since then, I’ve thought a bit about it, and I’ve seen a paradigm-altering presentation made by Ken Robinson. I can’t recommend watching his speeches enough. He speaks of the challenge in facing 21st-century, information-age problems when equipped with 20th-century, industrialised education models. Simply put, there is undue emphasis placed on ‘hard skills’ - to be a ‘doctor’ (with a 6-year degree from medical school), or an engineer (with a 4-year degree from a university), or a lawyer (with a 3-year undergraduate degree and 3 years at Law School). The arts, and creative faculties, are under-emphasized. People are forced into a factory-like production line in school that produces standardised students, unable to think laterally - or indeed, much at all. The graduates from these programs; where children are told to sit down and concentrate, to focus on it ‘because it’s important’, and their own fascinations are dismissed as idle thoughts; are incapable of tapping their creative sides, or being much more than machines that serve a purpose in the cogs of the industrial corporate machine.
Having seen Ken Robinson’s 2006 and then 2010 speech at TED and the RSA, and looking at a few more people in similar fields, I noticed a trend in people who dismiss the current educational paradigm: They undermine the status quo, and often fairly convincingly prove its ineffectiveness and inappropriateness, but they don’t provide an alternative.
It’s all very well to tear down the current system, but clearly something needs to replace that. Nobody seems to be suggesting an alternative - a better system than the flawed model we currently use.
Last week I went to lunch with a number of people from the NGO. Amongst them were Luis and Florencia, a woman I hadn’t met before. She used to work for CDI, but now is a partner at a creative institute that wants to affect positive social change. Over lunch, we further discussed the problems in education, but also brought in a new dimension: expertise.
They discussed an idea at length: that people have traditionally, had deep ‘vertical’ knowledge. That is to say, that they know a significant amount about specific subjects; they are ‘experts’ at Computer Programming, or they are ‘experts’ at civil engineering, or management consultancy and so on. The positive side of this is that they can do a significant amount in their field. The problem with this is it gives no latitude: how do you solve problems outside of your field of expertise?
It rests with the adage of “if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. People with in-depth knowledge on single subjects find it very difficult to engage with the rest of the world. Specialists in mathematics cannot solve problems from an artistic point of view, the theory goes.
The discussion turned to the immediate alternative: being a generalist, a ‘jack of all trades’. The problems with this are apparent: society needs all types, and people who have no in-depth knowledge about subjects cannot help to advance society in each field that needs these experts. Someone with a lack of understanding about structural integrity can hardly be expected to build bridges.
The ‘better’ option, and the one that was recommended to me, was the ‘T-Shape’. Simply put, you have horizontal expertise - an understanding of a wide range of topics, like the flat top of the T (_). Attached to that, you specialise in things that fascinate and inspire you - you make your body of the T (|) in things that you are committed to. Furthermore, though, you plant multiple ‘stakes’. You include a mul-T* shape – a ‘TTTT’, if you will. You delve your stakes into everything that interests you, while keeping a broader understanding of the world around you.
* I’m thinking of using this name in developing this concept. While I’d rather you didn’t steal it, what do you think?
Fundamentally, you don’t allow yourself to ignore the rest of the world while you focus narrowly on your own: you explore everything on offer, but invest more time in where you can make the biggest difference.
Of course, the human lifespan, the time you have available to you, is the reason that you cannot delve too deeply into just one field if you plan to become knowledgeable about a variety of fields. It would take too long to be an ‘expert’ in five fields compared to having the same level of expertise in one. People spend their entire lives honing a single craft - it is unlikely that you can completely change your path in life and attain the same level of mastery - certainly this is true if you try to do so more than once or twice.
It was an interesting decision that furthered my fascination with the issue.
The next time I spoke about it in any level of depth was in a completely different circumstance (again).
I was on a boat, in the Rio de Janeiro bay, eating strawberries and drinking champagne for breakfast, instead of being at work. I went with my boss, the head of the department, and a fellow volunteer.
