On May 12, 2012, my youngest child, Bonnie, graduated from Kansas State University. I think her graduation was harder on me than it was on her. You see, Bonnie and I are incredibly close. And I probably have a better idea of what life has in store for her than she does. Consequently, I took her commencement address to heart and even memorized the essence of the speech.
I didn't hear a typical address that exhorts graduates to reach their full potential. And the address didn't offer answers to the questions these graduates had yet to formulate. Instead, President Kirk Schulz encouraged the graduates to open their horizon. Schulz challenged the graduating class to read broadly, to travel widely and to think critically. He was, in essence, encouraging them to expand their minds and thus gain the perspective needed when facing the life ahead.
After the ceremony, I decided to put Bonnie's new boyfriend to the test, and I asked Ryan if he could recall the commencement address. Amazing to me, Ryan recalled every major point Dr. Schulz made. Pretty impressive.
Since then, I have been putting Schulz's recommendations to good use.
In 2012 alone, on business, I traveled to India, Russia, Italy and France. I am developing the contacts and resources to report in more depth the profound changes in energy that are occurring worldwide. I am also learning how to better communicate in each culture and climate in which I immerse myself. And developing relationships is not a “one and done” event. Before I made my first trip to India, my host stated that unless I was willing to come back and invest my time in India, I might as well not even come a first time. India is a place as defined by relationships as it is by contracts.
As to reading widely, monthly I read four or five magazines, usually Business Week, TIME, Smithsonian and National Geographic. Add online news from Al Jazeera and an occasional classic (the latest is Fyodor Dostoyevski's The Idiot) and most would agree that I have the “read widely” whipped.
But now we are down to thinking critically.
Let's think critically about what it means to think critically. We might all look in the mirror and tell ourselves that we are critical thinkers, but are we? Or do we more resemble parrots, repeating what we've heard or what we've said before? And is being critical the same as being a critical thinker?
I ran into Dr. Schulz in Paris at the CIGRÉ conference in August and mentioned the impact of his words on my life [and I promised his wife, Noel Schulz, president of the IEEE Power & Energy Society, that I'd get them a copy of this column when it was finished]. In chatting with Kirk Schulz, I came to the understanding that critical thinking requires us to review what we hear, to assign value to what we learn and to revisit our assessments when new information arrives. Or, to put it another way, we can't just put time in on a subject, come to a conclusion, put it on the shelf and never revisit our assumptions and beliefs again.
In the vein of thinking critically, here is a question for you: If you are talking with someone who is unwilling to listen to your point of view, are you having a conversation? Probably not. I've heard it put that this exchange could better be described as a NonVersation. So unless I am listening hard and willing to change my views based on what is shared, I am probably not thinking critically.
What is an example of critical thinking? My buddy Gene Wolf and I were working on an article covering the last 50 years of electric history, and we realized that we didn't really have that many big discoveries the second half of our 100 years. Furthermore, the major innovations we did find came about when we brought new materials into T&D such as high-power silicon chips (FACTS devices) and SF6 gas-insulated switchgear, zinc-oxide surge arrestors and polymer insulators. We did find that the variable frequency transformer even migrated over into T&D from another industry.
Why is this critical thinking important? Because now our industry can look to new materials when we look to innovate. We also can keep close tabs on innovation in other industries (think batteries for electric vehicles) to speed the acceptance of innovation in our industry.
Looking forward, we are seeing the bringing together of innovations in technology, rate structures and economic dispatch to bring about rapid changes in our delivery industry. We find ourselves balancing load resources (including wind, solar, geothermal, fossil and nuclear) against customer-side solutions and emerging energy-storage options to enable us to get more out of the grid we have. Our increasingly intelligent grid is enabling us to address issues including bidirectional flows, system instability, voltage issues and system losses. But we can't meet the future with flawed or outdated thinking. We must keep our legs moving (travel widely), our brains engaged (read broadly) and our logic clear (think critically) if we are to meet the challenges that face our industry.