Haskins: Thinking for today can inspire creativity


Col. Casey P. Haskins, director of the Department of Military Instruction at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, speaks about the myths that block creative thinking at Wednesday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

Col. Casey Haskins thinks Americans today are bloody monkeys in a cage.

He presented a scenario to explain: Five monkeys are put in a cage with bananas hanging from the ceiling. There is one stool in the cage, and when one monkey tries to take one of the bananas using the stool, bystanders spray all five monkeys with ice-cold water. This happens about three times.

So the experimenters take one of the monkeys out of the cage and replace it with a dry one. The dry monkey gets hungry and reaches for a banana — but before it can get close, the other monkeys attack it. They don’t want to be sprayed again.

Once again, the experimenters pull another wet monkey from the cage and replace it. This time, the three wet monkeys and even the bloody one attack the new monkey when it attempts to retrieve the banana.

The experimenters repeat this process until four monkeys are bloody and beaten. The scientists once again replace the wet monkey — the last one — with a dry monkey. And this time, even though they don’t know what will happen if the banana is touched, the bloody monkeys attack the new one when it gets hungry. They know not to reach for a banana — but they don’t know why.

So why did those beaten monkeys attack their dry fellow?

“Because that’s the way it’s always been done,” Haskins said. “That’s what you do. But none of them ever personally experienced getting wet. They don’t know why that was the way it was; just, that’s the way it was, so that’s what they did. And it occurs to me, in many respects of our lives, we are like those monkeys.”

Haskins said in his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater that continuing to view aspects of society as they were in the past is detrimental to society; innovation comes from seeing them under a different lens.

His lecture, titled “Four Myths that Block Creative Thinking,” was the third speech in Week Eight’s topic on “Sparking a Culture of Creativity and Innovation.”  There originally were going to be six myths, but Haskins only had time to cover four in his speech.

Haskins has climbed the ranks to command every level of the Army from platoon to brigade. As a colonel, he is the director of the Department of Military Instruction at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Haskins is known for his advocacy of changing military education to adapt to modern warfare. Soldiers’ education, he said, has changed very little over time, even though the wars and battles have changed. Haskins was very clear that his opinions are not shared by all the military.

“(Americans) do lots of stuff that we have no idea why we do it, and we don’t even bother to examine it,” Haskins said, “and in some instances, that does harm.”

He said that in order to make the change to modern thinking, Americans must overcome four obstacles in pursuing creativity — hence the lecture title.

Myth: We are logical

Referring to Tuesday’s lecturer, Jump Associates founder and CEO Dev Patnaik, Haskins said part of the myth of humans being logical creatures lies with emotion. He did not deny logical thinking — Chautauqua Institution wouldn’t exist without it, he said.

“We never reason only logically,” he said, “and I want to help you see that.”

He presented a set of five simple questions, three of which required logic and two of which required preference.

The final question presented a scenario in which you are buying a bat and a ball, the total of which is $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. When he asked how much the ball cost, most of the audience immediately said $0.10, but the true answer was $0.05.

The reason most of the audience went to $0.10 first, Haskins said, was that the audience chose to use intuition rather than logic. Instead of utilizing the logic of algebra, humans follow their gut instinct first. Logic follows instinct, he said.

“It’s almost always decision followed by logic,” he said. “When you hit the brake while you’re driving your car, that happens before you’re consciously aware.”

To be exact, that awareness comes about two-tenths of a second afterward, he said.

Even Albert Einstein did not reason the conclusions to his theses, Haskins added. As evidenced by his diaries, Einstein arrived at the conclusions intuitively before trying to prove them logically.

Haskins said intuition may not always be correct, but it still comes first. Believing logic has the initiative can damage creative thinking.

Myth: Mistakes are bad

Some mistakes really are bad — the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is one, Haskins said. But sometimes, mistakes really are positive.

Airplane pilots are required to undergo simulations to deal with virtually any situation but quite often fail the simulations before getting their licenses. They are given these simulations to learn to overcome problems so they won’t fail in real life.

Haskins also mentioned video games as an example. While playing these games — for entertainment, no less — players fail, on average, 80 percent of the time. Yet they continue to play.

“The first thing we have to do is to distinguish how much room there is for mistakes,” Haskins said. “We make the mistake of saying we can never make mistakes.”

In school, students are allowed to make mistakes until the test comes along. The problem, he said, is that most people view their experiences in life as tests in which they pursue perfection, even if they’re just practicing.

In the Army, Haskins said, cadets are taught never to make mistakes. Mistakes are served with punishment. Severe mistakes that endanger human life are, and should be, punished, he said, but more minor ones are fine. If cadets haven’t adjusted the sight on their rifles, he will let them go until they figure out the problem.

“Most of what we do now,” he said, “consists of teaching our teachers to bite your tongue and to let it go.”

Other myths

Haskins said the ideas that it’s possible to teach somebody without firsthand experience and to pin down exactly how events occurred are both myths as well.

In teaching without experience, he said, students should be given real-world experience instead of simply theory. Human brains, he said, are wired to learn in context.

Secondly, he said it’s impossible to determine how or why events happen. A single event can cause branches in other events.  Events are complex, so there’s no one single cause. On the same vein, it’s not possible to come up with every cause.

Haskins elaborated on each of these subjects as he elaborated on the previous two myths. These four myths together, he said, explain the need for change in education.

“(If) we’re looking for people to be able to solve problems in new ways as they face new situations,” Haskins said, “then I think … it consists primarily of not making them smarter — they already are smart — but of just stopping doing some of things the monkeys in front of us did that prevent them from learning to be creative.”

