It’s What you’re Sure About that Ain’t So that gets you in Trouble: I’m learning to learn better. (and I’m taking you with me.)

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
3 min read
Knowing how to learn well is a super power.

The ability to learn is the key to developing a growth mindset. I am continuously trying to learn how to learn better. Knowing how to learn well is a super power.

Experience is always considered a great teacher. But I have been thinking about how direct experience can lead us astray. It can teach us the wrong lessons.

Observation, familiarity, and experience can impede learning if we draw the wrong conclusions.

We tend to think of observation and direct experience as an influential teacher. The more experienced someone is, the more knowledge they possess in a particular domain. They have practical contact with and observation of facts or events. And have information on which to conclude cause and effect relationships.

But experiential fields are not all equal. Cause and effect are not always easy to identify.

Learning environments vary dramatically. In situations where the rules and actions are well defined, there are recognizable repetitive patterns. Observation and experience will lead to better performance in these domains. Cause and effect relationships are less challenging to identify in these domains.

In other domains, the rules of the game are incomplete, keep changing, or are unclear. In these domains, familiarity and experience can reinforce the wrong lessons.

I want to share a cautionary tale with you that got me thinking. Let’s look at a notorious epidemic as an example.

Typhoid Mary

One of the biggest typhoid fever epidemics of all time broke out between 1906 and 1907 in New York City. Mary Mallon is better known as “Typhoid Mary.” She worked as a cook and spread the virus in New. The thing about typhoid fever is that someone can be a carrier and not be affected. Mary Mallon was a healthy carrier of typhoid fever. She became unwittingly famous in a tragic way.

There was also a doctor in New York who became famous at the time for his diagnostic ability. This doctor’s specialty was diagnosing typhoid fever. He examined patients for it by feeling their tongue with his hands.

He had an uncanny ability at early detection. His testing consistently yielded a definite diagnosis before the patient exhibited any symptoms. His diagnosis always turned out to be correct. It turns out he was a far more productive carrier of the disease than Typhoid Mary. Repetitive success taught him the worst possible lesson.

I’m sure that as a trained physician, he thought he knew best. He thought he was doing good work but was unwittingly making the situation worse.

There are people I’m sure you have met whose motto could be, “I may be wrong, but I’m never uncertain.”

It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you’re sure about that isn’t so.

Intellectual Humility

Socrates was deemed the wisest person because he knew that he knew nothing. Socrates was a paragon of intellectual humility.

Intellectual humility is a trait worth cultivating. We should all keep open and questioning minds and not jump too quickly to conclusions. Otherwise, what we know for sure that isn’t so could end up costing us, and those around us, dearly.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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