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Unlearning Lesson #11: If It Goes Without Saying, Question It

Posted in Intuition, Unlearning

We only hear those questions for which we are in a position to find answers.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Question #11: Why does it get hotter in the summer?

In the late 1980’s, for the production of a movie entitled A Private Universe, the filmmakers posited this question to 23 graduating seniors of Harvard University. Twenty-one (21) of the 23 students provided incorrect answers. The over-whelming majority responded something to the effect that the earth draws closer to the sun.

Intuitively, this answer makes sense—after all, if you step closer to a fire you get warmer—but it’s wrong. The reason it gets hotter is because the tilt of the earth’s axis changes and exposes those areas of the world experiencing summer to more direct and sustained sunlight.

It might be comforting to believe this shockingly high degree of ignorance is limited to Harvard Yard but many people respond with a similar answer. What is ironic is that most students are taught this basic of lesson of astronomy in grade school and yet, such is the power of intuition, that this fact is over-ridden as we grow older. (Perhaps you could say this fact is “unlearned” in a negative way.)

The problem of relying on our intuition has, unfortunately, been compounded in recent years due to the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking which encourages people to rely more—and not less—on their intuition.

Intuition is a powerful idea and, of course, it has its place but should people really “think without thinking?” Let me ask another simple question and trust your answer to intuition: When you look at a wooden table where does the material that makes the wood come from? More succinctly, where does a tree get the majority of material from which it is made?

Did you say the ground and dirt? Perhaps, you said water. Some material comes from these sources but the vast majority—approximately 85 percent—comes from the air. Trees process carbon dioxide (in the air) and convert it into stored carbon—or wood.

Was your intuition correct?

Now allow me to ask a few more questions: What does your intuition tell you about the relative danger of driving while talking on a cellphone versus speaking on a hands-free device? If you are a parent, what is more dangerous to your child: a neighbor with a gun in his house or one with swimming pool? And speaking of swimming, do you think you could easily recognize when someone is drowning?

In each case, the truth might surprise you. According to research, using a hands-free phone is no safer than using a regular cellphone; a child is fifty times—50 times!—more likely to die in a neighbor’s swimming pool than at the hand of their gun; and many drownings occur directly in front of people for the simple reason that unlike in the movies, victims don’t flail, make splashing noises, or even cry out for help. (In fact, for physiological reasons none of the acts commonly associated with drowning are likely to occur. For example, a drowning person doesn’t wave or flail her arms. Instead, the arms are typically pressed flat against the water in a desperate attempt to keep the head above water. And if the person is fortunate enough to achieve this goal, her first act will be to breathe—and not cry out for help–because that is what the respiratory system was designed to do.)

These surprising findings beg the obvious question: Where else might your intuition be leading you astray? For example, what does your intuition tell you your best skills are? What your core business or your key competitors? How do you rely on it to select key employees?

But what if your intuition is wrong is wrong about these things?

To avoid getting burned, the best strategy is just to ask this simple question: What if I’m wrong? And if you don’t think you need to answer this question because the answer goes without saying—then definitely question it!

Homework Assignment #11: Whom does your world revolve around? Your spouse? Your partners? Your children or grandchildren? Perhaps your friends, employees or even your customers? Do they know this? Do they really? When was the last time you actually told the most important people in your life how much they mean to you? You may assume this knowledge goes without saying but what if they don’t? For your homework, tell them.

P.S. If you would like to read 38 additional “unlearning lessons,” consider picking up a copy of my new book, Higher Unlearning: 39 Post-Requisite Lessons for Achieving a Successful Future.

Interested in another “unlearning” lesson? Check out this older post:

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