The Tyranny of Knowing

What do you know about your work?  I mean, really know?

The reality is that we all believe we know a lot more than we actually do.  In fact, in all facets of life, we walk through situations believing we have more knowledge than we do.  It’s part of being human.

Each day our brains take in almost incalculable amounts of data and discard the vast majority of it as irrelevant or duplicative – non-essential to what we need to function in that moment.  Think of all the visuals, sounds, textures, tastes, temperatures, movements, etc., that our brains take in as data and respond to every moment.  Right now, for instance, as you read this, your brain is translating these words on your screen, you are aware of a conversation out in the hall, your fingertips are feeling the warmth of your coffee mug, etc.  The diversity of data we receive is incredible and the sheer volume is staggeringly massive.

Imagine if we had to question, re-learn, or re-understand every piece of minute data that we experience each time we experience it.  Every move.  Every interaction.  Every texture.  Every communication. Every symbol.  Every word.  Every sound.  Every stimuli.  Our senses would quickly overload our brains and our lives would grind to a paralytic halt.

So instead, our brains automatically construct and consistently refer to patterns of data and experiences so that we can make decisions in a timely manner.  These patterns help us quickly make sense of our worlds by, in part, discarding the non-interesting or irrelevant data and information.  By using these patterns to quickly discard data, our brains make efficient assumptions which encourage us to believe we know a whole bunch more than we actually do.  Sometimes these assumptions can be huge.  For example, can you make out the famous individual in this picture even though it is upside down?Screen-Shot-2016-03-04-at-14.52.44

Of course you can!  It is Angelina Jolie.  Pretty simple, right?

And, if you are like most people, you didn’t really notice much of anything wrong with this picture.  Instead, your brain quickly utilized its pattern recognition ability, threw out what it deemed meaningless information, and gave you the answer.

But now, look at the same picture right-side-up:

Angelina-Jolie-Inverted--35328

Yes, that’s freaky.  If you’re like most people, your brain glossed right over the fact that her lips and eyes were upside down in the first picture.  It wasn’t scanning for that kind of information, it was just using previous patterns to identify the individual.  So, your brain didn’t pay close attention to some data and instead, gave you a clear sense that you knew the answer.

A tremendous amount of what we think we “know,” is made up of the beliefs, assumptions, fears, and opinions based on the many patterns our brains have created and stored from our previous experiences.  And in most cases, those patterns are incomplete and sometimes completely inaccurate when viewed from another perspective.

As professionals, the problem with “knowing” is that the more we believe we know, the greater chance we have to dismiss opportunities to be exceptional.  Why should I listen to the idea from that new person on our team when I already “know” how this event should go from past experience?  How can a younger team member offer anything to me when I “know” more than she could have yet learned?  I “know” my portfolio of donors better than anyone.  How can someone else help me create donor strategy?  Our brain’s patterns and the assumptions they create are critically important to being efficient and effective.  But being mindful that those patterns are operating is equally critical.

When you hear yourself proclaim:  “What I know is. . .” or “I’m certain that. . .” pause and ask yourself, “do I really know this, or is it an assumption at work?”  You might just find that you don’t know as much as you think.  None of us do.  And you’ll be a much better professional when you make that assumption.

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