Nouskills: skills of the mind
© 2002 Graham Little
As with many others papers and notes at this site, this paper is only partly stand alone, and should be read in conjunction with the other papers at the site.
What is a nouskill and where did it come from?
First the ‘where’? Around the mid eighties, when I was searching for a system of thought able to provide the platform for my thinking, I was searching through many authors, and among the group were Hegel, Popper and Tielhard de Chardin. By this time, I had already concluded Popper was fundamentally right, that ideas did exist, that as a result they must have a structure. I had also read W. Ross Ashby, Design for a Brain, and had already decided that the structure of knowledge was modeled in his ultimate and immediate effects, my problem was how to get to the answer I instinctively knew and understood. Unfortunately it was over ten years later before I found the sort of answer and links I sought, but this story is not about that particular issue.
What, you might think, do Hegel, Popper and de Chardin have in common? I have never been keen on Hegel, did not think much of his work, thought of it as having little substance. There was one idea, however that linked him to the others, the idea of world spirit. Popper gave clearer structure to the notion in his world 3, while de Chardin gave to me the most spiritual connotation in his nousphere, the sphere of thought. To me they were all seeking to grasp and make sense of the same phenomenon.
For my part, quite unreligious in the normal sense, failing however to quite make it to atheism, I did seek some form of spiritual structure, believing it important that I respect and relate to something much, much bigger than myself. For myself, and one day I hope to develop the thinking much, much more clearly I have developed a system of faith based on the sphere of thought. It shapes us beyond anything we typically understand, especially so today. It is the hidden and unseen bond between what was and what will be, even in the primitive tribal society, this bond moves from parent to child, and through the very cultural essence of the tribe, invokes in the child all that which makes the child of the tribe.
The faith I have is in the eventual, the ultimate intelligence, common sense, and rationality of the nousphere. The faith I call Spiritual Humanism, since the faith invests itself in the future of humanity, and in the belief that the nousphere as it now is, almost global, almost embracing us all, its moderation and guidance toward rational actions shaping more and more of us, guiding us to a yet better and better life for all humankind, much left to do, as there always will be, much energy needing committing, it does not happen on it own, but then no religious or quasi-religious system suggests really that things do happen on their own.
But what has that to do with nouskills? The key point is that the term from de Chardin was looming larger and larger in my thinking, nousphere. Parallel to this, I was making my commercial way as a corporate training consultant, deeply involved with issues of how to show people to get better results. During this time I was also exposed to the work on problem solving of consultants, Kepner-Tregoe; their structure to the process of thinking greatly impressed me, and I asked could it be generalized, could it be applicable to other thinking processes? I found it could be, that there was nothing that could not be conceptualized as a sequence of effective action, then memorized, and acted out and practiced until habit and if so developed then greatly enhanced the performing of the skill. What is more the conceptual systematization leads also to a useful system for revising and redeveloping the skills when circumstances changed. Areas in particular that were amenable to this type of practice were those of previously ‘soft’ skill development, such as interpersonal skills and self-management, the ‘emotional intelligence’ made popular by Daniel Goleman.
As the philosophical platform evolved, it was clear that knowledge was central to any thorough understanding of human causality, although for many years I did not how, nor could I adequately represent the mechanism. I come to well understand habit, and that this was the neural system at work, sequential activation of neuron translating into behavior, including thought, so that I understood that having thoughts was not necessarily thinking, it was often merely a inconsequential side effect of habituated trains of neural activity.
As I worked with managers, sales people and others in commerce, seeking how to more and yet more sharply guide their development and improved effectiveness, it became clear that conceptualization was one of the keys, that if the sequence of conduct could be conceptualized, and then if the person could be shown how to monitor their own conduct relating the actions to the conceptualized sequence, then effectiveness could be improved, and with practice so that the conceptualized sequence became practiced, so effectiveness significantly improved.
There are now two quite independent objects, first the existing neural sequence, and then the conceptualized system of action that offers the best chance of the best possible result. When casting about for a name to call this sequence it finally occurred to me that the sequence was a part of the nousphere, part of Popper’s world 3, as a result I created the term nouskill to describe this conceptualized system, this knowledge that could then be used to structure our thinking and our action.
This philosophy I do not usually apply to such things as a sport or operating a lathe; but the technique for managing our emotions, or for logically assessing and analyzing a problem I do call nouskills. The perfect example being the original work that made such an impression, the process of Kepner-Tregoe, perfectly illustrates all intended by the term nouskill.
Nouskills do not have to be developed by experts, more than anything it is a philosophy, so that if some individual applies it to themselves, sorting and ordering their own thought processes so that they make more and better use of the potential and capacity they have, then this is the perfect illustration of nouskills in practice. In addition, there are the processes and techniques created and promoted by experts that also illustrate nouskills.
To the best of my knowledge the term is new, but it does represent a philosophy and process that I sincerely hope becomes part the nousphere, so shaping ongoing all that we do, and that we can do.