“I advice you not to advice me,” advised my wife as we were getting in to our car. As I was reversing, she said, “Look behind!” As we moved through the road-less paths of the city, she continued with her instructions – “Hump ahead, go slow… There is a bus in front … Let the taxi behind overtake … Now honk! Go slow … Turn left…No, right …” I sometimes ask, “Why don’t you drive?” though knowing that she has not learnt to drive as it is a scary task. She likes to travel by car and gives micro advises to assure my safety. When I drive along, I do not notice any of the real dangers she notices on the road, but still am safer.
When I met a batch of students for the first time today, I asked a few students to introduce themselves by spelling out every character and punctuation mark in the message they need to convey and not to pronounce any word. As you would guess, it took longer, and the students failed in spelling out personal details and the listeners could not get the information.When they were allowed to speak normal and not to spell out the words character by character, the students were relieved and the communication was effective.
While writing well known words, we do not give specific attention to the spelling, but it spells always right on the paper. While listening to a word, we do not think how it is spelt. Often we do not get each word of a phrase or sentence, but the meaning does not diminish. If we pay attention to each word, their sound, and their spelling, meaning of the sentence suffers. We do not spot simple errors while reading or listening. Communicative English grammar does not strictly follow the rules from grammar book. If we are grammar conscious, we cannot converse freely. Sentences consciously constructed to strictly adhere to the rules sound bookish and artificial.
I dictated the name of the institute – first by spelling out each character and punctuation mark. Second, I dictated the name pronouncing the words. Then I simply asked the students to write the name of their institute. In the first approach, the students did not have to know anything other than the alphabets of English and a few punctuation marks. The second task required them to know several words, skill to form them in to sentences, use word boundaries based on the pauses and modulation in my voice while dictating the text. The third task required them to have the skill of the previous two tasks and also knowledge about their institute.
Did the task grow in degree of difficulty from the first to the second and to the third? The students’ experience was the reverse. The third task was the simplest and the first was the most strenuous among the three. It would be true for all of us. Once we acquire a skill, working at a lower level is not enjoyable and not productive. When we are instructed at micro level, we feel restricted and can no more do what we would have done naturally, subconsciously.
With this exercise I explained the concept of abstraction and modeling. I enjoyed the session and the students remained absorbed and enthusiastic.
Many who use computers for all their work use finger-typing, looking for the keys. If we learn touch-typing, we do not look at the keyboard any more. If a touch-typist looks at the keyboard, her typing speed reduces and errors increase. If you ask the positions of keys on keyboard and which finger I use for which character, I cannot answer. My conscious mind does not know, but my muscles have memorised the positions and subconscious mind guides the figures.
An experienced driver on the road does not consciously think and decide when to turn, when to brake, when to slow down and when to speed-up. He intuitively knows right actions, which flow naturally.
Many ladies knit beautiful patterns with their eyes glued on TV while they are also busy discussing details of dress the bride wore in the neighbor’s son’s wedding reception the previous year. If they consciously attended to the patterns they knit, they would spoil the sweater.
To gain an expertise, we train ourselves consciously, deliberately. Once we gain the skill, the steps and processes enter our subconscious level. Actions flow like colors from the brush of an artist or figures of a musician. At that stage, we lose the capacity of knowing micro details while performing the steps with better accuracy and efficiency. Skills are built thus.
Many skilled workers and artists cannot teach an apprentice how to do a task. The apprentice observes and learns.
A skill is a set of patterns of micro tasks. If we learn good patterns, we produce good results, gain efficiency and enjoy the work. If we learn wrong patterns, they too get to our subconscious level and we follow those steps unknowingly. A driver who has learnt to honk on the road, cannot resist doing so even when the road is empty. It becomes a second nature. As it is important to learn and internalise good patterns, it is equally important to identify anti-patterns or wrong habits and unlearn them.
Alwin Toffler stated, “The illiterate of 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
A leader’s task is to develop the skills of his people so that they internalise the steps and processes in their tasks, encourage them to continuously learn, unlearn and relearn. The leader provides a framework and guides his people to accomplish the skills. Then he does not give micro instructions to the people and spoil their happiness and affect the quality of products.
A centipede was happy quiet
Until a frog in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
This raised her mind to such a pitch
She lay distracted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.