It’s tempting for students to think they already have all the answers
It’s hard to believe September has arrived and classes are beginning. As students, it’s tempting to believe we’ll be learning answers—by reading books, attending classes, and taking part in whatever other studies we engage in—we’re learning facts that will equip us with the knowledge we need to make the right decisions and know what to do.
However, we live in a complex world, and the information available to learn is only growing. As I enter my fourth year of studies, I realize more and more that what I’ve learned barely scratches the surface, and I have more to learn from those around me than I can assert with any degree of certainty.
Throughout my university career I’ve always been involved in advocacy in one way or another. I’ve now come to realize many of those efforts were misplaced. It’s easy to fall into the naive assumption that we have figured everything out, and that what we know lends itself to an obvious answer to a problem. In Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, this is the “what you see is all there is” bias. As students, what we’ve seen is limited, simply by the reality that we’re young.
This is not reflected in the way students conduct themselves. Within many cohorts on university campuses, incredibly complex issues mysteriously become black and white. It’s astonishingly easy to find someone who “knows” what the solution is to issues of such complexity as fair taxation, abortion rights, globalization, geopolitical conflict, global warming and poverty alleviation. Curiously, these people on campus aren’t usually the ones with PhD’s on the topics.
That being said, student advocacy still has an important role to play on campus, and there are many causes worth supporting; however, it’s problematic when student activists forget that those they engage may have information they don’t. We’re at university to learn, yet I see many students who invest more of their time asserting their opinions as absolute truth and dwelling on what they already know. Those who disagree are vilified, without considering that they may know something we’ve not yet encountered.
Student governance groups can be particularly guilty—often campaigning against university policies from “the student perspective” while neglecting to consider that the people with whom they’re engaging were once students themselves and may have learned something since.
If the overconfidence stems from the desire to appear intelligent, that too may be backfiring. As Harvard Business School professors Alison Wood Brooks and Francesca Gino write in Scientific American, people are far too reluctant to ask for help: “When you ask for advice, people do not think less of you; they think you are smarter.” And there is nothing less impressive than listening to someone explain their worldview to you with certainty while overlooking a key consideration you’re aware of.
Research shows that even being the smartest person in the room may not matter. In Charles Duhigg’s latest book, Smarter Faster Better, he points out that the best teams aren’t necessarily the ones composed of the smartest individuals, but rather the ones that hear the expertise of everyone in the room. The sum of the minds on campus is far smarter than any individual student, no matter how intelligent.
The more one learns, the more it becomes apparent things are more complex than they initially appear. Oftentimes, the “obvious” answer to a complex problem ignores important considerations.