Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Whose Life Is It Anyway?

I don't know how many of you recognize the name Malcolm Gladwell, but he has written some pretty popular books lately. If you've heard of The Tipping Point - that was his. One of his books, which people say is not as amazing as The Tipping Point, is called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. When I first read it, I liked the ideas but I wasn't particularly impressed by them. I thought, "this is natural. Why is he telling me about something I already do naturally? What new thing have I learned?"

What I didn't realize was that I was learning without even knowing it.

One of the stories in Blink is about a mock-war the United States government had once in order to test out some strategies before going into real war. They split themselves up into the blue team and the red team - the red team being the enemy (I think). The blue team - run by the government - used all its technology to discover everything about the red team so it could predict just what the red team would do in a given situation. The red team - run by an old war general - decided not to figure out anything about the blue team but worked on using initiative and innovation to approach situations as they arose. In this way, they created a gap in which to be creative rather than applying pre-planned strategies onto anything they might face. The problem with pre-planned strategies is that they don't take into account every circumstance in a situation, and even if they do, they don't give you room to think on your own. In order to use your own, best judgment, you have to approach a situation without any extra knowledge. Sometimes knowing a lot is knowing too much and that can hold you back. You have to see each thing as the thing itself, not as everything else about it that is irrelevent to the specific situation at hand. You can use what you know, but if you know too much, all that information gets in the way of dealing with what is actually happening before you.

Consequently, even though the blue team knew everything about the red team, the red team was able to use its judgment, creativity, and improvisation to win.

If you've ever read the book Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, it deals with the same concept. Ender is a young, inexperienced leader of an army in battle school, yet he manages to win all of his battles against the older, more experienced teams because he realizes this very thing. He understands that getting stuck in strategy and formation every time you approach a battle restricts your ability to think on your feet. You're so busy thinking about which strategy to apply, you don't see that none of your strategies really fit the given situation and that you actually have to try something new - and what's more, you have to try something new now, in the moment. You come in knowing too much. You come in with this idea that if they try formation A, we'll do plan B, and if they try formation E, we'll try plan A. That works very well in simulated practice conditions, but in real battle, or in real life, situations and strategies don't match up exactly. You have to improvise. You have to be creative. You have to approach every situation as its own event, not as a kind of event. Because if you say, "I know what this is, it is this sort of event where these things happen in this way," you're imposing knowledge onto something that doesn't have to follow your rules. You won't be ready for it when it decides to do something completely different because you're still stuck in your own ideas of what it is and which strategy to approach it with. You are blinding yourself to actually seeing the thing itself for what it really is - as its own individual, unique situation.

Today in class, we were discussing the difference between something being strategic versus something being tactical. Something strategic, we said, creates a plan in advance in which it is going to approach an entire story, or even life as a whole. Something tactical, however, approaches each situation within the story, or within life, as its own thing. Being tactical means being improvisational. You use tactics in order to do something creative and new, adjusting yourself to each situation you come across.

When I was talking about this idea in class, I had this moment where I realized, "this is exactly what it talks about in Blink." Instead of talking about the piece we were reading, I started talking about Blink and that made it all so much clearer to me. Everything seemed to connect.

In a conversation I was having last night, we were talking about how a person can convince herself things are a certain way when in reality they're not, and that this mental block is completely self-built. That it is you who is blocking yourself off, not anyone else. This fits exactly with an idea in The Book of Think by Marilyn Burns. The first section of the book is called, "Getting Out of Your Own Way." The first piece of advice the book offers is, "thinking hard doesn't always work." Sometimes you find yourself in difficult situations and you feel like if you think hard enough, you'll get to the bottom of things. But often "getting to the bottom of things" is not at all helpful in actually dealing with the problem. You don't really have to know background to a problem or even why the problem arose in order to solve it. You might want to know what caused a problem so you can avoid it in the future, but that is something else. Often, like in Blink and in Ender's Game, knowing too much can get in the way of concentrating on what you actually need to know in order to deal with a situation.

Here are some more pieces of advice from The Book of Think:

1. "Sometimes you get in the way of your own brain. Your thinking gets stuck. Sometimes you build your own mental walls. Then you keep bumping into them."

This is just like when you pre-plan a strategy before actually facing a situation. You predict and assume and try to fit each situation into a box you already know how to deal with instead of actually looking at the situation. It's a good thing to demolish the walls and limitations you set on yourself by all that pre-strategizing and just trusting yourself that you can be creative and innovative in dealing with something new and unexpected. Most situations are going to have elements that are new and unexpected and you have to be able to deal with them.

2. "Keep looking at ordinary things. Look at them as if you're seeing them for the first time. You'll see lots of new things you've never looked at before."

So many things in this world are ordinary. Because of that, people easily dismiss them. People don't look at something ordinary because, according to them, there is nothing to see. They know what the ordinary thing is already. After all, it's ordinary. They've seen it before in a million forms but it's all the same thing. And because of that, they don't bother really looking at it as its own thing.

There is often - or even all the time - something extraordinary in the ordinary, and you don't even have to look deeper, past the thing itself, in order to find it. But you do have to look.

3. "Watch out for mental blinders. They'll get in the way of the problem solver every time. They often stop you from seeing out of the corner of your brain and solving the problem."

We set up these mental blinders. They come in the form of assumptions. We assume we know everything about a situation. We assume we know all about a person. We don't allow that gap of doubt to exist, and without that space in which there is room to doubt our assumptions, we don't allow ourselves to see past what we have already decided about something. That means we can never see anything new and that means we won't be able to approach something as what it really is - only as what we already decided it is.

This holds true for labeling people, for dealing with problems as they arise in life, or even for getting through a Literature class.

There is so much out there in the world that we're blinding ourselves to. There is so much that we block ourselves from seeing or achieving because we decided we can't do it. "I'm not the type who will succeed at that." "I can't do it, I'm only twenty-two and there's no way I have enough talent." "I'm not smart enough." Etc. etc. etc.

But we can do all these things. I don't think the American Dream is this ridiculous nonsense of, "if you try for your dreams, you will reach them and become rich." It's so much more than that. I think the real American Dream is the idea that possibilities are open to anyone, as long as you allow yourself to see those possibilities as applying to you. The only person who, in this country, decides you can't do something is you. You might not succeed, or you might not succeed by following the strategy you think is necessary in order to achieve your goals, but that doesn't mean there isn't a way at all. You just have to be creative. You can make that way for yourself.

Even if you don't live in America - this idea is not American. It's human. Every situation can be dealt with. There is always a way. Nothing is hopeless. It's only hopeless if you've convinced yourself that it is. "If you will it, it is no dream." - Theodor Herzl. And he wasn't American.

You can do anything. We can do anything. We just have to stop telling ourselves we can't based on our preconceived notions of what people can and cannot do or the way things can and cannot be.

Anything is possible. Be ready for it.


Ezzie said...

That was AWESOME.

I'm pretty sure that's your best post ever.

corner point said...

Brilliant post!!


old and sometimes wise said...

So very true. Been around and definitely agree that one often is one's worse enemy, for the very reason you mention.

nmf #7 said...

Brilliant is right!

Moshe said...

Excellent post, E!!

Juggling Frogs said...

Very nice, and just what I needed to hear today. I'm on the precipice of a major long-term undertaking, and am wavering between apprehension and eagerness. Your post put me in more in the latter frame of mind. Thank you!!