Michael Grey’s Notes: the more you know, the more you don’t


by Michael Grey.
Piping Today #88 • 2017.

I’d like to think that I’ve lived long enough to have a pretty good idea of who I am. My collective experience, adventures and the winding road that has marked the path of my life have – so far – given me some understanding of the world around me.  And, of course, while our paths may differ, as might our ages, I suggest you’re no different. It’s this sense of perspective, a way of seeing the world that is driven by how each of our lives are lived, and this all goes to help create a personal narrative – our “story”.  How we see ourselves helps us interpret and make sense of stuff that happens to and around us.  

Dr Charles S Jacobs wrote recently in Psychology Today that “neuroscience teaches us that the brain works through narratives, which give us our perspective on the world and drive our decision-making and behavior”.  We form opinions, make decisions and judgements all based on the inter-connected events that together form the story that is our life.  

So, consider me in my 20s, my story, my narrative, at that time and that of the middle-aged me of today. Not to put too fine a point on it but I’d have to think the big difference between our perspectives was sureness. Think “sureness” as a euphemism for know-it-all – everyone’s favourite kind of person. It’s comforting to imagine that I wasn’t so unlike others of similar life experience. But who knows. I was sure of what I knew and I knew of what I was sure.   

And then it hits you, the sinking – yet paradoxically liberating – idea: the more you know, the more you don’t know. An idea most often attributed to Aristotle but one that suggests, of course, that there is wisdom in acknowledging you ain’t no Mr Know-it-all. Not just that, there is strength in the inherent vulnerability of saying, “I don’t know” or “I’ve changed my mind”.  

In mainstream politics it’s the leader with the frequently changed mind who suffers most. He’s generally viewed as uncertain, a hand-wringing ditherer – or worse. The same goes for the workplace: managers who are seen to often change course and tact – and minds – are viewed as bad planners, if not weak-minded dolts. Even beyond politics and work, to change one’s mind is to acknowledge a mistake in judgement – and acknowledge weakness.  Or so it seems to be generally believed. 

In piping we have music and, so, art and the subjective.  When we blend in the more objective competitive elements and a tradition sometimes unevenly interpreted (meaning not everyone agrees on one precise tradition), things piping become fertile ground for the advancement of the surest of minds and the firmest of intransigence. 

Consider, alone, pibroch and its interpretation. Almost every component and detail is rife with differing views on what’s right and what has merit. The timing of technical figures, those settings with most virtue and any number of footnoted inclusions and exclusions all help form a sort of musical battleground of minds of what is good and right music when it comes to interpreting the big tunes. An overstatement, admittedly, but try changing a piper’s mind on the merits of, say, the timing of a much-revered E cadence and you’ll possibly smell a hint of gunpowder.  

Best-selling journalist Malcolm Gladwell offers soothing comfort to those liberated mind-changers: “I feel I change my mind all the time. And I sort of feel that’s your responsibility as a person, as a human being – to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.” 

A while ago there was the trial of a new pipe band judging protocol, namely pipe band “consultative judging”. You might know this (now little-used anywhere) activity occurs when judges gather to compare notes following a competition – this to ensure a view of the event that takes in all perspectives – and, so, a little more balance and fairness. The usual is for each judge to independently – and without word to fellow judge – submit placement and critical assessment. On first look at consultative judging I hated it. I saw it as a recipe for a bully judge to strong-arm flustered co-panellists to change their results to suit a surely devious hidden agenda. What else could it be? My personal narrative of the time, full-on pipe band cynic, cemented my sureness. 

And, yet, I changed my mind – miraculously (not really). A season of actively judging band events and living the consultative system allowed me to experience the real benefits of the approach. There were no bullies to be seen. No shoving in the facilitating ensemble judge’s tent. It turned out to be all reasoned exchange, all the time. Mind, changed. At least, this time. 

Ambiguity in perspective is everywhere and every side has a story. And invariably, the truth tends to be somewhere in the middle of any story.  Unoriginal thinking, maybe, but, like most any cliché, there’s truth at its core. Why do we not value the thinking and wherewithal needed to change a mind? And, for that matter, the changed mind? 

Psychologist Alex Lickerman believes that “we get attached to answers like we do possessions. Once we give an answer, it’s no longer simply an answer but now our answer. Once we commit to it, we instantly become emotionally biased in favor of it… we become, in short, highly resistant to changing our minds because our answer has become part of who we are. And any threat to it feels like a threat to us”. 

We know the world of piping is a small, tightly-woven community.  The place is awash in diverse individual narratives and often byzantine customs and politics. It has been forever that the piping world has percolated through time in a backdrop of diverse attitudes and assumptions – and maybe thrived, in spite of it.  

And yet, I wonder. What heights might be reached if we reflected on the inherent value in a changed mind, a different stance? Be it band or school setting, community organisation, or governing body, there is surely always room for reflection and the potential to acknowledge the need to change one’s mind. 

Think of the late economist, John Maynard Keynes, who was once challenged for altering his position on some economic issue. “When my information changes,” he said, “I change my mind. What do you do?”

You can now turn to hymn number 555 in your book.