In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright explains how training in certain areas changes us. “Training our instincts is like feeding our subconscious. It grants us more informed, helpful knee-jerk reactions, rather than blind and potentially damaging impulses.” For examples, Wright writes about the ways that experienced auto mechanics are diagnose vehicle problems in one area of an engine based on a signal in a different area of the engine and he writes about learning to cook in six months and having a new understanding and appreciation for raw ingredients that can be cooked together to make a meal. In isolated cases, things we don’t know about and don’t understand at all can become things that give us clues and slight insights based on our experience and knowledge.
Recently, Tyler Cowen interviewed Ezekiel Emanuel for his podcast, Conversations with Tyler, and I was struck by Emanuel’s efforts to learn and engage with something new each year. He has recently learned how to make his own jam and chocolate and in the interview talked about the insights and unexpected things that he has gained by trying something completely new. He doesn’t always stick with everything he learns and tries, but by applying himself in a lot of different areas, he picks up new perspectives, meets new people, and gains a new appreciation for something that was foreign to him in the past.
The lessons from Wright and Emanuel are things we should keep in mind and try to build into our own lives. When we only have a vague understanding or idea of how the world works, we are going to move through it making assumptions that are not warranted. We will act in ways that seem intuitively obvious for us, but our way of moving through the world may be as foolish as asking the French why they haven’t had an air tanker drop water on Notre-Dame. Ignorance can be quite costly in our own lives and in the negative externalities that we push onto the rest of the world, and as we become more responsible with relationships, families, and businesses that count on us, ignorance can be quite costly for the rest of society. Becoming aware of areas where we have no expertise and no training is important so that we can identify where we might have these knee-jerk reactions that won’t help anyone. Awareness of our ignorance can help us choose what we want to focus on, what we want to learn about, and what would help us become a better person for our society.
On the opposite side of the coin, as we become more expert in a given area, we will be able to better sense what is happening around us and make choices and decisions that we can’t explain but that work properly. It is something we should strive toward, but all the while we should recognize where our expertise falls short and how bad assumptions could harm us and others.
In his book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, author Joel Achenbach explores the 2010 disaster of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He examines the decisions that were made leading up to the night the well broke open, and how a solution to the worst oil spill in history was reached. What he discovers in writing the book is importance of keeping our world’s experts engaged and connected when moments of disaster or crisis emerge. In regards to crisis management he wrote, “A good rule in a crisis is , at the point of attack, keep the professionals in charge. This is the battle cry of competency. Don’t let a crisis put you off your game. Don’t rush, don’t panic, don’t deviate from best practices.”
In the section I pulled this quote from, Achenbach is explaining the way that engineers with BP and scientists brought in by our government approached the broken well. The experts for deepwater drilling continued their work in a practical and pragmatic way, with extra brain power and assistance piling on to try to find, research, and understand novel solutions to the problem. From the outside, the world was going mad in a desperate frenzy to see the well shut off, but for those who must think about, manage, and design solutions for the problem, the top people were kept in charge and provided the resources necessary for a solution.
This approach to a crisis reminds me of stoic philosophy which calls for tranquility and clear thought in times that are challenging. Reactionary behavior and frenzied emotions will pull us in many directions and encourage us to make hasty decisions based on half formed thoughts. During a time of crisis and during our most challenging moments a clear and consistent thought process may seem maddeningly slow and tedious, but it will serve us better in the long run as we keep ourselves from making rash decisions with unknown consequences.
In Joel Achenbach’s book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher, we are presented with a reality that is very concerning about the designed, engineered, and increasingly complex world that we live in. Our systems today are so well connected and include so many different moving parts that it can be nearly impossible for any single individual to fully understand how everything functions together. When one, or multiple, parts of a system fail it can have catastrophic and unpredictable results that challenge even those who built the system. Achenbach however, does not look at our world with fear because it is not just our systems that are increasingly interconnected, but also our smart people. Toward the beginning of his book he writes, “You never know when someone’s fantastically esoteric expertise may be called upon to help save the country.”
As our problems have become more complex we have developed higher education and research opportunities for individuals to specialize in increasingly narrow fields. A common refrain heard on college campuses is that as one advances through multiple degrees they know more and more about less and less. Their focus shifts from a broad knowledge base to an increasingly narrow, specific, and complete understanding of a single subject. What this means is that we have many experts in single areas who understand the problems and science related to their field in truly profound ways.
When disasters arise and systems fail, which Achenbach believes may happen with increasing frequency in the future, we don’t simply need to rely on the on the ground and local experts, designers, and engineers who built the system that is failing. Those who may be able to help save our system could be spread across the world and their fields may seem to distinct and far apart to be useful, but Achenbach believes that everyone can combine their individual expertise in novel ways to solve the most complex problems that arise. As our research grows so do our social networks and our opportunities to combine research in new ways. We may not think that any single piece of research is too critical for our planet, but each scientific view that can be combined increases our perspective of a problem and increase the creativity which can be brought toward our solution. In his book Achenbach shows the way that scientists from different fields were able to pool their knowledge and perspective to find a solution to a problem that threatened the entire Gulf of Mexico.