There is always more to know

We often wrongly assume that small pockets of our knowledge are robust robust and complete. That we know all we can know about a people, an events, a phenomenon.

This is because we close ourselves off to new information once we know enough to interact with something reliably. We learn enough to not get our heads bitten off and leave it at that.

Our picture then calcifies around the information we have, making it difficult for us to update our views when new information becomes available.

If we’ve only known someone to be kind, and they suddenly do something cruel – we write it off or say it’s out of character. If we see that cruelty much closer to the first impression, it’s more likely to influence our view.

But we need to remember that we have never seen the full picture. There is always another perspective, always another view and there is so much information which will always remain hidden to us.

This is why we should always be willing to accept new information and update our views.

We need to remember that we’re only ever working with scraps of insight, that the picture is always bigger and richer than we could imagine. That no matter how confident we are in our knowledge, that there is always more to know.

The value of a non-binary outlook

We’re binary creatures who like to think in absolutes:
Yes / No.
Black / White.
In group / Out group.

It’s an easier way to think about the world. Once we categorise something, we tend to fix it in position. That way, we don’t have to spend time and brain resources re-classifing it each time we encounter it.

If that plant is safe to eat today, let’s assume it will be safe to eat tomorrow.

If our Alice is trustworthy today, let’s assume she will be trustworthy tomorrow.

Since there are only two options, there has to be a pretty fundamental shift in circumstances for something to switch. And we’d notice something that fundamental. Wouldn’t we?

A binary outlook helps us to reduce the ongoing burden of thinking, but that comes at a cost. It means we fail to account for the fact that most things exist on a spectrum. And they shift. Constantly.

That plant isn’t always safe to eat.

Jill isn’t always trustworthy.

Having a binary perspective also blinds us to lessons which we need to relearn.

We “know” that family is important.

We “know” that exercise is good for our health.

Our binary outlook would tell us that these are things we know, principles we value. But our actions might betray a deeper truth. We know something intellectually, but we haven’t yet realised that knowledge. We haven’t put it into practice. We haven’t made it real.

Or, more likely, we’ve been overtaken by circumstance and have forgotten what we “know”.

The pressure has mounted at work and the importance of family or excercise or eating well has receded into the background.

It’s easy for us to get caught up in the moment and for our knowledge to become difficult to access. When pressured or stressed we can forget what we know and act out of character.

This is why it’s important we keep a non-binary view of our knowledge and beliefs. Because our knowledge (like most things) exists on a constantly-shifting spectrum. Because there are lessons which we need to re-learn over and over and over again. Because knowing something is a continual process, it’s training.

We need to remind ourselves of things we already know. We need to re-learn lessons and move our knowledge up the spectrum towards being realised.

The more we can adopt a non-binary outlook, the more successful we will be in navigating a world which refuses to conform to fixed binary notions of black and white.

Yesterday’s lessons

On the ground in the light by Isthinking

Every day, life hands us lessons.

They’re laying there, like leaves on the ground – slowly rotting. And for the most part, we carry on, trampling all over them, oblivious to their presence.

We’re not always paying attention.

We’re not always ready to learn.

We’re not always ready to hear that there is more to learn.

This is true at every level: individuals, organisations, groups, teams, countries. Even groups of countries.

We don’t tune ourselves to see the lessons – in fact sometimes we wilfully block them out.

So then we pay for consultants, coaches and therapists to come and point out the blindingly obvious.

They enforce the discipline of the end of day summary, the project wash-up, the post-game analysis.

The force us to see the lessons – so we have a better chance of learning them.

But we shouldn’t let the lack of a coach, consultant or therapist stop us from looking for ourselves.

The lessons we need to learn are littered around us. We just need train ourselves to see them and be mindful enough to pick them up before they rot.

Getting back to the fundamentals

Colourful children's blocks

When we learn anything, we learn the basics first.

We learn how to put one foot in front of the other, how to cast-on wool, how to pay attention to the body and breath, how to chop vegetables, how to read the notes, how to draw basic shapes.

These basics are the fundamental building blocks upon which all the other skills and knowledge rest, so it’s important that they’re as sound as possible.

We work at the basics until they are mastered, and then we move on to the more advanced areas, developing our skills and advancing our exploration of the area in which we’re engaged.

But in the midst of our advanced study, it’s always worth coming back to the basics – it’s always worth coming back and honing our mastery of the fundamentals.

