Recently I ran across this article which has some great insights, including excerpts from an interview with Steve Jobs:
In the article, a premise is floated that lucky people think of themselves as lucky because of a certain personality tendency which makes them less goal-oriented thinkers and more open to the myriad possibilities of life, including all its uncertainties. Unlucky people end up identifying themselves as unlucky, perhaps due to the opposite tendency: the unbending pursuit of a specific imagined outcome which causes them to miss out on all the other possible outcomes which might have been just as good or even better, or just different but still valuable.
This led me to some thoughts on creative thinking. I believe our educational system and society at large enforce a certain type of learning. A teacher, with a room full of students, gives an assignment, which is identical for each student, and asks for the assignment to be completed at a certain date and time. Each student attempts to complete the assignment at the appointed time. The teacher then evaluates the student’s performance based on whether the student completed the assignment and did they do it on time. Rinse and repeat this process ten thousand times and we have the bulk of our educational system. I think this leads to adult workers with two kinds of rigid thought:
1) Work consists of assignments or tasks from a boss or authority figure which must be completed based on the criteria provided by the boss and within the allotted time. Accept the task, complete the task, report completion of the task. This leaves out a lot of possibilities which might be superior: challenge the value or necessity of the assignment, offer an alternative (hopefully superior) task to the one assigned, break the loop into smaller increments: before completing the assignment show progress in increments and ask for feedback before continuing. A teacher may not be able to listen to feedback from all 30 students in a class, but when it’s just you and your co-worker or boss, why not take more, smaller steps?
2) Thinking at work is about getting to an endpoint. Like taking a test, it involves starting at one place and trying to reach a desired outcome in the most direct, shortest time possible, with the least amount of meandering, distracting thoughts, daydreaming, etc. The vast majority of people in this world go about their lives completing one task and then another and so forth. There is certainly a need for work to be completed in this fashion. But what really changes the equation, re-frames the question, perhaps even causes a revolution that can change a workplace or the world at large, is people who think differently, who reject the premise sometimes, who (to use a cliche) value the journey as much as the destination.
To ameliorate this type of rigid thinking, I have a couple of ideas: teams should work on finding the right pace for work, review and feedback loops. If the cycles are too long, people sprint down the wrong path and by the time reviews take place, lots of wasted work occurs. If the cycles are too short, we spend all our time going through approvals and we end up micromanaging and not letting people exercise their autonomy. So some customization based on team chemistry, experience and project requirements is probably warranted.
Hiring really bright and talented people and letting them exercise agency in a flat management structure is another way to relieve this type of rigid thinking. Encouraging entrepreneurialism, getting people to buy into the mission and allowing them to have ownership over areas pushes us to let go of a rigid, near-sighted mindset.
Reject the Premise! and how that leads to critical thinking, the alternative to rigid thinking: I could never imagine myself back 31 years ago in Mrs. Cortellessa’s 3rd grade class rejecting an assignment from her and telling her that it was a boring exercise or poorly written and lacked clear criteria or was not effective in teaching a concept. Most of us plodded through school, always accepting the premise of what was asked of us, everything from a lengthy project or assignment to the simplest question on a quiz, most of us automatically began thinking about the answer to the question. Some of us were bright enough to think about the “expected” answer to the question, rather than any objective answer to the question, but how many of us rejected the question outright? Enough of this type of thinking and you grow up into a classic worker drone, just doing what’s in front of you without asking why.
What we really want and need are critical thinkers. And understanding that we can reject the premise of a question or assignment is the beginning of critical thinking. This kind of brings me full circle to the original article and the psychological study conducted in it. Those who rated themselves as lucky performed better in the study test because they sort of by their nature rejected the premise of the test. They did not try and complete it as it was explained. They saw an “out”, a way to shortcut the test which was perfectly within the bounds of the test and they took it. So maybe the habit of rejecting the premise of something, of looking outside the box, can lead not just to critical thinking, better thinking, but to luckier, happier, more meaningful lives!