Appreciating Awkward

We are all biased into seeing things according to our expectations. Our expectations are formed by our experiences. Our experiences are stacks of the things we've seen. And the cycle continues...

That is...until we interrupt this perverted repetition with reflection, analysis, or education. 

The human brain interprets our environments and the things we encounter in clusters and clumps. The subconscious of our inner "caveman" uses mental shortcuts and patterns to make sense of things around us. As such, unless we intentionally hunt out fresh information (and have the knowledge to appreciate its significance) to form the best understanding of our situation, we may be seeing a distorted perception of reality.

We live in a society of specialists. We are athletes. Musicians. History buffs. Housewives. Financial planners. Computer geeks. Gourmet chefs. Gardeners. Hunters. Nurses. Cardiologists. Our specializations both enlighten us. And blind us. 

Our laser-focus gives us an appreciation for the subtleties of changes and deviations in our fields of interest -- like a piano player who knows that one key is slightly off tune. This piano player is not clumping information together; she is processing each and every stimulus from the music. To an untrained musical ear (like mine!), the music might sound beautiful. But that single off-tune note taints it for the professional.

The bulk of us are ignorant to a vast majority of specialized fields of interest or study. We might be entertained by an NHL hockey match. But most fans simply cannot appreciate the most detailed minutia that goes into such a sport. (I admittedly know little else about hockey than it's played on ice and the puck goes into the net to score.)

The clusters that we, as uneducated onlookers, use to make decisions overlook clues that might significantly alter those decisions. Specialists or experts meticulously collect and consider the details that us amateurs can neither notice or appreciate; specialists might clump data together, but they do not ignore the particularities. 

Consider the master sommelier. As a recreational wine drinker, there are certain varieties that I enjoy more than others. But when compared to the sommelier, I am a fool. To think otherwise is more foolish. In many ways, I am biased into believing that most wines taste similar. My lack of wine education normalizes the hundreds of variances into a handful of clusters of wine.

As a crisis intervention police officer, I've been educated in mental illnesses, disability, psychotropic medicines, emotional & cognitive issues, and substance abuse. I half-jokingly qualify myself by saying "I do awkward." Every day, police departments all over the country receive 911 calls from concerned citizens on "suspicious persons" acting oddly. When police officers respond, they may realize the person is disabled or otherwise abnormal. Crisis cops often make these determinations from a block away. How? They are experts who cluster the appropriate behavioral clues...and use those preliminary findings to hunt for more contextually significant data. Crisis cops appreciate the details and make decisions on more robust information.

Opposite the normalcy bias is hyper-paranoia. This worst-case mindset is one where everything is weird. Everything is unique. Nothing is routine. There are no clusters or clumps. Each and every bit of data must be collected, analyzed, and used for a decision. Of course, at this end of the spectrum, we find ourselves paralyzed, unable to effectively adapt to changes. We clog our mental bandwidth. We burn out. 

As humans, we must reflect on our strengths and weaknesses. We need find comfort in not knowing. We should also seek out those who do know...and learn from them. Pick their brains on how they clump information, process data, orient change, and make decisions. Read how they determine what data is contextually significant and what is simply distracting noise and fog. Study their experiences, philosophies, and mindsets. Specialize in being a generalist. Know a lot about a lot. Accept that weird things happen. Be aware but not anxious.

Learn to appreciate the awkward. You'll enjoy more things in life.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


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