Friday, January 29, 2016

Learning to love the moment when you realize you don't know...

Every so often... 
something happens to make me worry that I missed something really big in my education. That happened again earlier this week. It shot a cold, sharp spike down my spine.
It started innocently enough with a radio story on NPR about children’s toys, and how adults are continually increasing the amount of structured-by-adults playtime. I was just driving to work, listening to the story and enjoying myself.
That was all fine. But then the interviewer starting talking with social psychologists about “executive functions” and “self regulation” and how well-known tests could measure the efficacy of task and attention management in schoolroom settings. I understood the terms well enough, but as the learned experts kept talking, I realized that I didn’t know this area of psych very well at all. Had it changed all that much since I studied it? It was abundantly clear that there was an established set of knowledge about how people manage themselves, their tasks and their focus of attention… and I didn’t know all that much about their world views on this. I suddenly felt a bit like a New Guinea highlander dropped into Times Square — all the words made sense, but I didn’t really know the landscape, the people or the buildings — it was all consistent and sensible, just slightly foreign.
At that moment in the back of your mind you begin to panic just the tiniest bit; what do I not know, and how long have I not known it? A minor birdsong of doubt starts singing annoyingly.
I’ve done professional research in this area! How could I NOT know this literature?
That’s part of the problem: it’s a body of work, a “literature” that refers to itself, is contained within its conferences and scholarly papers. Knowing that is also part of the fun (and cause of panicky moments) in research studies. If it’s not something you continually monitor, it will change and grow larger and richer while you’re not looking.
I no longer am stressed by the notion that there is a literature about executive functioning. Once I started reading, I also started recognizing names, concepts, universities, and even a paper or two on the topics that I could mentally link with.
But there it was… just a few, bald, slightly embarrassing moments when I suddenly felt a bit like a fraud, as though all my training and background reading had failed me.
Ah, but you’ve got to love moments like this, when you suddenly realize that the world is bigger, broader and much more interesting than you might have believed. And this is the time and point to start to do a search to learn something new. We live in a search-enabled world where you can self-educate on a moment’s notice.
When I watch my kids struggling to learn something new, I see that the natural tendency is to shy away from the learning moments. Face it — learning is hard, painful and makes you feel dumb. You’ve got to believe that the time and effort invested in the abrasive parts of the learning process will pay off in the end. It’s absolutely essential that you know that fact, recognize feeling that way, and can recognize those moments of learning. When you feel dumb, awkward and slow is the way you know you’re learning. But you’ve got to believe that working through it can and will lead you to proficiency.
It’s counterintuitive. And it might even be slightly pathological, but if you’re at all curious, you’ve learned to recognize the struggle and pain as a bona fide “good thing.” We’ve converted that pain from an irritant into a friend. And that’s probably the hardest lesson of all. Learning that the moment of discomfort leads to finding out something new about the world, and growing as a consequence.
And that moment, my friends, is when I start to search... 


  1. Thanks for this! I would love to read more of your essays in the future, if that's how you write. Midway reading, I was comparing your writing with that of the late Oliver Sacks, whom I regret not having been my uncle, or at least never having met in person.

    My main problem with the learning process is not that it's hard, it's essentially that it's too alluring and addictive. A trip to the meanders of wonderful linking subjects is prone to get me going for hours and hours away from what I should be doing. In the end —there's never an end, just blind alleys in an infinite maze—, I succumb to the knock-out feeling that I should know more, always more. And the next morning my mind wakes me up on the same carousel.

  2. Beautifully stated. The advantages of search, GNow, and G+ are allowing continual update and discovery for constant revisions. The emphasis on the contingency nature of knowledge and its application has never been so clearly delineated. I appreciate this blog.

  3. could that ever fit in the dash of a self-directed conveyance?
    it's sooo big

  4. fwiw: knowing sometimes takes some time, and even then, the lesson(s) is not integrated — Feynman/NPR/MTI/Challenger disaster related…
    Bob Ebeling
    Roger Boisjoly
    Feynman Online
    Online Ethics Center