By Tony V. Zampella, CEO and Designer at Bhavana Learning Group

Knowing More Vs Being More

Consider that “knowing” may be the chief impediment to learning: having to know, drives our need to know. Even if someone tells us something we don’t know, we often find ourselves, reflexively and defensively responding, “I know.”

Our last two blog posts introduced first-person learning as an approach to access our being. Much of leadership development, however, is predicated on knowing more rather than being more.

Accessing our being requires discovery from questioning the unknown, and that requires vulnerability (The Power of Not Knowing). Embracing our vulnerability will challenge our sense of self. We tend to resist such a challenge with all of our being, the very being we must now examine.

Humans resist change. Given the choice of staying put and being ineffective, or of changing and succeeding, most will choose familiar ineptness over unknown change everyday of the week and twice on Tuesdays. The resistance is cunning, creative and steeped in self-deception. The really smart leverage their extra brain cells to concoct elaborate self-deceptions to justify their fixed and static viewpoints — usually at great costs to their teams and organizations.

The Arbinger Institute and its classic book, Leadership and Self-Deception, offers a fable, seen in this video clip, that illustrates how these self-deceptions trap us.

First-person learning provides access to this undistinguished being, to discover and distinguish who we are as learners, and to unlearn outmoded approaches that no longer serve us. In time, and with practice, challenging our internal landscape and closely held beliefs can get us “out of the box” (as Arbinger terms it) increasing our capacity to listen, learn and lead.

Fixed Mindset

Questioning and confronting our internal landscape loosens the grip our fixed frames of reference or mindsets have on us. This encourages us to shift from what Stanford University researcher, Carol Dweck refers to as a fixed mindset. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Dweck reveals how praising intelligence and ability doesn’t foster the self-esteem that leads to accomplishment, but may actually jeopardize success.

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Dweck’s researched much of her findings in elementary and high school children. She found that some children loved a challenge and wanted to grow. Other children, those encouraged and rewarded for knowing or having to know, were terrified at the prospect of being challenged – for fear that they might not know. She found that this bunch would cheat, lie and give up just to preserve that identity.

Let’s fast-forward two decades in that child’s adult life, after receiving many accolades for being smart and knowing. Now these professionals are promoted to leadership roles and discover they cannot know everything, and that expanding leadership comes for not knowing.

Are you crazy?!? For many of these emerging leaders, they’d rather die. This is what Jack Mezriow termed a disorienting dilemma. Such an identity crisis assaults who we know and expect ourselves to be. This short video clip explores some challenges.

When our identity is so wrapped up in knowing, we defend ourselves against any unknown idea. When we experience uncertainty, we may feel confronted, or even attacked. We challenge any question, control all situations, and fear the unknown. We only engage ideas that we know something about, and we will not invite discussion or dialogue with anyone that may even possibly threaten that identity.

Growth Mindset Involves Unlearning 

Such rigid self-perception is part of what Dweck details, appropriately, as a fixed mindset. Her work builds an arc that helps us travel to what she terms a growth mindset.

Shifting to a growth mindset is not easy; it takes time and requires letting go. It requires unlearning assumptions and concealed beliefs, and expectations about life, success, and leadership. This kind of unlearning finds us in the same world with a new pair of eyes: we no longer view knowledge as an indicator of self-worth, or relate to knowing as the source of our power.

The notion of “not knowing” no longer threatens our identity. We become more comfortable with challenging questions, new situations, erratic change or unpredictable circumstances – scenarios that have now become commonplace.

Growth is no longer strategic; it is now a lifestyle. We learn, expand, and embrace the diverse and unexpected over the familiar and safe. By placing ourselves in the gap, we connect with different dimensions of our “self” and become alive.

View these short animated clips for additional support: Growth Mindset Video; or, Growth Mindset Animation by Cameron Lisney and John Rankin-McCabe


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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.