Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Are you too smart for your own good?

OK, it’s gut check time. Are you too smart for your own good? Or did you listen once too often when your mother told you that "curiosity killed the cat"?

Here's what I mean. Every day you’re being presented with (maybe even bombarded with) new information - at work, through the various media to which you subscribe, and from friends and contacts. How much of the new data are you discarding out of hand? Are you automatically saying to yourself, “Been there, done that, studied that in college, got an A…” and then filtering it out without even looking at it or evaluating whether it could be beneficial or applicable to you?

Sometimes it does seem like it might be easier to avoid upsetting the apple cart of your habits and predispositions by ignoring incoming information that might be disruptive. I talk a lot about filters in this blog – attitudinal filters, perspectives, assumptions, unwritten rules and such. This particular filter - one of blocking incoming information - is one that results from a person thinking they already have enough of a good thing. They see a piece of information and extract maybe 10% of it. The rest they critique, discount, consider the source, or outright discard.

I'm an information junkie - there, I said it - especially in areas that interest me, so I admit to having a bias on this topic. But I ask you: how much opportunity might you be missing because you’re glossing over potential input that you view as being beneath you?
Personal continuous improvement has no end zone, no finish line. There are four stages of personal development:

1.Unconscious incompetence - This is a stage some people call "blissful ignorance." It's the point where you don't know what you don't know. Everyone else around you might see it, but you don't. You might have observed this in someone who has taken the stage at a karaoke bar, and whose confidence and enthusiasm is far greater than their ability to carry a tune, bucket or no bucket. Just remember not to make fun, because when you're pointing at somebody else, three of your fingers are pointing back at you!

2.Conscious incompetence - At this stage you realize what you don't know, whether through a training program, a whack on the side of the head, or criticism from a trusted source. Conscious incompetence is not comfortable, which is one of the reasons why you might be avoiding new information.

3.Conscious competence - Fortunately, if you train yourself or allow yourself to be trained by somebody who knows more than you do, you can become consciously competent. This means that you know it and can do it, but you have to be thinking about it. You can observe this when you see a child move their lips when they are learning to read silently - they transfer their skills from reading aloud by "reading along" with their brain.

4.Unconscious competence - By the time you reach unconscious competence your information is so ingrained that you don't even realize it's there until you're in the company of someone who doesn't have it. You are on autopilot, completing the task without having to think about it. An example of unconscious competence would be the ability you acquired with years of driving experience. You automatically ( I hope) hit the gas and brake pedals at the appropriate times, automatically enough that you can sing along with the radio at the same time.

Unfortunately, texting or applying makeup while driving in the car require too much attention for your unconscious competence to prevail, no matter how much driving experience you have. Thus the incidence of auto accidents when too much multi-tasking is taking place. You have now moved back into quadrant 1 in your driving - unconscious incompetence - well, at least untill your car bumps the one in front of you. Once you actually hit someone or get stopped by your local friendly police officer I think you'll be conscious that you messed up.

Silly driving example aside, the point is that you’re never “done.” The stages of learning, of competence, are cyclical. You might have been a world-renowned ace at using a slide rule, but hello – no matter how fast you are you can’t beat the computation power of even today’s most underpowered PDA. You used to be unconsciously competent at computation, but now that the rules and tools have changed you’ve passed back into incompetence and didn’t even notice.

I told you earlier that I'm an information junkie, but I trust that I've made my case for keeping your eyes, ears, and brains open. Curiosity won't (usually) kill you. Being not too smart is a good thing.

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