Recently, I witnessed something that intrigued me but gave it little thought at the time. During some online webinar training with a few colleagues, I became aware of the different ways people learn and troubleshoot problems. After listening to Seth Godin’s “Leap First” audiobook, I was able to put this observation into more concrete definition: the difference between “chemistry set” and “radio kit” learning.

Like many web developers and programmers, I have always been of the “chemistry set” mind, despite never been allowed to have one as a child. This type of learning involves trying different things, and if one doesn’t yield the correct results, trying another one – or more. Things might blow up, but through trial and error you learn what does what, and eventually you not only learn what you were trying to accomplish, but also what led you to the wrong results.

The other type of learning is called the radio kit method. This is the method that was taught during industrialization, and is starting to show its face again. In this method, there is only one right answer. There is only one way to get the radio kit to function correctly. Experimenting is frowned upon, as you might blow a capacitor. This type of learning paralyzes creativity and awards only the correct answer, giving step-by-step instructions on how to receive the desired result. More recently this is evident in LEGO sets, where detailed instructions on how to build the pictured vehicle or space ship on the box are given in exact detail. I have watched kids build the purchased model, then be completely lost at what to do next – except buy a bigger kit that will take longer.

When a colleague was paralyzed by not wanting to “do something wrong” during the webinar I was truly taken aback.  The majority of the skills I have gathered over the years have been achieved through trial and error, learning as I went along about what worked and what did not. I couldn’t imagine starting something new without the freedom to explore. Seth Godin took this one step further, extrapolating this observation to schools and colleges, who are intent on teaching “by the book.”  Learn a trade, step-by-step, get the expected results. Produce.

But sometimes even going step-by-step doesn’t give the expected results. I can tell you the proper way to cook an omelette, but 7 times out of 10 I can’t make it as perfect as the recipe and the steps tell me to. There are may different variables. And what happens when things don’t go as planned even if following the steps? Frustration. Anger. Resentment. Giving up.

Once you recognize radio-kit methodologies, you will see it everywhere. Parents are told exactly what to do at various stages of their child’s life. Kids are told exactly what to do in order to advance rank in Scouts. To sell the most cookies, here is a checklist. Want a beautiful yard? Spread this seed in the Spring, this fertilizer in the Summer, and then winterize with this chemical in the Fall. step – by – step – by step.

But the world doesn’t tend to reward those who stick to the directions. Everywhere you look you see not only vast fortunes, but fantastic new discoveries by those who didn’t stick to the instructions.  We celebrate creativity in public but shun it in private, drugging kids who show ambition and creativity so they can sit quietly – and simply follow directions. The biggest chemistry set ever invented, the Internet, is now at our disposal.

So why are we still building radio kits?

Experiment a little.

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