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Are There Downsides To Being A Quick Learner?

February 20, 2017

Remember doing multiplication tables in school? We were presented with 100 math problems and a limited time to complete them. The task was designed to measure accuracy and speed. If you were "gifted", you were able to do complete the math problems both quickly and with precision. If you faltered in either speed or accuracy, you were assigned a remedial title/grade or moved to a class designed for "slower", less intelligent students.


And yet, is the student who carefully answers fewer questions accurately or with a different creative approach, less "gifted" than the student who races to completion accurately, but possibly thoughtlessly?


In an era in which repetition and computation are increasing dominated by far more intelligent machines, is this at all a true or useful measure of human capacity, value or intellect? In a world facing complex problems and challenges, would we rather have the thoughtful, creative solutions, or the quick, intellectually expedient solution? Perhaps we have erroneously boosted those with computational skills over those with complex problem solving skills in times that increasingly need the latter.


A quick Google search reveals many resources to help us speed up problem solving skill and ability and yet very little on proceeding more slowly or more thoughtfully approaching challenges. While most people are paid to solve problems on a daily basis, I believe it would serve our businesses, organizations and societies better if they focused on the quality rather than the quantity of output or at very least balanced both more effectively. As the old cliché states "what gets measured gets done." If this is true, we had better be sure we are measuring the right outputs.


This phenomenon is explored well in Daniel Pink's Drive. In particular, Pink explores and extends the work of Karl Duncker, the noted cognitive psychologist. Duncker invented the concept of functional fixedness or our inability when using a tool with an expected use to re-imagine its potential use for anything else. His famous experiment is the candle problem, in which subjects were presented with matches, a box of tacks, and a candle.


They were then challenged to attach the candle to the side of a wall with only those three tools. Once the candle was attached to the wall, they were to light the candle so that none of the candle's wax would drip on to the floor as it burned down. It takes most people some time to solve this problem as our brains most often struggle to see the box containing the tacks as a fourth and essential item to solve the problem (we are functionally fixed to see the box as a container for the tacks rather than as a shelf for the candle).


In Drive, Pink recreates the Duncker experiment socially with time pressure and financial incentives awarded to the first person to solve the problem with some groups; while other groups tackle the same problem without time pressure or financial incentives. The result? Groups with no time pressure or financial incentives solved the problem more quickly than those incentivized for speed. This likely suggests that time constraints and financial incentives result in less effective problem solving when we are faced with complex problems requiring creativity and thoughtfulness.


If we extend this experiment to broader society, does it not seem that we might have developed and nurtured talent in such a way that favours and rewards expedience in a time that should really favour insight, thoughtfulness and deep reflection?


In Matthew May's Winning The Brain Game, May tackles what he describes as the seven fatal flaws of thinking. They are:


1. Leaping - rushing to solutions before fully understanding the problem
2. Fixation - attachment to deeply ingrained ways of thinking that limit openness to fresh solutions
3. Overthinking - creating problems that are not significant or that do not exist
4. Satisficing - quickly accepting mediocre, but acceptable, solutions
5. Downgrading - backing away from an audacious goal to achieve a quicker or easier solution
6. Not Invented Here - dismissal of the ideas of others
7. Self-censoring - killing or muting our own ideas to avoid rejection


Several of these fatal flaws, particularly leaping and satisficing, are clearly an extension of our commitment to over-valuing speed and efficiency. One might also argue that a closedness to dreaming big and brain storming new ideas is likely also connected to our desire to speed through to the quick solution.


So, what shall we do and how shall we find more balanced approaches to problem solving? In this over stimulated world, we must slow down to make time for thoughtful reflection, meditation and mindfulness. Our world needs our most fully creative selves, and those parts of us can only flourish in a context of ease and flow.


Before rushing to judgment, let us pause for thoughtful reflection to ensure the external worlds we create benefit from our full insights and open creative potential. A focus on speedy decision making and relying on yesterday's solutions to complex problems will not build a future evolving forward, but instead a regressive, impulsive dystopia that may very well diminish us all. The future deserves better and so do we. Slow down!


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