You don't know what you don't know.


Please note: If you like the content on this page, many of the pieces on this site have been edited, updated, merged, consolidated, or entirely rewritten (as necessary) for inclusion into my new book series (which also features entirely new content).


You don’t know what you don’t know.

“To know how good you are at something requires the same skills that it does to be good that thing. Which means if you are absolutely hopeless at something, you lack exactly the skills that you need to know you are absolutely hopeless at it.

And this is a profound discovery — that most people who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing have absolutely no idea that they have no idea what they doing. It explains a great deal of life. It explains, particularly, Hollywood. But it also explains why so many people, in charge of so many organizations, have no idea what they are doing. They have a terrible blind spot.”

— John Cleese (9:00 into the video below)

The quote above is from a talk given by John Cleese about creativity (video below). It’s 10 minutes long and certainly worth watching if you have the time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAwDWe7OIF8

I originally posted this video to my facebook page shortly after it was put on youtube in 2009 and transcribed the quote above. I went searching for this quote while writing my post on the Dunning-Kruger effect — as it’s related — but decided it keep it separate from that post (no sense in overwhelming you, right?)…

And as I mentioned in that post, it fascinates me that we can have these huge differences in how we interpret the world — and even more so, as Cleese points out, that we can have blind spots in our awareness. Our level of awareness is what we draw upon to interpret what happens in our lives — from what we see when we look at a photograph or painting, to what we hear in a conversation, or how we interpret events as they unfold in front of us.

If you haven’t seen this Awareness Test video (below) — and there’s a good chance you have, I know I’ve linked to it from various places before — including this blog post from “Day 169” — but if you haven’t seen it, it can be an eye-opener…

It’s amazing how the mind works… and with that in, uh, mind…

Do.you.want.to.play.a.game?

Of course you do — it’s easy. I want to see if I can alter your present “reality” and “level of awareness” simply by having you read a couple lines of text…

Ready? Take a moment to relax…

The air going into and our of your lungs — you are now aware of it and the effort you’re expending to breathe it in and out. In fact, you are now breathing manually. In, out, in, out.

You are now aware of the fact your clothes are touching your skin and you can feel them.

You are now aware that every time you swallow you can hear a little crackle in your ears.

You are now aware that your nose is constantly in your peripheral vision.

You are now aware of your tongue and what it is doing — quite possibly looking for comfortable place in your mouth.

Ok…

So how well that works depends on where you are and whether you’re calm or whether you’re frantically reading my blog just trying to catch up.

But if it worked, then at least one of those things opened up your level of awareness — albeit on a very limited scale. But still — if it can happen on this level, it can happen on others.

Perception is reality — except when it’s not.

Not only are we not aware of things outside of our awareness, there are times when what we actually see isn’t accurate. While I’m talking about life experience, I think this phenomenon is best exemplified with an illusion…

What do you see when you look at the image below — if you are like most people, you see a checkerboard of alternating light gray and dark gray tiles.

No big deal — except that the dark tile labeled “A”  and the light tile labeled “B” are exactly the same color.

If you’re like most people, it doesn’t seem possible — clearly they are different colors — but it’s true, they are the exact same color.

Now imagine if you were unaware of this illusion and the checkerboard wasn’t labeled. Imagine if someone told you that those two tiles were exactly the same color — you’d probably think they were crazy — except you’d be wrong.

Now imagine a time when someone presented you with some information you found very difficult to believe, but they swore it was true.

It’s easier to see that they are exactly the same color if you connect them:

Freaky, isn’t it?

And I assure you, there is no “trick”. For my own, uh, reality check, I brought the image into photoshop and compared the colors — they are the same.

Awareness & Personal Bias

So not only do we not see everything — some of how we interpret what we do see isn’t even accurate. Except we don’t even know it’s not accurate — basically, we have no idea that we have no idea it’s not accurate — so it’s very possible to believe something as true, even when it’s false.

Part of overcoming blind spots is simply education and experience — the more you learn and are willing to open yourself up to different points of view, the more you are able to see and be aware of in life. But gaining an education in a particular area doesn’t necessarily show you things that you consciously (or unconsciously!) gloss over or block out because you don’t accept them.

Research shows that people have a tendency to avoid information that contradicts what they already think or believe. It is also why we have a tendency to hear what we want to hear in conversations (for good or ill) and filter out the rest.

Excerpted from “Why we only listen to what we want to hear” 02 Jul 2009...

The research, published in this month’s Psychological Bulletin, the journal of the American Psychological Association, analysed data from 91 studies involving nearly 8,000 participants.

It was focused on trying to reach a definitive answer to what has been a longstanding debate among psychologists over whether people actively avoid information that contradicts what they believe or whether they are simply exposed more often to ideas that conform to their own because they tend to be surrounded by like-minded people.

“We wanted to see exactly across the board to what extent people are willing to seek out the truth versus just stay comfortable with what they know,” said University of Illinois psychology professor Dolores Albarracín, who led the study.

The research found that people were in general twice as likely to select information that supported their own point of view as to consider an opposing idea, with two thirds going for supportive views as opposed to a third going the other way.

Some people, particularly those with more close-minded personalities, were even more reluctant to expose themselves to differing perspectives.

They tended to opt for information that corresponded to their views nearly three quarters of the time, argued Albarracín.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people were more resistant to new points of view when their own ideas were associated with political, religious or ethical values. (Full article)

When it comes to reading personal correspondence, when ambiguity exists in the information presented, a reader often projects how they are feeling at the time into the text being read — regardless of how it was intended.

So if you receive a text message while in a horrible mood, you are much more likely to interpret the message differently than you would if you were having a fabulous day. I know I’ve experienced this — I’m sure most people have.

And in the case of face to face communication, research suggests that nonverbal communication can account for up to 80% of communication — think about that!

It’s not what’s being said so much as how it’s being presented (body posture, tone of voice, facial expressions, and eye movements) — and that leaves an awful lot of communication open to interpretation.

Unspoken Communication (comic)

[jcolumns][jcol/][/jcolumns]

On the highway of life, if you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you.

That’s what it says on the back of many tractor trailer trucks — and it’s true. While you may clearly be following them, they cannot see back there if you cannot see their mirrors. Truck drivers are aware of their blind spots — they want you to be aware of them, too.

As human beings, we all have blind spots — but as has been pointed out, we don’t know what we don’t know. But there are there are a number ways to increase our vision…

One of the most important ways is simply being aware that we have blind spots — and even if when we’re not dealing with our own, we might be dealing with others’. It helps to actively be on the lookout for instances in which we (or those we are communicating with) might not be seeing or experiencing everything there is to see & experience.

For example, if you were presented with another video awareness test — or if you had already watched the awareness test above — you would likely be more inclined to look for more than what you were being told to direct your attention to.

In my own efforts to minimize blind spots, I’ve devised a personal “blind spot check checklist” — no, it’s not the best title, it didn’t need one until now — and it kind of reminds me of woodchucks…

If a woodchuck had a blind spot check checklist, how many blind spot checks could a woodchuck check off his blind spot check checklist?” Orrrrrr, maybe not.

  • Do I have all the information about this situation or experience?
  • Am I seeing everything there is to see — is it possible I am not aware of everything?
  • Is it possible that I’ve been misdirected?
  • Is it possible that some bit of information I take for granted could actually be false or misinterpreted?

Another key to opening one’s awareness is maintaining an open mind. In fact, I think the questions above actually require an open mind. I mean, if you’re not open to questioning your own perspective and what you think you know or see to be true, then there’s very little chance that anyone or anything is going to come along and change your mind (as the study published in the Psychological Bulletin suggests).

Integrative Thinking.

And yet another key to expanding one’s level of awareness — I think — is integrative thinking. Oooh – a new term. Yep.

I only recently became aware of the term after researching an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

And — as I interpret it — that’s what integrative thinking is, the ability to hold two (or more) diametrically opposed ideas in one’s head without immediately settling on just one or the other. This balancing act is also a sign of an open mind.

Roger Martin, the author of “The Opposable Mind” (which is on my reading list) puts it this way:  [Integrative thinking is] “The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.”

I realize I’m a bit squirrely today — jumping from “awareness/perspective” to the Dunning-Kruger effect to John Cleese’s talk on creativity to integrative thinking — and heck, let’s throw in group social dynamics, too — but they’re all related (at least in my mind — and more specifically than just “Psychology”).

Demonstration of people with clearly different levels of awareness…

This has always been one of my favorite scenes from The Bourne Identity. I understand it’s fiction, but I think it clearly demonstrates differences in level of awareness — Jason Bourne being at the extreme end of the spectrum:

Jason Bourne: Who has a safety deposit box full of… money and six passports and a gun? Who has a bank account number in their hip? I come in here, and the first thing I’m doing is I’m catching the sightlines and looking for an exit.

Marie: I see the exit sign, too, I’m not worried. I mean, you were shot. People do all kinds of weird and amazing stuff when they are scared.

Jason Bourne: I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab or the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I know that? How can I know that and not know who I am?

Question your sources, question yourself.

I could write several pages about this, but I’m going to spare you from me adding any more to this long post.

Instead, I bow to Siddharta, who I think says it best…

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

— Buddha (Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.)

Enjoy the trip

Leave a Comment

Shares
Click here for details about my new book.