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Thursday, March 28, 2013


How to keep learning when people think you know it all.

Most of us are lucky enough to start life out as learners and to stay active learners until we are into young adulthood.  We look at our children and know that their primary job in life is to grow, develop, and learn.  There is an entire world of history, grammar, science, and math for them to absorb.  Childen begin as empty vessels meant to gorge themselves on this feast of knowledge.

Alas, at some point we change.  We stop learning. We move from being learners to being knowers.  Strangely, being someone who ‘knows’ can interfere with being someone who ‘learns’.   Paradoxically, the better we were at learning, the worse this problem can be.  Why does knowing get in the way of learning?  We constantly need to keep learning regardless of how much we knew at some point in time.  But identifying ourselves as an expert, or knowing that others identify us as an expert can make this tricky.

Caught in the vice

Consider Amber, an animator at Pixar.  She came right out of college, having studied computer programming and graphic arts back in the 1990s.  She spent the first two years at Pixar apprenticing under one of the top animators.  Then she got her sea legs and started to really excel in her work.  She’s rapidly acquired new techniques and integrated them in innovative ways that others hadn’t seen before.  Within a decade she was managing her own division and is now herself one of the top dogs.  As manager, Amber has implemented a program for the top experts to teach the new animation techniques to the crew in monthly training sessions.
Amber has risen to a level of prominence where she is responsible for the team’s overall vision, but she doesn’t actually do animation day-to-day anymore.  In the last few years, there have been rapid advances in animation methods and Amber hasn’t had the time to learn about them.  So the big question is whether Amber goes to these training sessions and ask questions, in front of her employees, that will reveal that she no longer is up on the latest techniques.  The stronger her identity is as an expert, the harder it will be to put that identity aside to become a learner again.

It is hard to let others know that you don’t know everything they think you know.  But it’s also essential in order to let yourself out from this self-presentational vice (“I’m the expert, but how do I stay an expert without others seeing I’m not an expert at everything”).

What to do about it

Here are a few suggestions that may help you deal with this.  First, social psychologists have identified a phenomenon called the spotlight effect.  Participants were asked to sit down with a room of 20 strangers wearing an embarrassing Barry Manilow t-shirt (as if there’s any other kind of Barry Manilow shirt!).  Later the person with the shirt on is taken to another room and asked to guess how many other people noticed who was on the t-shirt.  At the same time the 20 strangers are asked to guess who was on the t-shirt.  T-shirt wearers thought many more strangers would know it was Barry Manilow than actually did.
The moral of the spotlight effect is that we think everyone is paying attention to everything we do, consumed with our tiny missteps and bad hair days, but they aren’t.  Why?  Because they are busy thinking about you paying attention to their tiny missteps and bad hair days.  The bad news is that people are pretty self-absorbed thinking others are paying attention to them.  The good news is that people aren’t paying that much attention to you, so don’t worry so much about what others will think if you do x, y, or z.

The other thing that I tend to do to minimize the problem is tell people far in advance about the way our team works and our relative roles.  I tell my first year graduate students that as little as they may know now, in a few years they will assuredly know more about the latest fMRI analysis procedures that I do.  The processes keep changing and it is not the best use of my time to learn each iteration.  My job is to keep the lab focused on a research vision and to know when to implement each technique.  Because I tell them this on day 1, I never feel sheepish when I have to become a learner again in front of the people who have come to learn from me.  Take the time now to remind folks, including yourself, that no matter how much expertise you have, you will continue to be a learner.  If you do that, there’s a pretty good chance you will.

by Matthew D. Lieberman, Ph.D. in Social Brain, Social Mind

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