If you had a copy of the “Owner’s Manual for Your Attention: How to Get the Value From Your Most Valuable Resource”, there would be a section titled, “Skill Building: You Can’t Help It”. And it would say…
Even if you just now learned that attention is your most valuable resource, your brain knew it from birth. You have a built-in mechanism operating all the time. This deep mechanism detects the use of attention, notices repeated patterns of input and action, and then builds automated systems to perform the action better, faster and cheaper — in such a way as to minimize the demand on your attention.
If attention is your most valuable resource, then activities that require attention are your most expensive. In order to preserve your resource of attention, your whole system optimizes for pattern detection, compression, and automation. Why? So that you have attention available for other uses.
It’s like your attention is a CEO, and you have a whole silent team of highly skilled project managers, watching you, noticing your actions and decisions, and building automated systems to make sure you are free for big picture thinking.
You can’t fire them. You can’t help but learn, if you are confronted by novelty. (If you are not confronted by novelty, you can just drift through your life on autopilot, ‘cause the automation team has it handled. But, it turns out, novelty is a basic human need. Blog post coming on that.)
OK, this is an operating manual, right? So there’s a few things you might want to know about this Automatic Automation feature, a.k.a. “learning”:
- Your automation team doesn’t always get it right. Sometimes you have to dig back through your previously automated habits and rewire them. Doing this requires humility.
- Your system has a mode called “act fast” that shuts down your slow-moving, reflective conscious attention entirely. If your brain matches a pattern for “danger”, then there are three options: fight, flee, freeze (or hide). This mode can save your life, so it’s really important to have it. But, here’s the bummer, your learning team is on furlough if you are in this mode. No conscious attention, no learning. So if you want to learn, you’ve got to learn to relax.
- Being an “expert” means that someone has made some domain of knowledge and skill completely automatic — and therefore unconscious. This is why experts rarely innovate, why some people think “beginner’s mind” is valuable, and why “stupid questions” are some of the best questions to ask. It’s also why I love the phrase “unconsciously competent”.
- Our automatic habits of categorization, reaction, knowledge, assessment and action actively defend themselves — they actively avoid being brought back into attention, where they might be updated or modified. This is why being “right” can feel so important. After all, you have invested your most valuable resource in creating this automation, and presumably it has some value, so why risk dragging it back to the space of conscious attention where it might get modified? Not only that, but if you start questioning the veracity and value of one habit, where might it all end? What a can of worms.
- In my opinion, the compression and optimization algorithms are “lossy”, meaning you don’t get the same high-resolution truth from an automated, unconscious assessment as you would from a slow, conscious use of attention. I would cheerfully assert that this is the source of many of our cognitive biases. But there’s a great trade-off in speed and efficiency, so don’t knock it.
- Your automated systems connect with ordinary waking consciousness very efficiently through feeling and emotion. If you have well-adapted systems, then your emotions are helping you. If you have some “maladaptive unconscious competencies” (MUCk) lurking in your subconscious, then emotions sourced in those MUCks are not helping you. Good therapy helps you deal with your MUCk.
One last thing about Automatic Automation. I love acquiring skills — I have some that are completely useless except to amaze and entertain my friends and family, like moving my eyebrows independently. I want to share a story about one skill I acquired because it illustrates a subtle but incredibly useful aspect of Automatic Automation for learning.
I spent a few weeks one summer learning to ride horses at a stable in Vermont. Every morning I would get instruction for a couple of hours. As you might expect, I slowly improved.
One day, my instructor put me on this small, fast horse named Lightning. Lightning was a highly trained polo pony. He handed me a polo mallet and threw a ball down into the ring and said, “hit the ball around”. I did my best, trying especially hard to swing parallel to the horse so I wouldn’t rap his legs with the mallet.
A couple of minutes later I heard another horse behind me. It was my instructor, with his own mallet. He came up next to me and hit the ball away from me!
What!? I goosed Lightning and caught up to him and hit the ball back the other way. I got bumped, so I shimmied sideways, hit the ball again, and then to get back at it, reared Lightning up with his forehooves dragging over and up against the plywood wall of the arena, just to get him turned around fast enough to go after the ball.
Ha! I gave the ball a good whack!
My instructor stopped and looked at me. “That’s by far the best riding I’ve seen you do.”
If you really want to harness the power of Automatic Automation for your learning, force the process by practicing the “next skill” before you master the “current skill”. Do the second thing that requires the first thing before you are “ready”.
Under the hood, your Automation team is freaking out. They only have a little data on the first skill, but already your CEO of attention is moving to the second skill, that requires the first skill! We’d better automate this thing immediately!
My overall point here is that your attention is subject to many forces, which are neither good nor bad in and of themselves — but by understanding them, you master your attention. Automatic Automation is one of the more subtle forces, operating all the time.
Pet theory: we require sleep to rewire our brains for Automatic Automation. That’s how important optimizing for attention really is.
You use Automatic Automation all the time. Even a cursory understanding can help you make it work “for you” instead of “on you”.