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.

SCAN: How to Notice What you’re NOT Looking For

Do you remember the Magic Eye books? The books popularized something called an autostereogram. Autostereograms are two-dimensional illustrations whose pattern obscures a hidden three-dimensional image or scene. You can watch a short video about Magic Eye books and learn how to see the image. Click here to reveal the image hidden in the autostereogram above.

seeing the hidden image requires un-focusing rather than focusing

Focusing is useful if you know what you’re looking for. In a turbulent and uncertain world, it’s what you’re not looking for that might become the source of a breakthrough. Herein lies one of the biggest challenges for today’s organizational leaders. When we focus on one thing, we lose the ability to notice what we’re not focused on. Psychologists refer to this as inattentional blindness. If you haven’t seen the original video from Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris that illustrates the phenomena, check it out here.

Our cognitive equipment is designed to help us focus on what we deem important. When we feel stuck or overwhelmed, it might be because we’re mistaken about what’s important. The world changes, but our priorities stay the same. We employ artificial intelligence and data science to help us isolate the insights in the noise. However, the breakthrough might be less like finding a needle in a haystack and more like allowing opportunities to emerge by changing how we pay attention.

To quote Louis Pasteur, in the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.

Spotlights versus Lanterns

Alison Gopnik studies, teaches, and writes about how children come to know the world around them. Gopnik is a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. In her recent book, The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik employs a helpful analogy to describe the difference between the consciousness of an infant and the consciousness of an adult.

According to Gopnik, babies notice the world around them as if it were illuminated by a lantern. A lantern indiscriminately lights its surroundings. Adults notice the world as though it were illuminated by a spotlight. We learn to avoid distraction and prioritize available information in order to complete tasks efficiently.

If you feel stuck or overwhelmed, shining a spotlight on familiar choices might actually blind you to the insights and options you need.

If you feel stuck or overwhelmed, shining a spotlight on familiar choices might actually blind you to the insights and options you need.

Four hidden aspects of situations we want to change

As I’ve described in a previous post, SCAN is a framework for discovering insights and options when you feel stuck or need a way to set direction. SCAN stands for: Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs.

Illuminating Structures helps us notice the norms, habits, systems, and processes that create stability and consistency.

Illuminating Context helps us notice factors and trends in the external environment that signal disruptions and opportunities.

Illuminating Assumptions helps us notice the beliefs, values, and world-views that orient our attention, judgments, and priorities.

Illuminating Needs helps us notice the desires, fears, preferences, and social processes that motivate behaviors.

SCAN elements are consistently overlooked

Structures organize how we operate, but once they become routine, we take them for granted. Context establishes the meaning and purpose of our activities. In our busyness, we focus on the activities and fail to notice changes in what the world considers important. Assumptions form our identity and our worldview. We rarely notice how our deeply held beliefs orient our attention and judgments. Moreover, questioning our deeply held beliefs can feel threatening. Lastly, we pay lip service to the needs of others, but we don’t stay in touch with those we serve, and we overlook the needs and perspectives of people from other communities or backgrounds.

If we want to change our situations, we need to un-focus the way we pay attention to the status quo and light a lantern to help us see what we we’re not looking for.

SCAN questions that will illuminate what you may be overlooking

To notice STRUCTURES, ask yourself: Which processes or routines no longer serve their intended purpose, have diminished impact, or have turned counterproductive?

To notice CONTEXT, ask yourself: What factors outside our control might change how people experience what we offer?

To notice ASSUMPTIONS, ask yourself: What beliefs about our purpose, goals, and approach should no longer govern our priorities?

To notice NEEDS, ask yourself: What has changed about those we serve or could be serving? Whose perspectives are underrepresented or missing?

Uncertainty is Not the Problem

We experience uncertainty in two ways. First, there’s informational uncertainty. We experience informational uncertainty when we lack facts and data to help us predict and control our environment. Secondly, there is emotional uncertainty. Emotional uncertainty is the subjective feeling associated with our information gap. Simply put, uncertainty is both what we don’t know and how we feel about not knowing it.

