Feeling Stuck? Try Brainstorming Terrible Ideas

We recently led a series of breakout sessions at an annual conference. The conference was put on by a fast-growing bakery franchise. In attendance were bakery owners and corporate support staff. During the breakout sessions we taught the bakery owners how to use the SCAN Framework (Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs) to tackle challenging problems.

Most people using SCAN have an intuitive grasp of the structures, the context, and the needs influencing their situation. Assumptions are harder to access. Shared beliefs and mindsets form our operating systems, but like a computer’s operating system, most of us don’t know what it’s doing or how it works until something goes wrong or it’s time for a big change.

The company’s bakeries are known for their unique, high-quality, hand-crafted cakes. They think about the purpose of their business as bringing joy. They promote their cakes as the centerpiece of celebrations. They have a cult-like following of people who rave about experiencing their first bite of cake.

To help the bakery owners become more aware of their assumptions, I asked them to react to a terrible idea. I suggested that they box up their most popular recipes in cake-mix form and put them on grocery store shelves next to the Betty Crocker cake mixes. Lucky for me, I prepared them to be offended by the idea. When I asked them to explain what makes the idea terrible, we started to hear more about their assumptions:

  • People count on us for a consistent, fresh-baked product.
  • Our guests love the variety of choices we offer.
  • Only high-quality ingredients prepared by hand and using our methods will produce the cake. You can’t do it at home.
  • Visiting our bakeries is a joyful experience and essential to our brand.

The purpose of the exercise is not to abandon assumptions. The purpose is to become more aware of our assumptions. When you’re aware of your assumptions, you can have more productive discussions about controversial ideas. Controversial ideas are provocative precisely because they challenge our assumptions. Adopting a provocative idea often means letting go of something predictable and comforting.

Anticipate Change-Resistance

In our experience, organizations don’t suffer from a lack good ideas. In organizational settings, good ideas face two common obstacles. First, the best ideas may never get in front of the people with the authority to enact them. Secondly, new ideas rarely survive their first encounter with the status quo. Assumptions and mindsets protect the status quo.

Becoming aware of shared organizational assumptions will help you anticipate the change-management implications of adopting a provocative idea. For example, to support the growth of the bakery company, there will inevitably be pressure to streamline operations. At some point, an idea to increase efficiency will bump up against the assumption: Only high-quality ingredients prepared by hand and using our methods will produce the cake.

How to use a Terrible Idea to Uncover Hidden Assumptions

Let’s say you feel stuck. The ideas you have look great on paper and you’ve been given the green light to implement them. And yet, you repeatedly experience setbacks as you try to turn your ideas into meaningful change.

  1. Set aside the good ideas and bring together a team.
  2. invite them to brainstorm terrible ideas. Ideas that are guaranteed to produce a visceral, negative reaction from your stakeholders. By the way, your team will find it liberating and fun to produce a list of dangerous ideas.
  3. Rank the ideas to find the best of the worst. When prioritizing the list of ideas, the most useful, terrible ideas will be the ones that are plausible, but feel unsettling. For example, imagine recommending to the senior team of Disney’s Theme Parks that they open a Disney casino in Las Vegas. Useful terrible ideas will take the organization in a new direction, not just offer a bad change to an existing way of doing business. For example, suggesting that McDonald’s become a wireless network operator is a more useful terrible idea than suggesting that McDonald’s serve their food on fine China.
  4. Finally, facilitate a discussion about why the most terrible ideas evoke an emotional reaction.

Once you clarify the hidden assumptions that seem to create a gravitational field that holds things in place, you’ll have a better understanding of why your new ideas won’t take. You may also uncover some ancient assumptions that are somehow still in play, but no longer feel relevant.

Stuck v. Unstuck

Of course, Unstuck Minds has a point of view about abortion rights and the role of governments. Lots of people have points of view. Sadly, we’ve moved beyond reconciling our viewpoints. Now we’re stuck with a fight.

Disagreements are not Battle Lines

When we hold deeply entrenched opinions, we become susceptible to the dangerous belief that the people we disagree with are our enemy. Yes, we’re worried about the loss of freedoms, rights, and democratic ideals. We are even more worried about losing our ability and willingness to solve big problems together.

We’re worried about the loss of freedoms, rights, and democratic ideals. We are even more worried about losing our ability and willingness to solve big problems together.

Let’s keep in mind that when we bring an issue into a court of law in the United States, we’re no longer seeking a solution. We’re seeking a ruling. Our country has adopted an adversarial system of law to settle disputes. Lawyers are trained to avoid nuance, complexity, and overlapping interests in favor of unassailable arguments. Once we give up on a negotiated or collaborative settlement, there’s no incentive to seek common ground.

By framing an issue as a choice between two opposing alternatives, we’re stuck devoting our energy to getting our way. If we can’t make a strong enough case for the outcome we want, we cunningly destroy the legitimacy of our adversary’s case. We no longer seek new insights and options. We simply define the battle line and pick a side. We end up with winners and losers. The losers will be expected to accept defeat and abide by the outcome they fought against.

In the wake of the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, many of us feel the sting of defeat. We feel powerless and excluded. Something vital has been lost, something we took for granted has been taken away. We’re afraid that it won’t stop with reproductive rights. We fear a cherished way of life is being systematically dismantled.

Taking a more expansive and detached perspective reveals a pattern.

In 2016, rural, religious voters felt mocked by urban elitists. They felt that they were losing their country. They rallied behind the battle cry, “Make America Great Again.” They villainized people they believed were destroying their way of life. A resentful, disenfranchised plurality of citizens put Donald Trump in office and paved the way for Trump to reshape the Supreme Court.

When we care more about consolidating power than seeking solutions, we doom ourselves to an endless battle. We give up on creativity and compassion and instead work to put our people in charge of writing the rules and refereeing the game. Why bother fixing a problem if we can manipulate the outcome to get our way?

Overreliance on Authority Figures

We will continue to face calamities like pandemics and natural disasters that require swift, expert, autocratic responses. When responding to an emergency, we want our elected leaders to gather input and make efficient, smart decisions. But not all complex issues pose existential threats. As societies advance, as citizens become more educated and capable, we should see fewer and fewer disagreements that can only be settled by empowered authorities.

We shouldn’t, for example, need the Supreme Court to dictate which books can be found on the shelves of our public-school libraries.

It’s dangerous to disengage from problem-solving and put all controversial decisions in the hands of people with power. First, we become less capable of finding a way forward together. Secondly, who we put in charge becomes more important than improving the institutions enshrining our values. For example, we stop working on the effectiveness of our public-school boards and instead focus on electing a board that will do our bidding.

When we care more about consolidating power than seeking solutions, we doom ourselves to an endless battle. We give up on creativity and compassion and instead work to put our people in charge of writing the rules and refereeing the game.

It doesn’t take any special skills of prognostication to see the makings of a vicious campaign season ahead of us. Here, in a nutshell, is every campaign ad we’ll be seeing this year:

Vote for me because I’m like you. The other candidate works for them. They want to enact laws designed to harm you. I won’t let them.

If a message like that doesn’t feel insulting, you’ve given up on thinking for yourself.

Complex problems deserve nuanced solutions. But improving how we think and connect is not easy. When we avoid thinking together in favor of letting courts and lawmakers decide, we lose faith in our ability to cooperate. How might we start?

Think better by distinguishing between inferences and observations

Develop a habit of discerning how people make the case for their opinions. Ask yourself when listening to an argument or advocacy, am I hearing inferences or observations? An inference is a conclusion. An observation is a comment on something noticed.

Many of the January 6th rioters wanted to hang Mike Pence is an inference. The word “wanted” is what turns the statement into an inference rather than a fact. Many of the January 6th rioters chanted, “Hang Mike Pence” is an observation. It’s natural to reach a conclusion about what the rioters wanted based on what they said, but when working towards a solution it’s best to build on what everyone can agree to.

Connect better by letting it RAIN

RAIN stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture (mindfulness teacher Michele McDonald, who is credited with developing RAIN, uses the N to stand for non-Identification). Psychologist and author Tara Brach has popularized the four-step meditation in numerous articles, videos, and in her book, Radical Compassion. In a brief overview of the tool, Brach describes RAIN as four steps for becoming more mindful when feeling anxious or stuck. We believe RAIN can also help when feeling upset by a confrontation or triggered by a distressing situation.

Recognize what is going on. Consciously acknowledge the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors affecting us.

Allow the experience to be there. Just as it is. Try not to fix or avoid what is happening and simply accept the reality of the experience.

Investigate with interest and care. Become curious, in a non-judgmental way about what you’re experiencing.

Nurture with self-compassion. Recognize that you’re in distress and be kind to yourself.

When you learn to be kind to yourself in moments of stress, you’ll develop the inner resources needed to be kind to others.

