There’s an incredible amount we don’t know. About self, others, the ever more connected world we live in. Of course, these are the big unknowns we’ve wrestled with since the beginning of time. What about the more immediate and critical? Our organization and functional team, market segment and industry our organization participates in, the related business and financial ecosystem. How much do we know about these? Generally, far less than we’d like to believe. Given how important these are to our success, why is that?
Truth is, we can’t know what we’re not prepared to learn. And most of us are not prepared at all to learn. Let us not mistake difficulties in learning with being prepared to learn. These are two utterly separate items. Being prepared to learn means being in a mental and emotional state that’s receptive to new information. More precisely, to new ways of looking at the same information. This ability to look at information in new ways is dependent on our ability to overcome our own cognitive biases.
At latest counting, there are more than 200 known cognitive biases. Buster Benson, so that we might more readily grasp and understand, reduces the complexity of these to the following conundrums:
· Information | There's too much information to process, and we have limited attention to give, so we filter lots of things out. Noise becomes signal. The downside: we don’t see everything. Some of the information we filter out is actually useful and important.
· Meaning | Lack of meaning is confusing, and we have limited capacity to understand how things fit together, so we create stories to make sense of everything. Signal becomes a story. The downside: our search for meaning can conjure illusions. We sometimes imagine details that were filled in by our assumptions, and construct meaning and stories that aren’t really there.
· Time | We never have enough time, resources, or attention at our disposal to get everything that needs doing done, so we jump to conclusions with what we have and move ahead. Stories become decisions. The downside: quick decisions can be seriously flawed. Some of the quick reactions and decisions we jump to are unfair, self-serving, and counter-productive.
Only counter to cognitive bias, is to accept we don’t know. Having spent the last five years pursuing a PhD. I can painfully attest to how little any of us really know. Even those few who’ve spent their life, or good portions of it, learning a given subject. This humbling acceptance during PhD studies only solidified and intensified acceptance grudgingly come to while serving with Special Forces prior. Namely, we know very little and therefore we must always be prepared to learn. Which requires active and intentioned effort on our part to overcome our own cognitive biases that most prevent us from learning.
Nothing is what we think it is and everything is changing. This makes being prepared to learn a perpetual requirement. Something Special Forces has built into every aspect of its initial and ongoing education programs and into every aspect of one’s career development. Because while it’s one thing to misjudge a movement in your industry, missing a quarter sales target or misjudging a product or product launch. In Special Forces, it’s quite another thing to allow cognitive biases to prevent us from approaching each situation as if we must learn from it.
Overcoming cognitive biases is impossible without very real existential pain. This is due to fact that at a neurological level, updates to our knowing are very expensive. Particularly as we age and develop greater degrees of knowledge and understanding. Evolutionary processes have built cognitive biases into the human brain, in order to reduce the need for expensive updates. Secondary to this, evolution has built in anxiety, anger, other disruptive emotions and tools such as judgement, shame and related. These specifically to reduce likelihood we will go on and commit to overcoming cognitive bias.
Despite these powerful evolutionary processes. There are a few simple rules, which if applied. Allow us to both overcome our cognitive biases and the evolution driven punishment for doing so:
· Embrace the pain | If your brain is putting up discomfort or pain signals. You’re approaching an unknown with cognitive bias, preventing you from finding the truth. Truth is personally painful. Let the pain be, don’t get caught up in it. Seek the truth, and the sensation of pain will subside.
· Stop projecting | Greatest tool cognitive bias has to sustain itself, greater than expensive pain, is projection. That is, prejudging an individual, situation, event, before actual experience. Truth is not projected. Don’t project your assessments upon individuals, situations or events prior to specifically experiencing each individually.
· Stop being complacent | Third powerful tool the brain has available to prevent overcoming cognitive bias, if pain and projection fail. Is feeling comfortable about what we believe we know. Truth doesn’t allow complacence. As we never truly know anything, complacence is dangerous. Never stop being prepared to learn from absolutely everything.
These are the only ways available to us to overcome cognitive bias in order we may be prepared to learn at all times. As with Special Forces, these rules should be built into the values and culture of your organization. Whether you’re a team, a startup, a corporation or any other organization of any kind. However, make no mistake, this way of being. At times, it’s going to hurt. Evolution, seeking efficiency over quality, has ensured being prepared to learn is unpleasant.
Simply put. Reducing it all down to the very most basic. It’s as we like to say in Special Forces. Embrace the suck! Allowing ourselves to feel existential pain, stopping ourselves from projecting on others and never allowing ourselves to be complacent. Combined, these are only way we actually learn.
E.M. Burlingame: Founder Emerio Group and the Honos Foundation | Author of Starving for Leadership and As Rome Burns
Actively engaged, leveraging diverse experience and skills developed during 30 years in technology, entrepreneurship, startup investing and Special Operations to identify and develop the next generation of startup leaders globally.