If I were to try the sport of bouldering—climbing on small rock formations without a rope—I’d walk up to the rock wall and have no idea where to start. I’d scan the wall, looking for places where I could grasp. I’d likely see only the obvious outcroppings, the holds upon which I could wrap my entire hand, knowing well that I was secure on the wall.
Now, if I took my good friend Andy who is an experienced climber and stuck him in front of the same wall, he’d see a completely different wall. He’d pick up small holds, places where he could wedge his hands, minor deviations on the surface of the wall that would give him enough friction, enough leverage, to get to the top.
We are staring at the same wall, but seeing very different things.
In the world of psychology, there’s a principle that states your skill-set determines your possibilities for action. The greater your skill-set, the more possibilities you see. You are the expert climber seeing two dozen routes to the top instead of only the obvious one. The writer who takes a five-word sentence and sees dozens of variations while the high school student can’t see more than what is in front of her. The NFL running back who gets the ball and sees three different lanes to run through versus the high school running back who sees no lane at all.
Put differently: As your abilities change so does your perception. You start seeing the climbing wall, sentence, or field in a different light. You pick up on nuance when previously all you saw was one shade of grey.
In today’s climate, this principle is a reminder that how we perceive the world around us is dependent on our level of knowledge. We might think that we see the wall clearly because we’ve spent hours going over every bump and divot. We might feel confident, assured that we’ve done the hard work inspecting the wall from top to bottom. This is akin to the false sense of security that googling a topic for an hour gives us. But if we haven’t taken the time to develop deep skills and deep understanding, then we’ll surely miss a dozen holds and routes to the top that a seasoned veteran could pick out in a few seconds. An expert who has developed multiple skill sets in his or her field sees the wall differently. They have more possibilities for action.
That doesn’t mean we should always listen to experts or default to those who have more experience in a field than we do. But it should remind us that how we see the world is dependent on the skills and abilities we bring to the table.