A lesson from a 70-year-old

Published 8:18 pm Saturday, February 8, 2014

By Kermit Hobbs

A couple of months ago I celebrated my 70th birthday, and, being an introspective person, I tried to assess my strengths and weaknesses, particularly as compared to myself at earlier ages.

I have to admit that, nowadays, I have more difficulty remembering people’s names, at times even to the point of embarrassment.

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To my surprise, though, I’ve discovered something else interesting about myself. I’ve found that I can now more easily understand complex subjects. It might be that my brain capacity is shifting, or something else is going on. Maybe so, but I think it is more likely because I’ve discovered a trick that makes it easier. It is so simple that it sounds silly, but it works.

In my engineering and business career, I always found it difficult to read financial reports or computer printouts of numerical data and make any sense of it. Therefore, whenever possible, I made graphs that would show trends and allow me to make comparisons in the data. I could then search for patterns in the data that would suggest causes and effects that would influence the numbers I was reading.

I’ve discovered this can be done just as effectively with non-numerical information.

Many years ago I read a book on reading and interpreting people’s body language in a way that would enable me to better understand them. One of the classic poses, according to the book, was the “folded arms” pose, which supposedly indicates that a person is being defensive, even though he might not be admitting it.

More recently I read a similar book that broadened that same topic by emphasizing the importance of watching for patterns of behavior. Folded arms, for example, along with a suppressed smile, would more likely indicate that the person is smug, quietly confident. Perhaps he has information that he isn’t sharing. This person is certainly not defensive.

Here, we’ve taken the folded arms, one data point, and combined it with the suppressed smile, a second data point, and identified a simple pattern that leads to a better understanding of the person we’re observing.

I’ve found that understanding behavior is particularly useful in mediation, where I’m trying to help two people in conflict find common ground and settle their differences. In such a case, I might just restate each person’s feelings in a way that I think might be less offensive to the other person.

I’ve found that searching for patterns is equally useful in studying such subjects as history, Bible study, music and even languages.

What was General Peck thinking when he learned that his pickets had encountered Longstreet’s Confederates outside of Suffolk in 1863? Why did Peter ask Jesus to allow him to walk on the water with Him? (Matthew 14:28) Why are A, E, I, O, and U pronounced differently in English than in other western languages? These are all questions that might be answered by synthesizing many bits of information.

At the risk of sounding really corny, I suggest that the ultimate objective of any study is to understand the Big Picture. The Big Picture is what you get when you study enough “data points” that you can see the patterns, relationships, interactions and influences that cause them.

When you do that, you don’t just know your subject, you understand it.

Hmmm! Why did it take me so long to figure this out?

Kermit Hobbs Jr. is an accomplished Suffolk historian and businessman. Email him at khobbs5@aol.com.