To continue from where I left off last time, I was talking about my experiences exploring Rio from the sea (having already walked through its streets, climbed its mountains, and flown over its suburbs and beaches).
On Wednesday, Luis invited us out to the bay on his boat. In under an hour, we’d gone from talking about ‘perhaps sometime going out because it might be nice to see a different side of the city’ to actively discussing who would bring what to the event - strawberries from E and F, and champagne from Luis.
We met after a slight complication at the Botafogo metro station (which, I’ve since learnt, has two ticket offices and at least 4 entrances, just to make it easy to meet people…) and walked over to the Clube, accidentally trying to gain access through the service entrance. We stood around on the pier for a while as the Clube’s employees rolled the boat into the water and piloted it to us.
After that, we were off. My choice of attire caused significant amusement (as I’d kept it hidden in my bag until we were out on the water), but there was nothing resembling derision - we all were there to have an enjoyable and relaxing morning.
Speeding past Urca, Luis gave us some history lessons about the area: the fact that Urca had been ‘filled in’ ocean, and the origin of the fort next to Pão de Açúcar that the Portuguese had built to defend Rio. He explained why it became such a wealthy and sought-after area, which has a lot to do with the lack of favelas in the region, as well as the protection offered by having only one entrance to the neighbourhood and a military installation situated inside. We passed a multitude of building styles, from Elizabethan architecture to smaller Iberian fishermen’s homes.
I hadn’t until then realised just how big the Rio bay is, but as we sped along in Luis’ nippy boat, I noticed that we were effectively in open ocean. The mouth to the bay entailed the fort we had just passed, and in the distance, a similar fort on the other side. In the centre of the bay is a rock that used to be armed with cannons, apparently - although it seems like that has long since been removed.
We sailed a semi-circle around Pão de Açúcar. As we hopped over the waves at the mouth of the bay, the boat slammed into the water after launching itself into the air for the briefest of moments. I tried to take photographs of the splendour around me, but was continually denied focussed shots because of the choppy motion. Entering the next smaller bay, though, the water became calmer again, and we weighed anchor for the first time.
We were situated close to the Praia Vermelha (‘red beach’) in Urca, which is adjacent to the start of the cable car system that takes visitors up the Sugarloaf. I discovered then that the mountains together are called the “Sugarloaf”, although each has discrete names (Morro da Urca and the actual ‘Pão de Açúcar’, if I understood correctly).
It was at about 10am; we were sitting in a still bay, near the Praia Vermelha, underneath the imposing figure of Pão de Açúcar, with a view of the statue of Christo Redente in the distance. We decided then to start our breakfast of strawberries and champagne.
If I was to simplify the entire experience into one word, it was defined well by my boss at that point: “Surreal”. “This whole trip is surreal - we should be at work, you should be asleep,” she said, pointing to me, “and we are supposed to be typing away on laptops inside air-conditioned offices, not sitting drinking champagne on a boat in the Rio bay.”
Surreal it certainly was. Still, reality has a habit of reminding us that we live in it, and as we chatted away and dipped our morangos in bubbly, we realised we should move on.
Luis presented us with a choice: visiting Copacobana and Ipanema from the sea-side, or visiting Niteroi, a city just across the bay from Rio. We chose to see Rio’s most famous beaches from a different angle, and so we weighed anchor and headed back onto the choppy waters of the entrance of the bay, and around the spit towards Copacobana.
We didn’t stay long, but a look at just how long the beach was, was an awesome experience in itself. While I’ve walked along parts of Copacobana, you truly don’t get a sense of just how magnificent the beach is, until you see it from a distance. You have to remove yourself from it to truly appreciate it - something I can now say from excellent experience.
