Not Knowing

[This is Travis Dotson’s “Ground Truths” column that appeared in the Summer 2022 Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Travis Dotson

Analyst, Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

Like a lot of us Lower 48ers, I recently spent some time in Alaska—the land of the most formal “things are different here” briefing. I love that briefing. I wish more places would do a version of it.

For those of us who don’t work regularly in the biggest state in the union, AK can be a great perspective giver. I guess it’s no different than getting assigned to any place outside your normal rotation. For some it’s that coveted roll to the Boundary Waters for Canoe Ops or down to the southeast to experience some fan boat firing fun. For others it’s a chance to go “out west” where steep is no joke. Wherever your “different” is, a trip there presents a chance to test your humility and flex your ability to learn.

Will you pretend you know when you aren’t really sure? Will you ask questions even if everyone else is nodding their head? It’s easy to brag to yourself about how humble you are and tell tall tales about not caring what others think. But it turns out the ego is real and we are social animals. Saying “I don’t care what anyone thinks” is you trying to influence what someone thinks—but it’s OK, I pretend too.

We want to be seen as competent and capable. This can present a dilemma when we are unsure. These situations vary in degrees of urgency and consequence. Maybe you forgot exactly how to pdf your Crew Time Report for the Finance folks or maybe you got some classroom instruction 22 years ago yet never once performed an actual hover hook-up when—Surprise!—here comes the ship with no long line (both recent experiences of mine).

Obviously, those situations are on different ends of the time wedge (getting time in is clearly more pressing—right?). But the intense desire to not look dumb rises immediately for me in both scenarios. You’d think I’d be OK with looking dumb by now (or at least accustomed to it), but I still prefer my learning stumbles to be off the main stage.

Sometimes the fear is not about looking dumb, it’s about not wanting to fail in the moments that matter. Calling in a Medical Incident Report or getting the depth needed on real-life CPR compressions are things I really want to do correctly. Those particular scenarios are instances where training reps will save you from your prefrontal cortex. Other serious scenarios just don’t have a set play to practice, like delivering really bad news. There isn’t a script for everything.

Let’s return to the point: Uncertainty.

We don’t know how to do everything, and surprises will occur. Both in the moment and afterward, not knowing is an opportunity. We will all eventually be forced to make the best decision we can with the information and skills we have at the time. We need to recognize that moment as a chance to do hard things and trust that learning will arise. We also need to be compassionate with ourselves and others when looking back at how it all went down.

My wrestling coach liked to say “You just earned an opportunity to improve” whenever we faltered—maybe forgot our headgear or lost our temper. The “opportunity” was an extra 20 minutes of Hit-It drills after practice.

At the time I didn’t think much about why coach called it an opportunity. I just tried to keep my mouth shut and not to “earn” anything else. Looking back, I see the wisdom.

Opportunity hides in the hard stuff. Get good at seeing it that way.

One thought on “Not Knowing

  1. As usual, thank you for your insight and opportunity to respond. As a retired USFS Hot Shot Supt. so your mileage may vary. I too have been to AK, the land of the most formal “things are different here” briefing, both with the Hot Shots and as a Single Resource Type 2 Safety Officer. I have less of a love affair with that briefing. However, I too “wish more places would do a version of it,” however, I agree with it all of it as long as it’s ethical and safe and more.

    Without a doubt, “AK can be a great perspective giver” and I also “guess it’s no different than getting assigned to any place outside your normal rotation. … For others it’s a chance to go ‘out west’ where they always claim that they’re “Flatlanders” and to give them a break about their difficulty in hiking on steep ground. My response is they’ve known for years they are going to accept those assignments, so get in shape and get over it. Any and every trip to those different places “presents a chance to test your humility and flex your ability to learn.” Hence, we have the opportunity for ”complete lessons learned”

    What kind of person would “pretend you know when you aren’t really sure?” I say a “Go Along to Get Along Team Player” would be in lockstep. And if you fail to “ask questions even if everyone else is nodding their head” then you have succumbed to the odious Groupthink. “[Bragging] to yourself about how humble you are and tell tall tales about not caring what others think” is the sign of an untrustworthy individual. One’s “ego is real” and I am a human being, not a “social animal.” Where do you come up with this “Saying ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks’ is you trying to influence what someone thinks” statement? It’s not “OK, [and if you] pretend too” then how trustworthy are you and the stuff you publish?

    Of course, “We want to be seen as competent and capable.” But where do you come up with “This can present a dilemma when we are unsure” statement? What dilemma are you referring to? Webster’s definition is “A dilemma is a problem offering two possibilities, neither of which is unambiguously acceptable or preferable. The possibilities are termed the horns of the dilemma, a clichéd usage, but distinguishing the dilemma from other kinds of predicament as a matter of usage.” I also agree with your “situations vary in degrees of urgency and consequence” statement.
    I never learned to know “exactly how to pdf your Crew Time Report for the Finance folks” because I refused to falsify my CTRs by “showing a Meal Period” in clear violation of the CFR regarding “Compensable Meal Periods” requirement to be “completely relieved from duty” standard codified at 29 CFR 785.16(a). See this relevant caselaw on the issue. (https://casetext.com/brief/secretary-of-labor-v-jasmine-hall-care-homes-inc-et-al_memorandum-of-points-and-authorities-in-support-of-38-motion-for-summary?sort=relevance)

    To me the dilemma you refer to is between right and wrong on the Time issue and safe and unsafe on the helicopter issue. What does the “different ends of the time wedge” have to do with “getting time in is clearly more pressing” when it’s knowingly falsification of time “right?” If “the intense desire to not look dumb rises immediately for me in both scenarios” then maybe you want to bone up on your ethics and conduct. Glad to hear that “… [you’d] be OK with looking dumb by now (or at least accustomed to it)’ to “prefer [that your] learning stumbles to be off the main stage” is a fairly common notion especially as you’re maturing.
    “Sometimes the fear is … about not wanting to fail in the moments that matter” is another experience we are all going to be exposed to and that’s how almost all of us learn. I agree that “[o]ther serious scenarios just don’t have a set play to practice, like delivering really bad news” but it has to be done lest we continue to let things fester or learn “incomplete lessons.” I believe that there actually is “a script for everything” located in The Bible.

    Regarding “Uncertainty: we obviously “don’t know how to do everything” even though some claim they do. And obviously again, “surprises will occur.” I mostly agree with the “We will all eventually be forced to make the best decision we can with the information and skills we have at the time. We need to recognize that moment as a chance to do hard things and trust that learning will arise” statement, taking issue with the “learning will arise” portion because we must know the truth about what happened and why.

    The “opportunity to improve” notion is valid unless we continue to make the same mistakes again and again because then there is no improvement.

    I too “see the wisdom” because [o]pportunity [always] hides in the hard stuff.” There is a Chinese proverb that states something like “smooth seas make for poor sailors” so yes, indeed “Get good at seeing it that way.”

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