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The Rice Farmer, the Wool-Gatherer, and the Goddamn Clock
Eye
hwrnmnbsol
On weekdays when I have my kids, my schedule is pretty fixed. I get up at 6AM and make breakfast. I wake the kids up at 6:30AM, hasty eating and preparing results, and everybody is transported to schools or bus stops by 7:15AM. Then I go to work.

This morning my alarm went off and I blearily staggered into the kitchen. As I fried bacon, my sleepy mind wandered all over the place. This is what I thought this morning.


My mind's been on my son and his schoolwork lately. He's a smart kid who is struggling in school. E got into probably the most challenging high school in the Houston area, and the volume of work they require is daunting. On top of that, E struggles with responsibility and maturity, and he is not doing a good job of staying on top of the workload. His grades are poor and I'm worried.

Last night, however, Eric did pretty good work. He had been given an assignment to do a WANTED poster for a disease, and the rubric required a lot of information to go on it. Eric normally does as little work as he thinks he can do on an assignment, but on this one he pulled out the stops without being nagged. He aged his poster by brushing it with olive oil and baking it briefly. He found some nice electron microscope shots of his bacteria and arranged them well. He used a bunch of sources and documented them. All in all, the result was pretty good, and hopefully it will net him a good grade. He was up until well after midnight, but I believe the effort will have been worthwhile, and I told him I was proud of him.

I got to thinking about something I had heard on NPR a while back. An essay was talking about why it is that students of Asian extraction are better at schoolwork, on average, than your typical student of European lineage. The theory espoused went like this:

In eastern Asia in general and China in particular, old-school culture was based on a rice farmer economy. In many areas, everybody farmed, and their crop was rice. Families usually lived on small plots that had been held by their clan for many generations. Traditional rice farming is apparently a matter of routine; you do the same things every year, and within reasonable error bars, you know what you can expect your crop to yield for your effort. Furthermore, if you graph the yield of your crop against the amount of effort you put into your farming, the results are fairly linear. This means that if you work ten hours a day on your plot, and your neighbor on an identical plot works for fifteen hours a day, your neighbor can expect to get half again as much rice come harvest time.

In families that come from this Chinese rice farming tradition, therefore, there is a strong, ingrained corelation between the amount of work you do and the amount of reward you receive. This means that these families understand better than other families that if you want to do well, you have to work hard. It's not necessary to be a genius, or to think new thoughts, or do your work differently from the way other people do it. What's important in rice farming is to work hard, and stick to it, because it's reasonably certain that the harder you work, the better your reward will be.

This isn't true for everything that people do. In my engineering field, there are good engineers and less good engineers. The good engineers think differently from the less good engineers, and the products of their thinking yield better designs. The less good engineers may work harder, but there's no substitute for inspired design brainpower, and even a lazy engineer can deliver fantastic work if they're really good at what they do. So, being a rice farmer is not a predictor for general success.

But, as it happens, being a rice farmer is very good for succeeding at school, or at least for public schooling in America. I think it's fair to say, without attaching any judgment, that the majority of schoolwork tasks do not require a lot of inspired thinking. This is true even in my son's school, which is full of great teachers who challenge their students. Some assignments require thinking outside the box, but an awful lot of learning still requires rote performance. This is a situation where rice farmers thrive. Working hard is a good thing in school. A lot of credit gets handed out for completing an assignment; a lot more gets handed out if it is obvious that a lot of effort has gone into what you have done.

I went to a parent conference last semester to discuss my son's grades. My son's geometry teacher showed me an assignment my son had turned in, and then he showed me the same assignment performed by a star pupil. My son had scrawled his answers quickly and densely on the page. The other student had graphed the problem neatly on graph paper, had written out the minutiae of the processes by which he reached his answer, and had even used different colors of ink to label angles versus line segments. The answers on the assignments were the same, but my son got a C and the other kid got an A. I don't consider this unjust; geometry in particular is a discipline where method is more important than result, and setting the bar high early for demonstrating good method is something I want to see rewarded in a high school level mathematics class. This is a situation where being like a rice farmer is a winning strategy. Work harder than the other guy, get a better result than the other guy.

My son isn't the product of a rice farming family. He's the product of a melange of Northern Europeans, all of which emigrated/were evicted from their homelands to seek a new life in America. This required changes in careers from generation to generation, and sometimes multiple changes within a single generation. For wandering peoples, there are no certainties. There are no guarantees that your hard work will be rewarded. When a rice farmer is presented with a pile of work to do, their natural response is to buckle down and do the work. Some of my people do that too, especially the farmer types. But many of my people, when presented with a pile of work to do, say to themselves: there has to be a better way to do this.

This is why it's not all good to be a rice farmer. Sometimes you want to be a wool-gatherer. But wool-gatherers wouldn't do well in the rice paddy. If a wool-gatherer had to plant a bunch of rice, he might stop to think about whether there's a better or faster or cheaper way to do the planting. The rice farmer would consider this to be a big waste of time and energy. They would say: dude, we've been planting rice for five thousand years. We kind of know how it's done already. Rest assured that any brilliant, outside-the-box thinking has already been done for you. By sitting and thinking, you're burning valuable hours that could instead be spent working and reaping the reward of an increased harvest. You are therefore lazy and you dishonor your ancestors.

Ah, but wool-gatherers do comparatively well in other situations. In industrial America, you really want to be a wool-gatherer, because that's where all the rewards are. If you're making cars, it's cool to be a rice farmer, because there's a lot of work that needs doing. But if there's a process that puts doors on cars, it's good to have a wool-gatherer around. A wool gatherer might be doing their rice farmer work, and suddenly it might occur to them that with only a few minor changes they can attach the door with three bolts instead of four, and this would save both time and labor, and that would be good for everybody. But it's especially good for the wool gatherer, who will be rewarded for innovating and saving the company millions. Here the best strategy is not to buckle down and work as hard as possible. Here, doing things other than working hard is not necessarily time wasted and effort lost.

Really, in this world, we want to be both rice farmers and wool gatherers. We want to have the ability to bear down, work hard and get the job done, because that's still a good thing in virtually every facet of life, and you'll be rewarded for that. But you also want to not be so rigidly regimented in your life that you cannot spare a few cycles being mindful about what you're doing, and looking for opportunities to be inspired and other-than-the-norm. Much of that effort won't reap any actual benefits, but when it pays off, it can pay off big.

So I was thinking about this, staring at the food I was making, when I happened to glance up at the clock on the oven. It said 5:30. I frowned. I went back to the bedroom. That clock said 6:30AM. I must have done what I seem to do way too often: bungled the clock's settings when I was setting the alarm the night before. I had woken up an hour early to make breakfast.

A generous load of irony settled uncomfortably about my shoulders as I put the basically-completed breakfast in the fridge. Here I had been thinking about the comparative advantages of being both diligent and mindful, all while failing to take notice of what was going on around me. The chief lesson here, of course, is that all the good lessons are never actually learned. They are continually re-experienced and reinforced, because our minds and lives are never finished products.

I crept back into bed but had trouble getting back to sleep. There ought to be a way, I was thinking, to make sure my fingers don't actually push the wrong button on the clock to screw it up. Some kind of a lock on the clock set button, maybe, or have it buzz at you when you change the time...

I dropped off in the middle of my wool-gathering.



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