The First Step to Knowing (Part II of The Unknown)

One of the great things about kids is the way they (and the way we used to be) is their comfort level with new things. Kids don’t know to be afraid of heights, of public speaking, of being rejected by a potential date, a boss, an HR Director, and so forth. They don’t dread the simple fact that they don’t know something. I had an experience recently that could have gone badly, had I not managed my state. I have a very strong background in Information Technology, so being given a very complicated IT project, I have a track record of handling it well, in fact generally being quite successful at it.

Yet I was handed a very complicated project as part of a training scenario. It wasn’t a simple task that simply tested whether or not I knew facts. That we often call a “digital” phenomenon in NLP – it has very rigid and finite possibilities, in this case, “Yes”, you know it, or “No”, you don’t. Technology has a similar notion, by the way, calling it “Boolean logic”. (One day I am going to be accosted by a paranormal investigator who thinks I made that word up (I didn’t) as a way to mock the common sense inherent in ghosts, I just know it.) Boolean phenomena, or digital, lends itself to Yes/No, Black/White types of scenarios. But what about degrees? You can adjust the temperature on your stove, but it doesn’t just offer “Hot and “Not hot” options, does it? Imagine something we have all done a thousand times, changing the surface temperature on your stove by turning a dial. Each numbered tick mark on the face of the dial increments the heat presumably an even amount. This is an example of analog phenomena.

When learning about NLP, it’s a common beginner’s mistake to see two contrary examples and pick one as being better than the other. That is rarely the case in NLP, or in most other things, for that matter. Accordingly, both analog and digital approaches have their place. The key, as in most areas of life, is knowing where that usefulness is, and making the appropriate choice as the moment requires it.

“The Unknown” sounds pretty absolute, and you can easily picture classifying things in the world around you into two very digital categories, “Known”, and “Unknown”. Learning then would be the task of moving desirable things from the latter category into the former. Sounds simple, right? Actually, it’s not difficult at all, though to remember that, we have to think just a bit like we did as children. Unafraid of “not knowing”, and struggling through to find the answer…until one day we look back and realize that we’ve done it – we have found that answer. What was once “Unknown” is very much “Known”. Still, these two digital terms themselves seem so outrageous. How can we claim that, upon graduation, that Chemistry or Music, or, gulp, Algebra, are “Known”? It sounds so profound, as though we need to now get comfy in our mountaintop retreats and patiently await the novices who are enthusiastically making their way to us, eager to sit at our feet and feast upon the wisdom that falls from us continually. This is one place where an analog perspective becomes very useful. We may have learned to use those subjects, their tools and techniques, though there is far more we could learn about them if we chose. We can speak about a degree of knowledge that we possess, like a numbered tick mark on our stove’s dial. I may have a “7” on that dial when it comes to Calculus, but then it does go to 10 – there is more to learn if I choose to go deeper (some of you will know what I mean when I also admit that some of those dials go to 11.)

Children have to learn to become anxious about a big test at school. They have to learn to fear not knowing enough, or “not getting it” when learning a concept in school or in a training session. Not us grown-ups, however! Most of us have been pretty darn good at this for a long time! We may have had to learn that response, but man, we learned it really well!

During the complex training I mentioned above, I had to incorporate many things I knew very well, though I had never used them together. Further, I had to learn several new things on the fly and weave those into my solution. It was very challenging, and my classmates and I all were surprised to find ourselves treading water, so to speak. Frankly, we were used to being able to handle anything thrown our way, and here we were truly being tested. The anxiety was palpable, and we didn’t help matters by downing twice the coffee we normally would, plus multiple caffeinated sodas “to clear our heads”. After ten times our normal caffeine intake for the day, we all looked positively panicked.

Here is the punchline, however… Not knowing is the first step to knowing, to learning. If you already know something, it logically follows that you cannot learn it. Sure you could learn more about it, but go with me on this for a moment. First you have to not know it. Then you have to find some reason to learn it. You have to be inspired or motivated in some way to pay attention to it, to study it, to discern its distinctions, determine whether you have a schema for it, whether it reminds you of somthing else you already know, compare and contrast it to that schema, and learn about it. This takes an investment on our part, so we have to find ourselves either wanting to gain the knowledge (which suggests a movingtowards strategy)…or find ourselves anxious, in discomfort, over the fact that we don’t know it (suggesting a moving-away-from strategy).

