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{ Ambiguity & Passion } How Integrative Thinking Can Help Us Build A Strategy For Winning in Life & Work …*

{ Ambiguity & Passion } How Integrative Thinking Can Help Us Build A Strategy For Winning in Life & Work ...* | rethinked.org

For this week’s Friday Link Fest, I want to explore something that has kept cropping up in my reading over the past few days and which is a core tension in most aspects of people’s lives and creative work: convergence versus divergence. The need for balance between converging and diverging–dreaming and focusing, thinking and doing–has certainly been a central and uncomfortable tension in my own life. In fact, I have made finding a better way to live out that tension a core priority of my 2015 resolutions by giving this year the theme of “Execution”.

I hate easy binaries but on the thinking-doing spectrum, I must admit to being firmly in the thinking camp. I love thinking, in all its forms and can spend hours, days even, questioning, planning, reflecting, imagining and daydreaming. Execution, however, is a different matter– I freeze up, I delay, I procrastinate, I tell myself I haven’t had time to properly think everything through. Learning about a growth mindset has helped me make some progress in being less afraid of taking action, as has practicing design thinking with its strong emphasis on rapid prototyping. Yet, taking action remains a tentative, sporadic and laborious endeavor for me.

Earlier this week I read an excellent essay, Ambiguity & the Art of Meaning, by Umair Haque, which examined this tension between our love of ambiguity and open-ended possibility and our need to feel we are living meaningful, enriching lives.

“Ambiguity. It’s the defining characteristic of this age.”

[ … ]

“And so we’re all what you might call faithful ambiguists these days. We’re fascinated by the in between; drawn to the double-sided; obsessed by the contradictory.

Ambiguity’s exciting. Thrilling, even. The unresolved is the undecided; and the undecided, like a roulette wheel, rouses our blood while it spins.”

[ … ]

“Here’s the truth. That’s not good enough. What are we really protecting ourselves from when we declare our tiny wars on ambiguity? Ourselves. The people we were meant to be.

“Ambiguity asks us: what do our lives mean? And unless we can resolve ambiguity, we will always be left with the lingering suspicion: they could, and should, have meant more. That what we took with one hand, we simply gave away with the other. “

– Ambiguity & The Art of Meaning, Umair Haque

I am aware that part of my mental block with execution has much to do with my fear of making the wrong choice, of going the wrong route. While I explore ideas and options in my head, I tell myself that I am keeping my possibilities in “real life” open. But after a while, the days become weeks, then months, then years and still I put things off; I don’t commit and I stay stagnant. A growing anxiety within me whispers that I am wasting my time and my opportunities.

“There is a great tension at the heart of every ambiguity. This or that? Up or down? Left or right? The answer is not either or. The choice might leave you satisfied — but the tension will surely leave you discontented with your very satisfaction. The answer, if there is one, is through. Resolving ambiguity is not just making choices between two opposites; nor is it merely learning to see two opposites, and throwing one’s hands up in the air at them. It is synthesis. Discovering how to forge two opposites, which should repel, into one whole — that is greater than the sum of its parts.” 

Ambiguity & The Art of Meaning, Umair Haque

Does this sound familiar to you? Yes, Integrative Thinking! Speaking of Integrative Thinking, I have just finished reading Roger Martin’s latest book, co-authored with A.G. Lafley, Playing To Win: How Strategy Really Works (2013), which made me think of Haque’s essay by focusing on the need to make choices. According to the father of Integrative Thinking, strategy is, at its core, just a synonym for making choices and performing the actions that support that choice.

“It is natural to want to keep options open as long as possible, rather than closing off possibilities by making explicit choices. But it is only through making and acting on choices that you can win. Yes, clear, tough choices force your hand and confine you to a path. But they also free you to focus on what matters. What matters is winning. Great organizations–whether companies, not-for-profits, political organizations, agencies, what have you–choose to win rather than simply play.”

– Playing To Win, Roger & Lafley, pg.5

“Winning” may sound a bit strange in a personal context. We are told often enough that comparing ourselves to others is a losing game. But if one frames winning in terms of being all that one can be, winning by making the choices that will allow us to reach a full, purposeful life lived with passion, commitment and conviction, we very quickly can see how applicable strategy is to our personal lives.

