In this second installment of the Fortress and Frontier series on the Discourse Magazine Podcast, Robert Graboyes, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, continues his conversation with Temple Grandin, a pioneer in the humane treatment of livestock and a well-known spokesperson on autism. Their discussion encompasses the need for many different types of thinkers; the importance of observing real-world things, not just mathematical models; the role of small businesses in innovation; deficiencies in modern educational systems; and much more.
ROBERT GRABOYES: I’ll tell you a little bit more about Temple, but first let me welcome her to this Speak for a Sandwich gathering. Temple, glad to have you with us once again.
TEMPLE GRANDIN: Wonderful to be here.
GRABOYES: In 1993, Temple vaulted to worldwide fame after The New Yorker published Oliver Sacks’ essay on her, entitled “An Anthropologist on Mars.” That essay changed how the world perceives autism and the autistic mind. In particular, the essay and Temple’s subsequent writings gave the world a lens on the idea of extreme visual thinking, both its deficits and its gifts.
In the splendid HBO film “Temple Grandin,” Claire Danes (who played the part of Temple) says, “I could see the world in a new way. I could see details that other people were blind to.” By the way, if you haven’t seen the movie, it is really worth it, and the essay as well. In his essay, Oliver Sacks admitted that Temple defied his own prior beliefs about autistic people: specifically, her profound sense of introspection and her capacity for humor.
As a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, as an author, a speaker and an entrepreneur, Temple has arguably done more for the humane treatment of animals than anyone in human history. She’s almost certainly the most famous openly autistic person on earth.
Let’s get started. Temple’s topic today is use of visual thinking for solving problems. We’re going to take that in many directions. We’re going to try not to overlap too much with the [previous] podcast because, if you like this, I’d love you to go and listen to that as well.
Temple, to start it off, please tell us what you mean by visual thinking. Perhaps give us a vivid example of where it’s useful and perhaps a vivid example of where the lack of visual thinking is a problem.
The Importance of Visual Thinking
GRANDIN: Well, when I designed cattle facilities, I could see them in my head. Now, in order to be able to do that, I had to visit a lot of existing things—because I have to have pictures in the database. For certain kinds of problem-solving, visual thinking’s a real asset. Now, the problem I’ve got is I can’t do algebra. That is something that just keeps you out of a lot of things.
I spent 25 years working with construction—big projects. I worked with a lot of really brilliant, skilled tradespeople that invented all kinds of stuff. Some of them barely graduated from high school, but they were inventing things. There’s two kinds of ways to do engineering: There is the mathematical way and then there is visual thinking. I’ve looked at the Mars rover, for example. I mean, the mathematicians got it there, but I’ve been studying the camera—what they call the Mastcam. It’s got hand-done wiring on it.
Let’s give that skilled tradesperson credit for the beautiful hand-done wiring. It’s done right, so that camera’s going to last a long time. Because if that wiring doesn’t work, the camera doesn’t work. I tracked down the company that made it; it’s a small shop. It was a bunch of geology professors from Arizona State University, where I got my master’s, and the head of it is about my age. They were geology professors. Discovery through imagery.
The geologists are going to be less mathematical, but they wanted a beautiful camera. I’m sure there’s some visual thinking involved in that. They had to hire some computer people and they had to hire some mathematicians, but they wanted this beautiful camera. I just can’t believe the pictures that it takes.
Then there’s also other cameras on the lander that are commercial, some of the smaller ones.
GRABOYES: Any examples of failure for lack of visual thinking that you can tell us of?
GRANDIN: Well, I just was at the Denver airport. It’s been a year since I’ve flown. They had the big fiasco mess where they’re going to redo the main terminal building. They spent a year ripping up the inside of the main rotunda and making a big mess in there. They were going to build something they couldn’t build. I could see it.
The train station’s still torn up. They yanked all the ceiling material off. I looked up at the train station ceiling, just on my first flight here: prestressed concrete beams. You don’t put columns through that without replacing the beams. I could see where they cut the floor to look for where they could put columns down. You can’t build that. You’d have to replace those beams. And you’re inside a tent? No, they’re not going to do that.
They’re redoing the inside, a much more modest project. It’s going to be nice. It’s going to be nice, what they’re going to do, but they had a disgustingly high default payment. They had to pay the people that ripped them off on this. I spent a lot of time on concrete construction—we build meatpacking plants out of prestressed beams. You can’t cut these things: You have to replace them. Then you have to have the holes for the columns. I go, “How could you do that?”
Well, this gets back to visual thinking, because you probably didn’t have some gnarly old maintenance guy sitting there saying, “You can’t do that.” No, they’re not going to be doing that.
The new project they’ve got there: It’s going to be nice, but much more modest. They’re going to have some really nice check-in kiosks and things. All that’s buildable. It’ll be nice.
But you probably needed the visual thinker to stop the original project. It’s a big—astronomical—waste of money. Boy, they had a beautiful virtual reality video of what they were going to build. Only problem was, couldn’t do it in that space.
The Limitations of Mathematics
GRABOYES: Great example.
You happen to be talking today to a group of people whose focus is the field of economics. Now, here at George Mason University, I’m happy to say that the economists tend to have a healthy eclecticism, a respect for different ways of looking at economic problems. Some of them work in mathematics, some in algebra, some in words, some in diagrams—all sorts of ways.
But that’s really unusual. The field of economics has really been overtaken for many decades by a rigid methodological orthodoxy: specifically, that all truth lies in algebraic equations and statistical significance measures. My doctoral dissertation from Columbia was mostly algebra. I did it that way because I wanted to get my doctorate and that’s the way you did it.
In the fields you encounter, do you see a lot of similar orthodoxy where there’s one way to do it, it’s got to be mathematical, got to be algebra, and we’re not going to accept any other methodology?
GRANDIN: Well, we’re getting into a real statistics thing right now. If you haven’t, in animal research, used the latest statistics, you don’t have rigor. Now, I’ve reviewed a lot of journal articles, and I looked at the methods section and I go, “OK, you may have all these fancy statistics, but you didn’t tell me what breed of cattle you used and how you housed your animals. Or some rodents. You didn’t tell me how these mice were housed, and that can affect the results of the experiment.”
Then the thing in economics—I mean, some of that was based on people being rational. Do you think all this stuff that’s going on with GameStop right now is rational? No, it’s absolutely not. You are investing in an old-fashioned mall store with declining customers. You see, I see that, and I see malls where half the shops are not rented. You see, that’s the way I look at it.
Like when we started having some economic problems in 2008, one of the things I looked at is what I called the hard indicators: how many unrented shops in my city, or recently closed shops. That’s the kind of stuff I look at.
But there’s a need for both kinds of thinking. Let’s take the Mars rover. The mathematics got it to Mars. The camera with the hand-done wiring could take pictures. See, you need to have both.
GRABOYES: The late great physicist Richard Feynman said that (let me get it right) “mathematically equivalent information formats need not be psychologically equivalent.” In other words, how you present the data, how you present statistics, matters a great deal. Not everyone responds the same way to every presentation. Some people like algebra, some geometry, some tabular presentations. They can all say precisely the same thing, but their impacts on a reader or listener may be very different.
GRANDIN: That’s probably true, but one thing: as a visual thinker, I am into practical outcomes of things. How do you actually build a factory and make it actually work? I look at this mess in Texas. You have four different kinds of power sources: nuclear, coal, gas-fired and windmill—wind power. All froze. Now, I start looking at how I solve the problem. What do I winterize?
Well, if the thing that froze is on the site of the power plant, that’s going to be a lot easier to fix than a hundred wellheads out there. I see them: If I’ve got to winterize a hundred wellheads, that’s going be a real mess compared to winterizing maybe a turbine building. I’d say, “Well, yes, build a building over it and put heat in it.” At least it’s something on the site, one thing I have to winterize. Not a whole big distributed thing: every windmill, you didn’t buy the winterized version.
But you see, as I think about it, I see it. I think in a lot of these things, we’re getting too many things where people are just seeing spreadsheets and seeing mathematics: Where is the actual thing? I mean, that thing in Texas, that was a complete mess.
Then I also read in The Wall Street Journal that it messed up some chemical plants that make stuff for plastics. They’re having a hard time getting them started again. I don’t know if they’re broken or whether there’s a big ramp-up process they have to go through, but if I was involved in trying to figure out how to deal with that—I don’t know anything about chemistry, but I want to talk to people that run those plants—they’re not going to lie to me—and find out what’s going on.
But it’s all about real things. There’s nothing abstract.
I think I talked before about Fukushima. I can’t design a nuclear power plant, but I would say, “Hey, you’ve got to have waterproof doors on this,” because if it floods, I’ve got an electrically operated pump. It’s not going to run if it gets wet. When I need that pump, I really need it, because if I don’t have it, it burns up—and it’s horrible if it burns up.
GRABOYES: In addition to visual, there’s tactile thinking. My wife and son and I loved to go to (been a couple of times to) Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural studio in Arizona, and he required the students there in the architecture school to do everything. They were not allowed to build a house until they had personally dug a foundation, laid bricks, hammered beams. They weren’t allowed to design a kitchen until they had actually spent time cooking for the whole school, to actually feel how a kitchen works and how it looks.
It reminds me of some of your work with the cattle station.
GRANDIN: And I’ve done things like that. I’ve operated all the equipment I designed, for example. I have a thing where I say, “We’ve got to get the suits out of the office,” so that something is not just a spreadsheet. You see, you need all the different kinds of minds because they have complementary skills: The mathematician, for example, got the rover to Mars, but you’re going to need the craftsman to make that beautiful camera that’s going to last a long time. You see, they’re both important.
GRABOYES: Just returning to my field again: When I was at Columbia University, there was another student who was telling me about—his or her, I think it was a him—his doctoral dissertation he was working on. It was something to do with liquor, the distribution of liquor, and had a question of trying to resolve how liquor stores operate and was having trouble teasing it out of the data.
And I said, “Well, why don’t you go to some liquor stores and ask them?”
He was horrified. It was “No, you can’t do that. It’s all in the algebra and the statistics.” And you go in the big databases.
Go on that!
Supply Chain Management
GRANDIN: Well, you have to go to the stores and find out what’s going on. OK, I’ve done some stuff. I’ve been in the back room of a lot of stores and stuff. One of the things is their supply chain. How much room do they have—how much inventory can they store?
I have a friend—their family owns a liquor store and they got robbed. No, burglarized (because there was nobody there). They hauled off the safe and stole a bunch of expensive stuff there. Another thing you’d think about is, how much inventory would you want to have, too?
There’s a whole lot of things. Supply-chain management, like of industrial stock—I know with the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine, there’s a lipid ingredient they have a difficult time getting. Haven’t been able to find out what it is, but if I was in charge of the policy, I’d want to know what that ingredient is, what can I do to get more of it? I have to know what it is first and—I’m not a chemist; chemistry is like magic to me—something has to go in one end of something and then chemistry does its magic and something comes out.
Where do I buy the thing that goes in; what is it made of? If I’m buying it overseas, where is it located? I probably can airfreight it over. We’re not talking about a bulk commodity here. I’m seeing it: I’m seeing those big containers; they roll onto the plane. When I was still down at the airport all the time, before the pandemic, I’d go and have ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s, and they’d be loading cargo on a great big huge airplane. I’d watch them load that cargo, and they’d put it in one of those big containers and ship it over. You see, I see it.
And then you think about, how much inventory do I have to store? Because a lot of people now—The Economist was saying, “Let’s do just-in-time for car manufacturing.” We’ve got problems now with not enough electronic chips to put in cars. Just-in-time, when you have supply chain disruptions, is not too smart.
You see, mathematically with all your algebra and everything else, it would come out great. But as soon as something goes wrong—you’ve got one little tiny part this big—they can’t build the car.
GRABOYES: When I’ve been asked who are the most important people of the last century, I like to include some lesser-known names. One on the top of my list is Malcolm McLean, who invented the shipping container. I assume that some mighty serious visual thinking went into the miracle of that invention and what it could possibly do.
GRANDIN: And it’s something that was such a radical idea, and you also had to invent all of the cranes to put it on the ship. But you also had to think about, well, backhauls—you don’t want to just give shipping containers away. I did read that 95% of the shipping containers came from China, or they can fabricate them really cheaply.
I know that we get a lot of goods over here from Asia and China and other countries, and then you’ve got to have backhauls. We’re backhauling stuff like alfalfa hay to feed cattle. Just to have something to put in it for backhaul: backhauling grain in them. Bulk commodities, just so you have something to ship back, so you don’t pay to ship an empty box back.
GRABOYES: I read a book a couple of years ago: That’s how sushi became a worldwide cuisine, because they had all these planes bringing electronics from Japan and nothing to carry back on them. Someone got the idea of, let’s put Canadian fish on there and send it back to the sushi markets, and that became the whole sushi boom.
GRANDIN: That’s the thing: you have to find a backhaul. Sometimes it’s stuff like—one of the backhauls that got stopped was trash, the recycling, because you were getting trash sent back in shipping containers that was really all horrible, toxic stuff. I went to this ecoseminar and they were talking about recycling plastics. I think one of the things they’re going to have to do is have less containers where it’s mixtures of different types of plastic laminated together, because they don’t mix in recycling.
Where they used to just send that stuff off in the shipping container, other countries now are going, “We don’t want this crap.” You’ve gotten into a situation where your recycling is more expensive than new material. One of the things they’re going to have to do is—well, you can’t make a layered package. I look at things like liquid detergent: a package is worth more than the stuff that’s in it. You probably don’t even need to be using that product.
Loss of Vocational Education
In the [previous] podcast, we talked a lot about vocational education and the loss of it. Subsequent to that, I had some conversations with people from my hometown. I came from a little place called Petersburg, Virginia, a small, working-class community south of Richmond. When I was in high school in Petersburg High School there in the early ’70s (or late ’60s, early ’70s), vocational education was a huge part of the school.
They had shop, they had auto repair, they had plumbing, they had electrical—and all that stuff’s gone. So I went on Facebook after the podcast came out and I asked hundreds of friends, “Tell me about shop. What did it mean to you and what did it do for your life?” I got endless lists of people talking about, “Changed my life completely.” “I became a mechanic in the Navy, all because of what I had learned in high school.”
One testimonial after another—and lots of them saying, “I wish my kids could have this, because it’s gone.” Even one of them mentioned (and I’m trying to get more details on it): “You need to learn about how the shop classes, the electrical classes, the plumbing classes actually went out—” (this is long before Habitat for Humanity) “they just built a house as part of their project at school, and a lot of them went into these fields.”
Well, that stuff’s gone. Tell me your concerns over the loss of that. How did we lose it, and how do we get it back?
GRANDIN: We’ve lost a lot of things, because I’ve been looking more and more into who makes things. I found an article in The Economist magazine, just a few months ago, about the state-of-the-art machine for making electronic chips. It comes from Holland, not the U.S. It’s based on physics research done in the U.S., but it’s from Holland. There’s a picture that the company gave out to the press, where the covers are taken off. This thing’s the size of a bus. You can see all these mechanical pipes and stuff. I go, “Wait a minute, it took a lot of skilled trades to build that.”
I think last time in the podcast we talked about the poultry processing plant we don’t know how to make anymore. I now have found out that for making the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine, there’s a little device they forced ingredients through. That’s a mechanical device. Somebody made that in a shop. The vaccine cannot be manufactured without this microfluidic device that I just read about today in my chemical engineering magazine.
It’s mechanical. (And let me tell you, Moderna and Pfizer did not interview for this article.) I’m thinking about it. There’s a little nozzle of some kind; I haven’t seen a picture of it, but I know what that is. You’re mixing the ingredients at just the right ratios, the right pressures, the right flow rates; then the magic chemistry happens inside—which to me is magic, but the device is not. The device is something I can understand.
Somebody had to make that thing, and they interviewed an old professor that had worked on this stuff for the article. That’s a skilled trade, and you can’t make those vaccines without this thing I just learned about this morning. I’m always looking for things where, taking out skilled trades, things get hurt. You got the chemists, but then you have some guy in the shop that don’t know anything about chemistry.
