We went to the airport the other day and realized that we were out of cash. I stopped at an ATM, pulled out a credit card, and froze. I rarely use that particular card at ATMs and I had completely forgotten the personal identification number. I stared blankly at the ATM screen for a few minutes and then slowly started to walk away.
A few seconds later, the number popped into my head: 2061. I’m used to having things pop into my head as I “give up” on a problem. When I focus on a problem, I block out information. As I start to unfocus, useful information pops back into my head. I find that I’m much less creative when I’m intently focused. (Recently, for instance, Steven Wright popped into my head.)
Pleased that my mind was working so effectively, I returned to the ATM, inserted my card and the digits 2061. Wrong. Hmmm … perhaps I transposed some digits. I tried various combinations: 2601, 2106, 1206, and so on. Nothing worked.
So again, I walked slowly away from the terminal. As I did, I noticed that I was standing next to an airport conference room. The number on the door: 2061. My System 1 had picked up the number subconsciously. It wasn’t a useful data point so System 1 didn’t register it with System 2. Then my System 2 broadcast a message: “We’re looking for a four digit number.” At that point, System 1 produced the most recent four-digit number it was aware of: 2061.
Unfortunately, it was the wrong number. But I was convinced it was the right number. It popped into my head just the way I expected it to.
Was my mind playing tricks on me? Not really. In David Brooks’ phrase, my “millions of little scouts” were out surveying my environment. One scout sent back some information that might be useful, the number 2061. The little scout was trying to help. Unfortunately, he led me astray. System 1 is usually right. But when it’s wrong, it can get you into big trouble. Like getting your credit card cancelled
It’s a tough world out there so I start every day by reading the comics in our local newspaper. Comics and caffeine are the perfect combination to get the day started.
In our paper, the comics are in the entertainment section, which is usually either eight or twelve pages long. The comics are at the back. Last week, I pulled the entertainment section out, glanced at the first page, then flipped it open to the comics.
While I was reading my favorite comics, a random thought popped into my head: “I wonder if I could use Steven Wright’s comedy to teach any useful lessons in my critical thinking class?” Pretty random, eh?
Do you know Steven Wright? He’s an amazingly gifted comedian whose popularity probably peaked in the nineties. Elliot was a kid at the time and he and I loved to listen to Wright’s tapes. (Suellen was a bit less enthusiastic). Here are some of his famous lines:
Given Wright’s ironic paraprosdokians, it seems logical that I would think of him as a way to teach critical thinking. But why would he pop up one morning when I was enjoying my coffee and comics?
I finished the comics and closed the entertainment section. On the back page, I spotted an article announcing that Steven Wright was in town to play some local comedy clubs. I was initially dumbfounded. I hadn’t seen the article before reading the comics. How could I have known? I reached an obvious conclusion: I must have psychic powers.
While congratulating myself on my newfound powers, I turned back to the front page of the entertainment section. Then my crest fell. There, in the upper left hand corner of the front page, was a little blurb: “Steven Wright’s in town.”
I must have seen the blurb when I glanced at the front page. But it didn’t register consciously. I didn’t know that I knew it. Rather, my System 1 must have picked it up. Then, while reading the comics, System 1 passed a cryptic note to my System 2. I had been thinking about my critical thinking class. When my conscious mind got the Seven Wright cue from System 1, I coupled it with what I was already thinking.
I wasn’t psychic after all. Was it a coincidence? Not at all. Was I using ESP? Nope. It was just my System 1 taking me for a ride. Let that be a lesson to us all.
Suellen and I like to do crossword puzzles together. We enjoy sorting out the wordplay and ambiguities and finding the solution. When we can’t figure out the answer, we use the same strategy but different tactics.
Our strategy might be called indirection – we move away. I’ve discovered that I often find the answer when I give up. I look at Clue #3 and can’t figure it out. So I think, “Well, I can’t get it so I might as well move on to Clue #4.” In the very brief time that it takes me to move from Clue #3 to Clue #4, the answer often comes to me. I’ve de-focused and given up when the answer simply pops into my head.
