“Experts see what they expect to see”.

– Suzuki, Zen Master

We see what we expect to see – sometimes even when it is a matter of life or death.

I’ve come across this story that really stuck with me: a family was attending a visitation at a funeral home following the death of a relative they had not seen for years. As people passed by the casket, several mentioned the deceased looked different than the last time they saw him. “He must have lost some weight”. “Fred must have had that facial scar repaired”.

Finally, a young man walked up to the casket to pay his respects. He looked at the body and said, “Hey, that guy is not Uncle Fred!” The funeral director came to the casket and suddenly everyone realized what had happened.

Uncle Fred was not in the room – they had put the wrong body in the casket.

No doubt a terrible mistake occurred. The rest of the story is a tragedy as well, the failure of people who should have known better to recognize and acknowledge the error. Their experienced, biased vision rationalized the situation away. A beginner, a young man with less life experience, had the clear view and the courage to speak up.

Think of the “Uncle Fred” moments in your professional life. The times when your eyes and brain deceive you, and what you see does not represent reality. The result is inaccurate judgement of ideas, people, and even yourself. What does the cost of experienced, tired eyes look like?

  • You stop listening to a new idea before it is fully developed, because it has been pitched before.
  • A mistake five years ago by a colleague is fresh in your mind, and negatively affects your relationship today.
  • You believe your skills are stronger than they are – the Dunning-Kruger effect.

To be an effective leader, we need to see with clarity and suspended judgement. Our challenge is to see what we do not expect to see.

Author Tom Vanderbilt, in his excellent book, Beginners – The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, encourages us to learn and get better by seeing the world through beginners’ eyes. He encourages us to adapt the mindset of a rookie, a novice able to clearly see reality and the opportunities around us.

Vanderbilt decided to diversity his learning style by adopting three new hobbies: chess, juggling, and playing the piano. He focused on becoming competent, not on mastery. As a rookie, he made mistakes and learned from his failures. The same principles apply at work.

Learning a new skill. Getting a better understanding of your own limitations. Moving into a new role. The workplace has plenty of experts – we would all benefit from more beginners’ eyes.

Three keys to lead yourself and others through beginners’ eyes:

Managing Our Cognitive Odometer
By focusing narrowly on individual subject mastery, Vanderbilt believes we are running up our “cognitive odometer”. The result is we add mileage to our aging brain, adding more of the same and suffering from less stimulation of new learning. The good news is diversifying our learning can slow or reverse the aging process.

Change Your Filters
Take a fresh look at the sources of information that impact your life. Traditional media, social media, and who you meet for coffee. What you read and who you associate with create filters as to how you see the world. Changing your filters lets the fresh air in and helps us learn what we do not know – and need to know.

Beware of the Dunning-Kruger Effect
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is when you grossly overestimate your actual performance. The cause can be traced to poor self-awareness, obsolete skills, and failing to embrace lifelong learning. We become veterans trapped in self-deception. To remain relevant, we need both experienced and fresh eyes.

“For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at,” says Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University, “is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgement”. We can be a prisoner of our expertise and experiences. Grant yourself the joy of trying something new, to see the world as a rookie through beginner’s eyes. Learning new skills is not a stage in our development – it is the constant to become an effective leader.

All My Best,
Todd

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