“Will this be on the test?” Students would ask me, during my days as a university assistant professor. My stock answer was that if it was important enough to include in my lessons, it could be on the test. It was definitely worth learning.
We do live in a world of just in time learning. We want to know when we need to know. That approach also means we are in a state of stress (a.k.a. internal conflict) when we realize something is in jeopardy because of our ignorance. OMG!! I DON’T KNOW HOW. PLEASE, SOMEONE SHOW ME HOW!!!!!
Just in time learning–really now
Most of the training I have done in my career has been that kind–just in time before things get out of hand, and just enough–but no more–than absolutely necessary. I’ve lost count of how many times a company asked me to change a lifetime of employee bad habits in a two hour block. Sorry. Won’t happen. But I’ve tried.
There’s another problem with that.
When we are in stress, our ability to think and learn is inhibited. The stress hormones pulsing through our bodies get in the way of rational thinking. Taking time to learn ahead of the need is more effective, and the learning has time to find its way into our long term memory. That’s also why studying a little every day is more effective than cramming the night before an exam.
Why take time to learn when you can just Google it?
He didn’t have time to Google how to crash land a jetliner when both engines go out. All those passengers walked away because Sully had spent hundreds of hours learning how to handle that situation just in case. He wanted to know so that if, and when, he needed to know, he would not have to deal with the added stress of learning and applying a new skill in the moment of crisis.
A positive stress
When you want to know, you might put yourself in uncomfortable situations. The difference is that you choose to do so on your terms. The life-long learner does just that. They seek new information and new experiences to satisfy their own curiosity and to prepare themselves for the unpredictable. There is actually joy in that experience, and it fosters self-confidence. Who knows; it might show up as heroic someday.
According to the polling statistics, Hillary Clinton had a narrow edge on Donald Trump to win the 2016 presidential election. But, surprise!, in certain crucial states Donald Trump narrowly edged out Clinton to capture that state’s electoral votes and win the presidency. What happened?
Pollsters will tell you that their sampling did not detect the strength of support for rural conservative voters, zealous for Trump and a change to the status quo he offered.
The map is not the territory
It’s a classic case of the principle that the map is not the territory.
How many times have you been following a map while driving and still get lost, turned around, or miss the turn? It happens to me all the time, and I’m a pretty smart guy. I’m pretty good at reading maps.
The problem is that there is a difference watching a blue dot on my maps app and being that blue dot while driving through unfamiliar territory. What I see in reality is not shown on the map itself. The map is only a representation of the territory, and it only shows me certain things–not everything. From the front seat of my car, I’m seeing the territory from ground level in real time 3-D.
Maps are abstractions
We rely on maps of all kinds in all aspects of our lives, such as:
- forecasting the weather
- planning our financial investments
- measuring productivity
- measuring profit and loss
- making strategic business decisions
- controlling air traffic
- knowing how much gas is left in the tank, or how fast we are driving
- evaluating our health
- selecting potential employees to interview
- find a suitable date, and so forth.
These maps come in many forms, such as computer models and simulations, spreadsheets, charts and graphs, photographs and videos, resumes, dating profiles, dials and gauges, recipes, instructions, and so forth.
WARNING! No map tells you everything
Anytime we are selecting information to represent what is happening in reality, we are making a map. Sometimes maps leave out, or even totally misrepresent, information that is important to accurately reflect reality. Forecasting any future reality is an educated guess.
Every wonder why meteorologists deal in probabilities and not in absolutes? Now you know. Our trouble is that we want to take their forecasts as gospel even though they tell us forecasts are best guesses.
Our challenge is to construct the best possible map to give us the best possible information to make the best possible decisions when it matters. But in the end, it’s still a map, and the map is not the territory.
Anyone who relies entirely on the map without getting a first-hand look and experiencing the territory, risks getting lost, and that can be costly.
What happens when a personal belief meets an irrefutable fact? The belief wins every time–facts be damned.
Human nature is such that we believe what we want to believe, and we don’t believe anything we don’t want to believe regardless of the verifiable facts. That’s the entire premise of an ideology, which is a set of shared beliefs that any group uses to explain its existence and way of life.
I am as I believe
What you believe is central to your identity. So if someone presents you a verifiable, irrefutable fact that negates a core principle of your belief system (who you believe yourself to be), you will simply say, “I don’t believe it,” and that’s that.
And if someone can distill that belief into a few words for you, so much the better. Try these on:
- America is the greatest nation on earth.