At Unstuck Minds, we believe that when we think better and connect better, the world becomes more creative and compassionate. Connecting better requires a belief in human dignity and a practice of empathy. Thinking better requires curiosity and a willingness to change your mind.

I Thought We Agreed

Team leaders want meetings to end with agreements that lead to concerted action. Much of the advice on team meetings is about how to create alignment. The assumption being, if we agree in the meeting then we’ll act on our agreements after the meeting.

What Really Happens

We know from experience that the vigorous head nods at the end of a discussion don’t always produce the outcomes we appeared to want. In fact, we’re often so relieved to see the head nods, we don’t bother to confirm what people are really thinking when they seem to agree. Here are few possible interpretations of a nodding head:

  • This is a good plan. I’m ready to make it happen.
  • I can live with this idea, but don’t expect me to make it a priority.
  • This will never work, but I’m not going to derail the meeting.
  • If we all nod, the meeting will end.

What can a team leader do to increase the odds that apparent agreement will turn into productive activity?

CADA

The CADA Framework describes four distinct team conversations once a proposed course of action has been presented or developed. In each conversation, the team adopts a specific attitude.

  1. Be Curious
  2. Be Analytical
  3. Be Decisive
  4. Be Accountable

Curious

The team agrees to set aside its reactions and judgments about the proposal. The team asks questions about the basis for the proposal and the implications of acting on the proposal. For example:

  • What information sources were used to shape the proposal?
  • Who will be impacted by adopting the proposal? How might they react?
  • How will we know it’s working?

Analytical

The team makes distinctions between facts and opinions about the proposal. The team asks questions about the risks and benefits of the proposal. For example:

  • What are the pros and cons of the proposal?
  • What options were rejected? Why were they rejected?
  • Given the risks, are we better off doing nothing? If we move forward, how will determine the most appropriate implementation timing?

Decisive

The team reaches a conclusion based on their role in making the final decision. The team asks questions about their level of commitment. For example:

  • Who else will need to weigh in before we can act on this decision? What are their thoughts?
  • How will we talk about the decision to stakeholders?
  • What do each of us need to feel better about any aspect of the proposal we have doubts about?

Accountable

The team comes to trust that we will each make good on our commitments. The team asks questions about dealing with next steps and obstacles. For example:

  • What will we do next to move things along?
  • What barriers to successful implementation do we anticipate and how will we deal with them?
  • How will we share with each other information about what’s working and what we’ve learned?

The key to using the CADA Framework successfully is ensuring that everyone is in the same conversation at the same time. For example, don’t allow people to get analytical when giving the team time and space to be curious.

We feel relieved when we align on something. Sometimes we feel worn out by the effort required to find consensus. When possible, you may want to follow up an alignment meeting with a separate CADA session when people are fresh, and they have been able to reflect on their conclusions before discussing implementation.

Don’t Be Efficient

Last July I was hiking with my family in Southern California. At one point, the trail took us along the edge of a creek bed. Normally, the creek would be flowing but due to drought conditions, the creek had dwindled to a muddy trickle. As we continued down the trail, we came upon the trunk of an uprooted tree that had fallen across the creek bed to form a bridge. We didn’t need to cross the creek to stay on the trail. Despite protests from my wife Katherine, I couldn’t resist the urge to test my balance.

Katherine and I tell different versions of what happened next. What’s indisputable is that I tumbled off the tree trunk, down the side of the creek bed, and into the mud. I landed on something hard because when I jumped to my feet to reassure my family, I felt a sharp pain in my left shoulder. What’s also indisputable is that I will no longer take risky detours when hiking… with my wife.

Three weeks later, a shoulder specialist showed me an x-ray. I had fractured my greater tuberosity. I love the name of that bone. I think it sounds badass when I tell people I broke my greater tuberosity.

Before

After

It’s been eight months since the fall. The fracture has healed, but my arm stubbornly resists certain movements. For example, I wouldn’t be able to do the chicken dance at the next Oktoberfest. Even though I have no intention of attending an Oktoberfest, I decided to consult my doctor about getting physical therapy.

Wait…Isn’t Efficiency a good thing?

My family doctor recommended a therapist who goes by the name AJ. When he told me that AJ makes house calls, I was sold. AJ, originally from Northern India, is passionate about proper body mechanics. He’s a wealth of information and eager to share it. AJ has an uncanny ability to discern structural anomalies simply by watching you stand or walk. When I took off my mask during a recent visit, AJ looked at my face from across the room and informed me that roof of my mouth was not symmetrical.

When AJ observes me trying an exercise that he’s just taught me, he often tells me to slow down. At one point, while watching me use an exercise band he said, “don’t be efficient.” Ever since that day, I’ve been reflecting on being advised against being efficient.

Would you pay more for an efficient massage?

Throughout my adult working life, I’ve been praised for my efficiency. I’m good at getting sh*t done. I’ve always been rewarded for being efficient. By the way, the reward for efficiently getting work done is getting more work.

The therapeutic benefits of physical therapy depend on slowly reorienting the parts of your body that have been damaged or weakened from disuse. It’s not like hammering a bent piece of metal straight again. Speed, when doing certain physical therapy exercises is counterproductive. Finishing the exercise might feel desirable, but it’s not the goal.

If like me, you’ve made efficiency a calling card, you may find it difficult to break the habit. You know you’re a productivity junkie if you rush through things that are meant to be taken slowly. I love to read. Yet I sometimes find myself speeding through pages of gorgeously written prose so I can get to the next book I’m eager to start. Do I really believe that by adopting this strategy I’ll get to all the books I want to read?

When reading a book or a poem, when visiting an art museum, don’t be efficient.

The Productivity Trap

Oliver Burkeman diagnoses our neurotic relationship to getting things done in his revelatory 2021 book, Four Thousand Weeks; Time Management for Mortals. The title refers to the shockingly few weeks available to us based on our average lifespan. From the title, you might assume that Burkeman is offering a strategy for time management. He’s not. When it comes to managing our time, Burkeman’s advice is simple, don’t bother.

Burkeman believes “Our troubled relationship with time arises largely from [an] effort to avoid the painful constraints of reality. And most of our strategies for becoming more productive make things worse, because they’re really just ways of furthering the avoidance.”

Burkeman’s perspective may sound depressing and fatalistic. I find it liberating. Once you accept that your life’s work is not to get everything done, you can reframe your attitude toward your inbox and your planner. Changing your attitude is a start, but if you’re a hardcore task-list checker, you’ll also need to break some habits. For me, AJ’s coaching rings in my ear like a three-word mantra: Don’t be efficient.

When going for a walk, don’t be efficient

When sitting down to enjoy a meal with friends or family, don’t be efficient

When interrupted by someone who wants your attention, don’t be efficient

How to Apologize

Last week I had a conversation with my friend and colleague, Ford Hatamiya about a leadership development program he’s designing. We talked about practical ways to help organizational leaders behave more empathetically. One idea that didn’t make the cut was to teach leaders how to apologize.

There’s a scene about people’s pent-up need to hear an apology in one of my all-time favorite movies. A Thousand Clowns (1965) stars Jason Robards playing Murray, an iconoclastic comedy writer living in Manhattan. Murray risks losing custody of his nephew if continues to live his unconventional lifestyle. When Murray falls in love with Sandy (Barbara Harris), one of the social workers assigned to his case, he promises her that he’ll get his act together and find a steady job. He interviews for several jobs but can’t bring himself to accept any of them.

Knowing that he will have to explain why he turned down the offers to Sandy, he thinks about how he’ll break the news. When Sandy arrives at Murray’s apartment to cook dinner for him and his nephew, Murray offers Sandy an apology. The apology (1:26) is heartwarming, funny, and creative, but it ultimately misses the mark. In the end, Murray says the words, but doesn’t feel the feelings.

Apologies are not about what happened

Apologies are not about what you did. That’s what explanations are for. Apologies exist to repair damage and reduce harm. Admitting that you made a mistake is helpful. Demonstrating that you understand and feel remorse about the impact of that mistake is transformational.

An apology has the power to shift a relationship. A great apology creates space for generosity and compassion. Apologies bring attention to our vulnerabilities. We are altered by the offer of a heartfelt apology. The expression of the apology invites those we’ve harmed to connect with us more deeply.

Some apologies are designed to quickly reestablish a temporary imbalance. If I step on someone’s toes, the body language and tone of voice accompanying, “I’m sorry,” restores the status quo. The quick, rebalancing apology is the stuff of social norms. Like the how-are-you-I-am-fine exchange, saying “sorry” can feel more like a reflex than a concerted effort to reduce harm.

What the world needs now is More Harm Reduction

A proper apology requires virtuosic empathy. I must sit with my own feelings long enough to distill out extraneous emotions that will undermine the apology. I might feel angry that someone triggered my regrettable behavior. I might feel embarrassed by how I acted. I might feel afraid to acknowledge that I have needs I’m not proud of. All these emotions are useful to reflect on and none of them are about the impact your behavior had on others.

