Learn, Pause, Create

The year 2020 has been a crazy year. The Covid-19 virus which began in China has caused panic and disruption to learning and business activities. At the epicentre of the outbreak in China, entire cities and provinces had to be sealed off. Schools were closed and some remained closed at the time of this article in some cities and countries. With factories closed, global supplies were affected as China is the factory of the world. Many finished goods and raw parts come from China. With China not producing or shipping out, activities elsewhere in the world has to slow down. Travel dropped dramatically. Hotels are mostly empty. Malls and shops in badly affected places are quiet.

It is like the world has hit the PAUSE button.

It is not the first time the world had to pause. It is not the first time people had to pause. If you are quarantined or infected, you have to be isolated, away from work or school or whatever you are doing.

In 1665, there was an outbreak of the bubonic plague (Great Plague of London) in England. It was the last of the many great plagues that hit England since the 14th century. Cambridge University was closed. Issac Newton was forced to return home to Woolsthorpe Manor. You know the famous Apple story. While sitting in his garden one day, he saw an apple fall from a tree. He pondered. Why did the apple fall down? Why not sideways? Why not upwards? Why does it seem to fall towards the centre. Matter must attract matter. If the earth attracts the apple towards its centre, then the apple must also attract the earth but in a much smaller way because its mass is very small. The apple started with zero velocity. Then it accelerated towards the earth, A force must be exerting on it. Let’s call this force Gravity. Objects in space also attract each other with a force that affects velocity such that it creates an orbit.

Newton was forced to pause from his work at the university. He had spent time learning and teaching. With nothing to do at home, he had the time to think and explore. From the thought on how the apple fell, he worked on all the relevant physics and created the famous Newton laws and established the law on gravitational force. His findings were so fundamental that they form the basis for a large part of Physics and were the absolute truth about the universe until Einstein came up with an alternative model to explain behaviours that were not explainable with Newton’s findings.

Next we come to Albert Einstein. He is an interesting guy. He did not like to speak when he was young. He is supposed to have spoken only around 4-5 years old, prompting a diagnosis that he was developmentally slow or ‘stupid’ (to be blunt). He did not have great success in his early years. He was quite a rebel in school. He did not make it to the prestigious Zurich Polytechnic School on his first try because he did badly in some subjects (although he was great in the Physics and Maths papers.

“Logic will get your from A to B. Imagination takes you everywhere.” Albert Einstein. Copyright 360 Education Pte Ltd

After university, he could not get a job as teaching assistant despite many tries. He ended up as a clerk in the Swiss Patent office. Boring job processing other people’s patent applications.

It was at this mundane job that he had the time to think about the universe. He added the space and time dimensions to the understanding of gravity from Newton – objects’ gravity wraps spacetime, causing objects’ paths to curve in the presence of gravity. Who would believe a young ‘crazy’ so-called scientist working in a patent office against the great Issac Newton? It took a solar eclipse in 1919 for astronomers to observe clearly the lights from a faraway cluster of stars. Einstein’s mathematics correctly predicted the path of the light as they bent through the sun’s gravitational field but not Newton’s. You can read more about this Einstein-Newton challenge here. From then on, Einstein became an instant celebrity. His works are astonishing as he only owned the most basic telescope. Everything was worked out in his mind with great imagination. His works start with imagining a hypothetical situation that cannot be physically recreated (because of then limitations in equipment and understanding of the world) and he worked out the mathematical solutions to account for these.

Another case, this time a young man, Jacob Barnett. At age of 2, he was diagnosed with severe autism, Asperger Syndrome. His parents were told that he would probably never read or even tie his own shoelaces. He was sent to special needs school and the educators would try to get him to do things he ought to know how to do. He showed no interest. His mother took him out and home-schooled him, giving things he liked to do. He was fascinated with light, shapes and things in nature. He was so fascinated with thinking about the phenomenal of what he saw that he was not interested to talk. Amazingly when he started to speak at age three, he spoke in four languages. He could talk about astrophysics at three years old despite no one teaching him.

Here’s a TEDtalk by Jacob when he was still a teenager (today he is only 22 years old). If you have no time to watch through the 16-min video, the summary of what he said is to Pause (stop learning), Think (including forgetting about established rules) and Create. He also covered what I just wrote about Newton and Einstein.

Of course, we must learn, as Jacob himself did. He enrolled into Princeton at age 10 and at age 15 in the prestigious Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. He basically asked that we should pause to reflect and challenge what is known to create new solutions.

That reminds me of this Singapore Primary 1 student’s answers which created a stir on the Internet recently.

I think the 6-year old girl’s answers are interesting. They are not wrong. The teacher’s answers are correct too. It depends on what perspectives we have and how we interpret the question. The question is ambiguous because it is subjected to different interpretations. It would have been great for the teacher to say “See Me” and then check with the student what she was thinking of and given her correct if she could explain her answers.

If we are to be an innovative society and economy, we need to pause, reflect on established truths and models and see if we can create new solutions.

And if you think the examples are all about brilliant astrophysicists, there are examples in other disciplines too. Take art. Pablo Picasso said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

Raphael is a great master artist in the same era as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Picasso first learnt art from a young age (his father was an art professor). He would have to learn the styles of famous old artists. He then innovated art by studying the African style and invented cubism. He later co-founded the collage method.

Vincent van Gogh started his art career miserably. No one wanted his paintings. He was drawing like everyone else. He got his brother to fund an art exhibition and they sold nothing. His brother told him that his paintings were too dark. No one would want these. Van Gogh listened and enrolled himself into a art university. With his bad temper, he quarreled with many including his lecturers. They failed him and asked him to repeat his course. But in that pause from trying to sell his art, he invented a whole new style with what he learnt in art school. He quit school, changed to bright colours and expressive strokes. He paused, reflected, and created.

So did Swiss-German artist Paul Klee who had no breakthrough in his art for some 10 years until he went on a trip to Tunisa in North Africa and came back inspired with a whole new art style based on shapes and colours.

Student volunteers creating a modern van Gogh’s Starry Night in 5 minutes – copyright 360 Education Pte Ltd

Lastly, I share my own story about PAUSING, THINKING and CREATING.

In June 1999, I was down with Chickenpox. I was given two weeks of medical leave. Just a month before that, I had attended a work-related course where we were challenged to look at our business models and see how we can create extraordinary value by doing something different or capturing new technologies.

With two weeks of leave away from a busy work schedule, I had the time to pause and think. I reflected on the message from the course that I had attended. The Internet scene was starting to become hot in Singapore. In the USA, there were already earlier dotcom successes, with startups using the Internet to break the established rules of business through new models. I was trained in Computer Science. I had ended up in the education field by accident. I decided it was time to get into e-Learning. With business ideas made on the back of envelops and scrap papers, I pitched to friends (who were not afraid of Chickenpox) for investment. I eventually started ASKnLearn (today renamed as WizLearn) in Jan 2000 and we evolved it into a popular e-Learning platform for the schools (I sold and left the business in 2009).

Today, many people are quarantined or in isolation. The world is in a PAUSE mode. Isaac Newton had to pause due to the plague. Einstein had to pause because he was not accepted to teach at the universities. Jacob Barnett had to pause because he was taken off special education school as he was not learning. Picasso, van Gogh and other great artists had their pause moments too before re-emerging with something special.

PAUSE we must, sometimes. In pausing, we can continue to think and create. I am not saying we should not learn. We learn all the time. Having the fundamentals are important. How we absorb and apply what we learn and then create new value is even more important.

Have a good PAUSE, once in a while.

Written by Yee Jenn Jong. The views expressed here are his personal opinions.