When we learn the basics the first time around, we absorb all the nuance all the detail. But some of that detail inevitably falls away as we move on to the advanced topics. Old details are replaced with new basics, so we need to come back again and again.

This isn’t a failure of our learning, of our dedication or practice. This is our dedication. This is our learning. This is our practice.

Understanding the value of going back to the fundamentals is one of the most advanced lessons we can learn.

The king of mistakse

The backspace key must really hate me, I give it such a pounding. Letter, letter, letter, letter, back, back, back. One step forward, 0.99 steps back. My typing is almost Sisyphean.

It’s at the stage know where other people are frustrated just to watch me type. The look at me the same way I’d look at a Grandma with an Xbox controller – eyes welling with frustrating; mouth, swollen with the sentence “just let me do that, I can do it better and faster”.

But it didn’t use to be like this. I could touch type 70 wpm. So what the fuck happened?

COLEMAK happened. And then a lack of deliberate, focussed effort followed.

I changed from the QWERTY to COLEMAK keyboard layout, sometime early last year. And there are lots of good reasons for switching.

They QWERTY layout was designed for typewriters, and more specifically, to minimise the chance that the metal arms (which print the letter onto the page) would collide with each other and jam. To reduce this risk, they needed a layout which would alternate the arms from the left and right hand side, and also keep the typist slow enough so that two arms wouldn’t arrive at the page at the same time.

The arrival of computers obliterated the requirement for keeping typists slow and watching out for colliding metal arms, but we kept the keyboard anyway. We were all used to it, so why change?

Because it’s a shitty layout, that’s why.

The semi colon is on one of the home keys, right under a finger, but the letter ‘e’ is not. Common words like ‘just’ and ‘was’ require awkward finger contortions which are tough on the hand and ever tougher on the backspace key. QWERTY is a shitty option for people who have to type everyday.

There had to be a better way, and it turns out, there are heaps. The only problem is that it requires change. And we fear change more than death and musical theatre combined.

DVORAK, WORKMAN & COLEMAN are just three of the alternate layouts I’ve tried over the years in an effort to make typing easier on the hand and faster on the eye. Each of them carries with it an impressive set of quant statistics about how they are superior to QWERTY and how they will change your life. And they will change your life.

Because, in your life now, I bet it doesn’t make your brain hurt to type the sentence “thank you for the lovely dinner, it was great to see you.” It will in DVORAK that’s for sure.

If you take the challenge, add the new layout to your keyboard and spend a week with any of the three above, your brain will start to ache with the effort required to use and learn a new layout.

And it’s a wonderful ache. It’s the ache of your brain doing something which it hasn’t done in a long time. It’s creating new neural possibilities and connections for things which have been long established. It’s painful and frustrating and slow. But it’s also worthwhile and magical because it’s something which your brain used to do every moment of everyday. But dhis magical process of forging new neural pathways slows down as we age, form habits and put ourselves on autopilot.

Rewiring your brain around something you already know well is slow and laborious, but it helps to maintain the brain’s plasticity. This plasticity, or ability to learn new concepts, is an important factor in the brain’s ability to resist the ravages of degenerative disorders such as dementia.

The big challenge for a human adopting COLEMAK is that it requires a period of deliberate, focussed effort for a sustained period of time. This effort is expensive. If we’re focussing on learning a new keyboard layout, we’re not giving our all to something else. There’s a definite opportunity cost. But it’s a long term play. And in the long run, it will made a difference.

I’ve been typing for over 30 years, and I’m likely to be typing for another 30, so I’m prepared to play the long game.

So back to why my typing has gone backwards when it should be faster and more accurate than ever before. Why am I worse? For the same reason you’re no faster or more accurate at typing than you were a year ago, despite doing it for hours every day: no deliberate effort.

Both your typing on QWERTY and my typing on COLEMAK have plateaued, because we’re not focussing on making it better. We got to a point which was “good enough” and then devoted our focussed attention to House of Cards, learning how to knit, or slow cook a brisket. Unfortunately for me, it seems I stopped, just short of my ability to type better than I did with the old layout. Rookie mistake.

If I’m going to type for the next 30 years, then I’m going to make a better job of it that the mess I’m making now.

It might sap my brain for the next few days while I attempt to power through the plateau (and learn where the fucking “u” is), but I’m sure the other side will be glorious.

If nothing else, I hope my backspace key will stop quivering in fear, in anticipation of the abuse it currently faces whenever I currently sit down to type.