When we refuse to acknowledge our impact on others, shared societal challenges metastasize into uncontainable crises.

Apologies don’t require you to change your core values or deeply held beliefs. You only need to accept that we should avoid causing unnecessary harm. When we refuse to acknowledge our impact on others, shared societal challenges metastasize into uncontainable crises. Consider David Brook’s ominously titled opinion piece for the New York Times, America is Falling Apart at the Seams (July 13, 2022). In the article, Brooks catalogues the evidence for the headline’s pessimistic claim.

An Example

Let’s say I was raised to believe, like many who grew up in the Southern United States, that it’s a sign of respect to refer to people as “sir” or “ma’am.” One day I say, “Thank you, ma’am” to a stranger who holds the elevator door for me. Instead of a smile, I’m met with an icy stare. Maybe the person who held the door takes advantage of our private time in the elevator to tell me, “I’m sure you didn’t intend this, but when you refer to me as ma’am, I feel uncomfortable because I don’t identify as female.”

In the heat of the moment, a dizzying array of feelings might overwhelm me. At best, I might be able to mumble “I apologize,” as I stare at the floor indicator light, silently willing the elevator to speed up. But what happens when I encounter the same person in the elevator the following day?

Should I explain my views on gender identity? Should I minimize the incident by saying that it was just an unconscious reflex, and I didn’t mean anything by it? Should I offer helpful feedback about trying to be less sensitive? No, no, and Hell no.

When I shift my focus from my perspective to the perspective of the person who felt uncomfortable, I create the possibility for learning. I stop seeing the person as wrong and I start seeing the person as different. Again, I’m welcome to hold on to my beliefs about gender and etiquette. But to craft a real apology means legitimizing (not agreeing with) other worldviews. I’m not apologizing to keep the peace with someone I disagree with. I’m apologizing to repair harm. The person held the elevator door for me. I can reciprocate with an apology that opens the door to a new way of relating.

Here’s one version of what I might say the next time we meet:

I thought about what you said when I called you, “ma’am.” I tried to imagine what it would be like to have people invalidate me by relating to me as something I’m not. I’m sorry I did that the other day. It must have been especially maddening since you had just done me a favor. For what it’s worth, you’ve given me a lot to think about.

Too much? Maybe. Also, maybe not enough. All you need to do is find words that make things better for anyone hurt by what happened.

I started this post suggesting that crafting apologies might work as an exercise for leadership development. Even if you don’t say you’re sorry, there are benefits to simply preparing the apology. When you force yourself to articulate someone else’s perspective, you enlarge the boundaries of your tolerance.

Here’s a quick, practical, 4-step guide to apologizing from U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good in Action Website.

Now, let’s all get out there and start apologizing!

This Instead of That; Sticking to Something New Requires Getting Unstuck

It’s goal-setting season. When calendars reset, we consider what we want to improve and then formalize our intention by creating goals or resolutions. We also know from experience that we often fall short of achieving our goals or making good on our resolutions.

What we fail to appreciate when setting a goal is that the goal can’t be achieved without something changing. We focus on the resources or behaviors we’ll need to achieve the goal. We ignore the impact that working on the goal will have on what’s already in place.

In the Unstuck Mind’s SCAN framework, the S stands for Structures

Structures are the hidden habits, routines, and systems that order our lives and choices. Structures provide predictability and comfort. Structures also stabilize things. Structures fade into the background once they become part of our lives. Structures are the invisible, uncontested way things work. Because we don’t pay attention to them, we neglect to factor structures into our plans for achieving our goals.

Altering our routines is not like adding a newly purchased article of clothing to your closet. Altering our routines is more like accommodating a new roommate.

Altering our routines is not like adding a newly purchased article of clothing to your closet. Altering our routines is more like accommodating a new roommate.

A simple idea that will improve the odds of achieving a goal or sticking with a resolution.

After identifying the goal, think through the times and places when progress on your goal will bump up against an existing structure. Once you’ve identified a habit, routine, or system that will interact with the change you want to make, fill in the blanks on the following statement:

Instead of (this)______________, (that)________________.

The first blank represents the existing structural element. The second blank represents a specific and easy-to-incorporate alternative that will move you toward your goal. The thinking framework forces us to consider both what we want and what will have to change on the road to getting what we want.

Some Examples

Goal: Lose 15 pounds by summertime

Instead of This, That

Instead of grabbing an unhealthy snack, I’ll pause to ask myself whether I’m hungry or just bored.

