Remember when you were brand new in your career and it seemed like you could’ve filled the grand canyon with the things you didn’t know? As you began to navigate your new space it made sense to focus on what was tangible and right in front of you. You referred to your training manual, completed your checklists and followed your training officer’s direction. A learning curve exists in any new venture, but the nuances of a job in corrections are more challenging than most. It’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it.
The phrase you don’t know what you don’t know is often used to describe not only someone’s lack of experience or knowledge in a given area, but a lack of awareness the area even exists. I think a lot of veterans or senior officers in the field might reflect on what they didn’t know early in their careers, chalk it up to a simple lack of experience, and point to trial and error as the eventual solution. While experience is of course valuable, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to map out my learning beyond the standard approach, to seek out what I don’t know instead of waiting for it to confront me down the line.
I like to summarize my approach to skill development and the scaling of new practices within these steps:
- I teach you
- You teach you
- You teach others
And it’s that second point, when people take ownership of their learning, that seems to set successful individuals apart from their peers. When someone decides to teach themselves, they are exercising critical thinking, which isn’t about rejecting or challenging the information they’ve received, but looking beyond the limited information I may have given them and questioning their own understanding of the subject to become more aware of their knowledge gaps.
Trainings will always be limited, whether it’s due to time restraints, the skill of the instructors or just the scope of the curriculum. The easy thing to do when you become aware of your gaps is to blame someone or something else. It’s easy to sit back and wait for the next training or for someone else to tell you what to read or watch in order to take the next step. Many people take this passive approach to learning, whether it’s because they lack interest in the topic or are indifferent about their development. But from my observations, the most successful people in this field do not take this approach. They are lifelong learners who don’t allow themselves to become complacent. They ask themselves what they don’t know, and when they identify gaps, they seek to fill them by asking questions with humility, regardless of their rank or status.
The ability to take ownership is foundational here. Jocko Willink’s book Extreme Ownership does a much better job than I could ever do in describing this concept and its benefits, but I think what stood out most for me when I adopted this mindset was the feeling of empowerment that came with it. While I could never control the world around me, I learned to better control my view of it and how I could improve my response, regardless of the circumstances. Once I figured this out, I began to feel like I had more control of my life, which was very comforting given all my frustrations and dissatisfaction I had with myself.
When we’ve identified our limitations and gaps, the path may still be challenging, but at least we know which direction to go. Be humble, ask questions, and turn lessons learned into new practices. Then it’s just a matter of evaluation, refinement and continuous improvement. When we take ownership of our learning, we feel more empowered because we feel more in control and know what to expect. It’s comforting to know what you’re working toward and it makes it easier to build a realistic plan to achieve it.
When we don’t know what we don’t know, it’s like we don’t even have a point to start from. And when a problem isn’t directly in front of us, as busy as we are, it doesn’t make sense to go looking for more things to do! But I think there is a way to combine critical thinking, curiosity and a growth mindset to create mental maps that provide direction and purpose, not more busy work.
Whether you are new to the field, transitioning into a different role, or simply interested in personal growth, the approach should be the same. We start by organizing our thoughts on a given subject (what we know) into categories. This could be anything relevant to our work or of personal interest. Leadership, addiction, behavior change, or maybe something more unique to our position. The best way to do this is by typing or writing our thoughts down as they come. I’ve found taking the time to literally map out my thoughts is extremely helpful in any exercise but it’s especially helpful as we progress to this next step.
Once we’ve taken stock of the things we feel confident in and sort them into categories, patterns should begin to emerge. Typically, the most obvious gaps are what we already know we don’t know, but that’s OK. Label and categorize those items as well.
Now that we’ve sorted out what we know from what we don’t know, it’s time to apply critical thinking to what we’ve written down and begin asking ourselves challenging questions. How do I know this to be true? What could I be missing in this area? Where could bias exist? What else could be happening here? Try to step back for a moment as you examine what you’ve written down. Probe it, question it, and try to change the lens through which you typically view this topic.
As we take the time to answer these difficult questions, awareness should begin to shine like light in new areas, whether this is a familiar topic or not. Although you are still the one responsible for doing the work, this practice should provide an opportunity to take inventory of the things you know, and create a starting point to learn the things you don’t.
This isn’t a one time exercise, but something we should try to do throughout our careers. Use critical thinking, take ownership of our learning, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or make mistakes. We can never know it all, but that’s the point. No matter how long you work in this field, there is always more to learn.