In Playing to Win, Martin and Lafley create a framework, which revolves around five core choices, to approach strategic thinking:

“Winning should be at the heart of any strategy. In our terms, a strategy is a coordinated and integrated set of fives choices: a winning aspiration, where to play, how to win, core capabilities, and management systems.”

– Playing To Win, Roger & Lafley, pg.5

Playing to Win is an excellent book if you’re looking to rethink your strategy and update your business model. Yet, while I was reading it, and learning more about each of the five choices, I could not stop thinking about how relevant this framework was for one’s personal life.

So while the ambiguous and the open-ended are immensely attractive, meaning, purpose and growth come from making choices.

“It is not just finding a lover you hate; or a friend you desperately love…but a lover you can build a great friendship with. It is not just finding a career that enriches you, or a fortune that impoverishes you…but riches that enlarge you…and leave you feeling fortunate enough to thank creation for every moment you are alive. It is not just a life that makes you happy…where “happiness” is merely suffering you are relieved to avoid…but a happiness that makes you ache with purpose, burn with passion, laugh at fate, rebel against destiny.”

– Ambiguity & The Art of Meaning, Umair Haque

These choices are not compromises, the issue at hand is not choosing for the sake of choosing. We must move past the false binaries we create, we must put in the hard work necessary to reframe either-or choices as integrated options that take the best of option A and the best of option B to create an optimal choice in C (to that end, I highly recommend Martin’s books on Integrative Thinking, The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking). This an uncomfortable process, as the authors of The Capabilities Your Organization Needs to Sustain Innovation published this week on Harvard Business Review, point out:

“The problem – and the leadership challenge – arises because options A and B are often incompatible, even completely opposable, ideas. To arrive at option C means people must keep both A and B on the table, and that is difficult to do. When faced with two seemingly mutually exclusive alternatives, the human impulse is to choose one and discard the other as soon as possible, or to forge a simple compromise. We crave the clarity provided by that kind of clean, assured decision-making. We crave it so much, in fact, that when a leader refuses to make a choice quickly, even when it can only be arbitrary or capricious, we grumble about the “lack of leadership around here.” It takes courage to hold open a multitude of possibilities long enough that new ways of combining them can emerge. There is often great pressure to make a choice, any choice, and move on.”

Once we decide what it is we will commit to, what path is right for us to grow into ever richer and fuller versions of who we might become, we must continue to push and provide the effort necessary to support and activate these choices (to which end, I highly recommend Martin and Lafley’s book on strategy, Playing To Win: How Strategy Really Works.) For as Haque points out at the end of his essay,

“The question is this. Whose lives are we creating? Ours — or someone else’s? Do we become the people we are told to be — or the people we were meant to be?”

Ambiguity & The Art of Meaning, Umair Haque

“Nothing in this process is ever wasted” – The Key to Transforming Yourself …*

“The way to transform yourself is through your work. Now I know this runs counter to our prevailing cultural prejudices. Work is too ugly, too boring, too banal. Self-transformation, we think, comes through a spiritual journey; therapy; a guru who tells us what to do; intense group experiences and social experiences and drugs. But most of these are ways of running away from ourselves and relieving our chronic boredom. They’re not connected to process and so any changes that occur don’t last. Instead, through our work, we can actually connect to who we are instead of running away. And by entering that slow organic process, we can actually change ourselves from the inside out in a way that’s very real and very lasting. This process involves a journey of self-discovery that can be seen as quite spiritual, if you like. And, at the end of this process we contribute something unique and meaningful to our culture through our work, which is hardly ugly, boring, or banal.” – Robert Greene

Happy Independence Day! As we gather with friends and family to celebrate, I thought I would share author Robert Greene’s TEDx talk for a bit of weekend inspiration. In this talk Greene examines the key to transforming yourself in a lasting and authentic fashion (and you know how much we value processes of change and transformational moments here at rethinked * ) Greene’s talk, while not necessarily providing any groundbreaking new insights on processes of self-transformation, is a well articulated and welcome reminder of many truths most of us know and understand–achievement takes a lot of (often behind-the-scenes) work; embrace a growth-mindset; we can often only connect the dots of our lives in retrospect; follow the sparks of energy and passion in your life–but which we too often lose touch with in the hustle and bustle of daily life and fail to enact. I hope this will help refresh your commitment to living authentic and meaningful lives.