Instead of buying a six pack of sodas when I go to the grocery story, I’ll buy a two-liter bottle of soda so I can better control portions.

Goal: Increase input from my team during meetings

Instead of This, That

Instead of starting a discussion by stating my opinion, I’ll ask others what they think and thank them for sharing their perspectives.

Instead of asking for comments, I’ll pose a more specific question like, “if we adopt this proposal, what will it mean for each of your teams?”

Depending on the goal and your timeline, you might want to imagine a single, high-impact replacement behavior or several. Even just considering the structural elements you will need to drop or alter, will improve your chances of getting unstuck so you can achieve your goals and stick to your resolutions.

The Most Important Leadership Skill No One Has Heard of…Yet

You can’t survey people on the importance of a leadership skill they’ve never heard of. It would be like asking marketing executives in the 1990s to rate the importance of search engine optimization.

Today, empathy is topping the surveys of in-demand leadership skills. It’s not surprising that in chaotic times people want leaders who care. I for one, hope that the popularity of empathy as a leadership skill gives rise to kinder, more inclusive organizations. I don’t expect empathy to go out of fashion. Still, those of us who help leaders and organizations prepare for the future need to think about skills that might not be on anyone’s radar screen.

I want to nominate a skill that I believe will become indispensable for tomorrow’s leaders. Like empathy, It’s the type of skill that starts with self-awareness. Developing this skill will require us to learn how to notice and interrupt counterproductive habits of perception.

Allow me to introduce, attention agility.

What is attention agility?

Attention agility is the skill of quickly and easily regulating how you take in information. Like mindfulness, attention agility brings awareness to what most often goes unnoticed. Also like mindfulness, attention agility demands that we become aware of how we pay attention, and that we learn to sense when we may be focused on the wrong things.

With the advent of the internet, the ubiquity of smartphones, and the rise of social media, the topic of attention has gotten, well, a lot of attention. A Google Scholar search of articles and books written in the early days of the internet (1990 – 1993) using the search term “attention” came back with 432,000 results. Conducting a search across the same number of years, 2004 – 2007 (roughly, from the introduction of Facebook to the introduction of the first iPhone) generated 4.5 million results!

Attention Matters

Distracted driving is a serious hazard which caused over 3,000 deaths in the U.S. during 2019. We have been experiencing a global spike in attention-deficit disorder diagnoses. Psychologists and neuroscientists have demonstrated the stunning phenomenon known as inattentional blindness, in which we fail to notice fully visible objects because our attention was engaged elsewhere.

The deluge of information feels inescapable. Many have described our current times as the post-truth era. Somehow objective facts have become less influential than appeals to our emotions and beliefs. It’s not that we value objective reality less, it’s that our personal search engines, our attention apparatus, is optimized for threats and outrage.

When we develop our attention agility, we’ll know when we’re breathing in the stale air of our echo chambers. We’ll sense when it’s time to open a window and let in fresh ideas.  

When we develop our attention agility, we’ll be more discerning consumers of information and influence. When we develop our attention agility, we’ll know when we’re breathing in the stale air of our echo chambers. We’ll sense when it’s time to open a window and let in fresh ideas.  

Modes of attention

In 1890, American psychologist, William James devoted a chapter of his classic, The Principles of Psychology to the topic of attention. James made a distinction between passive attention and voluntary attention.

Passive attention is aimless, it floats like a butterfly. Voluntary attention targets and locks on, it stings like a bee. William James as interpreted by Muhammed Ali.

Imagine a walk in a beautiful, natural landscape. You suddenly become aware of the smell of an unusual flower alongside the trail (passive). You pull out your phone to look up the name of the flower (voluntary). You put the phone away and allow the environment to present itself to you (passive). This back-and-forth between focusing and unfocusing is what it feels like to regulate your attention. When you learn to switch modes easily and intentionally in a variety of situations, you’ve developed attention agility.

Why is attention agility important?

First, we have never had more information competing for our attention. Secondly, our brains have evolved to narrow our attention in times of stress and anxiety. As our information-rich world imposes itself on our overtaxed brains, we lose the ability to assess the validity of what we notice. Furthermore, it’s hard to appreciate the opportunity cost of what we don’t notice.

What William James called voluntary attention has always been prized by our teachers and our managers. We reward the ability to concentrate. We consider distraction a deficiency. We admire decision makers who create mental boundaries so they can include the relevant variables without the burden of extraneous thoughts or emotions. It makes perfect sense to value the ability to stay on task, but only if we’re working on the right task.

