Those of you who kept up with my rethinked*annex project in the fall, in which I attempted to translate the tools, processes and frames of reference of design thinking to my everyday life, might have been wondering what happened to the next phase of the project: integrative thinking. I had originally intended to post each week of the challenge (December-March) about various thought experiments that I would do in an attempt to assimilate the cognitive discipline into my daily life. I soon found out however, that the nature of integrative thinking did not lend itself to quick reflection, so I rethought…* my original plan, and decided instead to steep in integrative thinking, think/work it out for myself and allow some time for ‘digestion’ before trying to organize my thoughts about the experience. This is the first article in a series of posts synthesizing my insights and observations from these past three months spent attempting to assimilate integrative thinking into my everyday life.
THE ONTOLOGICAL CONSTRAINTS OF BEING HUMAN
The problem when one attempts to think about one’s own thinking, let alone try to change that thinking, is that one runs into myriad cognitive hurdles designed and implemented to keep us from questioning the equilibrium and understanding that we create for ourselves in our daily lives. I’m not talking about politics or culture but about the core ontological constraints of being human: our inability to process the constant influx of reality and our perceptual and cognitive need to parcel it into salient bits, which we craft into overarching frameworks and models through which to experience our subjectivity and every day encounters. Because of the infinite malleability of our appraisal of reality, we have the ability and the need to fashion our own understanding of it. The issue with this is that, as Roger Martin put it in his terrific book, The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking,
“this tendency makes it difficult to know what to do with opposing and seemingly incommensurable models. Our first impulse is to determine which one represents reality and which one is unreal and wrong, and then we campaign against the idea we reject. But in rejecting one model as unreal, we miss out on all the value that can be realized by holding in mind two opposing models at the same time.” (55)
Integrative thinking is an effective method for countering this human tendency to simplify and reduce our understanding of reality to opposing binaries. Martin offers the following working definition of integrative thinking: “The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.” (15) Integrative thinking, according to Martin, stems from our inherent capacity to simultaneously hold two opposing ideas in mind, a concept he explores through the metaphor of the ‘opposable mind’, which:
“we can use to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension. We can use that tension to think our way through to a new and superior idea. Were we able to hold only one thought or idea in our heads at a time, we wouldn’t have access to the insights that the opposable mind can produce. And just as we can develop and refine the skills with which we employ our opposable thumbs to perform tasks that once seemed impossible, I’m convinced we can also, with patient practice, develop the ability to use our opposable minds to unlock solutions to problems that seem to resist every effort to solve them.” (7)
After rereading Martin’s book, which is filled with keen observations and insights on the mental patterns of effective integrative thinkers, I decided that the first step in my attempt to practice integrative thinking on a daily basis should be to take an honest and in-depth look at my personal knowledge.
PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE | STANCE, TOOLS & EXPERIENCES
Martin defines personal knowledge as a tripartite coalition of stance, which “is your most broad-based knowledge domain in which you define who you are in your world and what you are trying to accomplish in it.” (93); tools, which, “range from formal theories to established processes to rules of thumb.” (97) And experiences that “form your most practical and tangible knowledge. The experiences you accumulate are the product of your stance and tools, which guide you toward some experiences and away from others.” (99) A thoughtful balance of the three elements of this cognitive coalition is key to effective integrative thinking.
“Operating at their best, the three elements of the personal knowledge system will reinforce each other to produce an ever-increasing capacity for integrative thinking. By the same token, though, stance, tools, and experience can conspire to trap perfectly intelligent and capable people in a world where problems seem too hard to solve and mere survival is the only goal.” (104)
Before I could start thinking about integrating components of conflicting models or ideas with my own, I had to gain a solid understanding of what my model was. But how to break past the blind spots and recognize my own assumptions to take an honest look at my stance, tools and experiences?
The first few weeks of December, I created all sorts of disruptive thought experiments for myself, which I hoped would allow me to experience the ordinary, common sensical and taken for granted dimensions of my life as unknown. I decided to write down 100 assumptions I had. I walked up and down my street taking pictures of each building from various angles. I went on a scavenger hunt around my apartment looking for ‘unexpected typographies.’ I tried to photograph and catalog every color and shade I could find in my home. I attempted to count how many different logos were scattered in my immediate surroundings. I was looking for a way to disrupt my perceptual routine.
