3 Essentials for an Age of Complexity

By: Michael McQueen

In the world we are living in, it seems that by the day, information becomes more and more convoluted and issues become more and more complex.

Dealing with such a world demands a kind of depth of thought, discernment and understanding that we have previously not had to develop. Issues no longer come with a simple solution and information must be deciphered in order to uncover the truth.

In ‘Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, Elisa Guerra underscores why acuity is of utmost importance for today’s students as they prepare for the world of tomorrow: ‘Most of the world’s cumulative knowledge is just a click away. But, can you find it? And once you do, can you recognise the valuable and true among the irrelevant in disguise?’[1]

Applying just as much to adults and workers as it does to students, this idea proves crucial in our ‘fake news’ era, where even the information we find to be relevant may still be lacking in accuracy.

The current information age leaves us prone to laziness in our pursuit of knowledge. Sifting through more than a few pages of a book or website or spending more than a few minutes reading an online article is simply not done anymore, as faster and easier ways of accessing information are available.

According to Hungarian biologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book ‘Flow’, our nervous systems are bombarded with roughly 2 million bits of information per second, ranging from sounds to smells, tastes and touch sensations. The only trouble is that we are only capable of processing about 110 bits of information per second. Added to this, the average brain makes 30,000 decisions per day. No wonder we feel scattered, distracted and unable to think deeply about any given topic.[2]

In a world where this kind of information overload is the norm for the majority of people, fostering an ability to think deeply and discern fact from fiction is crucial.

Deep thinking is the only way to counteract this kind of complexity in the modern world.

There are 3 key elements and benefits of deep thinking that equip us for the digital age that bombards us with complexity.

These are:

1. A posture of humility

In the 1930s, Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget wrote that the most important goal of education is to overcome egocentrism.

At face value, this may seem a strange goal for educators to strive for.

However, Piaget is hinting at one of the most important benefits of deep knowledge: humility.

Educational and deep learning expert Kieran Egan suggests ‘People who know nothing in depth – who know everything from the outside – commonly assume that their opinions are the same kind of thing as knowledge. It can also make them assertively confident in their opinions about things where secure knowledge is lacking. One of the great paradoxes of education is that only when one knows something deeply can one recognize how little one actually knows, that the more one learns the more one realizes there is to learn on a topic.’[3]

In his book ‘Humilitas’, John Dickson explores a similar theme. He argues that having a broad but shallow knowledge can often lead to arrogance or presumption. This is the person who has very little understanding of an issue bar what they’ve read online or on the front page of a newspaper, but will speak loud and long about why their opinion on the issue at hand is the only right one.

In contrast, Dickson suggests that deep knowledge in even one area leads to a humility born of the realisation that if you know so much about one particular topic, you can see how much more there is to know about other topics of which you are largely ignorant.

To face the complex issues and information of the modern world, a humble approach which does not assume its own prior knowledge is essential.

2. An eye for nuance

A mentor recently reminded me that the hardest lies to dismiss are those with some truth in them. How insightful that observation is.

Inaccurate information or fake news is so hard to counteract because even the most spurious of claims tend to have a kernel of accuracy in them.

And this is the second element of deep knowledge. Having a thorough understanding of an issue or idea arms us with the ability to evaluate nuance and deftly navigate the inevitable shades of grey we are confronted with.

It was eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope who observed, ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing.’ Indeed, a superficial or simplistic understanding leaves us vulnerable to deception. ’

Deep knowledge also gives us a confidence in our understanding that allows us to embrace and explore views different from our own. In the words of Aristotle, ‘The mark of an educated mind is to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.’[4]

3. An ability to transfer

This third benefit of deep knowledge is perhaps the most interesting. Again, Kieran Egan offers a valuable insight: ‘Learning something in depth carries over to a better understanding of all our other “breadth” knowledge.’[5]

It stands to reason, of course, that the skills of enquiry, synthesis and evaluation that we develop in building deep knowledge in any given area are ones that enrich our thinking and understanding more broadly. This is why lawyers, for instance, tend to develop a way of thinking in their studies that makes them adept at evaluating information well beyond the scope of law.

It is these three elements of deep thinking that we must be equipped with if we are to face up to the unique and unprecedented challenges of our current age. A world of convoluted information and complex issues needs thinkers of acuity, discernment and depth, and it is these essentials that we must adopt if we are to conquer it.

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.