reflect, follow the sparks, embrace the process & rethink …

The Key To Transforming Yourself – Robert Greene at TEDxBrixton

We humans tend to fixate on what we can see with our eyes. It is the most animal part of our nature. When we look at the changes and transformations in other people’s lives, we see the good luck that someone had in meeting a person like Yost, with all of the right connections and the funding. We see the book or the project that brings them money and the attention. In other words, we see the visible signs of opportunity and success. But we are grasping at an illusion. What really allows for such dramatic changes are the things that occur on the inside of a person and are completely invisible—the slow accumulation of knowledge and skills; the incremental improvements in work habits and the ability to withstand criticism. Any change in people’s fortune is merely the visible manifestation of that deep preparation over time. By essentially ignoring this internal invisible aspect, we fail to change anything fundamental within ourselves. And so in a few years time, we reach our limits yet again, we grow frustrated, we crave change, we grab at something quick and superficial and we remain prisoners forever of these recurring patterns in our lives. The answer, the key, to the ability to transform ourselves is actually insanely simple: to reverse this perspective. Stop fixating on what other people are saying and doing, on the money, the connections, the outward appearance of things. Instead, look inward. Focus on the smaller, internal changes that lay the groundwork for a much larger change in fortune.

*

Here’s how this would work in your own life. Consider the fact that each and everyone of you is fundamentally unique, one of a kind–your DNA, the particular configuration of your brain, your life experiences. In early childhood, this uniqueness manifested itself by the fact that you felt particularly drawn to certain subjects and activities. What I call in my book, Mastery, “primal inclinations.” You cannot rationally explain why you felt so drawn to words, or to music, or to particular questions about the world around you, or to social dynamics. As you get older, you often lose contact with these inclinations. You listen to parents who urge you to follow a particular career path; you listen to teachers and alcoholic magazine editors who tell you what you’re good and bad at; you listen to friends who tell you what’s cool and not cool. At a certain point, you can almost become a stranger to yourself and so you enter career paths that are not suited to you—emotionally and intellectually. Your life’s task, as I call it, is to return to those inclinations and to that uniqueness that marked each and everyone of you at birth. At whatever age you find yourself, you must reflect back on those earliest inclinations, you must look at those subjects in the present that continue to spark that childlike intense curiosity in you. And you must look at those subjects and activities that you’ve been forced to do over the past few years that repel you, that have no emotional resonance. Based on these reflections, you determine a direction you must take—writing, or music, or a particular branch of science, or a form of business, or public service. You now have a loose overall framework within you which can explore and find those angles and positions that suit you best. You listen closely to yourself, to your internal radar. Some parts of that framework, for me, journalism and Hollywood, do not feel right, and so you move on, slowly narrowing your path, all the while accumulating skills. Most people want simple, direct, straight-lined paths to the perfect position and to success, but instead you must welcome wrong turns and mistakes, they make you aware of your flaws, they widen your experiences, they toughen you up. If you come to this process at a later age, you must cultivate a new set of skills that suit this change in direction you’ll be taking, and find a way to blend them with your previous skills. Nothing in this process is ever wasted. In any event, the goal that you are after is learning and the acquisition of skills, not a fat paycheck. Now, look at what happens to you as you adopt this very different and internally driven mindset. Because you are headed in a direction that resonates with you personally and emotionally, the hours of practice and study do not seem so burdensome, you can sustain your attention and your interest for much longer periods of time. What excites you is the learning process itself, overcoming obstacles, increasing your skill level. You are immersed in the present instead of constantly obsessing over the future and so you pay greater attention to the work itself and to the people around you, developing patience and social intelligence. Without forcing the issue, a point is reached in which you are thoroughly prepared from within. The slightest opportunity that comes your way you will now exploit. In fact, you will draw opportunities to you because people will sense how prepared you are.

