When focusing on what we don’t have may not be a bad thing

Work in Progress

We are brought up to feel thankful for what we have, and not dwell on what we don’t have. This is a very important and wise advice for a happier life.

In a different context though, focusing on what we don’t have may not always be a bad thing. Consider the following that happened in the past week:

1.   In one class, we were given a case to analyze and come to a decision. I’m generally quite bad at such things, as I take a long time to read and orientate myself to the facts of the case. Given my background in engineering, I pay attention to the various details and construct a mental picture of the situation in my head. Our group had some concerns, but after discussion we arrived at a decision we felt quite comfortable with. To our surprise, after we turned in our decision we were given a sheet of paper containing details that would have answered our concerns. On hindsight, we could have asked for those details, but it did not strike us to do so. With the new details, we reversed our decision.

2.   In another class, we were given a case to read before we did a role play with the instructor (*sweat moment*). As we prepared, we noted various details such as the information on the character the instructor would role-play, and discussed a strategy for going into the exercise. The exercise was tough, but at the end of it we felt we had achieved most of our goals. At that point, we were given a sheet of paper (again!) containing more information about the case we didn’t know. What a difference! It painted a very different picture and completely changed our idea of what had just happened in the role-play! As with the earlier story, we could have teased out the additional information from the instructor through the role-play, but we did not.


Some critics may argue that instructors always design their class exercises to trigger teaching moments, so we should not feel too bad when we walk into their “trap”. Even if this were true, falling into the same “trap” in such quick succession within a week is a sign that I must pay attention.

From the two encounters, I experienced how we (or at least I) have a tendency to make sense of things based on what we know and based on our own perspectives. Often, we hold strongly to what we have in our hands (in both encounters, they were the initial write-ups we were given), accepting that to be the fact. This is not surprising. When we know very little, every piece of information in our hands seems to take on a great significance.  But often, what we have in our hands is just a fraction of what is out there (and waiting to be uncovered).

elephant wood

We all know the story of the three blind men who felt different parts of the elephant and came to their own conclusions about what an elephant looked like. Some of us may even think that this is a story meant only for kids. Yet, it is sobering how we all know the lesson but we continue to make the same mistake! For example, I have seen senior leaders get mad at their staff when a meeting did not turn out the way they had expected because the information in the brief was inaccurate or incomplete. Indeed, perhaps the staff could have done better, but so too could the leaders!

It takes a habit of the mind to constantly challenge ourselves about the realities we see. It is not easy to overcome our tendencies, especially when we think we have “concrete data” in our hands. Learning from the lessons of the past week, it may help to pose ourselves the question: Could there be a “sheet of paper” that we don’t know about, and what could be on it?

This has some relation to the issue I was discussing last week about two types of knowledge: one of which can be captured in physical or electronic form and the other type which cannot be captured because it is embedded in people and practices.

In some way, I think the former type of knowledge, which exists in more tangible forms, feeds our desire for certainty. After all, if the knowledge can exist in an official guidebook or a database how can it be wrong? In fact, organizations that invest in knowledge management systems to collect, store, process or even create knowledge, sometimes risk being lulled into a false sense of security that a comprehensive system is all that matters. When that happens, we may miss the other type of knowledge that we cannot capture or have yet to capture in tangible form.

Contrary to perception, we make mistakes not by the instructor’s design, but by our very own construct.  Focusing on what we don’t have in such situations can help to overcome some of these tendencies.

photo credit:

jDevaun via photopin cc


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