I was no longer following a trail. I was learning to follow myself. – Aspen Matis, Girl in the Woods: A Memoir
Tracking, I learned a few days back, is when you go into the woods and go where you want to go, laying down signs for others to follow.
An arrow, for example, says go this way and you make one by laying three sticks on the ground.
Two crossed sticks mean not this way.
And then you have signs for split up, obstacle ahead, left and right turns and gone home.
When you’ve put down the tracks someone else can follow what you’ve done, or you can walk it yourself and see if it’s clear or confusing or if you need more signs.
And it actually gets hard very quickly, you can forget where your own tracks were laid, you can confuse yourself with the directions and when you try and follow anyone else’s tracks you often come to a point where they just disappear or run out or you come across someone else’s tracks and follow their route instead not realizing you’ve changed direction altogether.
Now this, I think, has a resonance with the way memory works.
This talk by Lara Boyd, which you can skim with the transcript here says that the brain has three ways of learning.
Short-term learning has to do with chemical signaling – your neurons communicate and become active and this helps you remember stuff now.
A little bit like laying down those tracking markers, go this way and not that.
Then, to support longer term memory, the brain starts altering its structure, making those connections and actions permanent.
If you have enough kids tramping their way down those trails, eventually you will stamp down a path, perhaps a new one.
And then finally, the brain can change its function to support your learning, with areas becoming bigger and more specialized.
And that happens in the woods as generations of walkers and children make some parts of the wood fill with trails and hideaways and play there often while other parts of the wood stay hidden and unseen for longer.
What can this tell us about what happens when we want to understand a situation?
Start with short-term learning
All too often we expect to go into a situation and come out with a long-term answer in next to no time.
We need to let go of this idea and starting thinking about a longer-term involvement in the process.
The first few times you enter a situation and ask questions and take notes, all you’re doing is following a path through the woods, setting down notes as markers.
As you start to see a trail emerging, a path that others follow even if they don’t know it you now have something to work with.
Work with the underlying structure, not against it
You may be an expert in what you do – and let’s say you provide consultancy services.
Almost every consultant will come in with an “expert” mindset – they know what to do and will come up with a plan and impose it on the situation and things will work.
But things usually don’t.
And that’s because what worked for you somewhere else, at a different time, with different people – worked because it was then and there and with them.
Now is different – it always is.
And you need to see what is happening now before you can really work out how you can help – how your expertise can contribute in this situation.
Learn to adapt your methods
The thing that matters is process – how you work through the specifics of the situation with the tools you have to gain a better understanding of what needs to be done.
Now, to some people, all this will seem horribly imprecise – tell me what to do, they will say, and I will do it.
But be clear – just what do you mean.
I think this is what I mean.
The real world is messy, full of detail, full of confusion and angst and feelings and worries and hopes and dreams and ambition and hate and friction and dissent and power and politics and ignorance and contempt and narcissism and a belief in one’s own superiority and intellect.
You can’t abstract away from that.
It’s a mess and you have to realize that if you want to deal with the real world you are going to have to get involved, you are going to have to participate in it to understand it and to work with it.
This is the basis of anthropology – participation – and of action research – where the researcher gets involved in what’s going on.
If you want to understand something, if you want to change something – you can’t do it at a distance, you have to get your boots on and walk into the middle of everything.
And hope you don’t get lost.
How do you know when it’s working?
There are three things that you need to watch out for.
The first is whether your methods work for you, are the process you are using for data collection and meaning making ones that work with the way you work and are you comfortable with them?
For example, some people are rigorous and logical and hard working – they will take notes but also be disciplined about keeping indexes of what is where.
I find that a difficult task to do – I prefer methods where structure emerges naturally rather than having to maintain a structure because that seems like it’s hard work.
The second is whether your methods work for others – can you communicate and collaborate usefully with other people.
Here, clarity and speed matter – the more complex your material and the longer it takes to get then the less your chances of actually being able to do what you want to do.
The final thing is whether, when you’re done, you have peace of mind – you know that what you’ve done is what you wanted to do and the results are good.
We need more detail, please.
One of the challenges we face when trying to talk through something with someone else is that it’s hard to understand something unless you know it already.
If you have read Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance you’ll know what I mean.
What I’m trying to do is work towards an approach that will help us navigate the vast, unmapped, constantly shifting terrain of individual and group minds.
It’s more than method, but we have to start with method, with procedure, with something that has worked, at some time, for some person.
So, over the next few posts, I’m going to try and be focused and practical and deconstruct methods of collecting and processing information, covering things like commonplace books, logbooks, diaries, journals, sketch notes, zettelkastens, concept maps, holons and so on.
I think I also want to look at analog versus digital and the pros and cons of each.
I want to take an approach that looks at the models behind these methods and takes a critical approach to them.
Because there is no one best method – there is what works for you in the situations you face.
Think about it like going on a hike.
You have to decide what to carry with you.
But to do that you first need to know what’s available out there.
Let’s go shopping for supplies in the next few posts.
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