We’ve got to make this little thing; we’ve got to do these pressures: Unless he makes some little gadget, nothing works. It’s probably being kept as a trade secret, because it may not be completely patentable. (I know something about patent rules.)
We have to have that thing. You see that—and it’s a skilled-trade thing; it’s a device. It’s a little piece of equipment that does it. Somebody had to make that.
This is where we’re paying the price for taking this stuff out.
GRABOYES: How did we lose it? Do you have a sense of that?
GRANDIN: The idea originally—and I think it was very top-down, very verbal—is, everybody’s going to go to college. Verbal thinkers, I find, overgeneralize, whether it’s about autism or whether it’s about education. Everyone’s going to go to college—and they didn’t think about who’s going to fix all the broken electric wires that have fallen down.
I just saw a picture of Houston, of a data center that had been flooded. I think it was Hewlett Packard. A whole bunch of expensive stuff flooded, and they’re going to move out of there because they don’t want to deal with any more floods. It’s going to wreck a data center to flood it.
The verbal thinkers—I don’t think they saw, since they don’t visualize, the need for the skilled trades.
Now I’m reading an article in Chemical & Engineering News (I should have brought it down; I could have held it up), Chemical & Engineering News about a device that is critical for making the vaccine. It’s a physical device; it’s a mechanism, something microfluidic; it has little nozzles, and you force the lipid and the RNA through it just the right way, and the magic happens.
We’ll leave that for the mathematicians and the chemists. But they wouldn’t have made the device. See, this is where you have to have the different kinds of minds. When you first took this out, it didn’t hurt for a while. You see, it took 20 years for a lot of the people to retire. I’m old enough and you’re old enough to remember, when we were young, people working on that stuff.
The reason why Holland’s making the chip-making machine and the poultry processing plant is because they didn’t take the skilled trades out and they don’t stick their nose up at it. I’m talking high-end skilled trades. I’m not talking about roofing or asphalt laying or something like that. I’m talking about the high-end stuff.
Vaccine Distribution and Choke Points
GRABOYES: I will have to do a little brag. You inspired me after our last podcast. Temple explained to me—it was either the podcast or a phone conversation—she was talking about having gone through the vaccination and how she was observing the whole flow of movements through this Colorado facility where she got her vaccine. So, when my wife and I went for our vaccines, I did the same because you did. It was really a marvelous process, I’ll have to give it to them. I live in Alexandria—
GRANDIN: Some of them have done a good job. Some of the drive-thrus—I’ve seen aerial photos of how they did the drive-thrus at a convention center or a stadium—a lot of really good thought went into it. I just talked to somebody the other day that did one of the drive-thrus, and they said it was extremely well organized. They were really impressed.
GRABOYES: This one was great, but I was looking for choke points, like some of them that you described, and I identified one. I said, “It keeps moving smoothly and then it reaches this choke point.” What it is, is there’s a screener asking you a battery of questions through a mask: [muffled] “Oh, this, this, this,” and back and forth and back and forth. I dropped an email to the mayor of the city and said, “You’ve got a great system going, but at these points, why don’t you just print up a piece of paper and let the screeners point to the questions?” And I don’t know—
GRANDIN: It’s a real simple solution.
GRABOYES: It is, and I don’t know if my letter did it, but when we went for our second shot, they were doing that. There was absolute perfect flow-through because we didn’t have a two-way, masked conversation going on.
GRANDIN: They can just read the paper, and then the only time you do a conversation is if somebody couldn’t read for some reason, then you would do it verbally. But most people would just read the paper.
GRABOYES: So I will attribute that to you. You may have helped the people of Alexandria, Virginia.
GRANDIN: You see, lots of times the thing I’ve found is that on getting rid of choke points, sometimes it’s very simple—and then sometimes you’ve got choke points it’s not going to be simple to get rid of. I’ve found a lot of different things. Sometimes something very simple makes a big difference. I just got sent an email. It had a picture of a ramp on it for loading sheep, and I’m going, “Wait a minute, the cleats are too far apart. The sheep will slip.” That’s a very simple thing, so you just add an additional cleat and the sheep are going to be able to walk up there a lot easier.
I saw that the instant I looked at it: I go, “Wait a minute, the cleats are too far apart. You’re going to slip between them.” The thing is the verbal thinker doesn’t see that—and so “everybody’s going to go to college.” Well, you didn’t even start feeling the hurt from taking those skilled-trades classes out of the schools till 10, 20 years later, when they retired. You see, that’s the problem, and now we are seeing it.
GRANDIN: You know that camera—I think one thing that’s interesting about that: a bunch of geology professors? They like to look at rocks and stuff. It was all about seeing stuff. And they had to hire mathematical people; stuff had to be programmed and they hired computer people.
Geologists are behind that camera. I thought that was really interesting.
Innovation and Neurodiversity
GRABOYES: It is.
I’ve got a research thesis. I’ve mentioned a little bit about it to you in the past. Something I’m going to work on later in the year. It’s in three parts. I’m going to quickly read the three parts and then I’d like to talk about them in depth with you.
Mercatus and IHS, the two sponsors of this group, are very interested in entrepreneurship, in small firms, in how markets work and the unique role that they play in an economy.
