No wonder(ing)

During my first proper summer internship, working in Washington DC, some colleagues and I got into a friendly argument over lunch about whether pinball was a game of skill.

To resolve this heated debate, we agreed that the “ayes” would have it if and only if we could prove, by the end of the working day, that there was such a thing as pinball competitions or tournaments.

“By the end of the working day.” Can you imagine such a thing? That it might be hard to get this sort of answer in five hours?

But it was the early 1990s, so we dutifully thumbed through the yellow pages, called up pinball shops, and eventually tracked down the answer (yes, with apologies to the taxpayers for our wasted time).

Today this would never happen. Being able “to Google” anything instantly means all knowledge is at our fingertips. Which feels like an unabashedly good thing until we discover that we’re letting our brains off the hook: our memories are actually getting worse.

Plus, kids who have grown up with devices in their hands exhibit shallower information-processing. It’s not surprising. Even around something as trivial as an argument about pinball, we had to do more than state our opinions and look up who was right: we had to imagine the steps we would take to solve the problem, and then walk down that path. Even for an argument about pinball, meta-cognition (thinking about how we would think about the answer) was a required behavior.

In terms of practicing the skills that ladder up to leadership, today’s instant-information world is losing the daily tension of not-knowing. We spend less time holding and exploring two equally-plausible outcomes. We have fewer genuine moments of “I wonder.”

Instant gratification is indeed gratifying, but let’s be careful not to forget what it feels like not to know. Let’s not atrophy our “how would I figure this out” muscle in a world in which it’s gotten so easy to figure out the easy stuff, yet the hard stuff looms as big and as complex as ever.