Because we spent so little time in Copa, and didn’t go down to Ipanema at all, we had the chance to go to Niteroi as well. I’d never been to that side of the bay before, and I only know a tiny bit about it. Luis kindly explained some of the history as we entered their sheltered bay, as well as pointing out landmarks like the famous church on the hill, the museum of modern art (that looks like something out of Star Trek decided to settle down on the coast of Brazil), and the other fort.
We stopped again in the Niteroi bay, and ate the rest of the strawberries (and probably finished the champagne off, as well). The water was calm there, and by that time the sun had risen high above us. We lounged on the back of the boat, and talked a bit about our histories, our experiences (both in general, and with CDI), and our plans for the future. We heard about the Consultant who had advised governments to do one thing, only to be disillusioned when they turned around and did the opposite. We heard about the rebellious teen who forsook the Oxbridge education to follow a passion and just get away. We heard about plans to change the world, and cynicism at tried-and-failed methods of doing so. Above all, though, we heard that there needed to be more of one thing if the world would truly change - people working together in an intelligent way to affect positive, sustainable, and truly meaningful social change.
We spoke in the context of people trying to change the world for the better, and the theory that bubbled out had its roots in a typical ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis’ format, where ‘society’ was proposed to be full of these ‘standard’ people. People who had trained their whole lives for one purpose: doctors, lawyers, engineers, policemen, astronauts. The answers that children give when asked what they want to be when they’re older. The people that usually cannot look beyond the tools they’ve been trained to use to fix problems, which leads to more problems when they use the wrong tool - not intentionally, necessarily, but because they aren’t familiar enough with anything else to be able to use the right tool. These are the people who history forgets, because they do nothing out of the ordinary - they simply allow society to continue functioning as it always has, or change its course minutely at best.
The antitheses to these ‘standard’ characters are the rebels. Those who want to tear down society, the revolutionaries who want nothing less than societal upheaval, perhaps for it to be replaced by something more equitable or purely to eliminate the corruption found in the modern world. The problem, of course, is that they too will be forgotten by history, because in the vast, vast majority of cases, they simply can’t do that. Society isn’t accepting of people who tell them to completely change their entire lives, and so these people are rejected and forced to live on the sidelines. Their entire existence becomes a struggle, or they are forced to give up their ideals and reintegrate with what they loathe. They face many problems, including the fact that a rejection of ‘societal norms’ at an early stage - say, for instance, in the rejection of the necessity of formal schooling, or a university degree - results in a massive challenge in reintegrating later. In cases where people actually do want to become part of the mainstream, they’ve often been undermined by their own past actions to such an extent that they can’t - even if the desire is there.
Clearly, the mainstream represents the vast majority. The rebels represent a significant minority. The third group, the synthesisers, are often an even smaller group.
This is the group that our little boat party felt would truly change the world: those who recognise for fundamental change and a shift in ideals towards a more equitable future, but at the same time realise the folly in railing against a system wholeheartedly without providing alternatives. It is almost always those in this tiny group, those who step between rebellion and acceptance of the rules, who do the most important things in our society. The men and women we remember as being ‘great’ were exactly that because they didn’t conform to society’s expectations, but also didn’t abandon society entirely. Luis, for example, firmly believes that it is this group of people that will truly change the world.
This is where the educational aspects become so important: if you can influence the next generation in a positive way, you create more people capable of changing the world; fewer people who succumb to racist, sexist or intolerant beliefs; and a generation that can truly work greatness into the lives of all its members.
F and I were referred to as being in this group - the young people who will make a substantial difference - and while I think we aren’t arrogant enough to rant about that, I find it an honour, and a challenge, to be counted amongst them.
At around this point in time, Luis mentioned that he’d been to the University of Cape Town, and I asked if he knew my mother. When I told him her name, I thought he was having a heart attack. “Of course I know your mother! She’s famous in UCT for my generation; she was so active in student politics - the SRC president! She did so much… and that explains so much about you - with a mother like that, you’ll go very far.”