My thesis is this: First of all, the overarching part is that innovation seems to come from small firms. We take that as a primitive assumption. I want to get in depth as to why that is. Number one assumption is unconventional thinkers. People who are autistic, ADHD, etc., are the source of a great deal of the world’s innovation—and we’ll come back to that.
The second is that large, established organizations—governments, large corporations, established corporations—resist hiring people like Temple Grandin. If they do hire someone like you, they waste the gifts that you have by trying to force you into a conventional employment path.
The third one is that the one environment that gives free rein to people like you is a small business—an entrepreneurial enterprise, where you’re not answering to HR and a big bureaucracy.
Let’s go through those three points if you could.
GRANDIN: All right, definitely.
Well, the vaccine’s a perfectly good idea of—small guys innovate. Little guys innovate. It’s Pfizer-BioNTech. Pfizer bankrolled it. I want to commend them for doing that. Little guys innovate. And they lots of times will innovate with stuff that’s considered weird ideas.
One example is my grandfather and the automatic pilot. There was a guy that came up with this crazy idea for three little coils. Everybody in aviation thought that was the dumbest thing that ever was. There was only one way to make an automatic pilot: You wire up the plane’s controls to the compass, which was a mess. He and this autistic guy worked in a loft figuring out how to make this thing work. Unfortunately, they were really bad businessmen. It got ripped off and the rip-off was in every plane during World War II. (That was the fluxgate. Grandfather’s invention was a flux valve.) But that was an example of little guys.
Big corporations—what I can remember when I first started working with big corporations, even back when I was in my 20s, I used to say, “Big corporations get bureaucratic hardening of the arteries.” That’s what I used to call it—where they’re too rigid to take a new idea.
Also, I know people that are on the spectrum, people that are different; they all have small businesses. Or they work in a big business where he’s the strange guy in the shop. I worked with one of those in the ’80s and the early ’90s. He’s the weird guy in the shop and they just let him do his thing. Then he got shipped off to another factory and that was a disaster for him because they didn’t let him do his own thing.
I know a guy who has a food factory. I call him Willy Wonka in Stainless Steel. I can’t tell you what he makes or what he does (I signed a nondisclosure agreement), but I flew on his jet. I can’t tell you where it went. This guy has a jet and he’s in his 70s. I sat down with him, and we discussed every label he would—he started out dirt poor, started washing equipment in food factories, then maintaining, then building.
You see, the more corporate types don’t recognize the value of that. Now, my brother, who’s completely normal, he likes to build things. He worked for a bank. He had jobs like he had to find a million dollars that this bank lost and track it down. But little guys innovate—or they might be in a bigger company, but they’re running it.
You take someone like Elon Musk. I’ve read the book about him. Bullied in school, kind of different kind of kid, learned how to work really hard. He gets stuff done—gets physical stuff done. That is something I really like. I think what’s happening now is we’ve got so much taken over by the financial people. I’ve read a hideous article about buying trailer parks and jacking up the rent and forcing the people out—and then they sell the land. That’s the kind of stuff I just absolutely hate because I like doing real things.
I don’t care what industry you’re in: Small guys innovate because you’ve got to come up with ideas that are totally different. I was talking to somebody last night about—they used to just make hay in bales. Then somebody came up with the idea of wrapping the hay up round. That’s a totally radical idea. It’s totally different. It’s not incremental improvement. It’s totally radical. There was a time that that was invented—because I was going to ag meetings on equipment at the time; they had another machine that stacked great big loads of hay; it was a failure. It was totally original, too, but it did not work. They sold it for about five years, and it was terrible; the hay would rot.
You see, something innovative, it’s something totally different. It’s not just an incremental improvement on something. Then you have the things like the sheep ramp, where I can make a very small, incremental improvement that makes a huge difference. Or your paper—having those questions on a piece of paper at the vaccine site. You see, that’s also important.
The Cost of “Curing” Neurodiversity
GRABOYES: Now, I’ve heard you talk about this, but I’m sure not everyone has. What would happen to innovation if we suddenly cured autism and ADHD and that was gone from the population?
GRANDIN: We’d pay a horrible price for that. In fact, there’s a paper I love, and the title of this paper is “Genomic Trade-Offs: Are Autism and Schizophrenia the Steep Price of the Human Brain?” The same genes that give humans a huge brain are also involved with autism. What happens in autism is you might build extra circuits back here in the art and math department. In schizophrenia you build a skimpy network that falls apart. But you see it’s both involved with brain development.
We’d pay a horrible price because—my grandfather, he implemented the other autistic guy’s idea. Other places turned it down; said, “Well, that’s just stupid.” They wouldn’t even look at it. The big aviation companies said, “That’s stupid. Don’t you know that everybody’s working with compass needles?” And my grandfather looks at it and he goes, “Hm, I can make that work.” You see that.
It was the two minds working together there. Unfortunately, the guy who came up with the idea for the three coils had a nervous breakdown, ended up in the mental hospital, and my grandfather had to bail him out. After that, my mother said the spark is gone and they didn’t invent. They did some work on television, but they just couldn’t get it off the ground.
It takes a different kind of mind to come up with totally innovative things—like the RNA vaccine, as an example: a totally innovative thing. Then, of course, you’ve worked in medical—that’s been around in the labs for years because you couldn’t get it past the FDA. Now we had an emergency. That forced it, but that RNA platform is going to make cancer drugs and all kinds of other really good stuff.
