Broaden Your Power to Think

Think back over the past few years of your life: How much has changed? How quickly? How much have you had to learn, and unlearn? How well have you kept up with the demands on you to change?

Until very recently, life was fairly static. Children could follow in their parents’ footsteps and most if not all of what you learned at your mothers’ knee would last a lifetime. 

Today, change happens frenetically, and its pace steadily increases. The only way to keep up is to stay flexible, learn rapidly, and think more broadly than ever before.

Here are some suggestions on how to change your way of thinking so your work and your life can stay well adapted to the world, despite today’s fast-pace:

Let Go

Traditional thinking is full of familiar, comfortable ideas. They have been with us a long time. Having these thoughts, and the results to which they lead, make us feel good.

But there’s a very good chance that many of these familiar, comfortable thoughts are wrong. They may be based on false assumptions. They may have emerged before certain facts were discovered. They may not apply to current conditions.

For these reasons and more, it’s helpful to be ready and willing to let go of any strong attachments you may feel to familiar, comfortable ideas that are not serving you well.

When events begin to surprise you, when people behave in ways you didn’t anticipate, when your actions create more problems than they solve, it’s time to broaden your thinking and look for new ideas that will serve you better.

Accept Ambiguity and Contradiction

Traditional thinking tends to be simple, clear, and certain. It describes people, events, and things in discrete – often black and white – terms. It includes well-differentiated categories and labels. You tend to think: if things are not this one way, they’re this other way.

This kind of thinking contains little room for the kind of nuance and overlap we live with today.

In the modern era, people, events, and things may fit into more than one category, there may be dozens or hundreds of such labels, and the distinctions between those labels may be surprisingly difficult to discern.

When you encounter situations that seem ambiguous or contradictory, the problem may lie more with your mode of thinking than with the external world. It may be time to step back from the traditional perspective you’ve been utilizing and reframe the world to reflect today’s more complex, subtle, and amorphous realities.

Answer the Right Questions

Business consultants learn early on that one of the most difficult and elusive, but supremely important, questions for their clients to answer is: “What business are we in?

Is McDonald’s a fast food restaurant franchising company or a real estate holding company? Southern Pacific Railroad asked itself this question and decided they were in the resource business, not railroading. As a result, it eventually developed and spun off Sprint. After considering this question, Netflix morphed from a DVD rental company to an industry-leading streaming service. Is Amazon primarily in the retail merchandising business or the web services business or the logistics business?

There are many other instances in which asking the right question remains critically important, but where it’s not obvious what that question might be.

Traditional thinking can’t handle this depth of complexity. It will generally come up with the obvious question and be satisfied with the obvious answer. But that process can lead you down the wrong track and allow for massively misplaced efforts to solve the wrong problem.

Instead, it’s better to open yourself to more broad-based thinking that takes a larger, more fundamental view of whatever situation you’re considering. It pays to consider “what if” speculative possibilities, and to look for surprising questions that will steer you toward long-term solutions to the most underlying problems you actually face.

Imagine Ideal Outcomes

Traditional thinking relies very little on imagination. It uses factual analysis and logic to deal with a well-understood world in which everything is mostly simple and immutable. There is very little room in there for creativity or innovation.

Thinking more broadly involves throwing aside most or all of the traditional guardrails and thinking more idealistically: “Wouldn’t it be great if …?” “What would happen if …?” How can we …?”

By asking open-ended questions and visualizing a truly wonderful – although perhaps unrealistic – future, you can begin to generate a wide variety of new and exciting ideas. You can set the stage for experimentation and growth. You can stimulate a “learning” mode that allows your thinking to stay in tune with modern times and keep pace with the rapid changes that might otherwise overwhelm you.

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