We’re accustomed to equating uncertainty and uncertain times with negative emotions. Most of the time, an inability to predict and control creates stress. When we experience negative emotions caused by a lack of information, we are motivated to reduce uncertainty.

There is, however, an important difference between reducing informational uncertainty and reducing the negative emotions associated with uncertainty. You can only reduce informational uncertainty by acquiring missing facts and data. You can reduce emotional uncertainty by reaching a conclusion or taking action. You may need to settle for a disappointing outcome, but at least things feel resolved. There’s another way to reduce uncertainty, but it may strike you as counterintuitive. You could learn to get comfortable feeling uncertain.

There’s another way to reduce uncertainty, but it may strike you as counterintuitive. You could learn to get comfortable feeling uncertain.

Sometimes Uncertainty Feels Thrilling

One key to getting comfortable with uncertainty is to recognize that informational uncertainty does not always create negative emotions. We have all experienced the thrill of being surprised. We frequently put ourselves in situations designed to be unpredictable. Mystery novels and cliff-hanger season finales would not be entertaining if uncertainty about what happens next created negative emotions. We lack information. We cannot predict. We cannot control, yet we feel entertained and engaged rather than desperate and paralyzed.

Of course, the difference in how uncertainty makes us feel has everything to do with what’s at risk. I can enjoy the suspense of a naïve character on the screen reaching for a door that they’ll soon regret opening. If only they could hear the pulsating music accompanying the scene the way I hear it, they’d think twice about turning that doorknob. I enjoy the scene because I’m not walking through the door. The doomed character and I have the same informational uncertainty, but very different emotional uncertainty. The problem is not about the information we lack!

High Stakes Plus Lack of Control

Maybe you’re thinking that because I won’t experience the consequences of making an uninformed choice, I’m not feeling stressed out by the uncertainty. It’s not quite that simple. Even when I need to deal with an informationally uncertain situation, I can still find joy in not knowing.

I once went to a fancy chef-run restaurant. One of the options on the menu was to let the chef decide what I would be served. The server checked for any dietary restrictions or strong preferences and then delivered one interesting and enjoyable course after another. I could not predict. I could not control. The anticipation and mystery enhanced the experience.

What’s the difference between situations of informational uncertainty that stress us out and those that don’t?

One difference, as mentioned before, has to do with a combination of what’s at risk and how much influence we have over the situation. We feel anxious when we cannot influence a situation that might negatively affect us. Anybody waiting for the resolution of an impending reorganization or merger understands that not knowing can feel scary.

Taking a Beat Between Thinking and Action

But what if we do have some control or authority to decide how to proceed when things are uncertain? When we are responsible for making a choice or taking action, we tend to think of informational uncertainty as an obstacle and a source of stress. We don’t know enough about the environment. We need to make a move and so we feel anxious.

It turns out that the more captured we become by the negative emotions associated with informational uncertainty, the harder it becomes to reduce the uncertainty. When we feel motivated to alleviate the stress of uncertainty, we are more likely to seize on a premature conclusion. Furthermore, when feeling stressed out by uncertainty, we are more likely to narrow our attention and miss surprising and potentially useful information.

We create a vicious cycle. A lack of information causes anxiety. Anxiety prevents us from seeking information.

We create a vicious cycle. A lack of information causes anxiety. Anxiety prevents us from seeking information.

I have written elsewhere about the SCAN model for finding hidden opportunities when you feel trapped by uncertainty. Before applying a framework to surface insights and options, you may need to check your attitude about uncertainty.

If taking a beat between thinking and action creates stress, you’ll resolve your uncertainty simply to feel settled. Feeling settled is not the same thing as making a good decision. If you can get comfortable pausing to explore the uncertainty, you may discover creative and compassionate solutions hiding in plain sight. We miss the surprises along the side of the road when we make a habit of rushing toward our destination. Times of uncertainty invite us to consider that we may be rushing toward a place we no longer want to be.