* 

Ben Casnocha on The Disconnect Between School As An Individual Game & Life As A Team Game …*

Ben Casnocha on The Disconnect Between School As An Individual Game & Life As A Team Game ...*

Couldn’t agree more with Ben Casnocha’s dead on insight about one of the biggest disconnects between “school-life” and “real” life and the negative impact it creates. How might we rethink * the “framework of how to be successful” that we teach in schools?

“When I meet with really successful professionals, they frequently reflect on this disconnect: in school they thought it was an individual game, in life they realize it’s a team game, and team games require skills they never developed in school.

[ … ] 

And it turns out, memorizing organic chemistry formulas was a whole lot easier than learning to read a room, interpreting human motivations, and building teams who will follow you.

When reflecting on how the education system does or does not prepare students, we should pay special attention not just to areas where school under-prepares students for the real world (more statistics! more engineering!), but where school actively misprepares. Where an entire framework of “how to be successful” has to be unlearned and replaced by something else. These are the most consequential breakage points in formal schooling.” – Ben Casnocha

Source: Loners Can Win At School. They Can’t In The Real World. via LinkedIn, published February 4, 2014

Daniel H. Cohen On Why We Need To Rethink…* The Metaphors We Use To Think About Cognitive Arguments

In a recent TED talk, philosopher Daniel H. Cohen, challenges us to rethink…* the metaphors that we use to think about arguments so that we may shift our focus away from winning to deeper learning and understanding when we engage in argumentation. Cohen begins his talk by highlighting the three existing models for arguments that we hold:

1. Argument as War: There’s a lot of screaming and shouting and winning and losing. That’s not a very helpful model for thinking about argument, but it’s a pretty entrenched and common model for argument.

 

2. Argument as Proof: Think of a mathematician’s argument: Here’s my argument–does it work? Is it any good? Are the premises warranted? Are the inferences valid? Does the conclusion follow from the premises? No opposition, not necessarily any arguing in the adversarial sense. 

 

3. Argument as Performance: Arguments in front of an audience. We can think of a politician trying to present a position, trying to convince the audience of something. But there’s another twist on this model that I really think is important, namely, that when we argue before an audience, sometimes the audience has a more participatory role in the argument. That is, arguments are also in front of juries who make a judgement, decide the case, let’s call this the rhetorical model.

 

By far the most dominant and pervasive of the three models is the metaphor of argument-as-war.

 

It dominates how we talk about arguments, how we think about arguments, and because of that it shapes how we argue–our actual conduct in arguments. Now, when we talk about arguments, we talk in very militaristic language: we want strong arguments, arguments that have a lot of punch, arguments that are right on target; we want to have our defenses up and our strategies all in order; we want killer arguments. That’s the kind of argument we want. It is the dominant way of thinking about arguments. 

 

The issue with this model for argumentation, as Cohen points out, is that it has deforming effects on how we argue.

 

1. First, it elevates tactics over substance–you take a class in logical argumentation, you learn all about the subterfuges that people use to try and win arguments, the false steps. 

 

2. It magnifies the US vs. THEM aspect, it makes it adversarial, it’s polarizing.

 

3. And the only foreseeable outcomes is glorious victory of ignominious defeat.

 

I think those are deforming effects, and worse of all, it seems to prevent things like negotiation, or deliberation, or compromise or collaboration. Think about that, have you ever entered an argument thinking, let’s see if we can hash something out rather than fight it out? What can we work out together? I think the argument-as-war metaphor inhibits those other kinds of resolutions to argumentation. 

 

Perhaps, the most negative impact of the argument-as-war metaphor with its either-or framework–either I win or I lose–is that we begin to equate learning with losing.

