The Secret to Being Really, Really Smart

Surprised I was when I opened the Christmas present that held a Canon T3 Digital Camera. After the tornado that is Christmas was over with the ribbons saved and mounds of wrapping paper recycled, I sat down with the manual only to find myself regretting getting this present.

How could that initial squeal of delight turn into a misery moment so fast? Almost as fast as Mohammed Ali could swing at a fellow boxer, this little gift had taken me from being blissfully oblivious, to being stupid. And that moment hurt as much as a punch to the stomach.

You might recognize the technical language for this moment is “conscious incompetence” – not knowing how to do something and knowing that you don’t know. It is the 2nd of 4 phases of learning: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence.

I prefer to think of this more simply:

Blissfully Naive –> Clueless & Stupid –> Practicing –> Take it for Granted.

While I had imagined the moment of competence where I might take pictures like Garance Dore or Karen Walrond to accompany these essays I compose for Yes & Know, but the reality is… well, less than that ideal. Before the camera, I had no idea I didn’t know stuff about photography.

I’ve written about the #1 impeding factors to companies innovating is the inability to step into this void of unknowing. When organizational cultures reward the “not noticing” rather than finding gaps, then they are unwilling to grow and learn and ultimately to address untapped market opportunities. Most of them also don’t listen to the voices in their organization that will show them the gap in their Air Sandwich. They deny power to growth. And so it is with people. We, who want to innovate, have to be willing from oblivious blissful unknowing to painful conscious unknowing. Before we can learn what we need, we need to be willing to see it. Or as Kathy Sierra once said, cluelessness is underrated.

Many of us are afraid to be stupid, afraid of not knowing, even if it is “just” to ourselves. Most of us are afraid of failing, and of course, that includes being even afraid of reaching the goal because that will mean change. A change of self, of our identity, of what we believe about ourselves.

The camera moment embodied all of this in a flash of a second.

And then came the 3-part process of learning.

Not If, but How. Instead of thinking, “it’ll never happen”, changing the frame to “how might I learn” shifts the stance. Moving from “if” to “how” enabled me to be open, curious, … even creative about the process. I thought, for-sure there must be videos on YouTube that were better than this blippity-blip manual. Then I thought of those friends of mine who take good pictures (I’m looking at you: Cooper Bates & Nuno Esculas) who might be able to mentor me, and suddenly things changed.

Defining the Benefit. Research shows that people change when they can imagine a specific benefit. The benefit of learning the camera would of course involve the process of being more creative, and using it for this Blog, but it might also open up my own aperture to paying attention to “little things” to capture. It could help me share experiences even better, an added tool to story-telling, which is central to why I am doing this. Perhaps it will also reduce my ridiculously high bill of buying pictures on istockphoto for this blog, from which I earn no money, thus improving my personal economics. To achieve any goal, the more specific you can imagine the benefit, the more likely you are to commit to the learning or change process. This applies to individuals as well as organizations, and has been especially proven out in Peter Senge’s work on organizational change.

Reducing Conflict. The greatest barrier to learning and change has to do with internal conflicts. None of us are likely to change if some other idea frames our idea of success. The Journal of Personality and Social psychology recently published a fascinating piece of research that says that to the degree we manage our conflicting goals, we are more likely to have willpower to learn, or do what we aim to do. So if I were to say that I wanted to become unbelievably good at learning photography this month, I would have a load of conflict with other goals and expectations. But if I make photography a way that my family can experience a place – by taking it on our regional hiking adventures, or maybe even taking a class together, then it will reduce conflict and thus increase the chances of learning. Organizations that define themselves by being good at a particular thing then have conflict if a proposed new direction seems in conflict. Until those are discussed, deliberated, and framed as being in alignment, nothing changes.

People give up on innovation by not trying to new things. Organizations give up on new things by not being open to people. When we realize this is something we can change, we will. Once we see what we are trying to solve, we will. Of course, we’ll make mistakes, of course we’ll be stupid. Being stupid precedes being smart. Perhaps then the path to being ridiculously smart is knowing what question needs to get asked next. That seems to me, in fact, the very secret way in which we each get really, really smart. It’s not that we know. It’s that we know we don’t know..

So which do you choose: being blissfully naïve, or being clueless and stupid and getting to working on the things you want to work on? It’s not a fair question to ask of you, ’cause in many ways, your answer is already known – those who follow Yes & Know are the ones who want to kick some ass and are willing to take the risk of being stupid to get to being better.


P.S. Over the holidays, I was tweaking FeedBurner to get the titles to appear in the feed automatically and it mysteriously sent you an older post from November. Apparently you were meant to see the post on Gratefulness twice. Actually, I have no idea why but I’m trying to learn so I avoid that in future to eliminate noise in your inbox.

PPS. I have tried Storify a few times. You’ll see the post I did yesterday (should follow this one in your feed) is missing key bits of explanation around the pull quotes. And some mysterious picture went out a few weeks ago after I deleted my first failed attempt at Storify. Again, learning that tool is a bit steeper learning curve that I had originally imagined. This is a perfect post by which to explain: I have no idea what I’m doing but I’m trying to learn some new tools by which to tell stories. 😉


5 Replies

  1. Learning about photography has always been a near-perfect example for where so many companies go so wrong.

    Though this is not the main point of your wonderful post, the fact that you feeling this way as a result of what should have been the Most Awesome Present Ever is a flaw the camera-maker could (and in my opinion SHOULD) address. Canon does a better job here than Nikon…

    I have a picture/slide I often show and sometimes think I am devoting my life to its message: BEFORE someone buys a camera, all of the info you get is coming from marketing, and is devoted to what you really want to DO with it: take amazing photos (and all that evolves from that including sharing, documenting, self-expression, “learning to really SEE”, etc.). But once you (or your gift-giver) actually gives the company money for the product, what you get from the company changes dramatically. Rather than focusing on the thing you want to DO with the product, suddenly you are left with cryptic, dry technical info on becoming an expert in the tool.

    Marketing: photography
    User documentation: camera

    Besides focusing on the least relevant thing in their documentation, they seem to forget that motivation matters. Plus, of course, it is always in their best interest to help inspire you to use the product in ways that cause you to one day recognize for yourself why you need to upgrade. The best marketing is not coming from the company or even your friends or trusted associates, but from YOU. With photography, the company that out-inspires the competition is the one that creates users who now could not be STOPPED from wanting the better gear. Not because they think it will somehow help them, but because they now have the higher resolution in their brain to appreciate why the better/higher quality gear actually matters.

    Companies should be training their users to recognize what matters. And that comes from helping them move up that clueless curve as quickly as possible, and by helping them through the painful parts by simply saying, “yes, this is painful and you will feel awkward and stupid and inept and clumsy and guess what… That is exactly what everyone goes through and we are here to help make that as efficient as possible while enabling the deep adventure that this journey really is…

    Yeah, that 🙂

    1. Yeah, that. The same learning curve that I describes (conscious incompetence through conscious competence) also applies to organizations. They can take for granted that which they offer and never notice a gap between their experiences / perspective and what is needed in the marketplace. This is not to say *everyone* at the company doesn’t see it, it’s just that at an organizational level, most people’s voices are not heard, and so the “ivory tower” tunes out the stuff that doesn’t fit. So Canon or Nikon haven’t figured it out, but to some degree that’s why Instagram is getting so much attention. It helps people do the thing they want to do (see, to capture, to tune, and ultimately to share experiences).

      Thanks for stopping by Kathy – nice contribution to have here.

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