Thoughts on recruiting the unconscious mind

After starting this post, I became aware of a need to distinguish the different states of the alert mind: conscious where thoughts are under our control and comprehension, subconscious involve thoughts we are aware of and can talk about but we have no control of comprehension of them, and the unconscious where our actions or behaviors do not enter our thoughts at all and we are unable to explain them.   This post is focusing on that last concept of the unconscious mind that only our actions or behaviors betray.   The unconscious mind is probably more visible to others than to ourselves.

In my last post, I wrote about some of my thoughts on experiential learning as distinguished from objective learning.   Ultimately, the distinction is between training the unconscious mind through guided experiences and training the conscious mind through lectures and testing.

My personal preference is experiential training of the unconscious mind for my own development as well as what I look for when seeking new team members.  In the context of the workplace, I want to explore the concept of hiring hiring a new staff based on their unconscious development.   There are two challenges for this concept.  One, the candidate needs a way to present his unconscious learning.   Two, the hiring manager needs a way to observe that learning.

In the lectures linked from my last post, one of the frequent examples of conscious learning was the memorization of the quadratic formula that every school age child in the world must learn in order to pass an exam on that topic.  The demonstration of conscious knowledge is to be able recite the formula when asked.  In any audience of this lecturer (typically consisting of college professors) no one can recite this equation even though they must have learned it earlier.

In contrast, an example of unconscious learning is learning to ride a bicycle.   This too is learned by most children.  The difference is that an adult perhaps after decades of not riding a bicycle can still ride a bicycle when given the opportunity.   Bicycle riding is something that requires training through actual experience often with multiple experiences of failure (falling down).   This training involves experiencing attempts and failures where the failures (or potential for failure) activates the unconscious learning.  To find out whether a person knows how to ride a bicycle, we do not ask them for a verbal response of some concept of bicycle riding based on some prior lecture.  Instead, we provide a bicycle and ask them to start riding it: either they can or they cannot.

Both examples involve lessons learned in childhood but may be unused in adulthood.  At least in my personal experience, I have not been on a bicycle for at least a decade but I suspect I can still ride one.   Also, while watching the lectures, I tried to recite the quadratic equation from memory without looking it up. I recalled there being a, b, and c terms in an equations with ± and √ symbols and something below the divisor line, but I couldn’t recall exactly where each term went.  I know I used the quadratic formula extensively beyond the initial introduction and yet I never really learned it in a way to be able to recite it from memory as quickly and confidently as I can go back to riding a bicycle.

When I was a hiring manager, I needed to hire people who could help on a challenging project.   Although I didn’t think in these terms at the time, what I wanted was experiential knowledge in addition objective knowledge.   Certainly, I was frustrated by the labor-category constraints, the key-word flagged resumes, and the examination nature of interviews.  All of the interview approaches essentially share the common notion of demonstrating objective knowledge: the interview engages only the conscious mind.

None of this seemed to be addressing what I needed.   A person can know the material without knowing how to use it in a demanding scenario.   A person can have lots of work experience that developed only a very narrow subset of the objectively learned skills.  The only additional information that experience tells us is that they person has not been fired for the skills he had originally been hired for.  Due to the increased intolerance for the prospect of failure, modern jobs are highly specialized and only granted to those who with the prior certifications.   Taken to the extreme, an ideal job will not offer any opportunity for experiential learning and this makes the length of experience irrelevant.

Now I am on the other side of the process and I am looking for a position that can benefit from my experiential knowledge of decades of constantly being confronted with tasks with the potential for failure.  I’m trapped by the same system that reduces my experiences into the conscious learning of objective facts of specific technologies used in specific contexts.   The job-search or hiring process is all about matching the objective requirements of the current opening with the objective skills of the resume.   Lost in this process is the unconscious development.   There is no way for my resume to communicate the essential fact that I acquired the skills when needed during very challenging circumstances.  I have no way to assert the qualification of my unconscious mind being able to tackle similar or greater challenges.

I understand the game and how it is played.  I can obtain an opportunity to repeat past experience simply by obtaining new credentials for the latest technologies.  It is a matter of learning key concepts sufficiently to pass a certification exam I can list on my resume and to pass a verbal exam of an interview.   For a couple thousand dollars, I can go invest in intensive training to complete this in a matter of a couple weeks.  This will get me back to doing what I did when I was 10 or 20 years younger.  Being able to point out that I did something similar 10-20 years earlier may be a competitive advantage in terms of reducing risk of failure.

