#32: Missing the point

Greetings to readers old and new. This is yet another of Vaughn Tan’s weekly attempts to make sense of the state of not-knowing. The first issue explains the project; you can see all the issues here.


This issue is a little clump of placeholders for things I’d like to come back to when things are less frantic. They mostly come out of my noodling around fear of failure as an obstacle to innovation (#30), and a conversation I had with Matt Wells on Monday about competence.

Fear of failure is invisible. After #30 came out, some people got in touch to say that it seemed hard to fix the problem since most people don’t even see their fear of failure in the first place—this seems true both in daily (i.e., nonprofessional) life and in organizational life. It seems more true in organizations because those tend to be overtly driven by rationality and cognition—for-profit businesses especially find affective drivers of action hard to perceive. The problem is even more pronounced in leaders because their social positions and responsibilities are so often constructed around competence and intrepidity. What cannot even be seen is impossible to talk about or change.

Redirection of causal attribution. Because fear of failure is often invisible and unacknowledged, we fail to recognize when and how it affects our actions. Through interventions from people I trust, I’ve realized that one of the most reliable signs that this is happening is when I come up with bullshit, logically indefensible, reasons for not doing something which I think will fail. (“I’m not going to send the book proposal out to publishers because it’ll take at least 20 minutes to write a proper email for it and I’m really busy today.”) This redirection problem becomes more acute when there are logically defensible reasons for not doing something that could fail. Those supposedly good reasons make it almost impossible to take the failure-prone action. This redirection of causal attribution may be a type of displacement activity.

Confirmation/disconfirmation. The urge to be right/successful promotes two kinds of action. The first is to seek evidence confirming that your plan of action is correct, the second is to seek evidence that your plan of action is incorrect. I suppose there must be people who have the discipline and self-awareness to always seek both confirmation and disconfirmation … but I am not that person and I don’t know many of them.

Missing the point. These observations are connected to how we think about learning in relation to not-knowing (and the prospect of failure). On Monday, Matt and I eventually got to talking about education and whether it prepares us for not-knowing and failure. (Clearly, the answer is no).

He brought up a blindingly obvious point which of course had never occurred to me before. It’s this: As a student, there used to only be three possible courses of action when you didn’t know the answer to a question.

  1. Admit you don’t know the answer.

  2. Pretend you know the answer even if you know you don’t.

  3. Imitate someone who seems to know the answer even if you can’t be sure they do.

Matt’s insight was that there is now a fourth viable option which he sees his children using. External memory systems (e.g. search engines) are now good enough that it is fast, easy, and cheap to find the correct answers to questions even without understanding either the question or the answer. You type the question in and respond with the results the search engine returns. In the end, as he pointed out, this obstructs students from investigating and understanding the mechanisms questions are intended to capture. For me, this makes learning into ritual.

To be clear, it’s not that Google has suddenly made it possible to turn learning into ritual. Rote learning, which has been around forever, is ritual too. (And so is apprenticeship, in some ways). The problem—this is admittedly a half-baked thought—is that finding answers by searching for them on the internet seems more like actual learning work than it really is. (BTW, I’m not saying that developing the ability to interrogate datasets rigorously or navigate online/meatspace libraries is fake learning—but developing the ability to parrot search engine results is almost certainly fake learning.)

Technology now disguises ritual as actual learning. This makes the ritual therefore easier to entrench in education. And entrenching the ritual approach prevents students from realizing that one of the most important parts of education is developing the ability to admit to not knowing the answer.


I’m always close to home no matter where I roam. (= Lessons from the past.)


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Find me on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, on Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.