Thursday, June 16, 2016

You Need to See It Before You Can Paint It

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” –Alvin Toffler, futurist and philosopher

Years ago, when I first started painting with watercolors, I attended a series of workshops run by award-winning Annapolis impressionist painter Lee Boynton. Lee preferred to paint outside, from nature rather than from photographs, and before we started painting he would always ask the group to study the scene we were going to paint and tell him the color of the sky, or the trees, or the water. These were trick questions, designed to expose the cognitive bias known as the curse of knowledge, which Chip and Dan Heath, in Made to Stick, described this way:
Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.
Students who hadn’t been exposed to Lee’s questions “knew” that the trees were green, and that the sky was blue, so that’s how they would answer, much to Lee’s delight. He would theatrically pull a few leaves off a nearby tree, poke a hole in the center of each, and ask us to take another look at the trees and the sky through the hole in the leaf and tell him what colors we could see. Invariably, this simple viewing device suspended the curse of knowledge by force-shifting our perception of the trees and sky and dramatically altering the colors we were able to see. Through the leaf, trees weren’t just green—they were blue, and yellow, and violet and green—and the sky now had elements of pink, gray, yellow, violet, orange and blue.

“Now you are seeing the light. Don’t ever start painting until you can see the light,” Lee would say, pleased that he had helped at least a few people to question what they knew and experience what it feels like to “unlearn” and “relearn” something through objective observation.

Good advice for visual artists, perhaps, but what does it have to do with anything else? The curse of knowledge bias isn’t selective—it also interferes with teaching, and communicating, and problem-solving, and learning, and planning, and selling, and negotiating, and personal relationships. If you have ever had trouble teaching someone something because they just can’t seem to grasp it, or struggled to learn something because it conflicted with something you already knew, or misread someone’s intentions, blame it on the curse of knowledge. Ditto if you had a communication fizzle because it didn’t convincingly connect all the dots for the reader, or if you failed to anticipate or solve a problem because you let what you “knew” get in the way of what you saw (or should have seen.)

Not only do we tend to favor the familiar and known (blue sky) over the unfamiliar and unknown (pink, gray, yellow, violet, orange and blue sky), the familiarity principle means we also feel more secure when we stay with what we know. As we get older and more experienced, we deliberately try to stay within our comfort zone by sticking with what we know and avoiding situations in which we might have to learn or do something new. That can be dangerous in any environment in which things are changing rapidly. Margie Warrell describes it this way in her Forbes article Learn, Unlearn and Relearn: How to Stay Current and Get Ahead:
To succeed today you must be in a constant state of adaptation – continually unlearning old ‘rules’ and relearning new ones. That requires continually questioning assumptions about how things work, challenging old paradigms, and ‘relearning’ what is now relevant in your job, your industry, your career and your life.
If, as Warrell suggests, learning agility is not only the name of the game but also the key to unlocking your change proficiency, what can you do to enhance your learning agility?

Start by reading Adam Mitchinson’s and Robert Morris’ Center for Creative Leadership white paper which describes learning agility as the willingness and ability to learn by continually discarding skills, perspectives, and ideas that are no longer relevant, while learning new ones that are relevant. Next, climb out of your comfort zone and take an objective look at your situation. You are seeking objectivity, so you’ll need to shift your perspective (as Lee had us do with the leaves) in order to neutralize the curse of knowledge. You won’t be looking for light, of course, you’ll be looking for an unfiltered view of reality--what is actually happening, what’s important, where the opportunities are. Only then will you be able to determine exactly what you need to learn, unlearn and relearn in order to adapt and flourish.

Sadly, Lee Boynton passed away in April of this year, but I’ll always remember his appreciation of color and light, his painting skills, his leaf trick, and one piece of thoughtful advice which, much like “look before you leap”, is probably of value in almost any situation: "Dean, you need to see it before you can paint it."



Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired insurance executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator, and watercolor artist.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors