THINKING – An essay (one of 48) from Jim’s new book: “Becoming … what you really want to be”

The ability to think differently and effectively is, arguably, the one skill that determines our happiness, freedom, prosperity and ultimate destiny.

While we take thinking for granted, it is an essential process of living so bridled with complexities and paradoxes that it keep us from seeing the true nature of ourselves. In an increasingly complex, unpredictable and viciously volatile world, thinking is how we find meaning in our lives.

Thinking is the ability to reason, speculate, create and conflate. It is the key to success in everything we do – whether that be discovering hidden possibilities, conceiving breakthrough ideas, solving complicated problems or making better choices. Extraordinary people are just ordinary folks who think more effectively and expansively than others. To be different, you have to think differently.

Thinking is how we assess contradictory premises, discern between competing claims and dubious evidence, use informed analysis to sift through the noise and make good decisions. Thinking enables us to be creative and solve our problems, determine sensibility and truth, validate data and reach conclusions, become comfortable with ambiguity and understanding of our limitations.

We live in our minds – we have unending conversations with ourselves to try to figure out who we are. We create our realities by choosing how we should interpret our experiences and we live our lives according to the theories we fabricate and internalize.

Everything we take for granted about our concept of existence is constructed in our brain. It enables us to feel, remember, believe, calculate, extrapolate, deduce and infer. It is the cause of our flaws, weaknesses, biases and errors. We all make false assumptions, have inadequate memories, allow emotion to overrule reasoning and shape the facts to fit our prized theories.

Our minds infer, assume, project and confabulate. The brain filters out what it thinks is unimportant and fills in data that’s not actually there. The subconscious brain, what we call our intuition, processes problems with blazing speed. Neuroscience tells us our decisions are made subliminally up to nine seconds before we are even aware of them.

Intelligence is not what we know; it’s simply the ability to process acquired information to deal with the complexities of living. Intelligence does not equal creativity – creative people aren’t smarter, they just have less fear of embarrassment. And highly intelligent people aren’t necessarily better at making decisions, but they are better at rationalizing them.

Our minds are belief machines. We are born to believe. Therefore we believe what we were taught and what we want to believe. Seeing is not believing; rather, believing is seeing. Although we have an irrational faith in the fidelity of our perceptions, what we “see” is no more than a construction of what the brain wants us to believe. We are hardwired for poor self-control because thinking is a high-energy process that overwhelmingly consumes our essential brain nutrients.

Parts of the brain are in conflict with one another as it tries to figure out what’s real – what fits our prevailing mental models of how the world “works” – and what’s not. We don’t perceive things as they are; we perceive them as we are. Our culture, relationships, work, gender, age, every movie we’ve ever watched and every conversation we’ve ever had create indelible impressions that accumulate to make us who we are and either constrain or enable what we can become.

The frontal area, the most evolved part of the brain, is where we plan, reason and critique. The primitive parts of the brain, known as the limbic system, determine our emotions, insights and instincts. When we look at a delicious piece of cheesecake, our instinctive hunger competes with the neo-cortex contemplating the consequences of a weight gain. When this internal conflict is resolved to our satisfaction, dopamine flows and we feel good. Hence, as science affirms through invasive diagnostic technologies, reality is no more than the constructed illusion of our brains.

Our world has become a much more overwhelming, unpredictable and chaotic place than ever before. Infoglut, more information than we can ever mentally process, is now the norm – it’s estimated that 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last five years. The result is increasing complexity and uncertainty, which only serves as an emotional amplifier, making our anxieties more agonizing and our pleasures more enjoyable. Dealing with this relentless volatility and ambiguity isn’t a function of intelligence. It’s a matter of mindset – the ability to calmly figure out what to do in our work, in our relationships and ultimately with our lives when we don’t know what to do.

Science tells us dissonance reduction explains as much as 60% of our day-to-day behaviours. The brain has a compulsive desire to eliminate uncertainty – hence, its default mode is closure, making things fit our learned categories. It does this effectively and quickly by stereotyping, denying contradictions, jumping to conclusions and affirming anchored, hardwired beliefs.

To cope, our brains develop mental shortcuts known as heuristics or biases. Because they are unconscious, we call them blind spots. They enable us to feel good about ourselves, which is the brain’s primary preoccupation – delusional thinking. Like a life vest, it keeps us afloat in an uncertain and troubling world. But it also generates self-sabotaging behaviours because we can’t see in ourselves what we so clearly see in others.

