Parrots & Practitioners

I was listening to a podcast recently where a guest talked about a fascinating video he had seen on Facebook. The video was about an ant and a pen. The host of the video showed his audience a piece of paper on a table upon which he placed an ant. When the ant hit the paper, the ant started walking. The host drew a circle around the ant. The ant, then, walked up to the edge of the freshly drawn circle and stopped. It paused, then reversed direction. The ant moved to a different part of the circle moving freely until encountering the line. It roamed the circle like a Roomba vacuum. Each time the ant bumped up against the edge, it would not transgress but would retreat. The host repeated this “experiment” each time drawing a new, tighter circle which served to further restrict the ant’s movement. The ant simply saw the circle as a barrier that could not be crossed. At some point, the circle drawn around the ant became so tight that the ant itself was physically larger than the circle. That is, part of its body was forced outside the circle. At this point, the ant comes to the “conclusion” that the barrier no longer exists, and he roams relentlessly anywhere and everywhere. The host can no longer draw any circle which stops the ant.

The host offers this as not just fascinating to watch but as a metaphor for all of us. We create barriers consciously or unconsciously which constrain. These barriers aren’t real, they’re imagined. We limit ourselves in so many ways and the ant bouncing around within the circumference of the circle is a glaring visual example of the idea we touched on in an earlier article: All Roofs Are Manmade. The metaphor is intended to invite us to consider what Marie Forleo noted in Everything is Figureoutable, “Many of our most deeply held convictions are hand-me-downs. They’re old, unexamined, and unquestioned ideas that we innocently accepted from others.” Who have we let draw circles around our lives limiting what we’re willing to try? What circles have we drawn around ourselves?

Just listening to the guest on the podcast describe the video and the impact it had on his beliefs was compelling. It was an idea that made some sense to me and one that I had heard expressed in other ways. As I listened, I nodded along happy to add this metaphor as one more piece of support for an idea I accepted oblivious to the possibility this may be an example of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is where we see things that seem to be in line with our existing values and beliefs and quickly add it to our repertoire of reasoning while ignoring or discounting things that aren’t in alignment.

I decided to do an internet search trying to find the actual video with hopes of seeing this ant’s explorations. My hope was to experience the experiment firsthand and be able to share this video further affirming my belief. The first result that came up searching for ant and pen circles video was one titled: Ant Trapped in Pen Circle – Can It Escape? This sounded right on point, and I clicked on it. The video I saw wasn’t the original one showing the ant captured and contained by circles. It was someone seeking to replicate the idea. The ant in this video must have been an independent thinker as it had no problem darting outside any circle that was drawn around it. Time and time again when this ant was placed on a piece of paper, it dashed away from where it came. It saw no barrier and its objective seemed to be, I’m now free, time to get out of here while I still can.

My experience reminded me of a separate distinction to which I’d been introduced between Parrots and Practitioners. Parrots are those that happily spit back an idea to which they’ve been exposed without much skepticism or critical thought. They blindly accept the story as factual and repeat it back. Parrots are quick to adopt ideas to which they’re exposed. They aren’t asking questions. They are adapting their future actions to the ideas to which they’ve been exposed. Many that had seen the original video accepted the story as fact and shared it with others while also viewing it as relevant to how they live their own lives.

Practitioners on the other hand are slower to absorb and adopt ideas. They want to understand the nuts and bolts of things. The creator of the video I found was not a parrot, but a practitioner. Practitioners default is not to acceptance but to questioning. Practitioners pause before they share. They stop to ask, hang on, what’s going on? Is there another possible explanation for what I’m seeing? They consider questions like: Is this true? How do I know? If it’s true, does this apply to me? How can I use this information to make progress in my life? This video had captured over a million views and attracted many comments. Many of the commenters must have been practitioners as they hypothesized various reasons for why an ant may be contained within a circle in some circumstances and not in others.

An irony is that parrots are more likely to end up with self-created constraints as they accept narratives to which they’re exposed. Parrots see the story and become the story. Parrots buy what may be B.S. and, potentially, move forward making a mess. Whereas practitioners are plodding ponderers and wonder about the things they encounter. Practitioners are prepared to put in the work to get information as close to the source as possible. They seek understanding over knowledge. They want to understand on a deeper level how things work. Parrots possess “facts.” They’re content with surface level study.

Becoming a practitioner is a slower approach but one filled with greater awareness that allows for future action to be based on intention. When you encounter new information or an experience, are you a parrot or a practitioner? Before we rush to share, can we consider asking is this cool or is this true? Look, listen, and ask yourself when encountering experts and educators, are they barking back bullet points or uncovering understanding?

Consider a sentence from Michel de Montaigne written more than 450 years ago, “We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make them our own.” Montaigne continues asking, “What good does it do us to have our belly full of meat if it is not digested, if it is not transformed into us, if it does not nourish and support us?” Parrots may have their mouths full of fun “facts”, but they haven’t digested information to make it their own. They aren’t being nourished by knowledge. This is what practitioners seek, they seek to internalize information into their identity. How can this be done?

Parrots may be able to name something. Whereas practitioners understand how something works. To favor becoming a practitioner over being a parrot, we can lean on the Feynman Technique named after a process put forth by the Physics Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman. Feynman’s Technique involved four tactics.

First, pick something to learn. Then, write down what you know about the subject so far. Seek to highlight a few areas that may be missing from your knowledge on the subject. Second, seek to communicate what you know about the subject as if you were teaching it to an elementary aged child. Avoid jargon and complexity. Seek to distill the subject to its essential elements. The simpler and more straightforward your description, the clearer your understanding of the subject is. Third, take your explanation and write it down. Writing allows you to record your understanding, review it, and refine it as your understanding expands. Where your explanation lacks, this guides your investigation for more information. Your description, or lack of it, reflects your knowledge on the subject. Where the explanation drifts, understanding must be sought. This leads to the fourth step which is to iterate and continue to review, reflect, and revise your explanation of the subject.

Practice Feynman’s technique to move closer to becoming a practitioner. When visiting the buffet of information, choose to chew on what you consume. Seek understanding before sharing.