A steady diet of outrage and despair doesn’t just darken our mood; it diminishes our capacity to think.
I’ve been absorbing reports of the barbarism we’re witnessing in the Middle East. If you believe that people can only be oppressors or victims, you’re not just mistaken; you’ve been hoodwinked. Believing that conflicts are defined solely by the positions people take means you’re unwittingly participating in the wrong game.
Like a toddler’s tantrum, entertaining and sharing angry thoughts can temporarily dampen our fury. However, that doesn’t make these thoughts legitimate. Our brains prefer, and perhaps even need, ways to simplify reality. For our primitive ancestors, the brain’s job was akin to taking a daily multiple-choice exam about the world:
Which of the following is true about what I’m noticing?
A) It’s food; I should eat it.
B) It thinks I’m food; I should run.
C) It smells nice; I should have sex with it.
D) None of the above; I’ll take a nap.
Today, our world requires us to get comfortable with thinking about things that are not simple. Our situations are more akin to answering essay questions. Faced with a complex, ambiguous prompt, we’re required to create a well-reasoned response.
If your mind is getting flabby, here are a few simple exercises to build stamina for complexity and uncertainty:
When it comes to the calamities buffeting our attention, I’m not worried about which side is right. I’m worried about our impoverished ability to think things through. If we insist on oversimplifying the world, we’ll eventually view everyone as either a winner or a loser, an ‘us’ or a ‘them.’
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When you’re stuck, you need insights and options. Insights help you see your situation in new ways. Options help you restore confidence and momentum.
The Metal Detector versus the Vacuum Cleaner
We never get complete data about the world around us. Even though our senses constantly interact with information about the world, we can only pay attention to a fraction of the available data. At this moment, clothing, a chair, the floor, perhaps a device you’re holding all create sensations. Until this sentence redirected your attention, it’s unlikely you noticed the sensory data available to your skin.
We imagine that we move through the world like a vacuum cleaner picking up all the information in our path. In reality, we operate more like a metal detector. We are programmed to notice some things, and we sweep past a lot of other things that just don’t register. Some of the things we don’t notice might become the source of the insights and options we need.
Remember that moment in the original Matrix movie when Keanu Reeves sees the Matrix? Reeve’s character Neo learns to perceive his world as cascading ribbons of glowing binary code. The true complexities of the matrix are revealed. Neo gets transcendently kissed, pummels Agent Smith with one hand behind his back, and rocks a pair of iconic sunglasses. Using the SCAN tool is less dramatic. On the plus side, you don’t have to be ‘The One’ to take advantage of disregarded or overlooked information.
SCAN stands for: Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs
Structures are the systems, processes, norms, and routines that define the environment in which we operate. Meeting norms and incentive systems are examples of structures.
Context describes the environmental factors outside the boundaries of our daily activities and responsibilities. New technologies and governmental regulations are examples of context.
Assumptions are the underlying beliefs of the individuals who want to make a change. Unspoken beliefs that our solution must be cost-neutral or that we can’t alter the manufacturing process are examples of assumptions.
Needs represent the underlying desires and motivations of people who might play an influential role in changing things for the better. A desire on the part of new-hires to have more autonomy at work or a growing preference among customers to do business with socially responsible organizations are examples of needs.
In the image below you see the four elements of SCAN represented as quadrants along two dimensions. Structures and Context provide information about the environment in which we operate. Assumptions and Needs provide information about the mindsets and motivations of people connected to our situation.
The two SCAN columns differentiate between elements that we can influence and elements that we can’t influence but may potentially influence us. We have the ability to change our structures and our assumptions. On the other hand, context and needs are beyond our control.
For example, our context now includes greater political and media attention on issues of racial justice. Heightened needs for fairness and equity have become a priority. The external influence of context and needs are bumping up against longstanding organizational assumptions about who deserves power and authority. Many organizations are beginning to reimagine their hiring, performance management, and promotions structures.
SCAN can help you avoid being blindsided by external forces that disrupt the status quo. When leaders and their teams routinely SCAN for insights and options, they notice opportunities sooner and become more adaptable to change.