Scientist or Philosopher, The Dubious Distinction

Adam Grant published a new book. I published a new book too. Grant is a best-selling author, a top TED talker, and a highly regarded professor of organizational psychology at The Wharton School. I’m fairly popular with dozens of clients and colleagues.

Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, Daniel Kahneman, and Brené Brown enthusiastically endorse Grant’s new book. I can report that my sister Ann purchased a copy of my new book for each of her adult kids.

Grant’s book, Think Again, is about the power of knowing what you don’t know. My book, The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do, is about discovering creativity and compassion in a time of chaos. We both believe that the future belongs to people who have the mental flexibility to think about how they think and the emotional maturity to question their conclusions and beliefs.

There’s an interesting and subtle difference between how each of us describe our recommended model of better thinking. Grant suggests we think more like scientists. Here’s what Grant wrote about thinking in what he calls scientist mode:

When we’re in scientist mode, we refuse to let our ideas become ideologies. We don’t start with answers or solutions; we lead with questions and puzzles… [Thinking like a scientist] requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong – not reasons why we must be right – and revising our views based on what we learn.

Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (New York: Viking, 2021), 25.

I recommend that we think more like philosophers. Here’s what I wrote about thinking like a philosopher:

Training in philosophy prepares you to question assumptions, including your own… It’s reassuring to hold on to beliefs even if they no longer serve us, especially core beliefs that shape our identity. The faster things change, the more tempting it becomes to blame the change rather than our capacity to adapt. Without the ability to pause for philosophically detached reflection, we not only end up with rising levels of anxiety and divisiveness, we get stuck in our thinking.

Jay G. Cone, The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do: Discovering Creativity and Compassion in a Time of Chaos (Dallas: Unstuck Minds Media, 2021), 57-58.

As I read Grant’s book, I thought about the difference between the scientist and the philosopher. Allow me to experiment with a distinction (adopting a scientist’s mindset) that I’ve been considering. I welcome your reactions. It seems to me that to the scientist, doubt is an adversary. To the philosopher, doubt is an ally.

To the scientist, doubt is an adversary. To the philosopher, doubt is an ally

I’m not saying that scientists want to eliminate doubt, it’s not an enemy to be vanquished. The scientist views doubt as a worthy adversary. An adversary that deserves respect. Scientific doubt spurs better answers. The philosopher hangs out with doubt. Philosophical doubt spurs better questions.

When it comes to finding a vaccine against Covid-19, I’m on team scientist. When it comes to finding a way to help people think through the ethics of vaccine distribution, I suggest inviting some philosophers to the conversation.

Practically speaking, it’s probably a distinction without a difference. Whether we think more like a scientists or more like philosophers, we can all benefit from thinking better and connecting better so the world becomes more creative and compassionate.

The Unstuck Mind

You have two choices if making decisions in times of uncertainty feels overwhelming. You can reduce the uncertainty, or you can get comfortable feeling uncertain.

Our evolutionary impulse is to reduce uncertainty, even when it’s bad for us. A 2016 study conducted by researchers at University College London found that students who had a 50% chance of being shocked showed greater signs of stress than students who had a 100% chance of being shocked.

Speaking of stress, other researchers have demonstrated that when conditions become stressful, we’re quicker to reach conclusions. Under stress, we are also more likely to maintain allegiance to our premature conclusions. We don’t like uncertainty. And, unless conditions are ideal, thinking feels like a chore to be completed quickly. We shouldn’t be surprised that absolutism is on the rise and nuance on the decline.

There’s a vicious cycle at work here. Given our preference for reducing uncertainty, we take comfort in easy answers. The more we accept easy answers, the lower our tolerance for uncertainty. If you don’t use your muscles, they get weak. If you don’t use your mind, it becomes susceptible to nonsense.

If you don’t use your muscles, they get weak. If you don’t use your mind, it becomes susceptible to nonsense.

You know who is very happy to reduce uncertainty for you? Advertisers, politicians, fundamentalists, and your know-it-all relative or neighbor. Plenty of people and companies are happy to slip you easy-to-digest answers.

