Barriers to Learning - Avoiding Looking Stupid! LO22034

Cowan, Keith (
Mon, 28 Jun 1999 15:35:25 -0700

Barriers to Learning - Avoiding Looking Stupid!

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arno Penzias wrote: "My first boss at
Bell Labs - and one of the smartest people I have ever known - once
confided a terrible secret: he felt overrated. As he spoke, I realized
we shared exactly the same feeling. I could readily picture me saying
those same things about myself. 'The people around me think I'm smarter
than I really am... They don't suspect that I learn things more slowly
than they do and less fundamentally... When I listen to a presentation on
something new, the only thing that keeps me from appearing stupid is not
asking questions about things that others obviously already understand (I
know they understand it because they're not asking any questions)... The
things I know about are really easier to understand, almost simple by
comparison to my colleagues' areas of expertise.' Since then, I've found
that such monologues are common indeed.
"What happens when a secretly insecure person explains something to
another with the same secret self-image (or, worse yet, to a group of
them)? Since A has labeled what he understands as 'simple' by
self-definition, A can't insult B's intelligence by going into excessive
detail. A's original estimate is reinforced by the obvious ease with
which B appears to take in the material - nodding occasionally and never
asking for additional clarification. Accordingly, A speeds things up even
more, with no change whatever in B's demeanor. Off B goes at the end of
the meeting, resolved to learn what A was transmitting during the
exchange, wondering if A suspected his lack of understanding. "In my
experience, the attitudes that underlie this wasteful under-communication
between technical colleagues often carry over into interactions between
technical people and the rest of society. If engineers and scientists
fear a public display of their 'ignorance,' of course nontechnical people
rarely question technical presentations enough to get the information they
"Many technical meetings are saved by those who feel free enough to
ask questions. When a question is asked it's easy to spot at least half a
dozen heads going up, others who would like to know the answer but
couldn't ask for themselves.
"In discussing this subject during a recent college lecture, I
mentioned my daughter Mindy's asking how flipping a car's rearview mirror
produced a new image. I went on to recount my explanation, as well as her
response. 'I'm really glad I asked,' she said. 'I thought I was the only
one in the world who didn't know how it worked.'"

>From "Ideas And Information," Arno Penzias.

I thought this would demonstrate one of the bigger barrieirs to corporate
and individual learning. FWIW...Keith

[Host's Note: And... FWIW, I heard Arno Penzias give a terrific management
speech a year ago. Go hear him if you get the chance. ...Rick]

Orion Technologies (Canada) Inc. 604.207.3809


"Cowan, Keith" <>

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