My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 6, #15,
October 1, 2001


As someone whose trade is information, I can't help seeing in those 3,000 lives snuffed out on September 11 not only the immense personal loss to families, but the loss to the nation of the incredible wealth of unique knowledge, stored in minds and computers and libraries buried under the tons of rubble.

Among the dead and missing were several chief financial officers, a TV producer, a gymnastics coach, an environmental lawyer, the manager of the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a Raytheon plant manager, the banquet manager of Windows on the World, a Boeing engineer, airline pilots, flight attendants, hockey scouts, the Port Authority's director and its executive manager of Tunnels, Bridges and Terminals. We lost software architects, tax analysts, sales managers, company founders, hundreds of bond traders and stockbrokers. We lost law enforcement agents and evidence for cases in progress that will now have to be dismissed. Saddest of all, much of the wisdom and hard-won experience of fire department battalion chiefs died that day.

Think about how much they knew from experience, that was never written down in textbooks, never part of their professional training? All that knowledge of who to talk to and what levers to push to get the job done, all that knowledge of ongoing transactions and contracts and prosecutions that they never had time or reason to pass on to anybody.

And those are just the people who by their job titles can be presumed to have definable specialized knowledge. The fact is that the other people on those planes and in those buildings, occupations unknown, also had unique knowledge, even if they thought of themselves as "just a housewife," or "just a clerk." Their knowledge might include a mental database of the likes, dislikes, interests, allergies, and schedules of every single member of the family, or an understanding of the different ways each child handles fear or sadness.

It might include an ability to get warring parties to sit down and talk together, or a deep understanding of every fishing hole within a fifty mile radius, or the ability to penetrate the suspicion and macho of a 15 year old boy in order to teach him something.

It might include knowing which ingredients will work together in a soup, or how to edit a mushy 2000 word piece down to 700 tightly structured words.

For sure it includes our explanations of who all those people in those mysterious ancient photo albums were, and all the remembered jokes and stories about them.

We all have unique skills and experiences and knowledge -- even identical twins, paired through life, have different ideas, gather different information about their world, respond to it differently. And yet, often, we don't think to pass on what we know.

Sometimes we're required to codify our knowledge, write it down and pass it on, because we're supervisors whose job is training people, or because we're leaving the job. We might pass our knowledge on to apprentices, who learn by watching and by doing. Often we teach our children some of the things we love -- baking bread or riding horses or tinkering with engines or researching family history or constructing imaginary landscapes for model trains to run through. But most of the time, our teaching is spotty and casual; some things get passed on, some don't, because after all, there's plenty of time to get around to that.

Except that there isn't always. Sometimes the car crashes, the tornado hits, the plane goes down, a coronary artery explodes, and we, and all our memories, may vanish without warning.

But that's a loss the universe imposes on us. What may be even worse is that we sometimes impose this loss on ourselves deliberately, because we've decided something else is more important. Like saving money, for instance, with planned mass layoffs that randomly discard unique knowledge. When companies fire 12,000 people at a time, they can't possibly have assessed each employee to know whether they can afford to lose that specific combination of talent, experience, honesty, courage, kindness. History is full of companies that had to hire back laid off workers as consultants, and companies whose fired employees went on to become their competition.

We all matter, and nothing is guaranteed to us, not our jobs, not our health, not our lives. The world can't afford to have us wait for that leisurely future that might never come. We need to teach people what we know, write it down, pass it on. Now.

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