One of my first revelations about learning came when I was five.
I had arrived late to my kindergarten class one morning just after the teacher had given out instructions for an art activity. Most of my classmates had finished and were onto other five-year-old things while a few were still busy completing their work. The stragglers were making designs by cutting up colored tissue paper and applying them to a larger piece of construction paper. I watched as one of my classmates took a brush, dipped it into a tin can of water, then brushed the back of a red piece of tissue paper before sticking it neatly onto her construction paper.
I meticulously watched how my other five-year-old comrades created their designs. As a child, I was as observant as I was shy, and so I followed-suit without asking any questions about the details of the assignment. My teacher then led me to where the supplies were and with a frantic nod of the head, I reassured her I knew what I was doing.
I picked up my construction paper, a handful of brightly-colored tissue paper, a brush, and an empty tin can that I filled with cold water from a kiddie-sized faucet. When I came back to the community table, I was the only one left—alone in the quest to create essential tissue paper art.
I cut away at various pieces of colored tissue paper. I dipped my brush into my can of water. I coated the pieces and began adhering them meticulously onto the construction paper. But, after a minute, all the pieces would dry up and stop sticking. Instead, they’d shift from the slightest breeze coming through a window in the room. It was maddening.
I need more water and I need to apply it more vigorously, I thought. I tried this again and again and again with the same results. My artwork was not coming together. At five, I knew what Albert Einstein meant about insanity.
At a certain point in my futile attempt to make art, I gave up. Holding back tears of futility, I picked up my piece of construction paper, delicately holding the precarious design in place with one hand underneath and one hand on top, and waddled my way to the teacher’s assistant for help. She led me back to my desk and began to work with me. The pieces (literally and figuratively) came together.
“Is this water in your tin can?” she laughed. “This won’t work. The cans we’re all using have glue in it.”
Clear glue. I had never heard of such a thing in my life. My understanding of glue was that it was white and it came in a bottle with a strange orange nubbin on top. It did not dawn on my five-year-old brain that an alternative could possibly exist. Just as quickly as I thought my understanding of the world had shattered, it, too, glued itself back together.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve encountered this experience—perhaps in more subtle ways—over and over again. They are those moments when you realize you’ve looked at something in a completely wrong way. The thing you had assumed to be true—and thereby overlooked—was very much not true. I would never have guessed that the reason my paper wasn’t sticking was because of the substance I was using. It looked exactly like what everyone else was using. I must’ve been doing it wrong.
As a programmer, I’m often knee deep in the weeds of my work. There are times where I’ve pushed a piece of code toward a specific direction really hard, but got back an equal amount of resistance. On occasion, it was by stepping back twenty steps to see that I was focusing on the wrong thing. There was a dead simpler way to accomplish the same task.
When I negotiate with someone—be it a business partner or client—rather than push my point as hard as I can, I might stop and consider why my counterpart views something so differently. Maybe they’ve missed the clear glue moment. Or, maybe I have. We end up understanding each other’s views better and, in turn, come up with more confident solutions.
When I teach someone, I can tell by their body language and glassy-eyed look that something is just not clicking. Rather than repeat the same thing over to drive the idea home again, I’ll try to rewind the concept back far enough to figure out where I may have lost them. A small, but essential, misunderstanding in the beginning of learning a concept might have lead to complete bewilderment later on.
We don’t always have the luxury of a mentor who will surface these moments for us. It’s up to us to know when something feels a bit out of place, and go find out clear glue exists by ourselves.