I looked around the room.
Nearly every head was nodding in agreement.
The audience was a meeting of the Council of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering to whom I was delivering a presentation entitled “South Africa – Engineering to Thrive”.
Most of the audience were male engineers in their fifties and sixties, pivotal thinkers in the practice of Civil Engineering in South Africa.
I had just made the statement that “I was an engineer by the age I was five”.
They were nodding in agreement.
That moment took my understanding of the impact of early childhood knowledge and experience to a new and deeper level.
I had been exploring that topic for over a decade, starting in the context of my own behaviours but increasingly investigating and observing the impact of the phenomenon of early childhood experience in much more diverse fields.
A human being is largely formed in terms of how they interact with other human beings, their economic ability or lack of ability, their toxic private and not so private behaviours, their innate career preferences, their sexual preferences, etc, etc, etc by the time they are approximately six years old, seven years from conception.
In fact, many of these factors are largely shaped even earlier than this.
In the presentation referred to above I had presented the figure below which graphs relative adaptability and wisdom against age:
Relative adaptability is the capacity of the human brain to accommodate, interpret, accept and adapt to change.
In this regard the human brain is not unlike a computer.
When the computer leaves the production line it can be loaded with any software and data that the user requires.
Once it has been loaded with a particular operating system (e.g. Windows XP for the computer or English for the human being), the scope for how the computer can be applied is being shaped and formed.
As the computer is brought into service and other software and data is loaded the capacity of the registry (memory) to take on new information is being progressively utilized such that in relative terms new information is a much smaller percentage of the total software and data already installed.
With computers the time comes when the processor, hard drive and other hardware are overloaded with unstructured information and the machine slows down. It can be argued that this happens for some and possibly most human beings as they approach old age.
Throughout all of this the software and information loaded in the early days of the usage of the computer play a dominant role, filtering what follows. A computer loaded with Linux will behave totally differently to one loaded with Windows and in either case it is a massive time consuming hassle to reformat the hard drive and load different software.
For human beings the option to reprogram at mid-life crisis stage is not available.
The counterpoint to increased information load and reduced adaptability is “wisdom”.
Wisdom is the composite and compound consequence of all the knowledge and experience gained to a point.
Some human beings develop highly advanced techniques of interpreting and learning from their many years of stored information, knowledge and experience, others do not and proceed to live year after wearisome year repeating the same patterns and failed experiments and failing to learn from them.
What distinguishes the two extremes of human experience?
Increasingly I have come to understand this distinction to result more from early childhood knowledge and experience than from genetics.
In many cases the impact of early childhood experiences relates to momentary events more than from enduring repeated events.
We live by making decisions, those decisions made in early childhood frequently shape our lives.
In the context of my becoming addicted to solving problems and designing and making things I can clearly identify three cameo events that shaped my decision to become an engineer and a few more that shaped my career to date. These are helping my father to build a wendy house for my sisters, I can smell and hear the lumber yard where we went to buy the material, helping him to build a little reinforced concrete arch bridge over a gutter so I could ride my bicycle over it and an accident in which a pole fell on my head and gave me an abhorrence of failure and a preoccupation with creating successful outcomes. This last incident also resulted in some very toxic psychology that I have battled to overcome for years.
With a bit of probing it is probable that you too have comparable memories that have helped shaped your career.
Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman in their book “First, break all the rules – what the World’s Greatest Managers do Differently” describe in some detail the neurological mechanisms that result in the behavioural patterns alluded to above and make the assertion that “A person’s mental filter is as enduring and unique as her fingerprint.” They place particular emphasis on the first three years of life.
As one considers the implications of the statements that have been made so far in this article it may become apparent to you that this early childhood conditioning has huge ramifications.
In particular, it becomes apparent that formal schooling is NOT at the heart of wealth creation, the informal knowledge and experience taken on in the first seven years from conception has the greatest impact and most of this experience is gained either at home with child minders or in créches and pre-school. The first few years at primary and pre-primary school are fairly important.
This conclusion has a huge impact on affirmative action, actions to redress the social imbalance of wealth, etc.
If a child does not have a solid grounding in a primary commercial language as a precision instrument for communication and analytical and logical endeavour by the age of six it is probable that they will always struggle to understand, to learn, to apply and to become principal thought leaders in any endeavour.
If they have not learned diligence and time keeping through observing their parents in this regard it is probable that they will always at best struggle and at worst fall into slothfulness and subsistence.
The more I continue down the journey of observing life the more I wonder at how we can expect people to prosper and succeed without giving them the fundamental building blocks.
The reality is that the people who have designed our education systems and who manage them have for the most part been grounded in households where learning was available. The result is that our educational programs fail to provide grounding in the critical areas of knowledge and experience that those of us who have grown up in reasonably privileged surroundings take for granted. The class-divide remains sharp and hard to bridge.
If we are to create enduring wealth for the majority of South Africans we need to learn what it is that those who know how to create wealth know and particularly what they learned in early life and we need to teach these skills to those in formal schooling AND to adults in the workplace.
In order to do this we need to understand what these items are.
In order to understand this we need to understand where the knowledge and experience is acquired.
The following is a rough cut analysis of when the knowledge that leads to wealth creation is gained:
Includes crèche, pre-primary, grandparents, etc.
What is learned at mothers knee, child minders knee, etc.
Momentary exposure to parents work environment.
All manner of habits, patterns, etc across the entire diversity of being a human being.
People who grow up in technologically and economically advanced households and residential areas gain experience and knowledge that is not available to those raised in impoverished settings.
The probability of the person raised in the advanced household becoming wealthy, simply because they learned how to become wealthy from the very beginning is substantial and the probability of the person who did not have this experience becoming sustainably wealthy as a consequence of their own endeavours is scant.
This is not referring to wealth that is dished out or redistributed on the basis of untested racially determined recipes as part of uncontrolled social experiments which will eventually destroy wealth, not only for the pseudo wealthy but more seriously, for the poorest of the poor.
The rating of tertiary education may seem low, however, I suggest for your consideration that success at University is the culmination of the previous points AND that University education does not necessarily produce wealth to the same extent that appropriate behaviours, disciplines, knowledge and experience gained throughout life and, where relevant, including University, produces wealth.
This is the holistic integration and synthesis of all the knowledge and experience gained in earlier years.
As I look back on my life there is no question that I have opportunities ahead of me at the age of 56 that were not available to me at the age of 20.
I like to believe that I have learned from my mistakes, that I have internalized, integrated and am able to apply these learnings in order to do things that I could not have done thirty years ago or which, had I done them, I would have done more clumsily and less effectively.
Many of these things are intangible and difficult to define but they can be summed up by the following time line that was presented at the meeting on 15 April 2008 with which I opened this article.
An engineer is shaped in the first five years of their life, developed in the next fifteen, moulded and matured in the twenty years that follow such that by the age of forty and possibly even fifty or sixty they are able to lead huge and complex projects successfully where success includes the social and political consequences of such projects and not only the mechanical technicalities.
Based on this time line I suggested that it would take South Africa sixty years at least to achieve the racial demographics that are being demanded “NOW”.
If one understands the full impact of early childhood experience it will become apparent that it could take several generations, considerably longer than sixty years, to achieve racial parity if this is achieved at all, it presupposes that the huge racial imbalance with regard to early childhood experiences is address in a meaningful way as a matter of priority.
At this stage I see no evidence that this is recognized as a relevant topic let alone that it is regarded as a national priority.
This represents a huge threat to the future prosperity of our rainbow nation.
In most areas of advanced technical endeavour in South Africa companies are having problems satisfying racial quotas. I have recently worked with one which is manifestly white and which is struggling to find suitable affirmative candidates let alone integrate them into the forefront of the business. Those candidates that exist are being supported behind the scenes and are almost without exception tokens who are tolerated in order to attempt to meet racial quotas. The nature of the work is abstract, complex, requires effective communication, time management, problem solving, initiative, etc and the work is priced in Rands per hour for which someone must sign a timesheet and someone else must sign a cheque.
The commercial nature of this particular enterprise is such that the cheques do not get signed so someone else must do the work and the affirmative candidate is carried as an overhead. Frequently oblivious to the fact that just by showing up for work they are destroying value and NOT creating it.
My assessment of this particular situation and a significant number of other similar situations that I have encountered is that the candidates lack fundamental knowledge and experience necessary to do the job and without that knowledge and experience they will never succeed. Yet they do not even realize that they are not succeeding because they lack the frame of reference to evaluate their success.
I have deliberately left the details of the case vague because you almost certainly can report a situation like this in your own domain of experience.
The tragedy is that we are talking about activities that are vital in creating the technology context that is essential for a prosperous South Africa.
Bottom line is that the racial quotas are NOT working and this company is heading for some extremely unpleasant racially based confrontations relating to perceived non-performance.
An almost inevitable consequence of such a confrontation will be that already stressed white males will become further stressed, disciplinary action or dismissal may eventually result and whatever the outcome, more white males will become disillusioned, demotivated and look for ways to leave the country. Given that these people also happen to provide inputs into the economy that gear wealth creation, every one that is demotivated, let alone every one that leaves will shed geared poverty impacts into the economy in subtle ways that most will not recognize until it is too late.
Where do we go then?
A critical question!
On the answer to this question applied at a national level may turn the long term viability of the South African economy as a powerhouse of growth and wealth creation or another failed African economy following in the footsteps of our northern neighbor.
We need to be sober.
We need to recognize that there are critical areas where proven ability is more important than politics.