Moreover, we can now reduce complex ideas and share them with the world as social media headlines. Last I checked, the most common length of a Tweet is 33 characters. How much of your understanding of the world is based on your Twitter feed?

When I write a blog post, an algorithm will judge its readability. I will see a green happy face, or a red frowny face displayed at the bottom of my draft. Instead of feeling insulted, I’m meant to feel grateful. I’m being warned, let’s not burden people with complete sentences! I’m a fan of simplification in service of learning. Simplifying complex ideas should be a strategy for engagement, not a way to feel like you’re done understanding something.

The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do

In my new book, I take the position that feeling uncertain about what to do is an opportunity, not a problem. Moments of uncertainty allow for creativity and compassion. Sitting with moments of uncertainty develops your stamina for dealing with chaos and turbulence. Instead of knowing what to do, our work is to find strategies for accepting what uncertainty has to offer.

Borrowing a tradition from my friend and colleague, Michael Reidy, I’ll end with a poem. Michael also deserves credit for bringing the poem to my attention.

Our Real Work

by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Copyright ©1983 by Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words

What to Ask your Relative who Voted for the Other Guy

Those of us in the United States are now moving from election season to dispute season. Tens of millions of Americans will be distressed, maybe even enraged. And some of them will soon be sitting down to a Thanksgiving meal with you.

The holidays are approaching. A time for friends and family to reunite. Does the idea of reuniting feel quaint and naive? It might be more likely that you are dreading an inevitable interaction with the outspoken lefty or righty at the table. After all, you can only talk about the kids and the weather for so long.

Here’s an early holiday gift from Unstuck Minds. There are two sets of questions below. One set of questions for progressives to ask conservatives. One set of questions for conservatives to ask progressives. The questions are designed to build shared understanding and surface insights.

Before attempting to use the conversation starters, a word of warning. There’s a big difference between an inquisitive, “What were you thinking?” and an exasperated, “What were you thinking?!” A question lives up to its potential when the person asking it learns something from the answer.

A question lives up to its potential when the person asking it learns something from the answer.

Maybe it would help if you imagine you’re a journalist from an alien world. Your species is highly intelligent and confused about reports that Earthlings aren’t getting along with each other. Your job is to explain the disparities in values and world-views among humans by interviewing a few of them. Your job is not to win an argument or score points with snarky retorts.

If you decide to “go there,” proceed with compassion and curiosity. I suggest showing people the list of questions and letting them answer the ones they find interesting.

Questions Progressives Should Ask Conservatives

  • Trump’s slogan has been, “Make America Great Again.” What are some of the great things you want America to hold on to or return to?
  • What is important to you about patriotism? What happens if people in our country become less patriotic?
  • What are some things that a federal government should and should not be in charge of?
  • What role should religion play in the decisions made by our political leaders?
  • What should citizens be free to do and where should we draw the line so that we don’t cause harm? How about businesses?
  • How do you feel about people born in other countries coming to live in the United States?
  • What should we teach our children about competitiveness and the desire to win?
  • What should we teach our children about loyalty and respect for authority?

Questions Conservatives Should Ask Progressives

  • What should those with society’s favored traits (race, gender, sexual identity, age, physical and mental attributes, etc.) understand about the experiences of those in the minority?
  • What is important to you about fairness? What happens when the rules of society or the behavior of people in power create inequities?
  • What are some things that a federal government should be and should not be involved in?
  • What are our obligations to each other as citizens of the United States?
  • How do you feel about people born in other countries coming to live in the United States?
  • What should we teach our children about fair play and making sacrifices for less fortunate people?
  • What should we teach our children about becoming independent thinkers?

If the thought of having a discussion about any of the above topics feels daunting and potentially upsetting, stick to comments about the kids and the weather. Perhaps just reading the questions might help us see others as reasonable.

A toast: Here’s to reuniting the states of America!