 

If argument is war, then there is an implicit equation of learning with losing. Let me explain what I mean: suppose you and I have an argument. You believe a proposition–P–and I don’t. I say why do you believe P? And you give me your reasons. And I object and say, “well, what about…” and you answer my objection. And I have a question, well what do you mean? How does it apply over here? And you answer my question. Now, suppose at the end of the day, I’ve objected, I’ve questioned, I’ve raised all sorts of counter considerations and, in every case, you’ve responded to my satisfaction. And so, at the end of the day, I say, “you know what? I guess you’re right.” So I have a new belief, and it’s not just any belief, but it’s a well articulated, examined, battle tested belief. Great cognitive gain. Ok, who won that argument? Well, the war metaphor seems to force us into saying you’ve won, even though I’m the only one who made any cognitive gain. What did you gain cognitively from convincing me? [,..] The war metaphor forces us into thinking that you’re the winner and I lost, even though I gained.

 

What we need then, is to think of new ways to frame arguments that would yield more positive outcomes.

 

What we need is new exit strategies for arguments but we’re not going to have new exit strategies for arguments until we have new entry approaches to arguments. We need to think of new kinds of arguments.

 

Put in different terms, what Daniel Cohen is urging us to do is to shift from a fixed mindset understanding of arguments to a growth mindset appraisal of argumentation. This idea of mindsets comes from Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck’s research, which I was just writing about last week. Dweck’s big idea is that there are two basic mindsets: the fixed mindset, which sees ability as limited and static–you’re either good at something or you’re not–and the growth mindset which views ability as dynamic and changing over time with effort. Which mindset we hold in any given situation has a wide range of implications on the beliefs we carry and the ways in which we behave. For example, if you believe that ability is fixed and does not change over time, your primary focus is going to be proving your ability, proving that you do have it or, at the very least, hiding that you don’t. The fixed mindset leads to a primary framework of judgement–how good am I at something and am I better than others? Meanwhile, if you think that ability can change over time with effort, you’re going to have a framework that is oriented towards growth and you will develop a  deep desire and excitement for learning. The argument-as-war model puts us in a fixed mindset: this is an either-or model in which you are either a winner–you have talent and ability when it comes to arguing– or you don’t and you’re a loser. If we framed argumentation as fertile ground for growth and learning however, we would be able to place ourselves in a growth mindset from the get go and in doing so, redress many of the distorting effects of the argument-as-war metaphor. Our focus would not be on winning but rather on deepening our thinking and understanding, on discovering new perspectives, on pushing ourselves to keep iterating and refining our beliefs and assumptions.

 

If we want to think of new kinds of arguments, what we need to do is think of new kinds of arguers. So try this, think of all the roles that people play in arguments–there’s the proponent and the opponent in an adversarial dialectical argument, there’s the audience in rhetorical arguments, there’s the reasoner in arguments as proofs, all these different roles. Now, can you imagine an argument in which you’re the arguer but you’re also in the audience, watching yourself argue. Can you imagine yourself watching yourself argue, losing the argument and yet, still at the end of the argument, say ” wow, that was a good argument.” Can you do that? […] I think if you can imagine that kind of argument, where the loser says to the winner, “Yeah, that was a good argument”, then you have imagined a good argument. And more than that, I think you’ve imagined a good arguer. An arguer that’s worthy of the kind of arguer you should try to be. 

 

Oh, and one more thing:

 

It takes practice [effort over time–hello, growth mindset] to become a good arguer, in the sense of being able to benefit from losing. 

Embodied Curiosity as A Framework for Being | Everything I’ve Learned About Being A Knowmad { so far }

Embodied Curiosity as A Framework for Being | Everything I’ve Learned About Being A Knowmad { so far }

This is the final article in a series of posts synthesizing my insights from the past three months spent attempting to apply concepts from Integrative Thinking to my every day life as an individual.

When I set out to explore this idea of embodied curiosity, I had grand plans of creating an entire ‘idea harvesting’ system for myself. I decided to create a process to guide my w{o|a}ndering and a system to store and display the treasures uncovered by my curiosity. I beefed up my Google Reader, bought a very large daily planner which I made into a “learning milestones” notebook and started a private blog in which to collect photographs, videos and articles that I found inspiring. The first two weeks of this big curiosity overhaul were positively thrilling–I was engaged, focused and motivated. I nearly jumped out of bed in the mornings I was so excited to get to work and at the end of the day as I lovingly flipped through my notebook or scrolled through my blog, I felt a great sense of accomplishment seeing all these nuggets of potential grouped together in an easily accessible way. I could feel the beginnings of new connections forming in my head. I was burning through Post-Its, littering my walls with reminders to “explore the relationship between z and x further” or “get the book on y mentioned by w”.

