One of the questions I’m often asked as a mindset consultant is why is it so difficult to think differently? Perhaps on the surface, that seems like an easy question to answer: because we often don’t question the way we think. We may question what we think about x, but to actually question why our thinking leads us to a particular answer, well that’s a whole other ball game.
The answer to the question, why is it so difficult to think differently? has its roots in another question: why do so few people seek out thinking differently? That question is the focus of this blog.
Right, Wrong, & Knowing the Difference
Kathryn Schultz, in her book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error likens the experience of being wrong to Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff: he’s fine until he looks down. When he does, it’s the realization that he’s not on solid ground that sends him plummeting to earth, not the act of running off the edge.
Her observation is as profound as it is simple: we can be wrong at any moment without even knowing it.
Realizing that we could be walking on thin air whenever we profess to be right leaves us with two options: either we ignore the realization and pretend there’s no reason to doubt the rightness of what we think and do; or we can realize that, at any moment, whatever we’re thinking or doing stands as much chance of being right as wrong. And here’s the punch line: just as Wile E. Coyote always finds out, there’s no way to know which it is until we look down.
The Anatomy of Rightness
And what if we never look down? Well, then we keep thinking we’re right. And if we’re right, why do we need to think differently?
The feeling of rightness gets embedded every day: it’s there when we hire people who look and think like us. It’s deepened when we rely on past solutions to address today’s challenges. And it’s entrenched when extensive experience in a role or industry makes us feel certain we know the next step.
What I’m describing is a worldview. If something makes sense in our worldview we don’t question it. And if something doesn’t make sense in our worldview we reject it.
Worldview & Thinking Differently
Take COVID-19 for example. If I respond to a drop in product demand by following traditional best practice, I’d cut costs by cutting staff, changing suppliers, and reducing inventory. Doing that in a COVID-19 world means as recovery becomes possible, I’m not in a position to act on the uptick. What if instead of taking the traditional approach, I source new markets, develop new partnerships, invest in digital marketing, or innovate for new products?
Or take the shift to equity. What if instead of getting a team together to consider if there’s inequity in our organization, we begin by accepting that inequity exists and gain insight into how it has become structural?
The paths I’m suggesting lead to different places. And they do so because they begin with the courage to ask is there another way?
A Moment of Reflection
Let’s stop for a second and reflect on this blog so far.
If this blog makes sense to you, you may pride yourself on being a flexible thinker. Or perhaps what I’m saying seems unnecessary because you already know the route you need to take.
Either way, and at the risk of offending you, you’re making my point.
Both of those positions stem from certainty. And certainty is the biggest obstacle to thinking differently.
If you think you’re a flexible thinker, you might say, “Don’t worry, I can flex my thinking when I need to”. What you’re really saying is: “I know when I need to think differently. After all, I’m Fiona Flexible. I only need to stretch my brain and think differently when things challenge my worldview. But when things fit my worldview, well, then there’s no need at all to think differently.”
In the same way, if I’m Sid Certain and I know the route to take, I don’t push the limits of my own thinking.
Seeing Another Way
To see another way is to allow ourselves to live in a constant place of uncertainty – open to other’s ideas, and questioning of our own.
The short answer to why we don’t seek out thinking differently, is because we don’t think we need to. In a worldview of certainty, we don’t try to think differently because we’re certain of what we’re doing.
It’s a Catch-22: we don’t seek out a different way of thinking because, in our worldview, we can’t see the holes in our own ideas. And we can’t see the holes in our own ideas because we don’t seek out a different way of thinking.
In a state of affairs like that, what hope do we have of thinking differently?
It’s tough, but we do that by living with the knowledge that at any moment we stand as much chance of being right as wrong. Live that way and every moment is a chance to see a range of possibilities.
It’s that which makes this journey worthwhile.
Joe Britto, Innate Leaders