The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do

During a family vacation in 1943 Edwin Land, inventor of the instant camera and co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation took a picture of his three-year-old daughter Jennifer. He explained to Jennifer that she could see the picture after it was developed, which at the time had to be done in a darkroom or processing lab. Jennifer objected asking, “why do we have to wait?” According to Land, Jennifer’s question sparked the notion that camera film could be invented that did not require time-consuming processing. In 1947, Land introduced the instant camera at a meeting of the Optical Society of America. A couple of years later, the camera was available to the public.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.

Shunryu suzuki

The image above is the Japanese Kanji for Shoshin, which means, beginner’s mind. In his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Zen monk and teacher Shunryu Suzuki opens with, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.” Land’s daughter Jennifer demonstrated a beginner’s mind by asking what some would describe as a naïve question. Land too demonstrated a beginner’s mind by allowing his assumptions to be altered by his daughter’s question. A beginner’s mind can circumvent constraints and expertise because it is not burdened by assumptions about how the world works or what should or should not be done.

The Beginner’s Mind Versus the Stuck Mind

To engage with a beginner’s mind is to take a leap of faith. The beginner’s mind is not waiting for an opening to insert a point of view. The beginner’s mind does not seek to absorb someone else’s expertise. The beginner’s mind trusts that what attracts its attention in the moment will illuminate a path forward. Like the mind of an improviser, the beginner’s mind builds on what is offered.

By contrast, the stuck mind is most attentive to its own assumptions and biases. The stuck mind fears uncertainty and indiscriminately eliminates complexity. The stuck mind fears uncertainty because uncertainty introduces the risk of upending the status quo. The stuck mind eliminates complexity because complexity feels overwhelming.

It’s hard to imagine a time of greater uncertainty and complexity than the current moment. The twin viruses of Covid-19 and racism have infected us with a malaise. The governing principles of civil society that anchor our identities and our aspirations have come unmoored. When our bedrock assumptions are threatened, we become susceptible to simplistic answers, arrogant leaders and snake-oil salesmen. We are grateful for any port in a storm. More than ever we need to adopt a beginner’s mind.

How to Cultivate a Beginner’s Mind

Those paralyzed by the uncertainty and complexity of our chaotic times have hunkered down. They wait for the storm to pass. Those approaching our challenging times with a beginner’s mind have begun to notice and get curious about long held assumptions. Some people are asking what would have seemed like naïve questions before the world turned topsy-turvy:

  • Why does it matter where my work gets done?
  • What is the purpose of a classroom?
  • What is the relationship between law enforcement and public safety for all citizens?

You can practice cultivating a beginner’s mind by giving yourself permission to think, “I don’t know,” when someone asks, “what should we do?” Even if you believe you do know what to do, set your solution aside temporarily and imagine the response of someone who has no expertise or experience to draw on. If you truly had no ideas, you would start with a question. The question would likely be naïve and potentially as potent as Jennifer’s question to her inventor dad.

Here are few all-purpose, beginner’s mind questions to use when someone asks, “what should we do?”

  • What is going on that makes it important for us to take action?
  • What would you like to have happen?
  • Who will benefit from taking action and what are their needs?
  • What are we assuming about the way things work that might be limiting our options?

The beginner’s mind sees abundant possibilities because it is not captivated by assumptions the world has left behind. If you’re feeling stuck, here’s my advice…

Don’t know what to do? Don’t know what to do!

The Unstuck Mindset

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing there is a field, I will meet you there.

Rumi

During the Classical Period, The Greek philosopher Aristotle explained the cosmos just as it appears, with the Sun and Moon revolving around a stationary Earth. When certain celestial objects (planets) did not move as predicted, Ptolemy figured out how to make the math work. In 270 B.C.E. some 1800 years before the Copernican Revolution, a Greek astronomer named Aristarchus proposed a Sun centered (heliocentric) cosmology. The general public could not fathom Aristarchus’ view that the Earth moved around the Sun; if the Earth was in motion, they reasoned, we’d be able to feel it move.

History gives Copernicus credit for making a heliocentric cosmology stick. Copernicus, Aristarchus, and likely others did not allow the certainty of appearances and consensus to dissuade them from considering alternatives. Copernicus and Aristarchus exhibited unstuck minds.