The gearing on lost technical capability is huge whether in information technology, engineering, law, accounting, medicine …
As a nation our government must decide whether it wants short term wealth stripping and redistribution or long term wealth creation through the effective upliftment of all our people.
That upliftment must of necessity flow from rapid measures to enhance early childhood experience AND to provide the learnings that are missing to adults and teenagers who have missed out on those experiences for whatever reason.
What should we teach them?
A good question
A challenging question
Broadly we need to launch an initiative to analyze the critical knowledge and experience that empowers human beings to create wealth and then we need to create learning experiences for adults, teenagers and children that will plug these gaps.
As a basis of discussion I think the broad subject areas that need to be addressed are as follows:
1. Language as a precision instrument, semantics, reasoning, logic – 40%
I continue to see that most high value occupations require a precise understanding of language, preferably English but if not English then certainly some other mainstream technically rich language. For the purposes of this article we are talking about either English or Afrikaans or a European language like German, etc. I will settle for English in the interests of brevity.
Precision use of language is a major deficit in our society at large, not just for those of colour, the use of language as a blunt club instead of a scalpel is widespread.
Without precise use of language it is impossible to be precise in the specification of systems, structures, solutions of all sorts. Many disciplines such as medicine turn on a few words precisely applied to arrive at diagnoses that summarize huge bodies of knowledge and experience.
Without precise use of language virtually all other human endeavours are compromised.
2. Management of time, money, people, giving direction, taking direction, punctuality, getting things done, planning, etc – 17%
A lack of understanding of these elements effectively denies a human being the possibility of participating in wealth.
An individual can receive huge endowments in the name of restitution but they will dissipate them and not employ them gainfully or sustainably in the absence of critical knowledge and experience in this area.
3. Relationships, human interaction, courtesy, enrolling conversations, making friends, diplomacy, etc – 13%
The echelons of society where substantial wealth exists and is created operate to high standards of protocol, courtesy, etc. People who think that losing their temper and performing badly are acceptable do not understand the damage they do. The conduct of certain high profile junior political figures characterizes this specific factor.
4. Legal – law, right and wrong, responsibility, accountability – 11%
A child raised within hearing of chants of “kill the farmer (boer)” will think little or nothing of doing just that in later life and the person who chanted the war cry is every bit as much a murderer as the person who pulled the trigger.
5. Technology – things, how things work, numeracy, making things, fixing things, maintaining things – engineering in its widest sense – 9%
Roads without potholes, roads resurfaced regularly, storm water drains that work, etc. A person who was raised in poverty does not have a frame of reference for service excellence unless exposed to some cameo event that put in place that learned response.
An expectation that things should “just work” is a consequence of early childhood experiences that establish that this is a reasonable and achievable requirement.
Numeracy is a small but critical component of this.
6. Toxic psychological behaviours – 7%
We have all been subject to trauma as part of our portfolio of early childhood experiences. The behavior that we took on board as a consequence can constantly sabotage our ability to operate as high value individuals within the complex fabric of society or can embed beliefs and behaviour’s that may drive us to perform to the highest possible standards of excellence. There is no fixed recipe.
7. Religion, spirituality, spirit realm, sexuality – the invisible part of being human – 5%
Perhaps not that important from the perspective of wealth creation but we operate as holistic integrated spiritual beings who interact with other spiritual beings and the extent to which we are ignorant or inept in these subjects can also destroy value.
8. Other – 3%
While I am fairly confident that the above list is close to comprehensive I am sure there are things that I have overlooked or am not aware of.
The percentages are indicative of my best assessment based on my observations to date.
You may well find reasons to differ with my points and with my ratings and that is fine by me.
The challenge is, what are we – you and I – going to do about our differences?
We could just “agree to disagree” and go our ways and forget this topic and continue to sit around restaurant tables and in other locations and bemoan our fate, talk about leaving this country, the best country to go to, who we know who has already gone, etc, etc. The topics that is prevalent in a large section of the community who have been successful in creating some measure of wealth for themselves.
We could do something.
What do you think?
I think we could establish a not for profit foundation to urgently fund research into the specific knowledge and experience that is gained by those in relatively wealthy homes in their first seven years from conception.
Research the negative learning’s that are taken on by those from other backgrounds.
And develop compressed learning programmes to teach these skills to all who are willing to learn, offer them to corporations struggling to meet affirmative action targets, offer them to schools, to anyone who will take them.
Broadcast these programs on TV and create incentives to get people to view and apply what they learn. Create a whole learning channel devoted to creatively presenting these concepts and find ways of getting these lessons to as many people as possible.
Develop early childhood learning experiences for pre-schoolers, pre-primary and early primary students (to grade 3?).
Stop demotivating people with unrealistic and punitive racial quotas and rekindle the hope that blossomed twenty years ago and offer solutions to the biggest single problem facing South Africa today – the negative and deficient early childhood experiences of the vast majority of our population.
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