Many of these little exercises proved to be fun and engaging, and the results were at times astonishing. Noticing the discrepancy between what I think I see and what I actually notice (and the vast amounts of things I don’t) was, forgive the dreadful pun, eye-opening. But at the end of the day, I found that all of these exercises provided little more than isolated disruptions and I was left frustrated, unable to understand how to take this to the next level.
If I was to assimilate integrative thinking into my everyday, I needed to find a hypodermic way of creating ongoing disruptions in my noticing and thinking practices. Tools and exercises would not be enough, what I needed was a paradigm shift. To go beyond isolated disruptions to a sustainable, adaptive and iterative process of integrative thinking, I would have to approach this challenge as a design project and consider the wider landscape of interrelated terms and concepts within which integrative thinking is embedded.
NEED FOR A PARADIGM SHIFT
Any time we talk about a paradigm shift, what we are really talking about is a moment in time and thought, in which ideas and concepts open up, become tangibly more malleable, and beg for new connections and definitions. Before I could move forward, I had to formulate in my own terms a synthesis of the drives and assumptions underlying the discipline, to refine my understanding of what it was I was after when seeking to ‘do’ integrative thinking. I had identified the constraints, which could all be summed up as ‘being human’—need for order and meaning, inability to process reality as is, uncomfortable with ambiguity, etc. Now I needed to identify the frame through which I would explore integrative thinking and make it mine.
Integrative thinking is the ability to suspend your framework—the core model through which you make sense of the world and your place within it—and to willingly place yourself in a space of unknowing, ambiguity and uncertainty. It is the ability to separate yourself from your ideas and the organizing narrative of your life, the willingness to look at all the things you have explained to yourself and admit that perhaps none of them are true. Of course, this is not the goal of integrative thinking. In its ideal form, integrative thinking is not about subtraction or substitution, it’s about remix and enhancement. But being able to entertain the notion that your model of reality is ‘wrong’ (not in an absolute sense, but in terms of it not being optimized to your life and practice) is an essential prerequisite to integrative thinking. If your ideas are too precious to you, and if you are unwilling to “kill your darlings” you will never be able to practice integrative thinking effectively.
Integrative thinking stems from our capacity for cognitive empathy, the ability to place yourself in someone else’s mental framework and view the world from their perspective. In my understanding of it, empathy starts with curiosity. The goal of my integrative design challenge, therefore, was to move past creating isolated events to creating a process by which to induce, nurture and maintain a cognitive state of hyperawareness and receptivity or ‘beginner’s mind’ in myself.
SHOSHIN | BEGINNER’S MIND
Martin alludes to the powerful possibilities of beginner’s mind and the hyperawareness it creates:
“When we learn something new, we’re acutely aware of features that more experienced practitioners take for granted. Think of your self-consciousness when you learned a new sport or took your first driving lesson. This hyperawareness of yourself and the skills you’re learning does not last long. Over time, practice transforms conscious acts into automatic habits characteristic of mastery. Think of your anxiety at stoplights when you first learned to drive using a standard shift, and the unthinking ease with which you now put the car into first and drive off. The better we get, the faster we forget about what we are doing. Our awareness of what we are doing and how we are accomplishing it quickly becomes as intuitive and inaccessible as the knowledge we use to tie our shoes or ride a bike.” (100)
Famed Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, summed this up beautifully with the remark, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.” Shoshin is a Zen Buddhist term, which translates to beginner’s mind and is characterized by a very open attitude, free of preconceptions and fueled by genuine curiosity and eagerness. Shoshin does not describe a temporal event (the first time one does something) but rather an emotional and cognitive state of openness, optimism, creativity, curiosity and zeal. Shoshin can (and should) be achieved at all levels of practice.
It seemed that no matter how I went about trying to break down integrative thinking for myself, I kept zeroing in and coming back to this concept of ‘embodied curiosity.’ A term that, at this stage, was little more than a vague contour overflowing with possibility. I had finally found my entry point into integrative thinking. And so, the formulation of the challenge went from the general and unhelpful “how might I practice integrative thinking” to the more focused: How Might I create a framework for embodied curiosity in my everyday life?
Look for part II next Thursday.