Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Connecting Deep and Wide (with Shivani)

Sometimes the best people to learn from are almost your peers. The people who have just learnt what you are about to learn. Even better is when it is reciprocal. I will teach you this, you teach me that. Learning is as much about empathy as it is about content. The ability to understand what it is like to not understand. To understand what hooks are already there to hang new thoughts on, and what hooks still need to be built. Shivani Ranchod is a lecturer at the University of Cape Town. She was just ahead of me, and stayed on teaching in the Actuarial Science Department. I can vividly remember an hour long lecture where a Professor struggled to explain what he thought was a ridiculously simple concept to an utterly befuzzeled class. We didn't have a clue. Now we understand and agree the concept was simple. What was needed was someone who understood what it was not to understand. The bridges and connections are as important as the knowledge. I chatted with Shivani about those bridges...


Trev:
There is a constant struggle between going deep and going wide. Biology and time restrictions mean we can't do both. I have never been satisfied with the necessary specialisation required to go to 'the edge' of human thought in any one area. As I go deeper, I get too interested in what others are doing. Too curious. I like the idea of going deep at the beginning. Regularly beginning. Looking at why it is we struggle to start, but also how we can connect to what others have started. How we can pass learning between each other, so that together we can go both deep and wide?

Shivani:
My instinct is that deep and wide aren't mutually exclusive, but that perhaps they both have applications in different aspects of our lives. The advantage of going wide is that it requires a particular mindset: flexibility, openness, a light touch, the ability to segue. And it has attractive consequences. Particularly the ability to see connections between ideas, between disciplines, between head, body and heart. But going deep also has beautiful characteristics. Discipline (in the non punitive sense). An attitude of excellence. The ability to deliberately shift your attention to an object of your choice, as opposed to being swayed by bright and shiny distractions. Deep without wide can mean rigidity. It can mean a loss of perspective. Discipline can easily morph into striving, a form of violence against ourselves. Singular obsessions have the power to change the world (think Apple, think Tesla, think Paul Farmer) but often come at personal cost. Wide without deep can be akin to flitting: superficial, lacking insight, lacking mastery. So then...a paradox?

Trev:
Whichever route we take, human biology and the complexity of the world kick in. The wonderful part is that we can learn together as long as we don't forget how to communicate. Some going deep. Some going wide. The reason the deep scares me a little is the distance it puts between people. It may take someone a career to get to the edge of an area, and when they look back they have lost the words to communicate what they have discovered. They have lost other things that are important to them. It becomes important to look after the supply lines.

Shivani:
You would think that the internet and technology would make the sharing of ideas easier. But the proliferation of information has made it harder to filter out the noise. We rely more and more on the people we know and trust to curate information for us. So, I agree, communication is key. From a personal perspective, I try to go deep and to maintain connections with myself, and with the people who matter the most. I've spent 15 years working in the same area of speciality and I don't feel like I am anywhere near the limits of satiating my curiosity. But I increasingly spend time meditating and doing yoga, and find both of those to be a powerful counter balance. They both help to keep you open and connected. And they limit the inclination to strive too hard. I love Murakami's "What I talk about when I talk about running" and the movie "Jiro dreams of sushi". Both are about discipline, and the honing of effort. But they are also both deeply meditative in nature.



Trev:
We definitely use the people we care about as filters. One of the things I worry about is that despite being very lucky with the people in my life - curious, interesting, caring, and passionate - my bubble is still very small. I like to imagine what we don't know as a big black hole. Each wide thread is a spider web being shot across. Each deep thread hangs from that spider web. Given that we have to choose between deep and wide, I think deconstructing our bubble becomes key. Otherwise we are clustered in one little bit of all the world has to offer. The discipline, effort, meditation and perspective all come as a group package.

Shivani:
You saying "I like to imagine what we don't know as a big black hole" makes me think of (not) knowing ourselves. I've just been on a silent retreat which reminded me of how difficult I find it to have an embodied awareness of myself...and how fluid "self" is. I'm inclined to think that spending time with yourself is the best way to deconstruct the bubble. It reveals that the distinction between the inside and outside is somewhat arbitrary. Perhaps the distinction between deep and wide is arbitrary too? Dave is reading "The way of Zen" by Alan Watts in which he talks about the difficulty the Western mind has with (non) duality. We love to put things into two camps: male/female, old/young, alive/dead, right/wrong, black/white. Much of Zen philosophy lies well outside my comprehension....


Trev:
It could very well be artificial. There is also the struggle of accepting physical constraints first, to allow you to step out. So you can only think clearly, for example, if you are eating well and exercising. You can only still your mind once you have stilled your aches and pains. Or your ability to accept them. Deep only worries me because it feels like our communication chains weaken. If the links are strong, then the direction of learning empowers us all. The learning broadens and deepens us all. If we can't listen, if we can empathise, if we can't build communities rather than identities, then none of it matters. We can be lost in the stretch or the void.

Shivani:
Outside the occupational therapist's room there is a poster (aimed at children) about "whole body listening". It is about teaching children that listening isn't just about hearing (via your ears) but also about eye contact, and a still body. I think us grown ups also need lessons in "full body listening". In some ways I think we listen more with our "hearts" than we do with our ears. I've had a week where I've realised that the more open my heart is the more likely I am to hear the important stories...the ones that lie beneath the surface.

Trev:
I see listening as spending time with people. It isn't only the words that matter, and if you can't learn to see the world a little bit more from someone's perspective, they won't make sense. Spending time requires priority, which connects back to the deep and wide dilemma. We can't get overexcited by what it is we are discovering and forget about our supply lines. Discovery means nothing without relationships. Whole body listening includes listening to ourselves. We can't see our body language. We can't see or hear much of what we communicate. We only hear the snippet in our head. Unless we have those relationships and conversations with people we care about. Beneath and above the surface melt into each other.

Shivani:
Theoretically with all of the information available in the world now we should be able to acquire and generate knowledge faster, and have more time to invest in relationships. It's tempting to blame technology for our difficulties with connecting with ourselves and others. Eyes on screens, relationships in cyberspace, an increasingly disembodied world. But I suspect that because connection is uncomfortable human beings have always found ways to avoid it, to replace it with the superficial and distracting. Choosing connection in the modern world means creating a new narrative for living which doesn't espouse multi-tasking, that values eye contact, that allows for boredom, that embraces the paradox of going slowly. Whole body listening will allow us to discern between what information matters, and what doesn't. And perhaps then the differential between depth and breadth will disappear as sometimes we will be compelled to dive deeper and other times to swim for shore.
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