Let’s return to that world I discussed where improving by just one level is key to excellence. In the post “The Second Level”, I discussed how developing your abilities in one particular field is not quite as important as training those abilities that apply to all fields and to living life in general. But that only clarifies the ability side of the second level. What does this concept tell us about knowledge, perspective, and opinion?
Let’s begin where we did last time, but take a different path. What is a “first-level observation”? It is something as simple and as specific as a first-level ability. I may observe that this ruler is bent, the stapler is jammed, or this internet browser is fast. I can notice that a Presidential candidate supports some issue, that one particular technology seems poised to revolutionize medicine, or that I should invest in one particular stock. Some of these thoughts are simple, others are complex; what is common between all is their specific, isolated nature. They are merely remarks, single facts claimed to be true.
The next question, of course, is what a “second-level observation” should be. Ruminating on this issue, we might conclude that we have hit a dead end. After all, is not a thought always about one thing, one idea, one concept? A thought about two concepts is in reality two thoughts! But let me ask more generally, “how can we extend the notion of thinking past mere observations and beliefs?”
Stated this way, we see that we can take observations to a second level by acknowledging the fact that our current knowledge and beliefs are incomplete. It is one thing to say “I know these facts and strategies about football”. It is another to recognize that what you know about football is incomplete, and that more study will make your perspective change, shift, and deeper. The difference between people who learn and people who don’t is the realization that our knowledge is never complete, and there is always something to be gained from new perspectives.
It takes a big man to admit he’s wrong. When we hold a belief, we don’t take it lightly. We treat our beliefs, opinions, and conclusions dearly, and we don’t assume facts or accept information lightly. We are thinking, scrutinizing beings, and we are proud of that—we are proud that we know right from wrong, true from false. But what we know will always be either wrong or incomplete on some level, and this is where we must think in the second level. We must say not just “I am right” but “I am right to the best of my knowledge, but once I learn more my view is bound to change.”
It is easy to accept and understand the fact that you should admit when you are wrong, and you should learn what is right. It is far less trivial to understand and accept the notion of your knowledge and priorities being not wrong but incomplete. In my life, I value certain things above others; some things I enjoy, others I hate, and some I couldn’t care less about. The second level here is to realize that, as time goes on, this perspective will change. We can easily understand the fact that we may be wrong, but it is difficult to understand that our understanding is incomplete. This understanding of understanding is a hard exercise in metacognition.
To see this demonstrated concretely, make a list now of what you value most, what fads you might be invested in, and who you are closest to in your life. Tuck this list somewhere, and leave it for a year. After a year, make another list, then compare it to the first list. You will be shocked how different the two lists are, even though as you made the first one you could vigorously, even vehemently, defend the beliefs that you wrote down.
The two lists are different because during a year you have undergone a continued and continuous process of learning, reevaluation, and thinking. As we learn, our viewpoints shift and change, and our ideas revolve with the turmoil of a chaotic revolution. We are creatures of change, and understanding that we may be wrong and we may be incomplete is the way to embrace this change, so that we may freely and effectively improve ourselves. Recognizing the need and inevitability of learning is the first giant’s step on the path to knowledge.
Take not only your abilities but your knowledge and beliefs to the second level. Make that list, and evaluate your reasons for holding your beliefs, and what sort of unified world-view you hold. What is your world, what is your life? Then, think carefully and diligently about how these views might change. All we have to do to become flexible, adaptable, creative thinkers—to take our ideas to the second level—is to realize we can.