- The system is rigged.
- Democracy is the best form of government.
- Live fast, love hard, die young. (Oops, sorry. That is a country song, but a belief system none the less.)
- The white race is superior to all others.
- Black lives matter.
- All men are created equal.
- Might makes right.
- It’s every man for himself.
- We’re all in this together.
- Get a good education, work hard, and you’ll be successful.
- You can become anything in life you want.
- Winning is the only thing that counts.
- There is only one true God.
- God is dead.
You get the point.
A true believer, or a believer in truth?
A true believer accepts the party line no matter what. Every bit of information is cast in light of the underlying beliefs. All information contrary to the core belief must be explained and reexplained and reconfigured until it fits the belief.
On the other hand, a believer in truth will seek out information, verify it, consider that information in context of the situation in which it is presented and then arrive at a belief based on it. A believer in truth has no qualms about saying they used to believe one thing, and now they believe something different because they learned new facts.
I would rather be liberated by facts than enslaved by my beliefs. The most liberating phrase I know is, “I might have been wrong about that.” So, why is that not as easy as it sounds?
Psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explain, “The brain is designed with blind spots, optical and psychological, and one of its cleverest tricks is to confer on us the comforting delusion that we, personally, do not have any,” (Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me, 2007).
It’s not that we can’t see the truth, it’s that we won’t see the truth.
Simply put, we lie to ourselves and believe we are being truthful at the same time. Why? It makes us feel good about ourselves–that we are right.
The paradox of the lie
We want to believe the lie because we believe we will benefit from it, even though it’s a lie.
Because we define ourselves by our beliefs and values, we flock with those most like us. We confirm our beliefs to each other. Then, we tell each other how good we all are and that those not like us are not as good as we are. Us versus them.
Yeah, we would rather believe the lie because we like the lie better than the truth.
The apostle Paul had it right when he warned Timothy, his younger protege, to be diligent about teaching, “sound doctrine.” He wrote that the time would come when people, “will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear,” to suit their own desires (2 Timothy 4:3).
The case for faith
Where does this lead us?
For me, it leads to fact checking and allowing the facts to shape my beliefs. I also must admit that there are some things that are not explained by the empirical facts that I know or have available to me. Therefore, I do accept some things on faith, my belief through personal experience that some things are true, but I don’t know why exactly.
And I will keep that faith, until I have facts that would compel me to believe otherwise. See how that works?
I do believe in the fundamental goodness of people, that we sincerely want to do the right thing as we believe it to be.
I’ve decided to devote my time and effort primarily to helping others become more effective thinkers. When we don’t think critically and creatively for ourselves, we are at the mercy of those who can benefit from intentionally misleading us.
Here is an earlier podcast that speaks to the power of A-Ha. [podcast: The power of A-Ha]
This earlier podcast makes the case for INPowering leaders also being advocates of creative thinking and self-discovery.
Listen and seek to apply this thought provoking podcast.
We humans have a great mental capacity to consciously think about, understand, and articulate what is happening to us. We can slow down to think and learn what and why something is happening. Unfortunately, we tend not to do that very often, even when we think we are.
What we do instead
We rely on our intuitive fast thinking process.
Without my having to consciously think about it, my brain takes in information through a vast network of sensory inputs: sight, sound, smells, taste, and touch. Then, it processes the information in various regions of the brain and instructs my body to release certain chemicals within me that cause me to have positive or negative feelings. I know without knowing why I know. That’s intuition.
I trust my feelings. Why? Because I have learned how the brain processes information to inform me about what is going on around me in real time. Then, after reacting to the impulses of fast thinking, I can seek to understand what and why–to validate my intuitive feelings with slower rational thinking.
An exemple of intuitive thinking.
The fight or flight system is intuitive.
I call it the built in early warning system. The fight or flight system developed for survival, and it is present in some form in all animals. In other words, we can feel that something is good or bad for us without knowing what or why it is.
In extreme situations, the fast-acting early warning system perceives a threat (all threats must be regarded as real threats), and instructs us to take immediate defensive action: flee or fight. We react first and think later when we can slow down and figure out what happened and why.
When you encounter a snake, both you and the snake have the same experience driven by the same system. The snake rises up to strike (fight), and you run through the woods in the opposite direction screaming, on the verge of messing in your pants (flee)–or something like that. Others might kill the snake (fight back).