In 1994 South Africa ended the policy of legally enforced racial segregation known as apartheid. In 1996 President Nelson Mandela asked the Archbishop Desmond Tutu to chair South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The commission was established to investigate human rights abuses in South Africa during apartheid. As an advocate of restorative justice, Tutu proposed that the commission undertake a threefold process of confession, forgiveness, and restitution.

The TRC has been viewed by many as a model for national healing, albeit an imperfect one. In spite of the angry calls for retribution, Mandela and Tutu believed that for the oppressed to adopt the practices of the oppressors would be a betrayal of the humanistic ethics of Southern Africa known as Ubuntu. Mandela and Tutu envisioned a peaceful, thriving, multi-racial nation. Mandela and Tutu exhibited unstuck minds.

An unstuck mind develops from the disciplined application of an unstuck mindset. The term mindset describes the relatively stable assumptions and beliefs we apply to our thoughts about ourselves and about the world; it’s our way of thinking about things. In a way, “Unstuck mindset” is a useful contradiction in terms. To suggest that a mindset is unstuck is to acknowledge that we have a way of thinking about the world and at the same time acknowledge that we’re not wedded to our way of thinking.

In a way, “Unstuck mindset” is a useful contradiction in terms. To suggest that a mindset is unstuck is to acknowledge that we have a way of thinking about the world and at the same time acknowledge that we’re not wedded to our way of thinking.

When we work with clients who seek to develop their leaders’ strategic agility, we start from the premise that strategic agility benefits from an unstuck mindset. After all, being strategic means having a plan. Being agile means being able to make quick and easy movements. Putting them together means having enough certainty to choose a destination while simultaneously being attentive to signals that present viable alternatives and breakthrough options. Aristarchus and Copernicus didn’t try to fit their observations into the prevailing worldview, they wondered if the anomalies they observed might be clues to a new paradigm.

The unstuck mindset is grounded in bedrock values. The unstuck mindset trusts that learning is its own reward. The unstuck mindset presumes that as humans, we have the agency and capacity to determine our futures and solve our problems. Mandela and Tutu empathized with the pain of those calling for vengeance, yet they created an opening amidst the tensions associated with the end of apartheid for justice.

The unstuck mind develops insights by sitting with, rather than avoiding questions and tensions. Being comfortable with questions and tensions makes the space between uncertainty and certainty more habitable. The unstuck mind prefers continuums to categories. The unstuck mind thrives under conditions of ambiguity.

An unstuck mindset allows you to develop four thinking skills:

  1. How to think about the context surrounding the situation you’re dealing with, so you don’t miss something important
  2. How to think about the structures holding your current situation in place, so you don’t solve the wrong problem
  3. How to think about the desires and needs of people in your network, so that you don’t exclude diverse perspectives
  4. How to think about how you’re thinking, so that you don’t get misled by blind spots and biases

We’ve struggled to find a simple way to express what it meant to have an unstuck mindset and then we came across the image above. We’ve started referring to the young adventurer in the image as Charlie. Charlie is the embodiment of an unstuck mindset. Just look at him! Charlie has prepared himself for discovery. He is relaxed, righthand in pocket. He is undaunted, left fist pointing to his future. One gets the impression that Charlie has attempted this voyage before. Charlie willingly launches himself into the uncertainty of wide-open spaces because he understands that all the best possibilities dwell in the wide-open spaces.

The Neural Pathway Less Travelled

Here’s a puzzle to play with. Look at the picture below. Logically, what image belongs in the empty space? In my experience, most people struggle to solve it by simply concentrating on the images until an answer emerges. Work at it a bit and then walk away, let your mind wander, don’t become overly attached to your first few guesses about the pattern. When you come back to it, you may experience an insight that brings to mind the missing image in a way that suddenly makes the solution feel obvious. When you’re ready to see the answer, follow this link.

