Wise Leaders Pave the Road Of Life with Knowledge

April 1, 2006

Let me begin with an observation regarding life and how we will probably live it: Life is a journey, and each life has a beginning as well as an end. What happens between those two points in time constitutes your life.

Many people have taken to calling this period the “dash between the dates.†Far too many think of life as a never-ending commodity. Normally, people arrive at the end of their journey at a time not of their choosing. It comes upon them suddenly, and they are often left with questions that were not answered, goals that were never attained or words that were left unsaid.

I want to share some thoughts that offer a new way of living and thinking that may let you experience two great achievements within the confines of your life. On one hand, you might be able to garner the maximum amount of joy and success that life has to offer. On the other hand, you might be fortunate enough to leave a legacy for generations to come. Both are lofty goals.

Let me suggest that you pave the road of your life with a sturdy underpinning of solid, fact-based, usable knowledge. Many people have told me that life is great, if you don’t weaken. Being human, of course, presumes a great deal of weakness. It is in your choice of the road to travel, the weakness you encounter and how you handle the weakness that will mark your consequence as a member of the human race.

I recall a TV show devoted to the U.S. Air Force para-rescue jumpers (PJs), focusing on the training, education and dedication of these brave people. The strictness with which their training was applied impressed me. An instructor spoke of the need to train the PJs to react, rather than pause to think, during moments of sudden stress and crisis.

Would you not think that this is something that leaders in the fire service should emulate? Are there not times when we need to react suddenly to an unexpected, emergent situation? The crisis we face may pop up years after we learned the skill needed to escape unscathed from the sudden emergency.

How often does your department conduct training drills? More important, how often do you drill on life-and-death skills and situations? These two questions can have an impact on your ability to survive. The key to this involves implanting your life-and-death skills within your memory bank.

My research indicates that there are a number of learning principles that can be used to explain the ability to react suddenly based on knowledge previously acquired in a training environment. Bizjak and Adams (1999) discuss the concept of memory in learning. They suggest that there are three levels of memory. The first is sensory memory. They state that sensory memory is “the mental storage system for attention-getting sensory stimuli or input (such as smells, sight, sounds and sensations.â€)

They go on to address the fact that a sensory stimulus is either important enough to be remembered or it isn’t. They further suggest that if we want to remember a stimulus, we need to devote enough time and attention to retain it. Each of us experiences a number of stimulus/response situations each day. Some we remember and some we forget.

Our day-to-day decision making is governed by what Bizjak and Adams call short-term or working memory. They state that short-term memory “holds information for about 20 seconds or so and is limited to about seven items or ‘chunks’ of information … this deals with a tiny slice of several sensory events occurring in the present, and therefore limits what we receive, process, and remember at the moment.â€

Here is where information overload can come into play. How many times have you heard someone tell you that they are suffering from information overload? This is a condition my kids refer to as TMI, or “too much information.†There have been times when I was getting signals so often that my brain would literally freeze up for a moment.

Information overload can be dangerous. Sometimes, you must force yourself to slow down and think. It is suggested that thinking can be difficult under conditions of overload because information on one topic can suddenly knock other information out of our thought-processing queue.

There is a third type of memory where the actual storage function occurs. This is called long-term memory. This is the area of memory where your suddenly-needed, emergency-operating skills are stored. The mental impulses needed to stimulate the motor skills to function in a sudden-onset situation are located in this area. It takes effort to retain skills within this aspect of our memory bank.

You must work at remembering if you are to learn life-and-death skills. There are a number of laws of learning. For this commentary it is necessary to discuss the following:


Exercise deals with the number of times a skill is practiced. Disuse speaks to the thought that those skills that we do not use are lost at some point (use it or lose it). Frequency deals with how often you exercise a particular skill and recency refers to those things you have done most recently.

No one is born with a particular skill. We all need to be taught the skills necessary to succeed in life. If we are lucky, we grow up in an environment wherein education is a valued commodity.

You have a choice on how you can live your life. You can choose to be stupid, you can choose to be ignorant, or you can opt to be both. No one is forcing you to remain ignorant. I am not saying that knowledge is a cure for stupidity. Knowledge is only a cure for ignorance.

How you choose to use your acquired knowledge can have an impact on your level of stupidity. Let me use an example to make my point. When you were young, your parents probably told you not to touch the bubbling tea kettle on top of the stove. Perhaps their warning served only to whet your curiosity. Prior to touching the kettle, you could be presumed to be ignorant of the consequences of your action. If you were anything like me, warnings from your parents were seen more often as a challenge to meet rather than as a cause not to do something. Therefore, I would presume that you too at one time touched that kettle. The ensuing boo-boo was a painful reminder of your mistake.

At this point, you had new knowledge. How you and I used this hard-won information helped to determine the absence or presence of stupidity in our lives. Let me assure you that any kettle-touching incidents, after the first learning experience, were surely accidental. To have kept touching the kettle on purpose would have been just plain stupid.

It is my suggestion that each of you devote more time to the acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge has helped to smooth out the rough roads I have faced during my lifetime. Yes, there have been bumps, glitches and missteps. However, the greater the level of usable knowledge in your memory bank, the better the chance that you will do the proper thing at the right time.

Every day is an opportunity to start fresh. You are at a fork in the road of life. The choices are yours. As Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.â€

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is the former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. He is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Currently the chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners for Howell Township District 2, he retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is secretary of the United States Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (MIFireE). You can contact him through at [email protected].

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