IT’S NOT WHAT YOU KNOW, IT’S WHAT YOU’RE PREPARED TO FORGET
“The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.” Herbert Spencer
Apparently, every piece of information you have ever been exposed to is stored somewhere in your memory banks. This being the case, you may feel it was a pretty sick evolutionary joke to design your brain so that less than 10% of it is available to your conscious mind. But before you rage at this gross injustice, perhaps you might try a modicum of gratitude at the deluge of pointless trivia this protects you from.
Do you remember the ITV series You Bet? The basic setup was that contestants would claim to be able to perform some amazing mental feat, and the audience and celebrity guests would bet on whether this was possible. Now, I don’t know what kind of amazing mental feats you demand of yourself and your work colleagues, but I bet you can’t recognise 30 different models of car by their rear light configuration alone, which I seem to remember was par for the course on this particular Saturday night staple. How we marvelled at these ‘geniuses’, putting us to shame with their ability to devote their lives to regurgitating data that no one seems to have any real need for!
Except somebody must, because our culture seems to value most those individuals whose brains are fuller than their compatriots. “Knowledge is more than equivalent to force,” said Dr Johnson - though it’s hard to imagine a Mastermind winner getting himself out of a street fight by knowing the date of Edward III’s coronation. Society frowns upon children looking up homework questions on the internet rather than using their own ‘intelligence’; it seems the ability to focus the output of a search engine is less valuable to society than knowing the GDP of Tristan da Cuna. (I have to be careful here not to get dragged into a debate on the philosophy of education; though if you’d like to, please visit http://www.thersa.com/projects/visions_of_capable_society.asp for more on precisely this dilemma.)
And once somebody regards you as ‘knowledgeable’, your ascribed guru status disempowers the other party instantly. In running workshops, it is inevitable that once I ask: “any questions?”, I will be rewarded with a series of inquiries such as “What should I do when I’m in situation x?” Inevitably, I feel that cosy warm glow which comes with knowing the ‘right’ answer (if only my local pub quiz had a Transactional Analysis round…). I open my mouth to say “Ah, well, in that situation what you need to do is….” And then, if I’m lucky, I stop myself just in time and ask back: “What do you think you should do?”
All good classic coaching theory of course: the learner taking responsibility for his or her own actions and all that. By how bold do you want to be? I have often argued that the most effective coach knows absolutely nothing about the area in which he/she is coaching. Few people agree unreservedly. But whether in coaching, creative thinking or a host of other ‘healing’ disciplines, one’s own knowledge severely restricts one’s flexibility. Go to an osteopath with a bad back and they will tell you it’s an osteopathy problem. Take the same back to a chiropractor and you’ll discover it was a chiropractic issue all along. A Reiki practitioner will doubtless tell you it’s a blocked chakra (and emergency spiritual plumbers don’t come cheap). To quote Suzuki Roshi: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Our store of factual knowledge becomes something we hide behind when dealing with the unknown, and in so doing we make the future inexorably narrower.
And as clients, it’s the fear of the unknown that leads most of us to want to learn from someone whom we secretly suspect has all the answers. After all, if I took you onto a bridge across a 500ft ravine and asked you whether you’d rather bungee jump down or have a lift in my private helicopter, which would you choose? But if I didn’t have a helicopter, and focused instead on getting you to trust that when you bungee jump, the elastic will hold, then maybe the leap into the void becomes a little less alarming.
The internet, being as it is a vast repository of knowledge, represents a golden opportunity to leave all the clutter outside your brain. If you need it, you can always find it on Google; why waste energy memorising it? Channel that energy into exploring what is in front of your face, and the knowledge you need will find you. You have nothing to lose but the pinnacle of frenzied ecstasy that comes from winning a quiz night. (Besides which, if you’re not there, it increases my chances of getting first prize…)
(c) Phil Lowe 2004. All rights reserved.