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Getting to Carnegie Hall by Having Your Brain Nearby​

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Like many of you, my wife and I have been doing a lot of binge-watching over the last year. Currently, we are watching a science fiction series titled The Expanse.

Now, I have been reading science fiction since before the first T-Rex tried to pick up a broken branch to scratch out the story of how time-travelling robo-dinosaurs went to the future to stop Neil Armstrong from reaching the moon, causing NASA to have to fake the moon landing. Therefore, on the one hand, I can be pretty picky about what is presented in the genre, but on the other hand, I am a more than willing participant in the suspension of disbelief required to live in these science fiction universes. As long as the story sticks to the physics and logic developed within that world or the physics and logic existing within our own world, I can be a pretty happy camper.

The series was going along quite nicely. Decent story, decent characters, decent science. Not Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or The Day the Earth Stood Still (the original, not the Keanu Reeves abomination). But neither was it Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. (A real movie; you can look it up.) Let me emphasize something; it was getting the science right. Good detail about trajectories; gravity; and the details of existence that, while we take them for granted on earth, become important when one is living in space.

That is, they got it right until about halfway through the 3rd season.

Our hero was on the outside of the spacecraft — a spacecraft in constant motion. She was struggling to maintain the magnetic contacts that kept her suit attached to the structure. All going well, scientifically speaking. Suddenly, her magnets failed, and she was no longer attached to the hull.

At this point, pay close attention and remember two facts — an object continues its motion unless encountering a force that changes that direction and space is a vacuum. Back to our story. When the magnets failed, she flew backwards as if the ship was accelerating out from under her or the wind caused by the ships forward progress was pushing her backward. She struggled mightily against the forces and dragged herself over a ledge, continually buffeted as she struggled to move forward, until the power in her suit returned and the magnets re-secured her to the ship.

Very exciting. Life and death and all that. However, it was scientific spacedreck. (See above.) It was idiotically wrong — flew in the face of basic principles of space, gravity, and motion — and was carelessly inept. That was it. My belief in the universe they had built was destroyed. I checked out. And, as the series continues, I find myself side-eyeing each scene more closely, losing the sense of story because I'm sure another glaring error is lurking around the next plot point.

I still watch, but I do not watch with the same joy.

"What is your problem?" you may be asking. "It's just a movie".

Just a movie? With such a combination of hubris and laissez-faire did the Roman Empire crumble, did the Titanic set sail, did the Pinto travel its explosive path, and did someone's most recent audit issue become dismissed with a wave of the hand and the comment, "Can we talk about more important things."

In my two most recent posts I talked about the opportunities internal auditors have to practice their skills outside the normal confines of internal audit. The first post discussed how we can habitually analyze and observe the processes that go on around us. The second discussed how we might practice interviewing and writing skills while out in the real world.

But there is another skill that we can practice. No, let me change that. There is another skill we must constantly practice. And it is a skill that always winds up in the top 10/5/3/1 skills chief audit executives (CAEs) desire of their audit staff. (In fact, it shows as a top skill any leader wants from the staff.)

Critical thinking.

And practicing it is as easy as refusing to turn off your brain … no matter what you're doing.

This is a pulpit I've climbed on many times. In fact, the 16th, 17th, and 18th posts I ever posted way back in 2009 lambasted (at some length, obviously) the logical fallacies of a specific movie, pointing out how movies cause purposeful stupidity that can only be combatted by continuously using our critical thinking skills. Similarly, I've lamented the skilled, talented auditors I know who, the minute they enter the world of Facebook, post and repost the most amazingly impossible conspiracy theories, ignoring the critical thinking skills they use while practicing their profession to promote inanities that, with but one click or even a modicum of common sense, can be refuted.

It is this simple. Do not turn off your brain. Even when you are doing something that seems relatively mindless, never shut it off completely. For me, that mindlessness often involves non-stop Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. But even when watching the exploits of Teen Titans Go, Bob's Burgers, and Spongebob Squarepants, it is evident that their universes — no matter how unreal — have a logic. And good critical thinking reveals they maintain the reality they have built. It is part of the reason for their success.

And when you see the logical flaws, the breakdowns in the universe, the fact that critical thinking has left the room and there will be no encore, call it out. Maybe you will only be calling it out to yourself, but that personal awareness provides recognition that you are practicing the skill. And, depending on the situation, be willing to share with others — in some cases sharing the discovery you've made, and in others sharing the critical thinking breakdowns they have exhibited. (Again, Facebook comes to mind — but then again, that is much like trying to empty the ocean with an eyedropper, so let's move on.)

You want to get really good at internal audit? You want to improve the skill that every CAE is looking for? Then practice critical thinking throughout the day. Never turn off the switch. Always pay attention.

When you are reading, pay attention.

When you are watching a movie, pay attention.

When you are binge-watching television, pay attention.

When you are in a conversation, pay attention.

When you are trying to stay awake during a meeting, pay attention.

When you read something on social media, pay attention.

When you post/repost/re-re-post something to social media, pay attention.

Quite simply, in everything you do, keep your brain nearby and pay attention.

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