Humans usually remember things best when told as a story.
Everyone says experience is the best education. However, looking backwards is often subconsciously clouded with emotional biases and incomplete information that form inaccurate conclusions that restrict our ability to keep an open mind, hindering our ability to see objectively.
Missing the Prize
A few weeks ago, I was sitting on the edge of my seat after having given the best presentation that I had ever done in my life. $75,000 in prize money was being handed out to recipients decided by a panel of judges. I had spent weeks preparing, attending workshops, and thinking from every possible angle that I could. Evocado was a finalist in the San Diego Social Innovation Challenge, and I put up the best case I possibly could.
We didn’t walk away with any money, sending me into a tailspin of questions. What did I do wrong? What questions did I fail to answer? What distinguished the winning ventures from my venture?
Looking back, one option that I have is to continue asking these questions, forming hypotheses about why we didn’t make the cut, but ultimately, they would be guesses at best. Even if I applied all the psychology research and business knowledge that I have acquired up to this point, I will always have my own, personally biased version of the story.
No matter who you are, everyone sees the world through some kind of mental model. Mental models, or frameworks, allow us to identify things quickly, make sense of the world, and make decisions. It is these frameworks that often form our identity and give us a sense of belonging.
These mental models can be established by the people around us, cultural traditions, or even our own personal experiences. And while frameworks are helpful in our day to day processes, no framework is able to completely and holistically explain every experience.
Thus, moving from ignorance to understanding requires an awareness of the areas we are short-sighted in seeing, and the interpretations of experiences that may not be completely accurate. It also helps to have a basic understanding of how our mental models are formed in order to better recognize patterns and points when we may be suspect to logical fallacies that make us blind to new perspectives.
Neuroplasticity and the Learning Paradox
When we are born into the world, we are as close, although not completely, to empty slates as most of us ever will be. Being completely new to the world, our lack of experiences allows us the ability to have a completely open mind. But as we grow, many of our experiences as children create a framework through which we see the world.
It is this naivety and vulnerability that describes the neuroplasticity that children are known for having. Because of the fact that children often have no preconceptions or otherwise crippling beliefs, they are able to learn languages and adapt to situations much faster than adults are. Children are able to learn languages just by being around foreign language speakers, can easily pick up sports and other kinesthetic skills, and are able to adapt socially at an extremely rapid pace.
However, the more people learn, the more that their openness to learn generally shrinks. By nature, learning is exclusive. When you learn something about the world, you often have to exclude other explanations that fail to align with the explanation that you’ve learned. If I learn that one plus one equals two, I also learn that one plus one does not equal three, or four, or any other number besides one.
Such a learning process is helpful for objective fields of study such as math, but very few lines of work are as purely rational as math is. Even being a mathematician or engineer is layered in with subjective approaches, ideas, and history. When we apply the exclusive learning process to subjective areas, what happens is that we focus in on one explanation or approach that works for us, and we tend to exclude other explanations and approaches that may work better.
This leads us to the paradox that the more we learn, the more we are prone to unintentionally excluding other opportunities and ideas from our minds, even if learning allows us to open up to even more new possibilities.
The Beginner vs the Expert
This means that no matter how experienced you are in a field, there is value in regularly resetting and questioning the fundamental basis of your experience to help you come at it with a beginner’s mind. The irony of being an expert is a similar thought experiment to the learning paradox, as the more expertise you gain, the more you are prone to stick to it.
We see this in company cycles all throughout history. Market experts cling onto their traditional approaches, even while markets and industries shift toward new approaches, allowing younger businesses to overtake the incumbents, sometimes literally overnight.
And sometimes, the innovation that defeats the market expert was developed by the expert themselves. Digital photography was invented by Kodak, famous for the “Kodak moment” slogan, only to written off by the company as too terrible of quality and too expensive to bring to market. Eventually this exact technology would lead to their downfall, giving way to companies like Instagram who successfully achieved a mentality of “Kodak moments” without marketing it that way at all.
Thus, especially after reaching expertise in an area, it is valuable to always be learning the new ways of doing things.
The Confirmation Bias
On the contrary to the learning paradox that makes people unable to see new approaches, the confirmation bias happens when we prematurely adopt a hypothesis before considering all possible explanations.
When someone begins believing a subjective statement to be true, we often start to force concrete events to support our subjective statements. For example, one mental model of the world that was prevalent historically was the idea that the sun revolved around the earth. With this mental model, the experience of the sun rising and setting on a daily basis would support the hypothesis that the sun revolved around the earth, even though we have now proved that the earth actually revolves around the sun.
This attribution error of data to support the wrong hypothesis happens all the time. While data at it’s very core is free from value judgments, the interpretation of data can go many different ways. And if we have preconceived explanations of what we believe to be true, it’s easy to overlook a bigger, more obvious explanation.
Thus, when we look back at past experiences, it’s easy to assign value judgments to our experiences in a way that supports our mental models, even if they are incomplete or incorrect. The confirmation bias is especially challenging to recognize because it often stems from theories we have already adopted, making it very hard to recognize until data comes along that runs completely counter to our hypothesis, forcing us either to throw out the data point or completely change our mental model to explain the new data point as well as everything that has already happened.
The Narrative Fallacy
Similar to the confirmation bias, the narrative fallacy occurs when we believe something to be true because of a story that we heard or a personal example we know.
Humans are naturally emotional and irrational creatures that are attracted to emotional stories more so than logic. Stories are easy for us to remember not because we remember exactly how a story unfolds, but because we remember how a story makes us feel. Thus, it is easier for us to remember a few stories that stick out that support a certain perspective or view than it is for us to consider the aggregate data.
For instance, just because every person you know named Steve goes to college doesn’t mean that naming your child Steve will necessarily make him any more smarter than the average person.
Just like how it would be malpractice in statistics to make sweeping conclusions based on a tiny sample size, the narrative fallacy suggests that most of our conclusions and theories about the world that are based on stories and/or experiences are equally as fallible.
How to Recognize Helpful Hindsight
However, despite the fact that looking back may not generate the most accurate of interpretations and explanations, it would also be just as foolish to simply throw away everything that we’ve experienced. Thus, the point in this situation is to discern when we need to look outside of our past experiences and be open to a new perspective.
Properly recognizing lessons to be learned from experiences means being cognizant of the different fallacies and paradoxes that we subconsciously operate on, and try recognizing those whenever possible. And like any scientist or statistician, any conclusions that we come to based on an experience should be repeatable, reliable, and applicable.
By regularly questioning our core beliefs, we are better able to be open to schools of thought that challenge our personal beliefs and avoid being perpetually stuck in an endless cycle of the narrative fallacy, confirmation bias, and learning paradox that makes it increasingly difficult to see new perspectives the longer we remain in old ones.