However, I’d prefer to find an opportunity that will continue to develop my unconscious skills.  I’d also prefer to allow this opportunity I mastered earlier to someone who needs to develop those same unconscious skills.   My preference may be anachronistic because it requires a willingness to challenge someone by placing him in an area where he will initially be incompetent, and thus risk the potential to fail.   I discussed in an earlier post that this risk is worth taking for humans who (unlike machines) can quickly adapt to new challenges by gaining competence quickly to avoid or minimize failure.   Historically, the source of experiential learning was on the job where the job performance had real consequences.

Also in this historical approach, once the candidate gains competence in a new role, his manager may challenge him with a new experience of confronting incompetence.  The prior job may still need to be done and he may now be the best person to do it, but the employer has bigger challenges that need to be solved and this particular person shows the promise to be able to grow into it.   Meanwhile, the manager could use the intermediate position to train someone else.

I like the analogy of the learning quadratic equation as an entry requirement for high school.  The motivation for learning it is to enter high school.   However, one only needs to go through high school once in his life.  Certainly for me, one time was enough.   Likewise, my unconscious mind will not benefit from repeating the experiences of the past two decades.   I seek a challenge to continue developing my unconscious capacities.  There is little motivation to acquire new skills for the opportunity to repeat something my unconscious mind has already learned.

Unfortunately, the modern work environment sees work advancement as strictly a progression of conscious capabilities.   For example, in the area of computer programming, there was a progression of languages from machine code, to C, to C++, to Java, and now to various script languages.  At a conscious mind level, each of these advancements represented a newer or improved way of handling problems.  However, at the unconscious mind level the core objectives of solving some critical problem with code is virtually identical whether the solution involved machine code or modern scripting.   There is nothing new for the unconscious to learn by rewriting in a newer language a concept previously written in an older language.   That language learning is purely in the conscious mind and will be forgotten as soon as it is no longer necessary.

Training the unconscious mind requires challenging it with novel risks of failure.  It is my impression that modern jobs do not offer or expect this kind of challenge.  Jobs can be very challenging to the conscious mind without challenging the unconscious mind.    Indeed it seems that the goal of managing jobs is to avoid challenging the unconscious mind at all.   This lack of unconscious challenge is another way to express my impression that a long period of experience doesn’t seem to add anything on top of what the the candidate brought when he first hired on a position.   The employee will learn objective knowledge such as corporate intelligence without acquiring any additional unconscious capabilities.

I am looking at this lack of challenge from both perspectives of a job seeker and as a former hiring manager.   As  job seeker, I want recognition for my unconscious capacities and an opportunity to continue developing my unconscious mind.   As a former manager, I wanted to find staff with well developed unconscious capabilities (innovating to response to tough challenges) and with a desire to continue to develop that type of capability.   In both cases, the common hiring practices stand in the way with the entire focus on conscious knowledge testable by verbal questions and answers or by earned certifications.    We hire or we are hired based on objective knowledge rather than know-how.

In an earlier post (see link), I discussed this same problem in context of motivating experienced labor to continue to participate in the labor market.  In context of the recent posts on experiential learning, the points of that post can be expressed as the problem of not clearly defining the unconscious aspects of the job. The hiring process does not offer an opportunity to demonstrate unconscious capabilities earned in previous jobs, nor does the job description provide any information about the opportunities to build on those unconscious capabilities.   The hiring process is focused purely on the conscious mind either in terms of objective listing of skills or of descriptions of past job experiences.  That earlier post suggested that this lack of frank discussion of the nature of the work can discourage experienced workers.

An experienced person who desires returning to the workforce may have conscious motivations (such as earning money) but still lack motivation to restart the job search process.   He may be unable to explain his lack of motivation and we may interpret that lack of explanation as laziness.   Instead, that inability to explain may be a consequence of unconscious needs.   As I stated at the top of this post, the unconscious controls a person’s behaviors without conscious control or explanation.   There is no rationalizing with the unconscious mind.   The unconscious mind wants something that it can not communicate to the conscious mind.   The unconscious mind is more powerful than the conscious mind.  The unconscious mind wants a job to exercise and expand its capabilities but the job opportunities described and discussed do not reach the unconscious mind.  The job opportunities are exclusively negotiated at the conscious level of exchanging verbal or written information.   Communication with the unconscious mind requires activity: doing something.  The essence of the above post is the frustration of not learning through the hiring process what exactly will the job require the individual to do.