Q: You talk about the necessity of a culture change, whether it be in business, sports, academics. Is there a lot of resistance in the military to this culture change?

A: Absolutely. That’s always the hardest part. It’s much easier to solve the mechanics of a process than the culture. There’s a well-recognized truth in sociology that the longer an organization has been successful, the more resistant to change they become. At West Point, cadets still wear uniforms from the War of 1812. There’s a lot of inertia in a culture like that. It is very difficult to get it going. But the basic thing is, the whole premise of our training was built on the Cold War, the need to immediately be able to work together to apply certain approved solutions to defeat this overwhelming force. And that’s not the wars we’re in. I can’t teach them the approved solutions, because I don’t know the approved solutions, and I’m not even sure I know the real problems. So we have to instead teach them to think and solve the problem. So the main thing on cultural change is all humans train to the test — law of nature. We all do. You do. I do. We train to the test. So if you change the test, you change behavior, and if you do it enough, you change the culture, so I just had to make smarter tests, and then start removing these things that we were doing because the monkeys in front of us did that were impediments to them learning to do well on the test. So there’s a lot of problems, but these things don’t change right away. There’s nothing, nothing, nothing, then a little bit, then the dam bursts, and you get great cultural change fairly rapidly, and that’s what we’ve seen.

Q: How can we use your thinking to teach children K-12 to be successful in the 21st century, particularly in today’s testing environment? What are the barriers to making this happen?

A: Wow. That’s its own week of lectures, I expect. And I’m sure there’s a lot of people in this audience who have more experience than I do, but I would say, just sticking with what I spoke with, somewhere between third and sixth grade, we stop making it creative, and it starts becoming more drill, and more, ‘Here’s how you do this, and now you practice it,’ rather than you solving the proble, and the joy of solving the problem in context. And if we had it so that they kept having to solve problems, and we just increased the difficulty and injected brief doses of things that they needed and then sent them back to see if now they could solve the problem, not divided into 55-minute chunks of discrete subjects, I think we could have much more success with the same people.

Q: I think we have some curious folks out there wondering about the other myths, if you can touch on those.

A: The two that I was going to get to today that I didn’t — one of them … is that efficiency is always good. Efficiency is good, but more is not always better, and it comes at a cost. The remaining one is that controls are good — rules, processes, things that keep us from deviating. Again, they may be good or they may not, but we have a lot of laws. We have a lot of rules, almost all of which are a direct consequence of some particular human failing. Rather than going back and addressing why that happened and helping that person to fix, we instead try to make it so no one will ever again be in that situation. And they cumulate, and virtually every society in history eventually dies from sclerosis of the society — they’re clogged with controls. We try to maintain the status quo, and it’s a complex system, and it turns out that one of the inviolable laws of a complex system is that imbalances will get fixed. Think of tectonic plates. If the stress — this much movement is going to happen. Now, it can happen as a thousand little tiny things that really don’t do much damage but keep us nervous, or it can happen as 10 medium earthquakes, or it can happen as one gigantic one that flattens everything and disrupts. Every complex system is like that, so ironically, our controls that attempt to preserve the status quo and make everything perfectly actually result in an inability to adjust in small steps, and so the inevitability of adjusting in bigger and more destructive steps. And we’re seeing that now with our economy. We’re seeing that now with some of the choices we’ve made in foreign policy. We’ll see it with university system here. Once there’s an imbalance, things that cannot continue on eventually stop. Now, do they stop in a bunch of little steps, or do they stop in a big step? Those were the other two that I was going to talk about at more length and giv examples.

Q: What for you is the role of individual optimism in the ability to be innovative and creative?

A: Huge. If you just took it for granted that humans could never fly, then no one would have. Everything people do that results in anything that we would consider positive, the odds are stacked against you. And it is because we are optimistic, because we — against all evidence of our senses, of history, of our own experience — we persist in believing that this time, I can get it right, and so we keep trying. Without that, we would accomplish nothing. We would do nothing. So optimism is essential. I just argue that there’s a difference between wishing I had a magic wand and actually setting out to learn the physics of the thing so that — it is possible to ride a bike across the surface of that, but you’ve got to change the bike. You’ve got to change the bike, and you’ve got to change the conditions. You can’t just ride a normal bike across the surface because you want to. You can be as optimistic as you want — you’re going underwater. But no one would try if they didn’t believe it could be solved.

Q: Is this new way of learning at West Point being used in training at different levels, in terms of boot camp, basic training and such?

A: Short answer is, less than I would like. In a previous job, I ran the Army’s basic training and advanced training for all the infantrymen. So I guarantee you it was in place there. But after I left, a lot of it kind of reverted. And I tell the people —because I will leave West Point. I’m going to retire from the Army here in a couple months, and it’s inevitable that the pendulum will swing back to some degree — look, we wear uniforms from the War of 1812 — but my legacy is not that I’ve permanently changed West Point; it’s that I’ve permanently changed you. And you’ll never go back to that old way, and pretty soon, ,you’re going to be in positions where it comes. And it requires both someone who has the ability and the opportunity — that genius and luck thing that we got. And if you have enough people who think well and know the right ways to do it, then one of them or more of them will find the opportunity, and suddenly the thing will tip. That will become the way everyone does it. Again, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have, unwarranted perhaps, optimism. But that’s the way these things happen. You keep pushing, and you keep pushing, and you keep pushing, and you don’t see a gradual change, and then suddenly everything turns over, and it’s going in a different direction. At the moment, there’s some of it, not as much as I would like. I believe there will be a lot more within a few years.

—Transcribed by Josh Cooper