Sunday, May 30, 2010

Driven to insights

Over the last few years, I have spent quite a lot of time driving my car. This post covers two of the interesting thoughts triggered by that experience.

The first one is regarding the utility of certain kinds of knowledge. Many years ago, when I was learning to drive a car, my driving instructor spent quite a bit of time telling me about how to stop the car on a slope using just the clutch and the accelerator (i.e. without using the brake/handbrake). Being a ‘good student’ I tried my best to apply this knowledge. But I failed consistently. So I had to revert to the suboptimal technique of using the brake/handbrake to deal with this situation. Many months passed and I ‘forgot’ all these. One day, while I was stuck in huge traffic-jam on a slope, I was surprised to realize that I was actually using the technique that my instructor had told me about – without consciously trying to do so. Now, I am not sure if I would have achieved this even if the instructor had not told me about this possibility. Anyway, it helped me to really understand (i.e. beyond the level of intellectual understanding), the meaning of something (regarding the utility of certain kinds of knowledge) that I had read a long time ago – that knowledge is 'useful' only in those situations where it is almost superfluous. I also think that this could be the main problem with the most of the knowledge (suggestions) in self-help books!

The second one is regarding the nature of ‘focus’ that is most appropriate in many situations in life and work. The basic challenge here is to determine the optimal balance (equilibrium) between exclusive focus on a particular (predefined) thing (goal/result/approach/path/ idea/framework) and flexibility (openness to take in new information and to make changes/course corrections). I think that the experience of driving a car can be helpful in exploring and explaining such a balance - in two ways.

(1) It can serve as useful metaphor - helping one to think about this balance

(2) It can provide confidence/hope that one can achieve such a balance ("If I have already been able to achieve such a balance in the context/task of driving a car, why can't I achieve something similar in other tasks/situations in life/work?)

Now, let us look at the experience of driving a car in more detail - in the context of the above discussion. When one is driving one is aware of his/her destination. One might also have a preferred route to the destination in mind. At the same time, he/she is also intensely aware of the immediate surroundings (i.e. road conditions, traffic situation, weather, state f the vehicle, ‘condition’ of self, other relevant information that one receives while driving etc.). Based on this one makes course corrections when required. While these corrections happen mostly at the level of path/route (e.g. taking a different road), corrections at the level of destination/goal can’t be completely ruled out! I must say that this is just a metaphor and that there is often a significant gap between ‘metaphor’ and ‘method’!

It is interesting to note that there is a paradox here - if we consider the two 'insights' at the same time. The first 'insight' (regarding the utility of certain kinds of knowledge) can dilute the utility of the second 'insight'. The discussion on second 'insight' (the utility of an insight - in terms of serving as a metaphor and as a source of inspiration/hope) can soften the blow of the first 'insight'. I also feel that this (serving as a metaphor and as a source of inspiration/hope) might be the primary utility of self-help books mentioned above. Speaking of the first 'insight', it can be argued that since the first 'insight' is also a kind of knowledge (at least for those who haven't yet experienced/applied the same) the first 'insight' itself has limited utility- and hence it needs to be 'rescued' by the second 'insight'.

No comments: