When I was growing up, my father told me that U.S. Secret Service agents in charge of hunting down and identifying counterfeit currency don’t waste their time trying to learn every single trick counterfeiters have developed to fool people into accepting their bills. Instead, he said, they studied genuine U.S. currency so that, out of their intimate familiarity with the real thing, they could spot a fake in no time. In this post, I suggest that finding our highest intellectual ability is a little like being one of those Treasury agents.

In my previous post, I expanded on what I think learning consultant Josh Waitzkin is getting at when he talks about optimal intellectual performance as a matter of “returning to a natural state” or “getting out of our own way.” I suggest that learning is a matter of “self-transcendence,” and so when we learn, we are a self transcending. That is, we are a self in motion.

Driving this movement—from puzzlement through understanding to new knowledge—is the desire to know. The desire to know is like other desires insofar as we feel its pull in our embodied consciousness. For this reason, the heightened somatic awareness that Waitzkin develops in his clients serves the primary aim of getting them to notice the drive of the desire, to know that it is always available.

That drive, the pure desire to know, can draw one into an intellectual flow state where the “deep work” of understanding happens.

But this suggests a way in which the desire to know is not very much like the other desires we have. My desire for food or sex or sleep can be sated, at least for a while. But the desire to know, which pushes questions—or at least the tension of puzzlement that gives rise to questions—into our consciousness can never be totally satisfied, even for a while.

Every experience, every bright idea, every rock-solid verification or undeniable falsification is an occasion for the desire to know to express itself. If we are paying close enough attention, the desire to know is always waiting in us with more questions.

This doesn’t mean we don’t get any satisfaction from our intellectual pursuits; they can be among the most satisfying work we do, short of the energy we invest in our relationships with other people. But the point is that no matter how satisfying this or that insight is, it doesn’t quiet the insistent demands of the core desire to know. It won’t rest until it understands everything about everything. In philosophical terms, we can say that the object it desires is not this or that kind of being (food, etc.), but being itself.

 

So what’s stopping us from entering a flow state?

When we are not living up to our intellectual potential, when we are not entering flow states, in a funny way it is not because we don’t desire to learn at our highest level, but because something is blocking our initiative.

I think this is what Waitzkin is getting at when he talked about removing obstructions. Waitzkin is starting at the most fundamental level of obstruction: our attention. If you’re not paying attention, either to the desire to know or to the data about which it is raising questions, you are going to miss opportunities to figure out what is going on. And in high-pressure, high-intensity circumstances like those found in financial markets or on a Jiu Jitsu mat, those opportunities are arising and flying by quickly and frequently.

There are intellectual obstructions, too. There are cognitive defaults that incline us to certain lines of thought that may or may not be adequate for our modern lives. There are also the myriad fallacies that logicians catalogue. Waizkin makes the very interesting point in his interview with Ferriss that, if we learn how to pay attention, we don’t necessarily have to learn long lists of cognitive defaults and fallacies to slap onto our thoughts like labels. Instead, we can learn how it feels in our bodies when the desire to know gets derailed or obstructed by a counterproductive habit of thought. Then we can stop, go back, and figure out what was going wrong if we want, or (as when time and attention are at a premium) we can just focus our energies on getting back in the mental groove.

Lonergan identifies another kind of obstruction. It is an obstruction that, rather than providing the wrong kind of insight, prevents certain kinds of question from being asked altogether. He calls these obstructions “bias.” This name might, for some readers, prove a bit misleading though. The term “bias” might incline us to think of preferring one person or group or ideology over another arbitrarily. This could be an effect of bias in Lonergan’s sense, but, in his vocabulary, bias is that which keeps us from asking those questions that would overcome such a preference. Strictly speaking, bias is a mental dynamic that tries (however much in-the-background) to keep us from asking certain questions and so having certain ideas.

Individual bias, then, is a tendency to avoid questions and answers that would take into consideration the perspectives of other people or of one’s community. (Lonergan also considers several other kinds of bias in Insight.)

But Waitzkin helps us to see why we needn’t worry too much about memorizing the catalogue of cognitive defaults, fallacies, or biases (though of course such diagnostic tools are immensely helpful). If we can instead develop an attunement to what genuine flow feels like and to how our bodies feel when we really let our native, unrestricted, and pure desire to know off the leash.

Then we can use that awareness as the criterion for when we are performing at our peak mental ability or when something is off and we need to stop, check in, and reset our inquiry. Like Secret Service agents who know U.S. currency backwards and forwards, the better we know the real thing and are able to pay attention in real time, the more quickly we can weed out worthless counterfeits for thought.