We don’t want to reinvent the wheel

Facepalm Here are a few phrases I have heard during my not-quite-a decade as Dean of Science. They all have some truth to them, but with an underlying oddness. I share them with you so that you can understand them too, and indeed use them if you wish. After all, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel.

To show you what I mean, let’s start with one everyone knows: “I want to be frank with you,” which begs the question of the problem with frankness prior to this admission. Of course it means the opposite of what it says: “I would like to be frank with you, but I need this thing from you, so I am going to try to manipulate you.” You will hear this two-thirds of the way through a conversation, and it signals the end is coming soon.

“Interesting.” This is a very common response, and I find it easy to misunderstand if I badly want to convince someone of something. It means no, designed to avoid giving offense. The speaker is not interested, or more precisely, “I can imagine that someone — not me — but someone, at some time, somewhere could find this interesting. Perhaps.”

“We can’t afford not to do this.” Note the person saying this has already recruited you to his or her team, and has handed you a blank check to sign. This is a last-ditch shock attack to win an argument, such as, “Really? Not doing this is exactly what Hitler would recommend.” Nod your head vaguely when you hear this (not the Hitler argument, which you will not hear, but the we-can’t-afford-not-to-do-this argument), and say “Interesting.” And leave the room.

“We have been investigating best practices with our consultants.” This sounds reasonable, but why can’t the speaker figure out best practices from scratch (surely someone did this in the first place)? And why did we hire this person rather than the consultant if consultants are so smart? I remember in Grade 11 there was always this guy who couldn’t do his math homework, and would want to copy mine. Whenever I hear this phrase I see that guy (Jim) asking to copy my homework. I don’t know what Jim is doing now; perhaps he’s consulting. My apologies if you’re reading this Jim, but you should have done your own homework.

The epitome of this is “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel.” When someone says this, be assured the person has never invented anything, as the person is sharing his or her fear at the possibility of having to invent something (and expecting you to be complicit in this fear). But Universities are filled with inventors — that’s what we do here: innovate in teaching and research. Expressing that academic creativity is a defining attribute of the best University administrators. I remember one day hearing this concern about unnecessary wheel inventing from a consultant in my office. Then he turned to look at the blackboard, which was covered with mathy squiggles. He said to me, “Has that stuff ever gotten you anywhere, honestly?” We stared at each other. I thought about my old friend Jim. I said, that’s how I got this job.

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