In less extreme situations, the early warning system kicks in and alerts you to possible danger. All your senses go into a higher state of alertness. You stop everything else until you decide whether the danger is real and immediate. You stress, but don’t panic.
It’s not enough to know that.
Fear drives much of our fast thinking. Push the right fear button and we lurch. Hucksters know the trick, and it works until someone starts asking questions. That’s when the huckster wants you to move along and let them get back to their mind game. They want you to react, not think.
You can mentally protect yourself. Look at the evidence. Hold these fast talking fear dripping barkers accountable for what they say. But be prepared for their retribution. They respond by ramping up the fear language and topping it with insults aimed at those who question them.
These fear-slinging hucksters live on the mantra THAT YOU SHOULD BE AFRAID. Bad people are lurking everywhere to take advantage of you or to hurt you or to take what’s rightfully yours. And then they tell you that they and only they have the answer and can keep you safe–believe me.
They are relying on your tendency to react to fear without thinking. They want you to get a feeling that something is wrong and that you are in danger.
Rational, slow thinking, trains you to be more in control of your emotions and to resist knee-jerk reactions. Rather than merely jumping, you go into a higher state of alertness and think through the situation so you can make better choices.
In your heart you know I’m right. Think about it.
The more you slow down to understand what and why, the more you can trust your intuition when it alerts you to act.
Partisanship is like handling fire. It can provide illumination or destruction depending on how it is managed. Right now, in America, it’s blazing out of control and threatening to consume our democracy.
But there is an escape
A fire needs three ingredients: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Eliminate any one of these, and the fire goes out. We control fires by regulating the balance of these three ingredients.
A partisan takes a side. Nothing inherently wrong with that. We need people to represent different points of view to help us balance our own thinking and to help us find solutions to difficult problems. That’s illuminating.
When out of control, the heat of passion ignites the fuel of content (words and positions) in an oxygen rich environment of “us versus them– If you aren’t with us, you’re against us–winning is all that matters.” That’s destructive.
A leader is a firefighter
Such a leader can manage the fire, but not if they are adding to the fuel or fanning the flames.
Unfortunately, our political discourse right now is fueled by the rhetoric of extremism couched in half-truths and outright lies, fueled by the passion of contempt and hatred toward the opposition, in an environment where partisans are lined up shouting, “Burn, baby, burn,” at each other.
It’s time to isolate the political pyromaniacs and deprive them of the heat and oxygen they need to destroy everything in their path.
We need INPowering leaders who can cool the passions, moderate the message from inflammatory diatribes to reasoned discourse, and regulate the environment by creating breathing space for conversation and dialogue instead of screaming across partisan divides.
These partisan movements run on the fuel of “B.S.” We must hold all sides, even our own, accountable for the truth in context of their message. If you must lie and twist the facts to make your point, then you don’t have a point.
We must dig a fire line around our passions so they don’t race out of control, igniting what would otherwise not be in jeopardy.
We must create an environment where opposing points of view can be discussed with cool heads and compassionate hearts.
True leadership rises above partisanship. It illuminates.
The why is every bit as important as the what. Maybe more so. Leaders are able to make sense of facts in the larger context in which the facts exist. If they fail to do this, they fail to lead.
My little corner of the world is not the whole world. Although my life is 100-percent of my experience, my life is not the only life, no matter how much I feel like it is.
The way I see events is not the only way to view them. My perspective is not the whole picture. If I’m ever to see the bigger picture I must see it from other points of view. I cannot grasp the entirety of the world from my favorite easy-chair, or in the echo chamber of my closest friends.
To ask a leader to solve my problems without regard for the impact that solution will have on others is folly and myopic, not to mention egocentric. But that’s what we seem to want. Fix my problems for me, and screw the rest of you.
Politics has come down to fragmenting the system into ideological niches from which politicians accumulate enough shards to win an election. Screw the rest of you. That’s not leading. This madness must stop now.
There is a larger why in which my what lives.
I have learned that to find my life, I must lose my life for the sake of something larger than myself.
While I am a teeny-tiny part of a larger whole, what I do affects the whole. I act, and I affect those whom I touch directly, who in turn react to my actions and touch others, who do the same, and so forth.
Leaders see the larger whole and take action that considers both my individual situation and the health of the whole system. Without the system, we all suffer, or even perish.
When I understand this relationship of my corner of the world to the whole world, I can act more rationally and compassionately. I can look around in my immediate vicinity and ask, “What can I do to make things better for myself and others?”
After all, I ripple.