When we know what we want to accomplish, voluntary attention helps us focus. When we feel stuck, when our situation is changing quickly, and the future feels completely unpredictable, voluntary attention could point our focus in the wrong direction.

Consider the challenge many organizational leaders are facing today as they try to figure out how and where people will work when the pandemic no longer dictates the rules for convening. What should leaders pay attention to: Real estate costs? Worker productivity? Technology? Morale? Probably, all the above and more. Solving for the future of workspaces calls for a blend of voluntary attention and passive attention. Aimless, butterfly-like attention may surface hidden insights and creative options that suggest a way forward. Once you see a way forward, engaging your voluntary attention will help you implement a plan of action.

The Ascendance of Passive Attention

You know who is great at staying on task? Machines.

We don’t want to reduce the amount of information available to us. We’re already developing artificial intelligence (AI) to help us sort and package information so we can digest it. Machine learning makes AI more intelligent as it processes information and gets feedback about the utility of its outputs. So far, machine learning is a goal-seeking activity. Computer programs apply voluntary attention to data.

Would an artificially intelligent android pause while hiking to smell a flower? We pause because we have a passive attention mode that is not goal oriented. Passive attention gives us pause. The pause may give us something beneficial that we weren’t looking for.

Maybe there will come a day when a machine notices something it wasn’t looking for. For now, serendipity belongs exclusively to humans. We have plenty of strategies, tools, dietary supplements, and smartphone apps to build up our voluntary attention capacity. What we lack is a way to productively distract ourselves when the glare of our voluntary-attention high-beams blinds us to interesting information and insightful ideas alongside the trail.

You’re not required to have an opinion on everything

A new study shows that people who identify as democratic socialists report higher levels of satisfaction with their lives than those who identify as free-market capitalists.

If you have an itchy twitter finger (and depending on your politics) you might feel an urge to post one of the following:

The results are in… socialism is the key to a happier life

No surprises from recent study… capitalists expect more out of life than socialists

If you’re actually tempted to spread the news, I should confess that I made up the study and its conclusion.

Importantly, the fact that the statement is a fabrication probably did not prevent you from having an opinion about it.

Opinions help brains avoid uncertainty

Our brains have a variety of strategies to help us avoid feeling uncertain. We don’t like uncertainty because our brains aren’t designed to thrive in uncertain times. One of the brain’s main jobs is to make sense of what’s happening so that we can anticipate the future. One of the main ways we make sense of what’s happening is by connecting new information to what we take as already settled.

When the brain is uncertain about how to label or categorize a new piece of information, we become anxious. Imagine if butterflies escaped from the place you expected to see fruit when you peeled your morning banana. You might feel scared. You might feel delighted. Either way, your brain would start working hard to reorient itself to a newly uncertain set of conditions.

Opinions are not mindless reactions

If you eat something that disagrees with you, you don’t have much control over how your body reacts. But the brain has more options than the stomach. If you take in a disagreeable idea, you can pause and reflect before responding. Rather than belching up a reaction to an indigestible idea, chew it over in your mind.

The idea is for you to form your opinions. If you mindlessly react to information, you’re allowing your opinions to form you.

Try this

When you notice an internal reaction welling up in you to something you’ve heard or seen, consider replacing your external reaction with one of these statements:

  • I see it differently, what am I missing?
  • We could do that. How would it help us?
  • Help me understand what led you to that conclusion.
  • I can tell you feel strongly about that. What about it is important to you?
  • Before we respond, what’s another way to look at this?
  • What would happen if we adopted a different solution? What if we did nothing?
  • Whose perspective is missing from this discussion? What would they say?

social media platforms are in no hurry to protect us from poisonous information

Sure, it would be great if Facebook’s algorithm optimized for joyful connection over addictive engagement. Maybe market forces and/or regulation will remind Facebook to look after human flourishing. With great power comes great responsibility!

Meanwhile, let’s work on our own programming. Just before the eye-roll, withdrawal, snark, or unsolicited advice, take a moment, embrace uncertainty, and choose curiosity.

Preventing the Spread of Infectious Beliefs

I have some beliefs about drivers in Dallas, Texas.

My wife and I moved to Dallas over 30 years ago from Los Angeles. I learned to drive in LA. People who live in Southern California spend a lot of time in their cars, it’s a significant part of their lives. In Dallas, you might arrive somewhere and mention the weather because quick, extreme changes in weather are not unusual. In LA, when you arrive somewhere the first question is often, “How did you get here?” The appropriate response includes a list of freeway numbers, “I took the 10 to the 405 to the 134, but going back I’m taking the 110.” Your response might prompt a respectful nod or incite an argument.