Suellen’s indirection is physical and spatial rather than temporal. We typically work at a table and we usually lean in close to the puzzle. When Suellen can’t get the answer, she stands up and looks at the entire puzzle from a distance. She sees the puzzle as a whole and spots patterns. Capturing the global nature of the puzzle helps her sort out specific clues.
In both cases, we move away. We’re no longer trying to solve a specific clue. We’re not doing rather than doing. I thought of this when I read “Trying Not To Try” by Edward Slingerland in a recent issue of Nautilus. Slingerland is a professor of Asian studies and cognition (what a great combo) at the University of British Columbia.
Slingerland describes the Daoist concept of wu-wei or effortless action. “Wu-wei literally translates as ‘no trying’ or ‘no doing’ but it’s not all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, spontaneous, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective.”
Slingerland argues that achieving wu-wei requires us to balance and integrate Systems 1 and 2. As you may recall, System 1 is our low-energy thinking system that is fast, automatic, effortless, and always on. System 1 makes the great majority of our decisions automatically — we don’t need to think about them. System 2 is the conscious energy hog that helps us think logically and provides executive task control. When we say, “I gave myself permission to have another glass of wine”, we’re essentially saying, “My System 2 gave my System 1 permission…”
Wu-wei integrates the two systems. Slingerland writes, “We have been taught to believe that the best way to achieve our goals is to reason about them carefully and strive consciously to reach them. But [wu-wei] … shows us that many desirable states are best pursued indirectly. … When your conscious mind lets go, your body can take over.”
Wu-wei also reminds me of the concept of flow described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For instance, Csikszentmihalyi writes that flow involves a stage called incubation, “…during which ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness.” Similarly, there is an insight phase – an Aha moment. At this stage, too much focus can be self-defeating. You need to let your mind wander. You need to not try too hard.
Whether we call it wu-wei or flow or something else, it’s a remarkable concept. Trying not to try may seem contradictory but it’s worth a try. I find that taking a good long walk can help me get nearly the right balance. My body is occupied and my mind wanders. I’m not trying to do much of anything. That’s when the insights come.
Here’s a cute little joke:
The receptionist at the doctor’s office goes running down the hallway and says, “Doctor, Doctor, there’s an invisible man in the waiting room.” The Doctor considers this information for a moment, pauses, and then says, “Tell him I can’t see him”.
It’s a cute play on a situation we’ve all faced at one time or another. We need to see a doctor but we don’t have an appointment and the doc just has no time to see us. We know how it feels. That’s part of the reason the joke is funny.
Now let’s talk about the movie playing in your head. Whenever we hear or read a story, we create a little movie in our heads to illustrate it. This is one of the reasons I like to read novels — I get to invent the pictures. I “know” what the scene should look like. When I read a line of dialogue, I imagine how the character would “sell” the line. The novel’s descriptions stimulate my internal movie-making machinery. (I often wonder what the interior movies of movie directors look like. Do Tim Burton’s internal movies look like his external movies? Wow.)
We create our internal movies without much thought. They’re good examples of our System 1 at work. The pictures arise based on our experiences and habits. We don’t inspect them for accuracy — that would be a System 2 task. (For more on our two thinking systems, click here). Though we don’t think much about the pictures, we may take action on them. If our pictures are inaccurate, our decisions are likely to be erroneous. Our internal movies could get us in trouble.
Consider the joke … and be honest. In the movie in your head, did you see the receptionist as a woman and the doctor as a man? Now go back and re-read the joke. I was careful not to give any gender clues. If you saw the receptionist as a woman and the doctor as a man (or vice-versa), it’s because of what you believe, not because of what I said. You’re reading into the situation and your interpretation may just be erroneous. Yet again, your System 1 is leading you astray.
What does this have to do with business? I’m convinced that many of our disagreements and misunderstandings in the business world stem from our pictures. Your pictures are different from mine. Diversity in an organization promotes innovation. But it also promotes what we might call “differential picture syndrome”.
So what to do? Simple. Ask people about the pictures in their heads. When you hear the term strategic reorganization, what pictures do you see in your mind’s eye? When you hear team-building exercise, what movie plays in your head? It’s a fairly simple and effective way to understand our conceptual differences and find common definitions for the terms we use. It’s simple. Just go to the movies together.