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Why Too Many Hints are Bad for Improvement

How learners can find growth in self-made improvisation


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Jean-marc Buchert

3 years ago | 6 min read

We have all been tempted by the thousand ways to achieve success, grow, and boost our leadership. We have all believed in the results of adopting them.

Yet, even if these can help us on our path, they are no shortcut to permanent practice and experimentation.

According to David Epstein in Range, learning is a non-linear process. Successful learner have found improvement not by finding the easiest way, but through a struggling and never-ending path that make them face complex problems.

In this way, improvisation, critical thinking, and a wide range of cross-functional skills have become huge benefits for them. Whereas deep, focused expertise limited their abilities in one area, generalists skills have helped them gain superior flexibility in the face of adversity.

Here are some examples of these experimenters who will show you the way to self-improvisation.

Handling and Using Critical thinking

You may know psychologist James Flynn for having realized in the 80s that the IQ of Western students has been rising for a century.

Since then, scientists around the world have tried to explain this “Flynn effect” by all means (better nutrition, open-mindedness…), as it conflicted with the notion of fixed human intelligence.

For Flynn, the idea has always been that developed societies had acquired increased skills in conceptual reasoning, which enabled their individuals to master more abstract objects. Yet, when he studied the American education system, he also began to contrast that fact by showing how this abstraction often worked against them as well.

Noticing that students in the US had difficulty applying conceptual models to different fields, he conceived a precise experiment. He gave students in chemistry, biology, psychology and English majors tests that assessed their ability to use causation in other disciplines than their own. The result was shocking : they were unable to judge the validity of similarly logical reasoning in these other fields.

To explain that surprising fact, he argued that the educational system values specialization and the narrowing of areas of knowledge, rather than the practical use of abstract concepts in a variety of areas.

But he also draws exception from students who are working in the economics field. For him, they were more able to apply logical reasoning in a variety of fields of study, as their own range of expertise was large : social sciences, finance, psychology…).

These students were able to have a critical mind that sees conceptual similarities behind different reflections. They had learned to improvise logic on their own. And you should always try to refine and your conceptual and reasoning thinking as well.

Choosing the Slow and Hard Way of Learning

Flynn isn’t the only one who has made discoveries about the Western educational system in general. Nate Kornell, a cognitive psychologist at Williams College, has also pointed out the weaknesses of a teaching system that no longer leaves any room to struggle.

According to him, teachers have overlooked what he calls “desirable difficulties” — the obstacles and complications necessary to the learning process.

To prove his point, with a large team of researchers, he tested young students in the Bronx on their vocabulary of unusual words like “Supercilious”.

Researchers taught them the definition of these words in two different ways. They asked the first group to assimilate the words and definitions given together. In the second group, they first asked them to guess what the word was from the definition and generate some ideas.

The experience then revealed that the second group, who had made the effort to come up with ideas and often found the wrong ones, had retained more effectively the correct answer than those who were given it at the outset.

According to the experimenters, American students are therefore too often evaluated according to the immediate benefit of their knowledge acquisition, constantly receiving clues and methods to guide them. As a result, they retain from their knowledge only specific rules (such as the multiplication table) without understanding the general concept that can be applied everywhere (multiplication consists of adding up the same amount several times).

So the takeaway is to always prefer the difficult path of learning, where you struggle and tries to find answers on your own. In this way, by making intense efforts, you better remember your mistakes and then the right path to reach your goals.

Making Sense Through Systemic Analogies

When Kepler noticed in his astronomical observations that the stars gravitated irregularly, he began an investigation to understand the forces that animated their movement.

However, as he was the first to follow this trail, he had very few conceptual resources to explain this phenomenon. So to fill the gap he decided to rely on more distant concepts such as from chemistry and elementary physics. For example, he assumed that the star was moving like waves on water or sound vibration.

What Kepler had then used was the power of analogies to study and clarify new and complex problems. These similarities found themselves especially useful for him to discover structural similarities between apparently different objects.

And this conceptual use of analogy was studied by management researchers at the Oxford Business School. Analyzing the way consultants and investors evaluated the risks of their projects compared to those of others, they noticed that they systematically underestimated them. Too focused on the specifics of their project, they were locked into an “inside view” that prevented them from seeing the results of other projects similar to them.

For example, consultants looking to invent a new tram system for a city in Scotland overspent their budget estimates by a factor of two by focusing on rigorous financial analysis of every aspect of their project, rather than comparing it systemically with other similar projects in Europe.

On the contrary, what the researchers have called the ‘outside view’ is to rely not on our experience or familiar analogies but distant and truly relevant analogies. When you base your thinking on various perspectives, you are better able to focus on real metrics and implications that you found otherwise.

If you want to raise your broad mind, you may better judge the risks and probabilities of your project by comparing it with examples from other horizons. Your improvising thinking will then shine and get you through unexpected consequences.

Having a Generalist and Broad Mind

When a young electrician, Gupei Yokoi, joined an old Japanese playing card company, he didn’t expect to make inventions that would change the world of entertainment forever. A great handyman, as he was playing with the card-making equipment, the company’s managers noticed his inventive talents. Soon, he became head of the engineering department.

But Yokoi wasn’t an engineer, he didn’t have great skill in technology, and he knew it. What was special about him was that he could handle a lot of different technologies without knowing much about them. For example, on his way home by train, he noticed a salesman playing with a calculator and wondered if he could create a game that would fit on the palm of one hand.

It was the time of bright and colorful electronic screens, but strangely enough, he preferred non-backlit LCD screens that were already obsolete at the time. His idea was that he could more easily master equipment with older and simpler technology and thus create better designer products. By separating this LCD screen from the hundred of dots holding the electronics box, he had then achieved to create the first portable video game, the ancestor of what would soon be the Game Boy.

Yokoi’s invention philosophy, which will remain attached to Nintendo forever, is to privilege the breadth of skills over deep specialization on one technology.

What is remarkable about him is that he chose deliberately old technologies as they were more easily understood and so adaptable. This is how he created new and revolutionary objects by the new use he found in them.

Like him, you may not hesitate to rely on multiple, distant, and less relevant areas of expertise to find a new perspective in your research.

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