W is for Why
One of the first things you learn when trying to communicate with your nearly two-year-old son is that he doesn’t do “why.” I’m not sure why he doesn’t do “why.” I’ve got my hunches, but since I started reflecting on the “why” of why, I noticed that plenty of us adults also struggle with “why,” so I wondered about that fact too.
I came to the conclusion that “why” is problematic because it likes to repeat itself. Just when you’re feeling clever for having solved the first “why,” out comes the big ol’ can of why whoop-ass with half a dozen more why’s. Next thing you know, you’re trapped beneath the weight of a “why” avalanche, and that’s a pretty big problem to have.
You see, in order to grow, we have to remember what curiosity feels like. You have to keep asking “why,” because “why” is the gateway to wisdom. Think about that for a second. We’re not just talking about people here — plants and animals ask “why,” in their way, if they want to live.
I’m talking about something called systems thinking. Russell Ackoff was a pioneer in this field. In nature, systems thinking refers to the symbiotic relationships of ecosystems; air, water, plants and animals must work together, or perish. It’s systems thinking models that are used to construct explanations for how a small toxin at the bottom of an ocean can result in the localized extinction of a type of native bird. (i.e. plankton eats toxin, small fish eats plankton, larger fish eats small fish, bird eats large fish, bird dies.)
Interestingly, this same branch of science is applied to information management, which can be applied to the contents of the human mind. It
carves up into five parts:
- Data: Here we process symbols into meaning. (For instance, a stop sign means stop.)
- Information: Here we process data into “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when,” questions.
- Knowledge: Here we apply our data and information and may answer “how” questions.
- Understanding: Now we can appreciate “why.”
- Wisdom: Only at the end can we know evaluated understanding.
As a former cellist, this list looks a lot like the journey of the master. The master embarks on his journey as a fool. He knows nearly nothing, but isn’t afraid to appear foolish, so he asks questions. His teachers instructs: This is how you read music. Now he has data. Next comes playing a note. Where do I put my fingers? The teacher instructs: Move your arm like this. Put your fingers here. Now he has information, etc. Over time, the novice becomes less novice, then intermediate, then advanced. The master begins to shed the dead skin of the fool, and his rate of learning begins to slow. Soon he will face a crisis.
People who embark on the path of mastery understand that mastery is something fundamentally different from good old-fashioned ”book learnin’.” Learning from a book teaches the mind, but in mastery, the mind assimilates what it has learned.
I like to think that the path of mastery is nature’s design. Learning slows down for a reason, folks. That Wisdom at the end has got to be earned.
But we were talking about the master’s crisis.
The first crisis facing the master is pride. No longer a fool, how can the master wear his newfound skill and continue to learn, if learning means a willingness to make mistakes and risk the appearance of foolishness?
The second crisis facing the master is the plateau. The young master may decide to look foolish when no one is watching. He may go and make mistakes somewhere remote, bang his head on the wall a few times, lock himself away on the mountain top and emerge at a new level. But the head banging? That’s his frustration with hitting the plateau. The master is still young, and the cycle of learning has yet to be evaluated in favor of putting all his focus on what there is to learn. In other words, he is obsessed with the technique he wants, but he isn’t reflecting on the cycle of learning, so he’s destined for more frustration.
So what is the “cycle of learning?” In this case, let’s call the above list of five ingredients “the cycle of learning,” but add one caveat: There will be plateaus at every step of the way, and that’s ok. It really is. You can’t force mastery any more than you can force a flower to grow faster or Charlie Sheen to shut up. You just can’t do it. Rather, you have to embrace those plateaus. Embrace them, and keep on embracing them as you cycle through those five steps. Remember, if you want to keep an agile mind — keep asking “why.”