Monday, July 23, 2012


I'm good at recognizing patterns and guessing at the implications of those patterns. I've always been good at it. I think that probably everyone is. However, most never develop it.

When others recognize you as good at pattern recognition (they might call it something else like insight or intellect), they call you genius.  However, along the way they may call you "idiot savant". Starting out, they usually just call you "idiot".

Fortunately for my pattern recognition skills, I'm also a blurter. As an adult, I've learned to slow my blurting by redirecting blurts through my hands (fingers rolling) then my feet (toes tapping) then my waist (slight rocking) then my thighs (slight bouncing off my seat) and finally out my mouth.  Circumstantial change that occurs as my blurt routes through my body often alleviates the need to blurt; the blurt is thereby avoided.

As a kid I was not the fine specimen of blurt-control that you see before you today. I just blurted. I blurted all the time. 

I see a pattern. I get excited by what it might mean. I say it aloud. 

It's only after the aloud part that I notice that perhaps my blurting is inappropriate or unwelcome. It might be the "what-the-hell-was-that" look on the faces of the kids in class. It might be the late arrival of awareness that the classroom's ambient sound-level just dropped from something to nothing. It might be the teacher pointing towards the door indicating that I am to go sit in the hallway until I learn not to disrupt class. It might be Kurt Keizer saying, "What's that got to do with anything, idiot."

None of these responses was one that I welcomed. As a kid, I dreamed of fitting in. I didn't care about being cool; I just didn't want to be ostracized. If it were not for blurting, I'd have never done anything with the patterns I saw other than to keep them to myself. Blurting led me to development of my pattern recognition skills. 

For example, my brother and dad are working on the car. I wonder into the garage and listen to the engine as it struggles to start. It reminds me of the sound of Rick Montgomery's GTO when the fuel mixture was too rich (at least, that's what Rick called it). I blurt, "Sounds like the fuel mixture is too rich."

My brother and dad look at each other incredulously. My dad says, "What do you know about fuel mixture?"

I start to answer, but then see from the look on my dad's face that the question was rhetorical. I go back into the house and listen to some music.

It wasn't until I was twelve, that my pattern-recognition/blurting combo started paying some dividends. When I began playing saxophone, I found a new channel for blurting. I'd recognize a musical pattern and play it on my sax. As soon as I learned what the notes were, I started playing songs. If there was something on the radio I liked, it was easy to find the patterns in the notes and play them.

To someone watching, it might have seemed miraculous that I could hear all those notes and all the relationships among them. However, I didn't. I just heard a relatively small set of patterns put together in new ways.  It was easy.

I was still a blurter. During rehearsal, the band director works with the trombone section to learn their parts. He walks through each part one-by-one, singing it so that the trombonists can hear what's written on the pages before them. He stops and says to the section, "OK, let's try it."

The whole time, I'm sitting over in the sax section waiting to play. As the trombone players put there horns to their lips and the director lifts his baton. I quietly (so I think) fly through each of their parts on my saxophone just to see if I heard them right. The director looks at me and points his baton towards the door. I go sit in the hallway.

Over time, my pattern-recognition/blurting began to serve me well. Executives at our company started asking me my opinion on various challenges they were facing. They'd ask me to sit in on meetings and tell them what I thought. One day, the VP of research at Bell Labs came to me and said, "Hey, I've got some guys who've been working on a complex project for several years now. They want me to continue funding it. I'd like you to sit in on their next meeting, and then come tell me what you think."

I go to the meeting and listen to the researchers frame the problem and the state of their research. As I listen, a pattern forms. Seeing it, the researcher's framework seems overly complicated. I say, "Wouldn't all this be easier if we just..."

I look around and it's as though I'm back in fourth grade or in the garage with my dad and brother. The meeting continues. I see another pattern. I blurt. Pattern. Blurt. Pattern. Blurt.

At the end of the meeting I say, "I must have missed something, because, if all you want to do is get from here to there, then it would seem that you only need to do this."

I wasn't invited back to the meeting. However, the VP of research invited me to join the research division.

As I said, over time I learned to manage my pattern-blurting. However, there are times when I wish I hadn't. The one I recall most viscerally was just after my mom went into the hospital following a stroke. It was Thanksgiving, 2001, just a few weeks before my mom died from pancreatic cancer.

A day before Thanksgiving, I get a call that my mom is in the hospital. She's had a stroke. I drive from Boston to New Jersey. Pick up my dad at his place and head to the hospital. We get to my mom's room. You can see the effects of the stroke in the left side of her face and how her left arm hangs to her side. My mom speaks with some effort. Her speech is a bit off, but not bad.

We talk a bit. I leave my dad with my mom so I can find a nurse or doctor to see what's going on. They explain that my mom has had a stroke, that she's been on blood pressure medication for some time now and that the stroke and increased blood pressure are likely related. I ask what they're going to do.

The doctor says, "We'll probably put her on blood thinners to reduce the likelihood of another stroke, but we can't do that until we've run more tests. The doctor gives me a litany of reasons to run the tests and the potential risks of not doing so."

My mind races through everything I know and I'm ready to blurt, "Just put her on the blood thinners."

But I don't blurt. I just say, "OK."

That night, my mom had another stroke. They started the blood-thinners immediately. However, the second stroke left her without speech and with significantly more paralysis.

Every once in a while I think of how things might have gone differently had I just blurted. How my mom might have spent her last few weeks being able to talk and share, rather than being trapped inside a body that refused to respond, just listening, nodding and getting out a few words here and there.

I think we all have the ability to see patterns and act on them in meaningful ways. It takes practice (and perhaps blurting). If you want to get any good at it, then lots of the time you'll get it wrong. If you get it wrong in big ways, people will focus on the idiot side of idiot-savant, but you'll get better. If you get better long enough, they may even call you a genius.

Happy Monday,

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