While sheltering in place, I’ve been reading up on the neuroscience of the feeling we experience as being stuck. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve also been binge-watching a lot of TV shows. My ability to concentrate has its limits, which as it turns out, is precisely the point of what I have been learning about our brains. Let me sum it up for you. It turns out that our brains are lazy. Our brains take shortcuts. Decades of research by psychologists bolstered by more recent studies from neuroscientists and behavioral economists demonstrate that sometimes our neural pathways become cognitive ruts. It’s worth noting that our brains have evolved to take shortcuts. Our brains take shortcuts because shortcuts are efficient and require less effort. It’s helpful for example, that we don’t have to relearn how the world works every time we wake up in the morning. Sometimes, however our brains apply shortcuts that predispose us to getting stuck, often without us realizing that we’re stuck. The beneficial feature of our brain circuitry that helps us learn from experience can become a programming bug we refer to as a bias.

            Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky introduced the concept of cognitive bias in the early 1970’s. The term cognitive bias refers to a broad array of mistakes in human perception that lead to irrational conclusions and poor judgement. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for applying his research into the psychology of decision making to economic theory. Much of Kahneman and Tversky’s research conclusions support the idea that our brains are designed to reduce mental effort. About a decade later, in related research, the Australian educational psychologist John Sweller coined the term, “cognitive load” to describe the impacts of mental effort on our ability to solve problems.

            To reduce cognitive load, our brains take mental shortcuts. Psychologists refer to these mental shortcuts as heuristics. A heuristic (from the Ancient Greek: “find” or “discover”) is a rule-of-thumb that we substitute for the more cognitively demanding work of figuring something out from scratch. For example, if you have a method for fitting suitcases into the trunk of a car (e.g. put the largest cases in first), you’re applying a heuristic. I described a heuristic when I taught my daughters to estimate a 20% tip at restaurants by moving the decimal one place to the left on the total charge and then doubling the number to the left of the decimal.

            Neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex become the literal shortcuts for the electrical currents we recognize as habits of thought. We are wired to interpret current situations according to the rules developed from prior experience. To our brains, the familiarity of prior experience amounts to following a well-traveled neural pathway. Being stuck in a rut may not get us where we want to go, but it feels safer than making a change. Creative solutions and insights often require getting out of neural ruts to break a pattern of thought, which is why a new solution often emerges from going for a walk or taking a shower instead of concentrating on the problem at hand.

As we age, it takes more effort to form new neural pathways. Perhaps we feel as though we have all the cognitive capability required to make our way in the world and so we stick to the comfortable neural pathways already in place. Whatever the cause, it just feels harder to learn new things (how to play a musical instrument, how to speak a new language, how to listen to people we disagree with etc.) as adults. The research suggests that reducing mental effort is a priority for our brains. The more complex and stressful our environment, the more our thoughts seek the refuge of our neural ruts.

Here’s the good news. According to research on neuroplasticity, we can continue to develop neural pathways as we age by challenging our brains. One way to challenge your brain is to reframe the questions you’re asking about a situation that you want to change. In his 2017 book, Tinker Dabble Doodle Try, Harvard psychiatrist and brain-image researcher Srini Pillay recommends changing your questions as a way to shift focus and get unstuck (p. 128). Pillay tells the story of Serena Williams’ comeback against Victoria Azarenka during the 2012 U.S. Open tennis tournament. Williams described her thinking in an interview after the match. When asked about the moment when she was down by two games in the last set, Williams explained that instead of wondering about her probability of losing, she focused on the question, “What will it take to win?” She calculated that she would need twelve more points and made it her mission to achieve her goal one point at a time.

When Reacting is Re-Acting

A few weeks ago, I led a day-long workshop for seventy-five high potential managers who work for a global technology company. The managers, representing every region of the world where the company does business are enrolled in a two-year program consisting of a variety of activities and assignments. Once each year, the entire group gathers for a week of workshops and networking.

As a whole, the managers are smart, driven, action-oriented, competitive, and entrepreneurial. It’s easy to see why they’ve been identified as future executives; they embody the culture of the organization. My job was to teach them how to slow down, reflect on the thinking traps that might keep them stuck, and have them practice reframing the questions they had been asking about the situations they wanted to change. It did not go well.