While the mother of all biases is the belief that we are not, we are all profoundly biased. These distortions keep us sane. They enhance our self-concept by enabling us to judge ourselves less harshly and to see ourselves as unique, by ignoring what contradicts our beliefs, by retroactively revising our predictions and by allowing us to take credit for the good things while blaming the bad stuff on others or on events deemed to be beyond our control.

When we say our biases are hardwired, it means we can’t willfully eradicate them. All we can do is openly acknowledge and seek to manage them. To do so, we must begin to deliberately “think” about them and the impact they have on our personal and professional performance.

Awareness is not enough. It takes a strong ego and meta-cognition – a serious commitment to recognizing the biases that constrain us – to lessen their effect. In other words, it’s hard work. As Edison explained it: “Five percent of people think, ten percent of people think they think and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”

Take confirmation bias as an example – this is the compelling urge to seek information that confirms what we already know (which is also why we tend to like people who think like we do). The brain is an information filter – it seeks data to prove what it knows and tunes out conflicting arguments. Once we decide something is true, we make up reasons for believing it. This is basic science, yet we still believe our thinking is unbiased.

To lessen the effects of this cognitive distortion, we need to purposefully ask disconfirming questions that provoke our thinking in contrarian directions. We need to solicit and test multiple hypotheses that challenge our conclusions. Rather than blindly accepting the logic of authority figures, like well-meaning parents and teachers, we need to probe, test, challenge and explore it. And we must also cultivate a few trusted advisors and nay sayers who can prick our protective bubble of certitude and stimulate novel ideas or opposing viewpoints that will contradict our naive realism and determinism. This is the road to thinking differently.

New technology is ubiquitous but new thinking is rare. My five decades of teaching creative thinking principles have convinced me of this fact. We are not born with the ability to think nor were we taught how to think in school – that is where we were taught how to learn. Therein lies a fundamental problem because thinking and learning are different brain functions. Einstein was right: Logic will get you from A to B; imagination will take you anywhere.

Unlike our emotions, which are automatic, thinking is about mindfulness and focus. How we think determines how we behave. The principal challenge lies in recognizing, reducing or (in some limited ways) overcoming our hardwired desires for control, consistency and validation. Reality is more complicated than we think; so we address our internal confusion through self-justification and dissonance reduction. It’s the way we’re programmed – hence we struggle to adapt, not be wrong, reconcile and find meaning in our lives.

When we take the time to think, we’re far more likely to “make things happen” rather than hope they might happen serendipitously. When we know how to make happen what we want to have happen, we can seize the immense but unforeseen or disguised opportunities that surround us, adroitly navigate the obstacles in our path, reconcile life’s seeming contradictions, distill infoglut into insight and design a future of choice. Always choose understanding over premature judgement.

Creative thinking is neither a gift nor a consequence of magical inspiration. It’s a learnable skill that enables us to discover hidden possibilities, conceive breakthrough ideas, solve complicated problems and make better decisions. To change our circumstances, we must change our thinking. Our ability to think differently is only as strong as our commitment to train the mind to do so.

Genius is the ability to think divergently. Buckminster Fuller said everyone is born a genius but the process of living de-geniuses us. Researchers at the UCLA School of Early Childhood Education have concluded that, by the age of five, 85% of us qualify as geniuses. By age ten, that number drops to half and, by age fifteen, the figure is about 20%. Perhaps you can figure out the reason why (hint: where were you during those early formative years?). The good news is this – your genius still resides within. The choice to liberate it is entirely yours. Nietzsche warned us that there is no drearier, sorrier creature in nature than the person who has evaded his own genius.

The brain’s primary function is to protect us by making us feel good about ourselves. So it requires evidence of success before it will quit listening to our fears. We must continuously let our brains know the changes we are making are producing positive results. Instead of dwelling on what doesn’t or didn’t work or where we fell back on promises to ourselves, we must instead focus on what we did well. We must tell our minds that we are making the changes we desire and that good things are happening. When our outlook is positive, the brain supports the changes we seek.

Life is a continuous process of creative problem solving. No matter what our starting point, we can always get better. And the most significant competitive advantage we will ever possess is the ability to think on all cylinders. Our destinies lie not in what we know but rather in what we do with what we know. What you will be doing tomorrow will be very different from what you are doing today. As you think, so shall you be.

Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re always right.    – Henry Ford