“Grasp the great symbol and all under heaven will come to you.” – Lao Zi
My Chinese language teacher taught me how to uncover the mysterious meanings of Chinese characters.
Look at the character carefully and take note of every detail, every stroke, he’d say. Then pause. Think freely. Find the root. Learn about its connections. Combine the elements in your imagination. Thus you will find one meaning. But then, continue. Imagine other possibilities. Try to look at this character as a whole and devour its distinct components. Each character depicts life in its very essence. It’s a reflection of life on the bottom of the brush. Each drop of ink creates a new connection. And so, you will find deeper meanings.
When you look at a Chinese character, you may see it in multiple ways: as a symbol, a metaphor, a mysterious representation of human thought, a simplistic view of reality or a word with some hidden meaning. Often it looks like a maze or a puzzle you want to untangle. Paradoxically, the deeper you go into the maze, the wider the range of possible routes out of it. And you never return the same. Each character seems to combine a multitude of qualities in one.
As stated in the Harbin Institute of Technology study on the connection between the Chinese characters and human conceptual thinking, “the structures and forms of the Chinese characters are an important source of evidence for what the human conceptual system is. The conceptual system is a matter of metaphor and the metaphors emerge from our physical or bodily experience and activities.” Character is based on analogy. In fact, analogy is “the most fundamental Chinese way of perceiving and thinking. It is analogy that allows human beings to use what they already know to provide understanding of what they do not know.”
Let’s look at the character at the beginning of the article. I bet it was one of the reasons you decided to read this.
As you may be aware, each Chinese character is a combination of strokes. To master the characters, one must learn the order and the direction of each individual stroke. Since ancient characters were based on true images and depicted what people saw, it’s fairly easy to guess the meaning of each character.
For example, try to guess the meaning of these:
How did you do? Was this an easy task for you?
If you look at the character 信 xìn, which means “truth”, “faith”, “sincerity,” it consists of its radical 亻ren which means “human” and 言 yán – “speech”. Would you understand its meaning knowing what each component means?
Not always. Let’s get back to our cover character. It is actually one of the most complex characters, Biáng and it is made up of 57 strokes and contains a whole house of characters, including horse, speak, grow, moon, knife, heart, roof and walk among others. Biáng originated from Shaanxi province and is used to describe biangbiang noodles, a distinctive dish of wide, flat noodles.
Noodles? Really? Here the answer lies in not knowing all the pieces, but in seeing the larger context.
Yet, you may ask, what does this all have to do with thinking?
We often forget that our life looks more like Chinese characters than a logical chain of events. When we learn to find the root, combine the elements and create the right analogy, we start to see what others might not. This brings us to the power of observation and systems thinking, the true magical element of powerful thinking.
In his bestselling book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman discusses two prevalent ways of thinking, System 1 (quick, automatic, effortless, implicit and emotional) and System 2 thinking (logical). Most people I know use System 1 thinking far more regularly than System 2 thinking. Why? Because it’s easier, it works, and it’s reliable. Kahneman introduces the new term WYSIATI, “what you see is all there is,” the faulty assumption that there is nothing else to see except for what is in plain sight. Or is there?
Enter Max Bazerman, codirector of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Straus Professor at Harvard Business School, with his latest book, “The Power of Noticing.” Bazerman argues that in today’s world, the “noticer” or observer — the person who sees the most details and can best decipher anomalies –is the most powerful person.
Why do we constantly miss disasters even when the information is in plain sight? Bazerman refers to the infamous Sandusky case, the “Challenger” tragedy, and Enron’s and Madoff’s dramatic fiascos that could have been averted.
Why do we fail to see the gorilla in the room?
Simply because we don’t pay attention to the details. Or, we see them too closely to really notice them…we are “insiders.” This is the difference between an insider’s and outsider’s points of view.
Sometimes you need to become an alien, an outsider and throw away all preconceived notions. Kahneman notes that the “insider tends to view a given situation as unique, while the outsider is more capable of generalizing across situations.” Further, “taking an outsider’s perspective on a problem allows us to notice a broader set of relevant information.”
Indeed, noticing is an integral part of systems thinking. Gary Bartlett from Prodsol International notes in his study, “systemic thinking enables us to deal with the elements of a situation in concert rather than in isolation. Its power lies in its simplicity and effectiveness. It offers the potential to find systemic focus in any situation. It enables us to secure the dramatic benefits promised by the systems thinking revolution. The beauty of it is that anyone can use it to gain deeper insight about anything. The primary barrier to overcome is the cognitive dissonance that arises from searching for something before you know what it looks like – especially when you aren’t even certain it’s there.”
How Do You Develop Systems Thinking?
