What are instructions good for? To present a clear set of actions to follow to attain a certain goal. For example, if I want to successfully assemble any piece of IKEA furniture, I need instructions. Which part goes where and in what order. If I want to learn to drive a car, I need instructions. Especially if it has a manual transmission. The entire traffic system is a big set of instructions that must be equally clear to all participants if major accidents are to be avoided. If you look around, you will see multiple instances of instructions present in your life. Be it at home, at work, out in the streets, there even are special paths in the parks and some forests we are instructed to stay on for our safety. Instructions aim to guarantee certainty. Certainty promises safety. We like safety, that is natural. But, as the neuroscientist Beau Lotto said when referring to the relationship between creativity and uncertainty, “Creativity begins with not knowing”. The case with too many instructions could be an example of when there is too much of a good thing.
When I started my career in insurance we had some tools to help us calculate the premiums for the risks. In many cases though, we had to come up with our own reasoning. That was some 15 years ago. Nowadays, an insurance underwriter is expected to follow numerous guidelines and often overengineered instructions. That might sound like a good thing to some. Well, not when you are trying to navigate all that maze, trust me. Oftentimes this leads to a misguided focus – trying to follow all the instructions instead of trying to actually do a professional underwriting job. In case an underwriter decides to deviate from what the instructions tell she must do, she has to document her reasons justifying that she is allowed to do it and explaining why she decided to go for that rebellious act – make an underwriting decision. I have now left this career path but I still wonder, why is an underwriter needed at all, if all she is expected to do is operate a tool that actually does all the underwriting for her. Do we need humans to do jobs that consist solely (or, for the most part) of following strict guidelines and definite instructions?
This is, of course, just one example. Nonetheless, this increasing ubiquity of instructions in our lives makes me think – what is the implication of this state of affairs for our capacity to think, especially to think broadly and critically? After all, that is a skill that requires honing and regular practice. It isn’t an easy, automatic feature like deciding to go grab a bite when you feel hungry. Just like any other skill that you need to learn and train on a regular basis, it gradually declines if you are not using it or doing it only rarely. If you have ever learned a foreign language and then stopped using it for a while, you know what I mean. It goes rusty. The harder it was to learn a skill, the less intuitive it is for me, the quicker it goes rusty if I don’t use it.
So, if our lives become packed with more and more instructions on almost anything, it may create a sense of clarity, certainty and safety, yes. Consequently, many of us might feel pleased to accept such a state of reality. My humble question in this scenario, however, is this: when and where will we have the opportunity to practice our broad, critical, creative thinking skills? We might need to deliberately create such opportunities, which in itself can prove difficult in an environment that aims to generate as many detailed instructions as possible. That may be with a noble purpose in mind – to bring more clarity to our lives, to give us quickly and easily available answers to most questions we could have. Then, if some questions remain that cannot be fitted with clear instruction as a response, well – perhaps such questions are irrelevant and we shouldn’t bother with them?
If so, it can turn out that broad, critical, creative thinking is so unnecessary that it becomes unwelcome when it rears its dangerous head, getting relegated to the fringes of society. And perhaps to some small selected groups, of whatever kind. After all, someone has to come up with all those instructions.
That’s why – let us keep exploring!