Your learning lessons from big, remarkable events

A twitter post circled as a forward on Whatsapp. It read, “Monisha Beta American Politics discuss karo. Yeh Bihar election is too middle class!!” (Darling, discuss American Politics, discussing Bihar elections is too middle class) 

To the middle class it makes no immediate difference whether it is the elections or the arrest of a noted media personality. These are just conversations on social media and in the hood.

But not paying any attention to big events is what keeps the middle class there, in the middle. And it is this burgeoning class that suffers in the battle of growth, be it political, social or economical. The only way out is to change how the middle class thinks, adapts a growth mindset, learns and stands out. If there is one thing that is common between Arnab Goswami and Donald Trump – then it is the use of media, creating an availability cascade and the use of this powerful tool on the middle, ordinary, most-times-gullible class. That is why it should matter. Because, the middle class is the pawn in the sacrificial game. 

This week, when I saw Arnab Goswami, the noted media personality, asking people around him to video record his own arrest, I realised how Arnab has trained himself to create eye catchy content. Even under the dark, cloudy moments like getting arrested, his instructions were clear. It is a negative example, but it is true that when the mind has been trained in a certain area, the mind performs well even when the going is tough. A positive example would be of Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan responding on video under Pakistan’s captivity.  Each of us consciously or subconsciously trains the mind and becomes expert in certain areas. Each of us has our own unique learning ladder. Each of us is capable of building, maintaining and growing our own learning curve. The only thing that is always common with these unique learning ladders is that at the opportune time, the training kicks in. 

Adaptive expertise and the learning ladder: 

The hunger to grow is compelling enough to attend courses. Many of us have done courses during this pandemic. Some of us have picked up new skills like podcasting, some have picked up cooking. Reading these articles has been a training too. Learning a skill, especially learning thinking skills is not just about learning the technical knowledge, but to learn how to connect the dots. The most famous example of connecting dots is that of Steve Jobs when he used his calligraphy lessons to design Apple products. The way you design your learning is the way it will help you in developing adaptive expertise– the expertise where you apply knowledge and skill from one field to the other.

What is your learning ladder? 

First and foremost, it is a ladder, not a circle or a loop, the ladder of learning. It is a never ending ladder that goes up and comes down too. Learning grows on learning. The more you learn, the more growth you experience. 

  1. Observe. The first step of the ladder for thinking skills is to observe. Observe your own thoughts, your own processes of work, your social neighbourhood. For instance, observe what were your thoughts around events happening this week. 
  1. Learn. The second step is to learn the concept or the skill. Events around us develop new mental models, whether we are consciously thinking about it or not. These mental models develop our thoughts. If we consciously learn the concept, it helps us develop a skill – the skill of holding two opposing points of view before arriving at our own decision. There are several ways that we learn new concepts or ideas, like by reading articles, by joining in conversations, by listening to debates and videos. As you learn, it helps to take notes. Writing a concept is a way of committing yourself to deeper understanding.
  1. Practice and assess: Richard Feynman, the brilliant physicist, suggested that the best way to know if you have learned something is to teach someone that concept. Nothing like sharing your new acquired thoughts and mental models with a colleague, friend or a community. The other way is to write a story around it.
  1. Go down: Move down on the ladder if you feel you have not completely understood the idea. Go back, learn, rephrase, explain and practice. This is the reason why it is referred to as a ladder, to go up and down to firm up the learning. 

Applying these learnings in real life: 

Application: We learnt about the concept ‘Availability Cascade’ in this article. Let us now build the learning ladder for the concept and events around us. 

  1. Observe:  Let us observe the event around us this week: the arrest of a renowned media personality. 
  2. Learn: The concept of availability cascade: Here is an excerpt from the book,Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman on the concept ‘availability cascade’ as defined by Cass Sunstein:

An availability cascade is a self sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public manic and large scale government action. On some occasions a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. The emotional reaction becomes a story in itself. Prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of the public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background. 

We make our mental models by reading. This is what a publication wrote about Indian media on the coverage of suicide case of Sushant Singh, thus confirming the concept of availability cascade: “The case has become an obsession that knocked India’s record-breaking coronavirus infections, China’s aggressions at the border and the worst quarterly economic recession since records began off the news agenda.”

A cascade was created by Arnab Goswami and it led to politically driven actions. The Guardian wrote on the arrest, ‘Most recently, Goswami had antagonised the Maharashtra state government, controlled by the Shiv Sena party, by accusing it of involvement in the death of the Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput, who killed himself in June. Shiv Sena is a former ally of the BJP, but the two parties are now bitter rivals. Goswami was accused of exploiting Rajput’s death in order to smear the BJP’s political rival in Maharashtra, as were other BJP supporters who pushed the narrative that Rajput was murdered, which has been proved unfounded.’ This statement reaffirms the political agenda. 

As your learning ladder helps you observe current events and understand with fresh mental models, you will react in a knowledgeable way. You will find yourself as an observer of political parties at play and your judgement will be measured. Your reaction on social media and in conversations will be measured. As you realise that this event has a negative impact, you will not add further to this cascade or succumb ignorantly. 

Typically the cascade is created to get a policy change, a shift in direction by using media and public’s attention. 

3. Practice: How does this learning apply in my life?  Mental models like availability cascade, nudge theory, communication skills etc. apply in everyone’s life. These help you bring clarity and develop your own critical thinking skills. For example, you will be able to spot a rise of an availability cascade at your workplace if you see an agenda being spoken by many departments. 

In a real incident, a resident of a building used the concept to change a simple movement- the dropoff point of residents by their drivers at the porch. She noticed that children played at the open space near the porch every evening, which was an accident prone area due to cars returning homes during evenings. She requested the managing committee to change the dropoff point from porch to parking lot during those hours. The request was ignored. She circulated a news story about a girl coming under a car to gain attention from both the committee and other residents. Eventually, a rule was made to not use the porch in the evenings when children played. A case of availability cascade where an information was used to persuade a change. 

Like ladders can be of stone or wood or concrete and of different shapes and designs, your ladder is unique to you. It doesn’t matter how you design it, what matters is how much you practice climbing up and down on it.  

Observe, Learn, Practice, Assess. 

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