Practical Intelligence…

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011 | Life, Work

…in which I talk about my unique brand of genius.

I’ve never been book smart, as it were. It took me nearly 8 years to finish my undergraduate degree. After another 3 years, I still hadn’t finished my graduate degree, and it is now on permanent hiatus. I’ve also never really had an over-abundance of common sense. I do a lot of things without thinking first, and often come really close to breaking something or hurting someone in the processes. But one thing I do have, is a sort of “practical intelligence.”

Photography without a camera was another of my “outside the box” ideas.

Without patting myself on the back, I like to think that I am an adept jury-rigger. This knack stems from my ability to see additional uses and purposes for items. I can recognize the complex possibilities of common, mundane items. A commonly accepted example is the simple binder clip. The binder clip is a vastly useful item, extending well beyond it’s intended purpose. I’m not going to claim that I am more inventive with this one item than anyone else, but I do like to think that I’ve found uses for it that may not have been thought of previously. More to the point, it is the process by which the binder clip exceeds its original design that illustrates the inventiveness that I claim to have.

In my experience, what really allows for solid application of practical intelligence, is the ability to, in a way, “under think” a solution. Frequently, we find ourselves trying to solve a problem with the automatic assumption that the problem, and thus it’s solution, are far more complex than they really are. We live in a very complicated and technically advanced world, and from that, we assume that everything we deal with can only be mastered with the application of super-intelligence.

I came across a perfect example of this yesterday in my RSS reading. Apparently, some toothpaste company had a problem with empty tube boxes making it in to the shipping containers. The end receivers were getting upset that they were missing toothpaste for their store shelves. After months of R&D and millions of dollars, a complex scale system was designed that would sound an alarm when and if an empty box made it to the end of the production line, at which point, an employee would go and collect the box. Brilliant, yes? But maybe there was a simpler answer.

A few weeks after implementation, reports showed that there were no longer any empty boxes triggering the sensor. Concerned that the system was malfunctioning, the engineers went and checked the line to find that the employee responsible for responding to the alarm had set up an office fan to blow the empty boxes off of the conveyor belt before they made it to the sensor. His reasoning? The alarm was really loud and annoying.

I believe that I am of the mind that would have thought of the fan, or some other such simple solution to a complex problem. This isn’t really “out of the box” thinking, but rather, “real world” thinking. You have to look at the problem and break it down into more immediate, and digestible pieces. Now, even with my claim to this ability, I do fall victim to “over thinking” on more than just the minor occasion. I’ve found that frequently I have to slam head long into the more complex problem until near surrender before I can step back and see around the problem to the simple solution.

I found myself in a situation much like this, today. One of my other “first world skills” that I claim to have is an ability to decipher computer code. I’m not fluent in any one code, but given enough time with a finished code, I can figure out the majority of the syntax and manipulate the code to do what I need it to. It may not be the most elegant, or efficient method of coding, but I’ve been able to create or modify innumerable applications to my advantage in this manner.

My situation today was that I wanted to create a script that would allow me to remotely install and activate the PaperCut print management client on all of my Mac computers via Apple Remote Desktop (of course, I am writing out the problem in its entirety in case anyone is Googling for the solution). My first approach was to try and develop UNIX scripts that would remotely run all of the processes as if I was sitting at the remote station. This was a logical thought, but after trying to manipulate the scripts to “answer questions” and “click buttons,” I determined that this was not the appropriate route to my solution.

My second attempt was to rip apart the installer and figure out what it was doing. This involved my skills as indicated above, the ability to decipher code. I was quickly able to break down the steps of the installer, but some of the variables were throwing me for a loop (get it? that’s a coding joke). Eventually, I was fairly certain what each of the routines of the installer code were doing, but I wasn’t 100% convinced I could translate it into a UNIX script for ARD. I was making some headway when I hit that point. The point where I realize I’m over thinking the problem and that the solution is more obvious than I’m giving it credit for. I revisit the core code and realize that, after stripping away all of the subroutines, variables, user interactions, and loops, it’s only doing two things.

Rather than identifying how the installer is doing those two things, I decide all I need to do is determine how UNIX can do those same two things (I realize I’m speaking gibberish to most of my readers, right now, bear with me). So I scrap everything I’ve done and start a third time. After maybe five minutes of work, I manage to dig out the two actual processes and translate them to the new UNIX script and blast a computer with the script. One reboot later and it’s running PaperCut as if I had installed it all on site (if you need the simple solution to this, feel free to email me and I can provide you the UNIX commands and ARD actions).

What this is meant to illustrate is that we currently live in a society that is hell bent on over complicating our lives when really, the solution is to simplify. It can be a really hard mentality to change, but I’ve been doing my best to apply it to everything around me. We’ve been stripping back complexities here and there throughout our household and finding that we can be just as happy, and even maintain doing a lot of the same things with significantly less effort. Heck, with just the right planning and accommodation, we’re finding that we can do more with less effort.

I’m not saying I’m gifted with this function of practical intelligence. It’s not a super power or special skill, it’s more a matter of philosophy. Once you learn to stop over thinking and simply view the world for what it is, things can get a lot easier. I know I’m a lot less stressed for it.

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