GRABOYES: You reminded me—I did not know the Pfizer institutional story that you just told. Someone I’ll talk about later, Clayton Christensen, said one of the few cases in business history where a large established organization managed to innovate was IBM with their PC. The way they did it was, they formed a PC unit, said, “We want you in another state. We don’t ever want to hear from you. Don’t call us. We’re not going to call you. Do what you want and we don’t care.”
GRANDIN: Well, on the Pfizer thing, there’s a very interesting interview on “60 Minutes” with a lady scientist who was head of vaccine development, and she had a lot to do with getting Pfizer to open up the checkbook. She was out walking her dog, and she saw refrigerated trailers—the things we normally haul our food in—and she knew what was in them: dead bodies. She said, right on “60 Minutes,” “This is personal. Nothing else matters.” Calls her boss up.
GRANDIN: The boss calls BioNTech and says, “The checkbook is open.” OK. So that’s another interesting story behind it.
GRABOYES: That’s fascinating.
GRANDIN: I call that taking the—the suit was out of the office, and saw—I mean, it’s awful. We have to take the things we haul our food in and fill them full of dead bodies. She saw that walking her dog. It’s on “60 Minutes.” I think it came out like in December on interview. Then I guess a head of Pfizer called up BioNTech and said, “Get it out of the lab. The checkbook is open.” “Open checkbook,” that was the words.
GRABOYES: That’s an amazing story.
GRANDIN: So, it’s interesting when you look at how innovative things come about. Because when I did my animal welfare audits, when I first brought McDonald’s executives, Wendy’s and Burger King executives on their first trips to farms and slaughter points, I watched the spreadsheets and all that stuff turn into something real. Animal welfare was no longer an abstraction—delegate the lawyers and the PR department. It became real.
I’ll never forget the day. Bob Langert saw a half-dead dairy cow go into their product. He actually has a book out called “The Battle To Do Good.” That was a suit out of the office, and now it was real.
Then, of course, the scientist in Pfizer saw those trailers and she goes, “Whoa, nothing else matters.”
Finding the Freedom to Innovate
GRABOYES: That’ll do it.
Let me ask you to do a little speculation. My second assumption there, that large bureaucratic enterprises hesitate to hire people like Temple Grandin, and if they do hire you, they’re going to try to put the round peg in the square hole or vice versa: You changed the way hundreds of millions, billions of animals are treated through their lives and reduced their—made them happier in their lives and less pain in their deaths. Could you have done any of that had you been working, say, for the government or for a large corporation?
GRANDIN: No. When I first started out, I thought I could fix everything with equipment. So I got the center track restrainer system put in all those big plants. This was the early ’90s. Half my plants tore it up and wrecked it, which was very disheartening. And the other half ran it sort of right. Then I developed a very simple way to evaluate the plants, using a scoring system, and I started training the auditors that McDonald’s had.
At first they were skeptical, but then when they saw how much it changed things, it took off and it was almost under the radar. It spread through the supply chain. I don’t even think—I never met the lawyers. I never met the CEO. It just was like stealth, and a giant tipping point tipped. One thing I have learned: I tried early in my career working with government and gave up on that.
I talked to a lady on the plane the other day that was working on a whole bunch of stuff with autonomous cars. She was an autonomous car engineer. I suggested visualizing where I would try it. I said, “I’m going to take this big I-80 highway across Nebraska. If I can talk to the governor of Nebraska to do this, I’ll use that to test autonomous trucks.” We talked about how we’re going to have to paint the lines on the road really good. That really, really, really matters.
She was incredulous that—this was on the flight; I talked to her along the whole flight—that I wasn’t going to do much with government. Well, if I did, I’d work with one state, but let’s start doing the autonomous truck in a place where it’s easy: straight intersection. Nebraska is a long state; got an eight-hour drive. I can then run that truck with one driver instead of two. There’s no way I’m going to put that expensive stuff out there unattended.
Oh, somebody’s going to scoop those sensors and rip it off. All I’ve got to do is stuff a shirt and pants with newspapers and put a Halloween mask on top, and that thing’s going to pull off the highway for that. You see, I see that. If I could run it, if I could have some sections of the trip where he could sleep—you see, now I’m visualizing that. We talked for two hours about this and it’d be easy to fix the stripes on the road and we could get the same painting contract and just have them paint knowing they’ve got to be right.
I sort of put my head around a bite I could—and I’ve been on that highway. It’s the artery. It’s the east-west artery across the country. I’d start with something like that where it’s going to be a whole lot easier to make the trucks work. No, we’re going to have a driver. He’s going to take it into town and back it up to the loading dock.
Now I’m seeing a loading dock for our local Walgreens, which is like the truck driver’s nightmare for a loading dock. You’ve got to jackknife the trailer like that to get in this loading dock.
But there’s a place for visual thinking to simplify—where would I try this, to try to go completely autonomous? Not going to do it in downtown Denver, where the exits are all painted wrong and it forces you off the highway. Then they built a new highway and they laid our exits out wrong. That’s going to be a real mess.
GRABOYES: From the vantage point of someone who is neurologically atypical, there’s something unique about the environment of small entrepreneurial enterprises. We’re independent contractors.
GRANDIN: Yes. I’ve worked with them. I’ve worked with the small ones that stayed very small, and I’ve worked with some that got really big. But it starts out with a single guy in the shop. I know a guy that sells stuff internationally: He’s ADHD, autistic, stutters, everything else; terrible student, took welding. He’s selling stuff. He fabricates around the world. He’s got about 20 patents, all mechanical things: what I call the clever engineering department.