About a month into my new embodied curiosity lifestyle, I had a spectacular intellectual burnout. One morning I woke up and found that the excitement had gone and all that was left was dread. Dread at the thought of the hundreds of millions of interesting things that I wanted to but wouldn’t be able to uncover that day. Dread when I realized how long it had been since I had created rather than consumed. I started feeling massively overwhelmed by the amount of content and input surrounding me–so many books, articles, videos, photographs and people that I wanted to engage with and so little time. By sticking the word embodied in front of curiosity I had given myself free reign to let my curious nature loose, unchecked and unproductive. My life had become all input and no output. It was a bad place to be in. So I stepped away from my books, computer, phone and magazines and decided to go back to the beginning.

Embodied curiosity, to me, means translating ideas into action by infusing curiosity into every facet of my life and acting on the fruits of that curiosity as often as possible. What it comes down to is much simpler than what I had envisioned: it’s about asking questions and acting on ideas, every day, with every new opportunity that presents itself. Embodied curiosity is much more than a system or tool, it’s a mindset and way of being in the world. It’s a framework for subjectivity and experience. I decided to write down everything I knew about being curious, generating ideas and acting on them. I now carry the list everywhere I go so that I can revisit it daily during in-between moments and remind myself of the small behaviors and attitudes that I can nurture and develop on a daily basis to infuse my life with embodied curiosity. Here is what I know, so far:

 

  • Be grateful
  • Take in, but also, let go
  • Get lost ~ at least once a day
  • Look. Really, look
  • Listen (and try to hear)
  • Walk, everyday. MOVE
  • Look for patterns, but do not get lost in them
  • Play—hard & daily
  • Never give up trying to find ways to move past language
  • Ask questions & be wary of answers
  • Observe & seek connections with the mind of a beginner { shoshin }
  • Learn to zoom in & out
  • Seek wonder, banish contempt
  • Do not underestimate the potential of constraints
  • Surrender to your obsessions
  • Drop the thread
  • Never confuse the construct of linearity for reality
  • Collect moments & experiences with the fervor of the curator
  • Define things for yourself & revisit your definitions often
  • Create multiplicities
  • In all things, aim to be like the ink drop ~ fluid & bleeding through
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously
  • Let others in
  • Aim to make the ordinary unknown
  • Be aware of theviolenceofpunctuation
  • Redefine value with each new context you encounter
  • Observe, record, remix
  • Empathy is the most salient of currencies
  • Do not lose sight of the relativity of suffering
  • Delight ~ often & freely
  • Consume + produce ~ It’s a precarious balancing act, keep the equilibrium
  • Cultivate the skills to adapt & improvise
  • Imagine wildly & with abandon
  • Give back
  • Failure is in the eye of the beholder
  • Change perspectives as often as you change underwear, but hold on to your core.
  • The other exists only in relation to the self, so for the sake of all, exercise your compassion muscle daily
  • Growth hurts, accept that its part of the process
  • Travel lightly & shed along the way
  • Embrace the unknown & learn to be comfortable with uncertainty
  • Flee perfection & expertise ~ broaden & blur
  • Take chances
  • Translate everything ~ ideas into action, challenges into opportunities, problems into solutions…*
  • Know when to stop & move on
  • Show up & begin
  • Meaning is never given, you must create it for yourself
  • rethinking > inventing
  • One of the most important things you can do is surround yourself with good walking companions
  • Do not dismiss or scorn that which you do not understand
  • Look to the extremes
  • Context!
  • There are no beginnings or endings, just spectrums of intensities
  • Seek to exist within tensions
  • Wake up for sunrise

 

HMI Create a Framework for Embodied Curiosity in my Everyday Life? {rethinked * annex | Integrative Thinking}

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
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?

CREATING DISRUPTIONS

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.

EMBODIED CURIOSITY

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.

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