“Find repeating patterns,” advises Bartlett, “and do it deliberately and systematically.” As Bartlett points out, “systemic problem solving is different. It doesn’t define the problem narrowly, but systemically. In other words, it helps one define one’s frame of reference (the box, mindset or management paradigm) clearly, thereby creating a freedom that ignoring that frame of reference can never create.”
For example, here is how Bartlett describes one of his techniques, which you can practice on any issue:
- List elements (of the pattern you’re looking for – or any elements if you don’t know what you’re looking for)
- Find common themes across the elements (similarity between two elements is a lot easier that similarity across a large number of elements)
- Find the repeating pattern across the common themes.
Simple? Steve Jobs once noted that “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
So unless you deliberately push yourself into this path, it won’t come as a given.
In fact, systems thinkers must develop particular “habits,” or specific ways to approach challenges and situations. The Waters Foundation, which actively supports systems thinking in schools, created a list of 13 habits. These habits of systems thinkers include: considering long and short-term consequences of actions; recognizing there might be unintended consequences to your actions; identifying the circular nature of complex cause and effect relationships; and looking at things from different angles and perspectives.
Systems thinking provides us with a new lens to glean the meaning of events happening in the world.
3 Challenges to Your Thinking Success
Even if we’re excited to get our new systems thinking in place, we are faced with three enormous hurdles. They are time, information overload and bad habits. Well, no one needs any explanation about time. But let’s look at the other two.
It’s alarming to observe that in the world where information has become so abundant, a whole generation of people is beginning to lose focus on what is most important. With few exceptions, educators fail to emphasize the need for critical and systems thinking. The minutiae of the moment become the king. The Apple watch and other wearable technology are about to gain yet another foothold into our inner world. When enough is enough?
The paradox of Apple, Samsung, Tesla and other technology innovation leaders is that the very geniuses behind them use systems thinking to create irresistible consumer products which make us forget about thinking and delve into consumption. I am no technology Luddite, but the reality is that without the discipline and hygiene of thought consumption, we’re at risk of losing our most powerful tool – the ability to think. And then how are we going to be better than machines?
Studies have shown that our brain’s attention span has significantly dropped. In his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr, the technology writer and bestselling author, writes: “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think.”
As I’ve been writing this, my brain has sent me numerous urgent signals to check my smartphone. I’m resisting, but not for long. The problem is that our brains have acquired a habit, or better put, an addiction. Now you may disagree and call it a compulsive reaction or habit. Yet, as Shelly DeBois asserts in her Fortune Magazine article, “the difference between an addiction and other kinds of compulsive behavior, loosely, is that addictions cause people do something compulsively even though it’s detrimental to their lives.”
According to Judson Brewer, the medical director at the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic, smartphone addiction works the same way as slot machine gambling – through an associative learning pathway. Every jackpot or email message buzz, or any other “intermittent reward” you receive, makes your brain feel awesome and is imprinted into your memory. The expectation or craving for another creates a powerful combination that’s hard to beat.
What You Can Do Today to Take Back Your Thinking Life?
It’s maddening that we waste so much time today, but it will be worse tomorrow. Here are some simple steps to get back to your very core of being human again.
1. Bring White Space Into Your Life
Just like a good text page needs a white space for better viewing, your mind needs some space to begin using those brain muscles. Identify some intervals in your daily schedule to regain your independence from the digital world. You will feel free, I promise.
2. Control Your Email Consumption
Yes, there is life after email! Schedule your email time. Tim Ferriss, the author of the “Four Hour Workweek,” suggests not even checking email until 11 a.m. Regardless of the schedule, set one, and keep it. It’s easier said than done, and your dopamine doses are highly dependent on that desperate press of a smartphone button. Yet, if you are slave to your email box, there is no chance that you can deliver a super performance.
If you want to understand the world better, begin with yourself. Reflection is the best tool to explore your inner self. Find 10 minutes a day to jot down some thoughts that have been on your mind lately. They needn’t be profound, but the more you reflect and write, the more understanding you’ll gain of yourself.
Now: Pause. Observe. See.
Frijof Capra, a brilliant physicist and philosopher fascinated by Eastern philosophy, produced the breathtaking book The Tao of Physics, which provides a stunning exploration of the links between Western and Eastern thought.
Capra was impressed at how scientists in two different worlds arrived at the same conclusions via radically different approaches. More than anything, Capra noted that just by using deep thinking and observation, ancient Chinese scientists saw the same picture of the universe that Capra and his team came up with centuries apart.
Perhaps we need to follow this example. Turn off your smartphone. Pause for a minute, observe the universe around you and see something that you’ve never seen before.