Here’s an acronym you probably don’t already know: WYSIATI.
It stands for “what you see is all there is,” and I picked it up from a book by Nobel-laureate Daniel Kahneman: Thinking Fast and Slow.
In the book, Kahneman uses WYSIATI to name one of the most common of all human errors: the assumption that, at any given time, the information I already have (about a person, an object, an event, or whatever) is all there is to know. As Kahneman notes, all of us make this assumption all the time, unreflectively. Even when we know better (or should), we basically go through life assuming that what we see just is the truth, hard reality–and that our judgments are thus fully justified, no matter how little information we actually have about what we’re judging. If and when we don’t have much information, we typically don’t notice this fact; we just assume that what we have is all we need, and we draw our conclusions anyway.
Thankfully, making the WYSIATI assumption often doesn’t hurt us. It may even be essential to our sanity and safety. After all, there are plenty of situations in which delaying judgment could be disastrous.
Still, the assumption is clearly wrong: What we see is never all there is. What’s more, I’d argue that one of the keys to a lifetime of learning and discovery, of wonder and joy and ultimately better understanding, is to cultivate an opposite assumption, which I’ll summarize in three little words:
“There is more.”
There is more than what you can see or hear or feel at any given moment–and not just then but in a whole human lifetime.
There is more than all the words you’ll ever know can hope to say.
There is more than science can prove. More than philosophers can comprehend. More than priests and preachers can fathom. More than poets and painters and composers can collectively imagine.
Everywhere you look, there is more. And more. And more.
In our high-tech society, with its continuous and ever-growing flows of information, we tend to underestimate the world’s continuing mysterious moreness. We miss it when we search for God only in ancient stories, rather than in the utterly marvelous unfolding of photosynthesis or a thousand other natural processes. We miss it when we seek to understand one another by analyzing pet scans and cataloging survey responses rather than by listening closely to the stories we tell to create and communicate meaning.
We miss the bigger pictures in which the world’s measurable, objective realities appear as marvels. Meanwhile, we miss each other’s deeper meanings because we’re too busy graphing data points. As if digitization (the conversion of experience to numbers) were inherently less misleading than articulation (the conversion of experience to words). And as if the meanings around which we form ourselves and our lives were just more data.
There is more to them than that, of course.
In the end, we humans are highly intelligent creatures, capable of remarkable insights, especially when we work together. But we are still creatures, and hence inherently limited. When we try to take the full measure of ourselves and our world, we’re a bit like fish in the ocean trying to fathom the meaning of water–not to mention sand and sky and sun. There’s really no reason to think that, unlike the fish, we’re equipped to know it all.
Our particular genius is that we have the capacity to keep overcoming the limitations of our equipment. But that only happens if we refuse to give in to the WYSIATI assumption. We have to keep looking closer and simultaneously thinking bigger. We have to keep cultivating the opposite, more difficult, but ultimately far more compelling assumption: there is more. Simply put: