I had breakfast earlier this week with Bug Labs CEO Peter Semmelhack, a friend who is passionate about empowering others to invent. He explained that his recent European travels underscored how apprenticeships remain a bigger part of life there versus the U.S. More important, that contrast highlighted how apprenticeships are gradually declining everywhere. While this trend is not a sudden crisis, it creates a long-term tragedy.
Why? The decline of apprenticeships signals the erosion of an important form of knowledge transfer â€“ both technical and cultural. It also signals a loss of grassroots enablement and inventiveness. That fuels an imbalance of power, favoring mass manufacturers versus the people. Instead of a society of enterprising individuals that invents solutions to their own problems, this power imbalance fosters an ignorance of the tools we have to innovate. The result is a mindset that knows only how to purchase prefabricated solutions off the shelf, such as from Ikea. If there is no off-the-shelf solution, we’re more likely to accept it and move on. It’s a more passive, complacent and frustrating way of life.
This conversation with Peter reminded me of a recent video interview I did with Garrett Brown, inventor of the Steadicam. He suggested that invention should be part of every job description. So I asked Garrett how we might make inventiveness ubiquitous. He replied (transcription):
â€œI believe that, I really do. We teach kids to do all sorts of things, but we don’t teach them to think about things in the inventive way â€” and why don’t we? It’s something you should be alert for from earliest childhood. You should be conscious that when you do devise something, when you fill a gap, you have invented. I’d love to see kids thinking in that way, and growing up to be adults that think in that wayâ€¦ that solve their own problems, and acquire stuff for themselves that they want, whether or not it can be bought off the shelf. The process of doing it is absurdly easyâ€¦ it’s ridiculously easy to get a machine shop to build you a gizmo. You sketch it, they’ll help you make it, you try it, and if it doesn’t work, you make another. You can’t imagine how much fun that is.â€
I asked Garrett what role the inventor psyche must play in getting us out of our world’s mess. He said:
â€œWe need to be innovating more than ever. We’ve innovated hugely in our history. We need to invent our way out of this, because we’ve made a mess of the world. We’ve jeopardized many of the world’s creatures. We need to invent the green way to live on this planet, the sustainable way. For us to carry our nearly eight billion souls along, we need to invent, devise and have the will to follow through on the rather not impossible task of giving people enough food, water and shelter to live a decent life and remain productive themselves.â€
As a dad of a two toddlers in an imperfect world, it’s becoming incredibly apparent that inventiveness must be nurtured as a core value throughout their upbringing. Traditional apprenticeships may not be part of it, but other forms of disciplined, committed mentorships must.
(Photo: Okinawa Soba)