Walter McKenzie

To Infini-Pie and Beyond!

We baby boomers grew up in an age of finite pie. There was only one pie and it could be divided into only so many slices. Even our pie graphs represent the totality of the resources we have to work with. There's only so much pie to go around. And the implications play out in how we think, act and define success. If you only have one finite pie, what flavor is it? How many people can it serve? How small can you make the slices? What does it mean if you simply don’t have enough?

All of this is a legacy of the Industrial Age, which was based on the availability of natural resources to feed growth. Empires were built by gaining access to raw materials that could fuel their economic engines. You could not sustain industrial success on finite resources, so you kept expanding the size of your pie. Of course, this works well as long as there are new lands to acquire and new resources to consume. But in the physical world, there are always limits. Be it foreign lands or fossil fuels, everything runs out eventually.

This legacy of finite pie sticks with us today, especially if you're over 40 years of age. Our grandparents were survivors of the Great Depression. Our parents grew up during the rations of the Second World War. We remember the gas lines of the early 1970s. No doubt about it, we had to think carefully about our resources. And even today, we want to make sure we have enough pie to last us. It makes sense. It’s understandable. In the physical world, the earth is one big pie with only so much to go around.

Enter the Information Age, where more and more of our information, interaction, and entertainment is becoming digitized. This is where economic engines are thriving today. There is no finite pie in the virtual world; there are no limits of resources, time, or space. Instead of minerals, lumber, and petroleum, in the virtual world the valued resources are ideas, imagination, and innovation. And there are no limits to these things. You can toss your pie right out your kitchen window, because bright young people all over the world are pushing the limits on what is meaningful and marketable in the 21st century.

The advantage for people in their thirties and younger is they did not grow up in an age of finite pie. They expect everything to be available at their fingertips, and they expect to expand their world through access to everything. Not only do they expect information to be communal, they define success by working in communities of common interests. The definition of the traditional hero as a rugged individual making a stand has become dated, not because we are losing our individual identities, but because there is no finite pie for which our old-time hero can fight. In an age where there are as many pies of varied sizes as one can imagine, our new hero is highly collaborative, with none of the physical limitations of the past. Today, the more connections we have, the larger our sphere of influence; the more possibilities we have to imagine and innovate, the more we are recognized by our peers.

Here is the rub. Those of us older than 40 are having a hard time letting go of our finite-pie thinking and transitioning to the Information Age. Sure, we're all doing it to varying degrees. We hear the stories of baby boomers becoming statistically relevant online in a number of ways. But when it comes to working effectively through real-time collaboration and communication, we are struggling. This too makes sense. Finite pie is a mind-set that we have used throughout our lives and it has brought us success. Today's leaders in education have gotten where they are by mastering the finite pie. So what do we do to adapt to the Information Age? We use the trappings of the Information Age—e-mail, social media, and videoconferencing—to continue to work in the finite-pie paradigm. We still want to publish newsletters and hold conferences and offer one-size-fits-all workshops ... we just deliver them online.

Why is this a problem? With the explosion of information flying past us every day, people are less and less likely to stop to read an entire e-mail, let alone an entire newsletter. They are less likely to commit to an hour-long webinar by a talking-head guru, let alone an entire professional development event. In the Information Age, people expect to be engaged, interacting, and building common understandings that make a difference in their lives. We need to let go of our finite-pie thinking and begin to serve others as connectors and as facilitators of the endless possibilities for success.

Working with finite pie, we needed to have the answers. In a world of endless resources, we need to be helping to channel energy and ideas where they can meet those of others and create entirely new pies ... pies we cannot even imagine yet.

Today, we need to have faith in the power of human creativity and innovation. We need to let go of the notion that we are limited by the resources we have in the physical world, because we are now operating in a virtual world. And if and when the time comes that we realize we cannot let go of our finite pie, then we owe it to the next generation to step aside and let them show the way, otherwise they will simply work around us and leave us irrelevantly holding our empty pie tins.

Yes, we are all struggling with letting go. Maybe we need a slogan, a call to action? How about "Infinite pies!" or "To infini-pie and beyond!"? You get the idea. Make your own tagline and make it happen. To stay relevant today, you have to think beyond finite pie.

Walter McKenzie is a lifelong learner, teacher, leader, and connector. A director of Constituent Services for ASCD, he served 25 years in public education as a classroom teacher, instructional technology coordinator, director of technology, and assistant superintendent for information services. He is internationally known for his work on multiple intelligences and technology and has published various books and articles on the subject. Connect with McKenzie on the ASCD EDge® social network, on his Actualization blog, or by e-mail at wmckenzie@ascd.org.

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