E jumped in to tell him not to say that, as it would “create unfair expectations on me”, to which Luis asked “why are expectations unfair?” E mentioned the burden and pressure that is associated to expectations (something I’d only ever heard from one person before, who also happened to be British and reminds me a lot of E), and Luis dismissed it by saying that “he can handle it”.
That I was sitting not a metre from them at the time made no difference, and while I felt mildly uncomfortable with the situation, a part of me was also fiercely proud of my mother having achieved such good things that she was well known - even on a boat in the Niteroi Bay, Brazil. In addition, I was glowing - partially from sunburn - but primarily from a sense of a challenge and faith in me. While psychologically speaking, there’s a lot to be said about compliments (and much of it less than complimentary itself), I found that the belief in my abilities, coupled with the challenge to see that put into action, to be a powerful incentive - and it was then that I resolved to work harder to identify where I can best explore ways to affect long-term good in our world.
The experience left me energised to get back to work (even though it seemed infinitely less interesting than taking a swim in those sparkling waters). With a twinge of sadness, but overpowered by eagerness, we weighed anchor again and set off on the return leg. Instead of directly going back to Urca, however, we first passed by the airport - build literally on a bit of coastline that just out into the bay, planes took off and landed at regular intervals - probably more than one every half-hour. It was a strange sight, for someone who is used to airports being situated out of the city centre, in flat regions with a lot of space - not literally *in* the city centre, surrounded on three sides by ocean.
We talked about a multitude of things other than what I’ve already mentioned - reasons for visiting or living in Brazil, politics in different parts of the world, stories that could (with a tweak) have featured on “Gap Yah”… We noted how much better team meetings would be if they all took place on a boat (champagne optional) - in fact, Luis recommended that researchers, thinkers and innovators should not work in an office, and should - at the very least - spend time thinking, reading and writing on the beaches, or at the top of a mountain, or in a forest. In his opinion - and I completely agree with him here - the office environment kills creativity, to the point that ‘creative types’ are stifled in such restrictive environments. I found the parallels to my own experiences in school to be understandable, given the similarity of the situations.
We turned back just before the Rio-Niteroi bridge, and re-entered the Botafogo/Urca bay. “The Christ”, as it is known, overlooked our safe return, and we hopped off the boat - some in a more dignified fashion than others - unharmed, and inspired. Thanking Luis profusely for his kindness in taking us out, and the world for her kindness in keeping the weather clear and beautiful, and each other for being such fascinating companions, we set out back to Laranjeiras, to the CDI headquarters.
In conclusion, I have just rediscovered a quote I’d pulled out from “On Writing” by Stephen King, when I read it in Botswana earlier this year. I felt it appropriate, but it seems so much more relevant now than ever before:
“At the time we’re stuck in it, like hostages locked in a Turkish bath, high school seems the most serious business in the world to just about all of us. It’s not until the second or third class reunion that we start realizing how absurd the whole thing was.”
It’s absolutely true. Your world view is seriously limited while you’re in school, or any closed environment, to the point where it is the most important thing possible. Frankly, I feel that it creates self-interested people with minimal compassion for others: if you are focussed wholly inwardly (even if the boundaries of such extend to your entire school), you forget that the ‘other’ is just as important, and has just as valuable things to offer (if not more).
In my opinion and experience, the best method of fighting mind-numbing experiences is through self-education. Find something that interests you, and pursue it. Don’t wait to be taught about something – ask. Travel a lot, it’s always an excellent investment and you return with a better understanding of yourself as well as another group of people. Experience breeds understanding, which breeds tolerance, which breeds co-operation - each a noble aim. Although it’s become a tired cliché to ‘broaden your horizons’, it’s still as important as ever.
I encourage you to look at your own education, where you’ve been limited by what you’ve been told is true. I encourage you to travel, and experience things through your own eyes – but try not to experience them through your own preconceived lenses. Take advice from people, but don’t take their word as truth or without question – think for yourself.
And please, leave me a comment, or some advice of your own. After all, who said you can’t inspire someone?