Reading Signals-it’s harder than it looks

Driving down the road this week, I was listening to an interview, where Tim Ferriss asked Naval Ravikant what he thought was the most important skill of all. Naval’s answer was quick: Learning to learn. And the follow up to that was that the best way to learn was to read books. A LOT of books.

While I agree with his point, this insight went even further for me. For years, I’ve been working on shifting my mindset from proving to improving. In other words, I’ve been working on creating the “growth mindset” that Carol Dweck talks about in her book Mindset.

I spent much of my career in the ‘fixed mindset” and it’s no wonder. Our school system, with all its tests, makes good test-takers like me heroes. Give me a test and I’ll pass it. But passing a test and being effective in real life are very different things.

With all the change we have today, being a learner is critical. Jobs are changing faster than the people in them can change. The only answer is to keep learning. And learning means you might fail.

That’s where the idea of reading went deeper for me. Yes, reading books is great, but very few people I know in their high pressure jobs have time to read extensively. Plus, applying what is in the books matters more than having “knowledge.”

It takes another level of reading that can only be done through practice to be successful. There are many other forms of reading. One of them involves parsing what matters from what doesn’t.

Learning to read signals vs noise is vitally important today. With all of the distractions and demands on our attention, it gets extremely difficult to distinguish the data that matters from the static that can safely be ignored.

I often hear my clients call this the ability to see around corners. It’s a well-honed sense of which dots to connect.

The most important element of this skill is learning how to check out the assumptions that underlie your dot-connecting activity. As humans, we have a propensity to make up stories that are more informed by our past and habitual patterns of thinking than they are the present moment.

So how does one learn to tell the difference between a signal and noise? It’s a huge question – but I’ll give one example that addresses a super common situation.

Pete was presenting to his boss and team a new and different approach to the work they did. He knew his proposal was a pretty big stretch for the group and the company. But Pete had done a lot of research and reflecting on it and decided it was worth the risk to elevate their contribution to the company.

As he was standing up doing his presentation, he was dual processing. He was both making his points and reading the room. The picture was not very pretty, especially as he saw his boss Don with his head in his hands. Now, a signal Iike that can mean a lot of different things. Maybe he has a headache. Maybe he’s hungry. Maybe he just got a bad news text.

But in this context, to Pete it meant just one thing: “He hates my idea.”

This is the point where a lot of people go into the “Homeless Sequence”. That’s where we say “I’ve made a mistake and that’s a bad thing and they won’t need me if I keep making mistakes so I better fix this quick or I will lose my job and if I lose my job I might not get another job and then I will run out of money and if I run out of money I will be homeless.” This happens in an instant and often ends up informing our actions in ways that end up making us defensive or fearful.

Pete was aware that Don was giving him a signal; luckily in this case, he decided to check it out rather than go straight to the Homeless Sequence.

He called a break and pulled Don aside. He simply said “I’m noticing some body language from you and I’m curious. What are thinking about this idea?”

Don’s answer almost floored him. Don said “Well, we need to do everything you are saying. I’m just trying to wrap my head around the implications and how I’m going to sell this to my boss.”

Pete’s team did go forward with his proposal. In talking about this story with me later, he realized that he could have gotten defensive instead of curious in that pivotal moment. If he had gone the “proving” route, rather than seeking ways to listen to his boss’s feedback, he believes the project would never have gotten off the ground. Had he been pushy, or tried to justify, it would have given Don a way out. Instead, his curiosity sets the conditions for Don to decide to take the elevated, yet more risky path.

Reading signals is about much more than seeing a data point and thinking we know what it means. Curiosity sets you up to make sense of signals in a way that makes you more effective.

Cultivating curiosity keeps us in a learning mode. For a test taking “hero” like me, curiosity feels very uncomfortable. Almost by definition, knowing feels better than not knowing. And to be curious requires you to “not know.”

To be curious also requires you to become attuned to the signals you can ignore so that you can tune in to the ones that matter. I will be the first to say this isn’t easy – and there is not a formula for it. It’s a lifetime of learning.

Oh great – I get to keep being uncomfortable!

What signals are you tuning into? Where are you ignoring signals? How do you decide which signals are worth paying attention to vs those you can safely ignore? What are you doing to keep yourself in learning mode?