“One of the poets, whose name I cannot recall, has a passage, which I am unable at the moment to remember, in one of his works, which for the time being has slipped my mind, which hits off admirably this age-old situation.” ― P. G. Wodehouse
It never fails to amaze me, though possibly it shouldn’t, that as soon as I post my thoughts, within days there appear multiple confirmations of the same phenomena. Here are at least two,
1 “How To Get Smart” is Jessica Hagy’s recent post on Forbes that beautifully paints a simple picture and strategy of pursuing this path to Wisdom, and
2 “Serial Killers Should Fear This Algorithm” from BloombergBusinessweek. A perfect example of what happens when organizations stop pursuing process and practice and slide back into the Place of Little Effort. The overall picture of police departments landing there is not encouraging. It’s also probably not fair. Perhaps here we should call theirs the Place of Such Highly Focused Effort That We Reached the Point of Blindness (reading the article will help).
Nice to have the confirmations and additional instances that support believing we’re on the right track, but let’s press on.
So, What Other Stupid Stuff Do We Do?
It appears fairly predictable that without continuing to pay attention in an area where we have reached some measure of Understanding and/or Wisdom, our detailed understanding will begin to fade bit by bit, like P. G. Wodehouse. This I called The Understanding Erosion, and by which we eventually can end up in the Place of Little Effort. Here we first begin to feel Comfortable, then Complacent, and then pretty soon Firmly Ensconced. We become Cognitive Couch Potatoes.
In organizations we would call these places Silos. We don’t think of them as Places of Little Effort because we’re very busy with well-developed skills and specific information, like police departments and “linkage blindness.” But this is still an Information Trap, because there can be insufficient interaction with other Departments that have the needed missing yet pertinent information.
While that sketch is a simplified slice through reality, it’s not quite the whole picture.
This is, so to speak, a conceptual snapshot in time where three individuals might have landed while on their ascents along a Wisdom Path. Not surprisingly, experience suggests that these Wisdom Paths (colored arrows below) can be quite different and might now resemble the following,
Predictable differences include not only starting and ending points, but also length, direction, and steepness (which can’t be pictured here because we’re stuck in two dimensions), and the obvious one of height or altitude (the “peak” of Wisdom, so to speak. Sorry.).
I imagine these Wisdom Paths as more like climbs up and along a mountain crest, well above any valleys below. Thanks to the realities of too much information coming too fast and the way our minds process stuff into memory, the inevitable Understanding Erosion can be pictured as the result of mental gravity pulling us down towards or into a valley somewhere.
Thus we arrive at the Stupid Things about the Stupid Things we do: since we worked our way up along a Wisdom crest in one arena, we believe that we can simply redirect our attention and arrive (or have already arrived) at the same level of Wisdom in some other arena. (Partially true. It’s not an incorrect assumption, but it is an incomplete assumption: Stupid omission #1).
Now, since we don’t notice that we can be sliding down the slippery slope into the Place of Little Effort, we are also unaware of how much more effort it will take to ascend along another Wisdom Path in a different arena: Stupid omission #2. Somehow we think Scotty will beam us across.
In addition, the situation is worsened by believing that since we sufficiently mastered the process to get to Wisdom in one arena and since we continue to feel comfortable with the lower level of available information that “maintains” this Wisdom level (the Availability Heuristic and Confirmation Bias at work), we easily assume that the same process coupled with a similar but lower level of incoming but different information will get us to Wisdom in the next arena: Stupid omission #3 – not recognizing that the lower level of new information in the new arena by its nature must be incomplete (Fundamental Principle 6).
Thus we arrive at yet another Self-Fulfilling Fallacy: having processed our way to Wisdom in some arena, we lose this Wisdom by slipping back into the Place of Little Effort while simultaneously believing we still have it (Wisdom), and to top it off, we do not realize we’ve also lost the Other Wisdom that is the actual act of Processing Stuff To Get There.
In other words, Use it or Lose it. In this case it really is more about the Journey (Process), not the Destination (Wisdom).
As a result, what we as individuals typically observe in action is Fundamental Principle 5, the Three Types of People: those who climb rocks (they progress ascending up Wisdom Paths in multiple arenas); those who stumble over rocks (those who hit obstacles and struggle with the process along the path); and those who throw rocks (those who, unknowingly, have succumbed to The Understanding Erosion and end up in a valley, but still think they’re on a high crest, probably in more than one arena. They don’t “get” that they don’t “get” something, but think they do (Fundamental Principle 7)).
We come across people like this everyday in organizations and nations, especially in leadership. It was recognizing this that led me to decide to take with a grain of salt various highly publicized position statements (pontifications), for example, from a number of people in the entertainment industry.
Think of it this way, with few exceptions, why should we take seriously strong statements in a non-entertainment arena by someone who makes their living by pretending to be someone else in a fictitious story contrived to fit into a limited timeframe by a second party who condensed and significantly modified a fantasy story written by a third party? (Recall our earlier picture of information degradation by applying too many filters. Also consider here certain examples that are specifically called “Documentaries.”)
The few exceptions in any arena, I think, are those people who have demonstrated the effort to go through the process of working their way up another Wisdom Path and are openly transparent about it. Scrutiny, or peer review, can then be applied to any cross-discipline pursuits and competency seen in both process and the filtering of information.
First, The Problem
We have to recognize and accept that the above description of The Understanding Erosion is actually operating in us. We need to become more self-aware. If we can be transparent and honest with ourselves, this should be possible. At least to a degree. For most of us.
Then, The Solutions
There are options for dealing with it. Surprisingly, I think a number of these have been in existence for quite a while, just not adequately understood or applied (drat, another confirmation).
The first that I was exposed to and is still around but just not as “in” at the moment, arises from the work of Hersey and Blanchard. This is the concept of Situational Leadership, where the leader recognizes that different types of leading (Telling, Selling, Collaborating, or Delegating) depend upon what style is best for a person in whatever situation that person currently is. The breakthrough here is recognizing that different styles can be needed during the same day in different arenas of responsibility.
We can think of the primary objective of Situational Leadership, then, as employing differing styles of leadership in the process of developing the subordinate to reach and maintain a place of “Wisdom,” a place where they are both self-motivated and self-directed in an area of responsibility. But this does not seem to place enough or any emphasis on developing the subordinate’s understanding of the process by which he/she is being developed. The objective is still more on developing people to the point where they fit nicely into maintaining the organization’s goals and objectives (products and services). Perhaps that’s a Place of Adequate Effort. Nice additional consequences are the people who are self-starters and “get” the process. But people development is neither the main or supplemental objective. And many leaders are not gifted or equipped to increase their focus and time on this specific aspect of people development.
That’s where the concept of Mentoring comes in. This is the increasing organizational emphasis on finding and/or providing a mentor, an experienced person to guide a less-experienced one. Typically this is just for a short career related season.
I think, however, that Mentoring would have far greater impact if considered as a long-term relationship focused on life as well as career whose objective is developing the ultimate powerful but intangible Wisdom:
Learning to Understand and Practice the Process of reaching and maintaining Wisdom.
What we need, then, is a Sherpa or two to keep us up on the Wisdom crest. For the rest of life. That would be brilliant.