Later, I wrote a post (see this link) that proposed replacing the interview process with an audition that recreates a job-relevant work experience.   The performing arts use auditions quite effectively.  To be considered for audition, the candidates still need prior training, experience, or recommendations.   However, instead of interviewing, the artist must perform.  The hiring decision is based on the quality of performance where much if not all of that quality comes from the trained unconscious mind.   Neither the performer or producer can put into words exactly what makes the performance so good.

Recreating a similar scenario for STEM related jobs is more challenging because the performance involves engagement with a knowledge related problem.   I suggested an audition approach that effectively hires at full market rate a full hour (or more) of the candidates time to perform an job relevant task that he has a chance to prepare for.   The actual task will be to work with other prospective team members on this relevant task and the result may be something of benefit to the business.  The hiring manager observes the activity to evaluate the unconscious skills of the candidate. The key is to make the experience as realistic as possible by making an actual consulting task paid at market rates.

From a personal perspective, I’ve learned to respect the power of the unconscious mind.  Its capabilities are key to the most valuable activities I provide my clients or employers.   Also, its frustrations have real physiological effects that can even be self-destructive to the body (such as raised blood pressure, or excess stress hormone production).   The only way to communicate with the unconscious mind is through activity.   I can not rationalize with my unconscious mind through conversation or debate.   My unconscious mind can and will rebel against my conscious mind, and when that happens the unconscious mind usually wins.

A possible analogy to the dynamic of the conscious and unconscious mind occurs in the recreational activity of playing video games.   Although video game play typically does not involve compensation, I think it does mimic the dynamic of a job situation at the unconscious level.   My impressions here are not very well informed.   I am a passive observer of this phenomena mostly from reading occasional news articles on gaming trends and popularity.   I played video games in the early 1980s where the options were nothing like what is available today.  Although the activity itself doesn’t hold hold my attention, I have remained curious enough about the technologies and advancing sophistication to at least pay attention to the market.

For this post, I want to note what appears to be an addictive quality to playing video games.   People play a game for hours (or months) to master it and then eagerly acquire a new one to learn.  For virtual-world multiple player games, they may spend an indefinite amount of time on the same basic game but spend their energies getting their avatar to earn new possessions or to build new virtual properties.

At the same time there is a declining interest in workforce participation to contribute to the real world and to acquire wealth to support increased consumer spending, there is a stable if not increasing interest in participation in video games or virtual worlds.   It appears that there is more appeal to participating in virtual worlds than in participating in the real world.   In many cases, the participation in the virtue worlds comes at the expense of participating in the real world.

I’m sure this phenomena has been observed by others and there are probably many research articles explaining it.  As I mentioned, I am only talking about this from my casual understanding.  I have not reviewed the research.   However, I am struck by the irrationality of forgoing opportunities to participate economically in the real world in order to spend time in a completely impractical virtual world.

The explanation that occurs to me is that the virtue world offers something to the unconscious mind that is unavailable from the real world, and especially from working.   The activity of playing these games challenges the unconscious mind.  The unconscious mind delights in the achievements that can only happen from repeated practice to develop previously unavailable skills that are relevant for a particular game.

I assert that the unconscious mind is more powerful than the conscious mind.  The unconscious mind’s delight will frustrate the rational thinking of the conscious mind.   In some sense, perhaps in a sense that matters most, the person is happier with a delighted unconscious mind than he is with a delighted rational mind.   Material wealth from economic participation competes with the experiential wealth from non-economic game playing.

My hypothesis based on the playing example is that people may place more value on accumulating experiential wealth than on material wealth.   In addition to video games, people may acquire experiential wealth in their hobbies, their exercise routines, or engaging in amateur (unpaid) scholarly or scientific work.   At the same time, people may see fewer opportunities to obtain experiential wealth in the workplace with its increasing constraints limiting a job to prior certified skills.  Outside of the interpersonal social element (social networking), jobs are increasing routine in a way that denies the unconscious mind’s desire for experiential challenges.   As a result, for many people, jobs have become less appealing when they find some affordable non-compensated activity that delights the unconscious mind.

I suspect that the avid game player may provide a huge benefit to a job based on his highly developed unconscious mind and eagerness to be challenged.   However, that potential employee need to see a job that provides that kind of opportunity.   Having jobs that specifically require prior certification for a particular job discourages the potentially valuable employees because the unconscious benefit occurs in acquiring the certification.  There is no unconscious benefit in applying already mastered skills indefinitely on the job.

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One thought on “Thoughts on recruiting the unconscious mind

  1. Pingback: The unconscious mind in the interview | kenneumeister

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