This is the stuff that we’re losing. You need the whole team. I can’t design the electronic stuff that’s on that truck, but I think I could help them a lot on—let’s start trying it in a place where I think I can make it work. You see? Because I don’t have to deal with all the gnarly exits that are wrong.
Freelancing and the Gig Economy
GRABOYES: In your own career, I know before you got your doctorate, you were doing work on commission.
GRANDIN: I’ve been a freelancer all my life. The other thing that helped with that is, if one project really, really messed up, you’d go on to another project. I’ve had offers to work for companies and I’m going, “No, don’t want to do that.” Then I’ve seen places where—you’re absolutely right about IBM, what made that a separate thing. Now, within big corporations, I did work with some, what I called “the odd guy in the shop.”
In some situations, he was allowed to just do his thing—one guy was an electrical genius. I worked with him. And there was another guy where they used to say, “If you ask Tom what time it is, he’ll tell you how to build a watch.” He was a guy who worked for a big corporation in the engineering department, and we used to like to just talk for hours about how to build stuff.
GRABOYES: I wonder, too—there are a lot of people at Mercatus and IHS who are interested in the gig economy, in freelancing. I’ve met people who, well, there was an Uber driver that I—I always talk to Uber drivers because their stories are interesting. One of them was a young guy who was a strong-looking guy who had been a construction worker and had cancer. He was apparently on the mend; he was free of the cancer, but he no longer had the strength to work eight hours a day in a straight stretch.
He said, “I can work four hours. Then I have to go home and take a nap, and I can work four hours again. On a good day, I can take another nap and work another four hours, but I cannot work a stretch.” He said, “I wondered whether I would be able to earn a living, and someone told me about Uber.” He said, “I’ll do that. I’ll do three shifts. I’m making plenty of money. I’m independent, but I could never work in a conventional job.”
And his case made me wonder—for neurologically atypical people, ADHD people, for instance, who might not be able to work nine-to-five and be productive, but can work in short bursts and bursts and bursts. We have a lot of people who were really not happy with the gig economy and allowing it to come—
GRANDIN: Well, one of the problems we’ve got—like in the video game gig economy—is you’ve got so many kids that wanted to be in that. They pay them nothing; they get the game made; they chuck them out. One advantage I had and the people I worked with had is that it was specialized enough. You didn’t have 50 people trying to do the same project. You see, you take something like the rover camera. That’s highly specialized. See, those are the perfect places for these small businesses.
I visited a shop of another company that makes the devices that push the payload out of a satellite to get out of the rocket cone to get it launched: a small shop. You’re not talking about somebody that’s making 10,000 of these things a year. You see, that stuff really works. Where programming video games, you got 50 kids that want to do it and they’re paying them nothing. Then when the game’s done, they’re just kicked out. Then they’re fighting over the next job. That doesn’t work real well.
Everybody I’ve looked at, it’s highly specialized. What’s something that’s a niche, but a really important niche—because if the device for pushing the satellite out doesn’t work—and for one of them, he got the idea from a trunk lid that opens up when you press the key. Well, if you can’t get the satellite out of the rocket, it’s wasted. It’s very, very mission-critical, this device with an idea that came from a trunk lid that opens up when you push the key.
Advice to Students
GRABOYES: When I was teaching undergraduates as a professor (University of Richmond), I used to give them standard advice, which is make sure by the time you get out of this place you’re good at at least two things, not just one thing. There are lots of people who are good at anything you want to do, but there are going to be rare combinations. I had one student who was a business major and studio art double major, which was a very weird combination that no one ever heard of, but she ended up coming out of the university as the only person out there who was both a talented artist and knew something about how to run a business. She ended up running museums.
What kind of advice do you give the students who come through your university about how to make it in life?
GRANDIN: Regular students, any student in—let’s say an undergraduate—I say, do internships, try on jobs. Everybody in animals wants to be a veterinarian because that’s the only animal career they get exposed to. OK, now you need to go shadow a veterinary practice and find out, is a pet practice something you really want to do? One student tries that and says, “I love it.” Another student goes, “That’s not for me.” Doing internships, trying stuff on: I tell that to every student. Too many students get pushed by their parents to become a doctor, a lawyer, and hate it. You don’t want to end up doing that.
The other thing that I figured out very early in my career is, I figured out if I find the right people, they can open the door. There’s a scene in the HBO movie where I go up and I get the editor’s card because I knew if I wrote for that magazine, that would really help my career. Then I produced the article that got me into a press pass in big, expensive meetings. Then I got the editor for a national magazine’s card. I saw those back doors.
I find a lot of parents are so much into the verbal educational world. They don’t think to maybe have their autistic kid work at their friend’s florist shop. Just something simple like that, that doesn’t have too much multitasking, where they can learn some job skills. The other thing is, the educational establishment in the verbal world is totally separated from all things in industry. They don’t understand how a shipping container even—they don’t even know what it is.
You see that we’ve got a whole bunch of people now coming into the educational field where they’re totally separated from the world of the practical. Like this thing in Texas: I couldn’t believe that four different types of power all froze. Then I’m immediately thinking, “All right. If the thing that froze is on the premises of the power plant, that’s a lot easier to fix than a distributed mess that’s on every windmill or on the different wellheads.”
My first inclination would be, even if I couldn’t go there, to get out there with your phone or get on FaceTime and show me the thing that froze. I think you can build a building over it because it’s on-site. I see that. My first thing was a distributed problem, which is going to be expensive, versus something that’s right on the plant’s premises. It’s always easier to fix something that’s on the plant premises.
GRABOYES: I mentioned the late Clayton Christensen earlier. He wrote what I think is the most important book on healthcare innovation in the last 30 years; it was called “The Innovator’s Prescription.” He looked, among other things, at the state of medical education and said that around 1910, we adopted a model that became absolutely uniform across medical schools, and mandatory. He characterized it as “fixed time, variable learning”: everybody in the class is going to go through all the courses in med school at precisely the same length of time, every semester.
Some of them are going to end up, because of that, spending too much time in that course; they got the whole course in the first month. The rest of the time was twiddling their thumbs waiting for the semester to end. Other people in a particular course might not learn all the material by the end of the course. They come out of it with different amounts of learning.
He contrasted it with what became known as the Toyota methods, which was fixed learning, variable time. It was a sequence of courses that Toyota workers go through. It’s, you’re going to do segment 1 until you learn everything. If you learn it on the first day, then you’re done. If it takes you a month to do it, or two months, then you’re going to take a month or two, and then you move on to the next.
The idea is that everyone comes out with a full grasp of the subject and no wasted time after they’ve already acquired that.
Now, you teach in a university, let’s say a more practical program, I think, than probably the pure liberal arts ones that I went through. Can you talk about that? The state of education and how we actually teach college students?
Education and Writing Well
GRANDIN: Well, then let’s go back to high school students—I’ve been in some school districts, they can learn English, algebra and sports, and that’s about it. I don’t know what’s going on in the high schools in these last five or six years, because these students don’t know how to write. Just write clearly. I find out they’ve never done book reports. They’ve never had their work marked up and corrected. They say that hurts self-esteem; I think they don’t want to take the time to correct the homework.
This is getting to be more and more of a problem because when I look back on things I did in my career, writing was a very, very important part of it, a really important part of it—because I would design a project and then I wrote about it. I wrote about it. We’re screening out the people who sometimes think up the practical problem-solving.
You said the vaccine site that you did was very, very efficient. You helped them by getting the questions on a piece of paper. But they get a lot of volunteers involved in that, and some of those volunteers are probably the ones that figured out how to do the traffic part. Because if you’re doing a drive-thru vaccine thing, see, you’ve got to have that 15-minute period to wait. You’ve got to figure out how to time that and keep the cars going and not have them blocking up the highway exit.
See, that’s visual thinking. Those volunteers probably got together and thought a lot of that stuff up.
GRABOYES: Yes. Before I was an economist, I was a newspaper reporter and my first big job out of grad school, a guy hired me. Years later I asked him—I had had no expertise in the field, which was studying sub-Saharan Africa. Now, years later, I said, “Why’d you hire me?” He gave me a couple of reasons, but two of them were, he said, “First of all, you had no expertise in it, and I was sick of everyone who did have expertise in the field.”
But the second thing was, he said, “I was under the impression that there were approximately seven economists in the United States capable of writing a complete sentence in the English language, and I wanted to have one of them.” I always stressed with my students that they need to learn to write. I don’t care how good you are. Actually, when I was a professor, I eventually stopped assigning papers because I simply couldn’t stand to read what was coming into my office and seeing what passed for writing in a group of very smart students.
GRANDIN: This is a problem. I’ve talked to a lot of professors these last five or six years. We’ve got students that their writing skills are absolutely atrocious—in just writing something clearly on how you did your experiment. How did you house your animals; what did you do? Just tell me clearly. Or you get jargon-laden nonsense. I just read some this morning. Why don’t you say that a person spoke to somebody else? They didn’t have “vocal emissions.” I’m going, “Really?”
GRABOYES: Yeah. These students of mine, many of them had, I don’t know, almost Harvard-level SATs, and they worked very hard. They couldn’t write a sentence.
GRANDIN: Well, this is a problem that I’ve seen. One of the reasons why my writing in ninth grade was better than these students’ is because my teachers would mark up my work. I had to write book reports where you have to summarize—I think writing book reports is important because you have to summarize the book and summarize it accurately, and then you critique it. I think that’s a really important skill—and summarize it clearly. I find out they never wrote a book report, hardly wrote any term papers, never had anything marked up.
They said, “Well, software can correct stuff.” No, it can’t. I’m finding that I’m having to correct it, and I want to get their writing from atrocious to usable.
GRABOYES: I tried.
GRANDIN: Algebra turned horrible. I couldn’t do math. I could do the old-fashioned arithmetic the way they used to teach it up to sixth grade. Find the area of a circle: I can do that just fine. I’m worried about—we don’t have people that know how to do things.
I think some of the stuff that went on in Texas, you didn’t have a visual thinker there screaming, going, “Well, this could break.” You’ve got people in charge of it where some of them weren’t even in the state, and it’s all spreadsheets and numbers and abstractions. We had people die from carbon monoxide poisoning because they were doing things like using a charcoal grill in the house for heat, and they didn’t know they’d get carbon monoxide poisoning from that.
GRABOYES: Well, I think it’s time for me to turn it over to Josh.
JOSH AMMONS: All right. Thanks again. We are just so grateful for the talk, and thank you for your life’s work and making the world a better place.
GRANDIN: Well, thank you so much for having me. I enjoyed being on this podcast.
GRABOYES: Thanks for me too, Temple. It’s always a pleasure.