Musings – Part 21

Musings – Part 21

Reading.  I’ve conducted anecdotal surveys of the reading habits of about 250 C-suite executives over the course of five years. The primary question posed was this: “what books have you read during the past nine months that have significantly influenced your thinking?” Consistently, year after year, fewer than 20% had read such a book. While the research is non-scientific, my experience is that few leaders today take the time purely for the intellectual pursuit of exploratory thinking. Harry S. Truman once said “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” He was talking about books that expand the mind, not analytical business reports. They read to develop their critical or counterfactual thinking skills as well as to learn how to do things differently and more effectively. They read to acquire new lenses with which to observe and see what the uncertain future might hold in store for them and the organizations they led.

We can’t know everything but we can decide what we need to know more about. Managing our only irreplaceable resource requires that we spend it more wisely than on consuming an endless array of mindless infoglut and irrelevant sound bites – what some call noise. When we were young, we were told to finish what we started. This should never apply to reading. There are far too many books that don’t satisfy our curiosity or nourish the intellect. Worry about the quality of your reading, not the quantity of same. Knowing what to read as well as how to read are important leadership skills in a world full of exponentially irrelevant data. Fiction entertains the brain; non-fiction informs it. The choice is entirely yours. If you think of your mind as a library, ask yourself these two questions: Is the information I’ve stored there accurate and helpful to me? Can I retrieve it to fuel my intelligence when I need to use it? There’s little point having a repository of knowledge if you can’t continuously refresh and apply its content.

Self-respect.  How we deal with others is a function of how we feel about ourselves. Self-respect is not the same as self-confidence or self-esteem. Nor is it based on talent or thinking we’re better than others. It’s something we earn by explicitly committing to be better tomorrow than we were today, by being trustworthy and true to our principles in times of extreme temptation. It’s the product of our inner triumphs – how we feel about ourselves in times of frustration or duress – not the result of external accomplishments. It’s learned when we endure our mistakes, confront our limitations and know that, when worse comes to worst, we will prevail.

Self-respect is also fueled by optimism – the belief that things will get better and that we can control our destiny. The truth is that our capacity to solve problems is much greater than we sometimes believe. We are the architects of our good fortune as much as our misfortune. Virtually every one of history’s greatest breakthroughs occurred during its most tumultuous times. Because necessity is indeed the mother of invention. But today’s solutions can also become tomorrow’s problems. Coal and fossil fuels gave us the freedom to move wherever and whenever we wanted. It also gave us precipitous life-altering climate change. The more we advance, the more problems we potentially create. But optimism drives innovation. And, without it, we’re powerless to engineer a future of choice.

Self-respect and optimism are the antidotes to avoidance. Most tend to avoid having difficult conversations and making hard decisions. We avoid starting challenging projects until we think we know how to finish them. Nothing gets in the way of accomplishing great things more than our inclination to avoid starting them. We justify our procrastination and indecision by lying – usually to ourselves. That’s the antithesis of self-respect. We tell ourselves we don’t want to offend others, that things will get better or that we’ll start doing it “when the time is right.” All convenient excuses for inaction. But avoidance invariably makes the situation worse. The adage that says short-term pain equals long-term gain is the opposite of avoidance. What’s hard to do doesn’t become easier with the passage of time. Usually, it just becomes more arduous. Avoidance incites despair and that’s toxic to optimism and self-respect. People of accomplishment like who they are and feel good about the future. They rarely sit back and let things happen. They venture forward, experiment, take risks and decide to make things happen.

Seeing.  Is seeing believing? Is perception reality? Our eyes do not see (nor do our ears hear). They simply conduct external stimuli to the brain where an interpretation is made. For one thing, there’s no colour out there – atoms are colourless. What we think we “see” is how the three cones in our eyes blend red, green and blue. Some birds have six cones, mantis shrimp have sixteen and bees can see the electromagnetic structure of the sky. Humans can only discern one ten-trillionth of the light spectrum. Interpreting colour is one of many tricks our brain plays on us. Our eyes have two blind spots, can’t see in three dimensions and blink 10,000 times a day. The brain directs the eyes to only look at what it wants to see and edits out the rest. So what we see isn’t the full picture; we just think it is.

The path from eye to mind is long and treacherous. Vision is a complex system of reception, coding and decoding that involves almost thirty neurological processes. Each eye has two optic nerves, one for each half of the brain. These conduits of visual sensations travel to the occipital lobe at the back of the brain, which compresses the inputs by a factor of ten. That information is then passed to the striatum located in the centre or limbic system of the brain, which further squeezes the information down by a factor of 300. So, only one three-thousands of what the retina takes in actually gets to the executive command structure where decisions are made. All the while, the brain is adding prior knowledge, making assumptions, stimulating our beliefs and biases, and subtracting what it senses is not that important. This processing of visual inputs is what determines what we think we know. So, in reality, we only see what we think, not what is. Still wondering if seeing is believing? It actually is.