Those strategic approaches, by the way, are from the NLP lexicon. Behaviorists would call it instead the desire to gain pleasure vs. avoid pain. The concept is the same, however, and either will motivate us, depending upon which strategy is closer to our own. I personally tend to move towards desirable outcomes. I can ignore a potentially negative consequence, but will find a really desirable outcome too enticing to resist. Other people would conversely ignore a potential reward in the face of an undesirable potential consequence or even a degree of anxiety or discomfort that they may have to face. That would be a moving-away-from strategy.

So in this training scenario, I was working alongside some very highly accomplished technologists. I would easily call these people experts in their fields, and I was very happy to be working with them. Moreover, our trainers were geniuses at what they did. I have a tremendous hunger to learn more, so despite the fact that I myself am quite accomplished, and was very much at home among these experts, I felt my own knowledge expanding geometrically each hour of the training.

My own strategy drove me to push through any anxiety or struggle because of the pleasure I expected to feel once I completed the training. I saw the prize ahead, and it excited me, motivated me, enticed me to push forward. Someone who doesn’t use that sort of strategy would not have been impressed at all with what you just read. Such a person might only be motivated by a potential consequence for not learning the material. Again, resist the urge to judge one strategy as being better, and you will avoid one of the classic pitfalls of this field. And my intention is to make you really good at what you do, to leverage this field to amplify what you love about yourself, tune the things you don’t like as much, and to make you a better, smarter, more skilled professional, a better friend and lover to your partner, a better parent to your kids, better in any area of your life you will allow me. We will avoid pitfalls, we will fast-track you to Greatness, you and I.

So back at the training… I struggled with my fellow classmates, working on our projects until late in the night. Our trainer cheerfully announced that he hated to stick around after hours, so he was heading home. We each longingly looked at the clock and realized we were likely hours from a solution. A quick trip to the coffee machine and we got back to work. But then it got worse. Our challenges were all different, but we had many among us. It became clear over the next few hours that in order to finish by class the next morning, we would likely be working that entire time, and with no guarantee that we would indeed be finished.

Some left in the next three hours, I left just after midnight, and the final stubborn stragglers shut the lights out in the following hour. None of us had finished, a fact we lamented the next morning. The anxiety to figure out our training problems was high, and only increased by our delay. But sleep is necessary for our clear thinking, and caffeine, in moderation, has been shown to improve concentration. Within the first two hours of working on our projects that next morning, we all had figured it out. The void and ensuing anxiety created by The Unknown, was now filled. The satisfaction of knowing now was incredible and we all felt better for the challenge.

Now, consider this – it was the challenge, and the learning experiences themselves that made the resolution so valuable, not the anxiety, the fear, the frustration. What would have happened if we approached the challenges with enthusiasm, excitement, and passion, rather than emotions at the more negative end of the spectrum? Would we have enjoyed our victory any less? No, I don’t think so. Had we kept it an upbeat, positive experience, might we have shortened our struggle? I suspect that would in fact be the case. Certainly, you must agree that it wouldn’t have hurt. It wouldn’t have made it harder to meet the challenge.

But then we are just talking about capability, not motivation. Earlier, we spoke about pleasure or pain being motivators, but I know of no reliable research that suggests that either the expectation of a pleasurable outcome or of a painful one reduces the time required to solve a problem. Consider what that means, however – we’re talking about the impact of pleasure and pain over our capability. Motivation is an entirely different thing, and when highly motivated, by whatever it is that motivates us (whichever type of strategy has more weight with us) we can do absolutely amazing things.

I’ve differentiated between the two because I want us to understand our own motivational strategies better, so that we can use them to push our own buttons far better than anyone else can. Though I also want to avoid becoming our own worst enemy, confounding our access to internal resources, interfering with our ability to solve problems, meet challenges, and capitalize on opportunities.

The next time you find yourself struggling with The Unknown, whether it’s a language you are trying to learn, a budget you are trying to balance, a challenge at work, a problem with your home life, a relationship that is going poorly – no matter what that challenge is, I want you to realize that you are experiencing the first step, and that’s all. Many more steps will follow, each of which brings you closer to your goal. If you avoid that feeling of The Unknown, you are just delaying your first step, which of course ultimately delays your victory celebration.

Embrace that first step and take it with enthusiasm. Later we will look at specific strategies you can use to make this easier, in fact second nature. But the basis is attitude. Adopt the attitude that you are only taking the first step on what will be a very rewarding journey. As you learn more about your own strategies, you will learn how to make that journey more fun, playful, educational, and enjoyable. After all, the destination will have its great rewards – you can learn to enjoy that journey itself, making this entire experience much more complete and fulfilling.

In that way, we are remembering what it was like to learn a new game or activity as a child. That is indeed magic, and it is available right now to you, no matter what age. And in that magic, we relive our youth for eternity.

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