I had worked with many of the leaders in the group before, so I singled one out that I knew pretty well and asked for some feedback about the session. He told me that his typical day consists of juggling multiple challenges. He’ll take an action to make progress on one challenge and if he hits a roadblock or a delay, he’ll refocus his attention on one of his other challenges. Sometimes an emergency erupts, and everything gets reprioritized. The idea of slowing down to reframe a challenge when you’re not making progress made sense to him in theory, but also felt unrealistic and counterculture. As with many organizations, action gets noticed, thinking might be mistaken for indecision.

While I was listening, the image came to mind of a plate spinner’s act that I remember watching on the Ed Sullivan show when I was growing up. I remember the act as mesmerizing and dramatic; now it feels quaint. It’s as if each day the leaders of this company attempted to keep china plates spinning on the top of narrow sticks; the priority of the moment, the wobbliest plate, attracts attention and determines a leader’s next move.

It may sound like I’m making excuses for the unsatisfying workshop experience, “If the participants weren’t so addicted to action, they might recognize the value of what I’m offering.” I’m not proud to admit that I did actually have that thought when I saw the ratings on the evaluation form. Upon reflection, I see now that I failed to practice what I’ve been preaching.

Who needs what?

A big part of the Unstuck Minds Method, which was the topic of the workshop, rests on the foundational principles of Design Thinking. Design thinking asks us to empathize with and learn about the people we want to help, and then build on insights about what they need (often needs they themselves don’t recognize). To be honest, I didn’t empathize with the leaders in my workshop, I wanted to fix them.

Another element of the Unstuck Minds Method is to recognize that our framing of the situations we want to change belies the assumptions and beliefs we hold about the situation and those involved. In the workshop, we teach people about Quicksand Questions, the framing of a challenge in the form of a question that gets you stuck. The more you work to answer a quicksand question, the more stuck you become. One category of quicksand question comprises questions of the form: How do we get them to change? Leaders often frame their challenges as seeking to take action that alters the behavior of others based on the leader’s needs. For example, “How do we get managers to spend more time coaching their teams?” or “How do we get our customers to follow us on social media?”

Ironically, I had designed a workshop containing an admonition to avoid quicksand questions built on a hidden quicksand question: How do I get the leaders of this company to respond thoughtfully to their challenging situations rather than react to them? Like the most dangerous quicksand, you don’t notice it until you’re stuck in it.

Reacting is Re-Acting

Compounding the error, I started emulating the leaders in my workshop as soon as it ended. My colleagues and I recognized that the session didn’t have the intended impact, so we immediately started problem-solving the instructional design. It took a few weeks and some emotional distance from the training to recognize that I had succumb to the very thinking traps I had been teaching people to avoid.

Reacting helps in urgent, familiar situations. On the other hand, reacting becomes counterproductive when we don’t fully understand the situation we’re facing. Reacting makes use of our habits and routines, that’s why I think of it as “re-acting.” When reacting, you operate in a mode that feels familiar and comfortable. When you go to a doctor with common, recognizable symptoms, the doctor re-acts (i.e. reenacts a familiar script). If the diagnosis and prescription don’t work, the doctor switches from reacting to responding. Responding requires more information about the current situation and a bit of reflection about alternative ways to interpret the current situation.

Here’s a question for busy leaders in plate-spinning mode: When should I stop reacting and start responding?

Leaders addicted to action, prefer to react. If the first solution doesn’t work, they try something else. As long as you’re learning from what you try, and you’re not squandering resources, reacting might be a good strategy. However, you don’t get to dress up reacting as prototyping or experimenting. Experimenting requires reflection on outcomes and thoughtful responses that control for what you want to learn.

Before I revisit the instructional design, I would be well served by taking a dose of my own medicine. I think the better question for me is: How might I help overwhelmed organizational leaders reduce the risk of missing something important, avoid solving the wrong problem, and increase the novelty of their options when they feel stuck for an answer?

The Featured image above is from Henrik Bothe’s plate spinning routine