The other important thing to notice about the horizontal axis is that the things we can influence (Structures and Assumptions) are precisely the things that maintain stability. It’s more comfortable to preserve the status quo and operate according to our habits and routines. Stability makes it easier to scale up. Stability makes it easier to orient and train new-hires. When we maintain assumptions and structures, we can make improvements through efficiency and productivity. But, as the world continues to become more complex, uncertain, and turbulent, stability creates dysfunction by keeping things the same when what’s needed is change.
The things we can’t influence (Context and Needs) are precisely the things that create opportunity. Options and possibilities emerge from changes in society, technology, regulations, scientific discoveries, and generational priorities. We can look to what’s changing in society and the marketplace for a new way forward. At the same time, the pursuit of opportunities creates instability that can feel risky or threatening.
Let’s have a look at how the SCAN tool might help us think differently about a common challenge facing today’s organizational leaders.
Using SCAN to Improve Online Team Meetings
Keep in mind that conducting a SCAN does not give you an answer. Revealing hidden complexities is about widening the search area to increase the odds of discovering insights and options.
Suppose like a lot of leaders these days, you’re struggling to keep your distributed team engaged during virtual team meetings. You’ve made a few attempts at switching up the meeting processes, but things haven’t improved. You can tell that people are bored or distracted. You suspect that they are multi-tasking, or perhaps sending private, unhelpful chat comments to one another.
Insights and options will continue to be elusive unless you’re willing to think through the hidden complexities. It’s likely that some unexamined habits carried over from the weekly face-to-face update meetings need to change (Structure). There are probably new software applications and ways of working being introduced that you haven’t explored (Context). Perhaps some deeply held beliefs about meetings need to be challenged (Assumptions). Finally, investigating with empathy what really matters to people might help you figure out whether or not team meetings serve those who attend (Needs). The image below captures questions worth discussing with the team related to each dimension of SCAN.
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.
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.
While scientists frantically work to find a safe, effective vaccine for Covid-19, I’m focused on boosting our immunity to an epidemic of closed-mindedness. I’m not talking about a closed-mindedness born of conviction. I’m talking about a closed-mindedness born of exhaustion. Our brains were not designed to cope with sustained chaos.
Current events 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.
Some strive to reduce the turmoil and increase predictability, yearning for simpler times. I’m more interested in developing a fitness routine for the way we think. If we can boost our immunity to chaos, we can respond with creativity and compassion rather than paralysis and tribalism.
The current epidemic of closed-mindedness leaves us vulnerable to lies and simplistic platitudes. The most dangerous virus is the one that makes us susceptible to dogmatism and attention-grabbing. Easy answers in difficult times are no answers at all. When our stamina for discernment has been lowered, we accommodate the most easily digestible, the briefest, the loudest, the most outrageous. We become susceptible to messages that light up our limbic system by appealing directly to our emotions. It’s no coincidence that we refer to attention-grabbing media as “viral.”
It seems almost too obvious to say, but for things to improve, something must change. What’s less obvious is that one of the things available to change is how we think. If you’re stuck in freeway traffic, you could improve your situation by having something outside your control change, like a tow truck clearing away a stalled vehicle. You could improve your situations by taking matters into your own hands. You could exit the freeway and pick an alternate route. You could also improve things by changing your attitude about your situation. Instead of thinking of yourself as stuck, you adopt the attitude that you’ve been given a break in your day to catch up on a podcast or audiobook.
Let’s work to prevent the spread of harmful thinking. If you are focused on answering the question, “What should we do?” you are vulnerable to people who pretend to have all the answers. In times of chaos, no one has all the answers. By definition, situations feel chaotic because the usual rules no longer apply.
The chaos, instability and turbulence we’re currently experiencing calls for a particular type of thinking. In truth, our world was becoming more complex and uncertain long before 2020. It’s worth considering whether our lack of stamina for thinking, our attraction to simplistic answers, and our shrinking attention spans are the causes rather than the results of our interlocking crises. Either way, our future may depend on the kind of unfettered thinking characteristic of an unstuck mind rather than the dog-eared playbook of incurious experts.
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.
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…