A few years ago I was scheduled to meet with a colleague. He asked for the meeting to review some rather routine organizational work and set some plans in motion for the coming year. I did not see him often apart from these annual sessions and the occasional social event during which a bit of small talk would emerge. I knew very little about his background. I recall the region he was from and a bit about his professional experience. In truth, I could not have filled a 3×5 card with the amount of information I had gathered about his life and work. Based on previous experiences, I assumed this would be a cordial conversation regarding a few anticipated projects.
As he entered the room he offered a friendly greeting and a warm smile. Following a cordial exchange of trivial remarks about the weather, our work began. Something was different, however. He appeared a bit nervous. As he fumbled through some papers, I noticed he was having difficulty focusing his attention. He was not finishing sentences and seemed to be repeating himself. His notes appeared to be little more than pen scratches. His face was flushed and I noticed he was perspiring, though the room was not unusually warm. We had not completed our agenda, but before long he seemed eager to finish the meeting. With a handshake I wished him well and watched him walk down the hallway.
I sat for a few minutes wondering if I was misinterpreting his behavior, but I could not avoid the feeling that something was wrong. Many thoughts ran through my mind – maybe he ran up the stairs on his way to the meeting – perhaps he just realized he was doubled booked – there could be conflict within his organization – he might have received a bad performance review – maybe a family problem. My inclination was to ignore the whole thing and move on. And, as my next appointment stepped into the office, my busy schedule took over.
Recognizing patterns is a form of learning. In fact, we count on experts everyday who have amassed knowledge and experience that will inform and guide us individually and collectively. The National Research Council has published a report on learning entitled, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (National Academy Press, 2000). The authors note the following about the differences between novices and experts:
People who have developed expertise in particular areas are, by definition, able to think effectively about problems in those areas. Understanding expertise is important because it provides insights into the nature of thinking and problem solving. Research shows that it is not simply general abilities, such as memory or intelligence, nor the use of general strategies that differentiate experts from novices. Instead, experts have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environment. This, in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, and solve problems. (p. 31)
The report also indicates, “Experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices.” (p. 31).
The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is the latest reminder that when the consequences of an action surface before the recognition of a pattern, the results can be devastating. The outcry is understandable. Motivated by agonizing pain for the loss of life and the damage to our society, we pound our fists and demand to know why the threads of an individual life were not pulled in time to prevent disaster. Too often the threads become apparent in the aftermath, long after they began to surface in subtle ways. We look to the officials in our organizations and decry a system that can’t seem to identify risks before they emerge. Who is responsible for this outrage? Where are the experts?
When it comes to those who surround us in everyday life, we are the experts. We are constantly amassing information, observing patterns and measuring results. As we live among those who share our workplaces, classrooms and communities, a vast reservoir of experience continues to grow. The question is: Can we differentiate patterns that are common and harmless from those that are rare and threatening? More importantly, when recognition of a pattern surfaces, will we endeavor to pull the threads or point them out to those who may be in a position to act?
We hear the stories of those who have been defrauded by illegal and unethical investment schemes and wonder why such an obvious offense wasn’t apparent. Friends and family fall prey to the immense challenges of addictive behaviors and we realize that the signs were there, but we did not seek to intervene before the consequences were too powerful to avoid. Perhaps our tendencies to ensure privacy, preserve individual freedom and avoid personal involvement have unintended consequences we may need to reconsider.
As the day wore on, I could not shake the feeling that my colleague’s behavior was not only unusual, but also troubling. I decided to phone someone I knew could be in a position to act on the information I could provide. After relaying the story, I was told my call was indeed very important since a few other manifestations of a serious problem had begun to surface. And, my call was just one piece of the puzzle. It took a team of community members to act and assist with the process, jump-started by sharing information with those in positions to respond. My colleague was suffering from a deepening mental illness. I have no reason to believe he would have become a danger to himself or others, but we will never know for sure. The intervention was in place before a more tragic consequence emerged.