Drivers in LA do a lot of merging and lane changing, maybe that’s why they’re more disciplined about using their turn signals. Drivers in Dallas switch lanes without signaling and often don’t bother to indicate a turn. I shared this observation with a North Texas native once. He bragged, “signaling a lane change is a sign of weakness.”

From Turn Signals to Tooth Fairies

We’ll come back to my beliefs about Dallas drivers in a moment. First, I want to discuss the Tooth Fairy.

For years, our three daughters accepted as fact that a kindly, winged fairy visited in the night to exchange money for teeth, but only if the tooth was tucked under their pillow. Somewhere, I still have a note to the Tooth Fairy written by one of my daughters. She politely requested that the fairy leave the tooth and the money. I have it on good authority that the Tooth Fairy acceded to her wishes.

Richard Dawkins, the author, evolutionary biologist, and secularist famously compared belief in the Tooth Fairy to religious faith. In his 1991 essay Viruses of the Mind, Dawkins compared delusional beliefs to mental infections. Children, he argued are susceptible to misinformation in the same way that immune-deficient patients cannot protect themselves from viruses.

Mental Immunity

We are living in a time when comparisons to epidemiology and contagion are particularly, you’ll excuse the expression, germane. The philosopher Andy Norman has taken the idea-as-virus metaphor one step further. In his new book, Mental Immunity, Norman levels up the status of the metaphor arguing that ideologies are not like infections, they are infections – infections of the mind. If Norman gets his way, the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-6) will include something like infectious misinformation as a legitimate disease state. He has a point.

I can easily imagine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention devoting resources to what Norman has dubbed, “Cognitive Immunology.” Even if they don’t, there’s little doubt that bad ideologies harm public health. Consider the societal “morbidities” associated with the following beliefs:

  • I will be rewarded in the afterlife if I blow myself up while murdering civilians in public
  • The 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump
  • The government is putting microchips in the Covid-19 vaccines

I’m persuaded by Norman’s argument. Whether he’s torturing a metaphor or opening a line of scientific inquiry may not matter. It feels different, and more useful to think of people harboring destructive beliefs as infected rather than insane.

It feels different, and more useful to think of people harboring destructive beliefs as infected rather than insane.

Not all infections of the body are equally detrimental. Covid-19 might land you in the hospital, but the common cold won’t. Similarly, not all infectious beliefs threaten civil society. You could argue that children enthralled by the idea of a tooth fairy inspire us with their innocence. At worst, I get irritable trying to guess the motives of drivers speeding up or slowing down around me. My belief that my fellow North Texans won’t signal their intentions with their blinkers doesn’t seem particularly virulent.

A Symptom of Being Infected with a Belief

I’m aware of the bodily symptoms associated with the common cold. What symptoms are associated with being infected by a common misconception? I can think of one. Let’s look more closely at my belief that drivers in Dallas don’t use their turn signals.

Thanks to confirmation bias, when I drive around Dallas, I see countless examples of people changing lanes without signaling. Interestingly, when I drive with my wife or daughters, they’re fond of pointing out counterexamples. “Look,” a helpful, back-seat daughter once gleefully announced, “that green car is signaling.”

Here’s how I know that I’ve been infected with a bad belief. When someone points out contrary evidence, my first instinct is not to reconsider my belief. When my daughter points out a driver dutifully using their blinker, without missing a beat I’m likely to counter, “They’re not from Dallas.” I’d rather reinterpret the facts than let go of my questionable belief.

There are innumerable practices and prescriptions for strengthening the physical body’s immune system. Norman’s book offers cognitive fitness advice for boosting our mental immunity. One idea he offers is to treat your favorite beliefs like houseguests.

Once caught, an infectious belief, like a virus makes itself at home. Over time, it’s hard to distinguish your identity from your cherished beliefs. You know you’ve become infected by a belief when you become loyal to it. Instead of you having the belief, the belief has you. Treating beliefs like a houseguest is to recognize them as temporary, always at risk of overstaying their welcome.

Take the Evidence Test

Here’s an exercise to try. Pick a belief you hold that guides your priorities or connects you to a welcoming community. What would you accept as evidence that your belief is misguided or flat out wrong? If you can’t imagine any reasons or facts that would separate you from the belief, your mental immune system has been compromised. It’s no longer something you simply believe. The belief has altered your mind’s structure. The houseguest has taken up residence and redecorated the place.