Cleaning out is my No. 1 task these days. I’m getting ready to retire and my move out of the President’s House at the University of Maine Farmington to camp in Mount Vernon in June.

I’m sending a whole chunk of my files off to various archives. Many books have been given away or taken to the Twice Sold Tales bookstore in Farmington. Art prints, clothing, furniture, antiques, china, pottery are all off to new homes through gifts, charitable donations and consignment. I’m even disposing of stuff from camp so there will be room for the stuff from home.

Moving is certainly a time to confront all the accumulated junk that we really don’t need anymore.

When I wanted to make a slant board a couple of weeks ago, however, it was gratifying to go into the basement and find just the right scraps of wood, the carpet left over from another project, and the tools and screws to put the thing together.

So it’s a paradox. On the one hand, it’s good to have old stuff on hand for unexpected and unpredictable uses. That’s the valuable junk in my workroom — a standing invitation to creativity!

And then there’s the clothing and equipment for when you next go hiking, or sailing, or skiing. And the books you might want to read again, the boxes you’d better keep for the next time you need to send something, and the specialized kitchen equipment you have for that one time a year when you actually use the turkey baster and the lemon rind zester and the Bundt pan.

But then there’s all the other stuff. The books you hated, the clothes that don’t fit or that wore out, the shoes you bought on a bad day. This is the challenge of moving — to sort this stuff into the right categories and then get rid of what you don’t need anymore.

Isn’t this a good metaphor for our ideas, too? How many old thoughts and outmoded beliefs are we all carrying around? Isn’t it time to get rid of some of the old familiar junk?

Here are some of my favorites for examining today.

* School. When learning happens. Where learning happens. How learning happens. Who’s teaching and who’s learning? What is learning, anyway? Classrooms, credentials, grade levels, internships, apprenticeships, college. How we pay for it. Who pays for it? How do we get more people to do more of it? What if we had to design new ways — would schooling in the future look like it does now?

* Politics. As I follow the presidential campaign season, I wonder if this is a good way to choose the next leader of the free world. Honestly, if some of those candidates really believe some of the things they’re saying, it scares me to think they might be elected. But if they don’t believe them, then they are panderers and hypocrites and it scares me to think they might be elected. What other ways could we do things?

Now, I know perfectly well that throwing out unwanted stuff when you move is a much simpler task than reinventing social practices such as school and politics. Change is much harder when social structures and established interests come into the picture, whether they be political parties, school boards or businesses.

“We’ve always done it this way” is a powerful brake on innovation. “This is making us money today” is another one. These attitudes become part of the mental landscape that we don’t even see anymore. They end up defining our mental limits.

Do I have a prescription? Yes, I do! Getting rid of baggage, whether mental or physical, is not a bad thing. Throwing out old clothes is one thing, however, while abandoning old ideas is a lot harder.

A good practice is to generate some new ideas and then try them out in small experiments to see what works. A world-class method for creating, communicating and commercializing new ideas is based right here in Maine.

The University of Maine System is teaching innovation engineering to students on every campus, from any field of study. The Foster Center for Innovation at Orono periodically offers active innovation engineering workshops for business, industry and non-profits.

I like its synthesis of proven learning from education, engineering, psychology and other fields to provide a clear step-by-step process for idea generation and problem-solving that any business, group or individual can use.

Try it! It’s enjoyable and effective.

Meanwhile, I’m back to cleaning out.

Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Maine at Farmington. She can be reached at [email protected]


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