Clear Thinking in an Age of Confusion

Clear Thinking

[Viali di Circoncallazione, Modena*]

“I'll know it when I see it.”

How many times have you heard your client or manager say or imply something to this effect? We do it, too. Most of the time, you're also looking for something without knowing exactly what it is.

All you and your client or manager are trying to do is to get a job done. Whatever fills the role with the least pain and the most gain wins.  

The two canonical examples of the Jobs to be Done thinking are: 1) drilling a hole, which focuses the question not on the product, the drill bit, but on the task of getting a hole in the wall, and 2) the milkshake as a mealbreakfast in the morning and as a child's reward in the afternoonreferenced by Clayton Christensen in his work.

As any good qualitative researcher, anthropologist, semiotician, or ethnographer would tell you, context is critical. It helps you find meaning in what's not there, reframe the obvious and come up with a new solution.

But nothing happens in isolation and right now several contexts overlap: home/work, life/danger, health/economy, public/private, and combinations of these and more. Clear thinking requires we reorient who we want to be, what we choose to notice, and finding our true north.


Facing reality to find a way

To know something when we see it, we first need to face reality.

I first heard of the Stockdale Paradox from Jim Collins at Fast Company Real Time event twenty years ago. Admiral Jim Stockdale was held in solitary confinement, malnourished, and routinely put through torture for seven years as a POW during the Vietnam War. He had no prisoner’s rights or the prospect of a set release date.

How would you cope in such a situation? How would you not only survive, but also provide an example to others in the same situation?

As Jim Collins said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Collins called this act the “Stockdale Paradox,” the ability to balance optimism with realism in the face of adversity. Who didn't make it out? It was the optimists. They started pinning their hopes on being out for Christmas, or Easter to see their hopes crushed. Stockdale vowed to make his situation the defining moment of his life. He did.

It takes courage to face reality, but once you put pen to paper so you can look at it, you have a starting point. You'll know it when you see your fears, or questions. You'll know it if you communicated well what you intended to say when you see a draft. The point is that confronting your thinking helps bring clarity to it.

Thinking clearly is a pragmatic act. In Who Do We Choose To Be?: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity, Margaret Wheatley invites the reader to focus on what can be accomplished by getting more actively involved where you're at. Facing reality is about honest appraisals and focused action. Right here, right now.

Recently, I read the testimonial of a recruiter who thought a candidate had ghosted him. If only! The recruiter got word that the person he was thinking of as a number on his list to present to a company had just died. A person. He was reminded of our common humanity. I'll know it when I see it, indeed.


Noticing as a path to enlightenment

To find an imaginative solution that is simple and fun to do, you need divergent thinking. That is the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of ways to interpret a question, or to think laterally, as Edward de Bono would say, to see multiple answers and not just one.

Learning what works happens by trial, making mistakes, failing a little or a lot, and coming out on the other side with no loss of enthusiasm. There's no shortcut, really. But you don't have to limit what you try to what you know. You can go with what you imagine.

In The Art of Noticing, Rob Walker provides 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday. It's a collection of simple, doable, and enjoyable strategies to delight in the little things as in the rote tasks. By seeing them anew, you learn to appreciate the contours of experience.

Attention is a muscle you can exercise. People so often look but don't see. This book is a pair of magnifying lenses, even for the person used to observing and noticing. Walker provided degrees of difficulty, so you can peruse and try at your own pace.

When your entire day is filled to the brim with the productivity imperative, how do you get out of the (de)limiting box of tasks and into the strategic space of options?

Strategic thinking is all in the doing… if you can think clearly enough to do the right things in the right context. Notice more, and you'll find those things, because you'll see them. Then you'll know.


Living between worlds to gain direction

I've talked to dozens of people in the last few months—executives and professionals from all walks of life in several countries around the world. A widespread sense of loss and waves of overwhelm overlapped with moments of joy in the little things taken for granted.

This is an aspect of living between states. Whenever the conversation turned to peaceful tones, it was because the focus was within rather than outside. Self-awareness is one of the strongest hallmarks of growth. It's a prized quality in leaders. It's the surest path to connection.

Nostalgia was one of the themes we uncovered in our research. What's interesting is that most people confessed to yearning for a golden past that only really exists in their minds. The pain is the impossibility of bringing that dreamscape into the present. 

In Living Between Worlds: Finding Personal Resilience in Changing Times, Dr. James Hollis explains how to focus on meaning, rather than the illusory search for happiness. Rationality and good intentions are not enough. Connectivity is not enough to connect. To know it when you see it, you need to truly “know,” and “see” with clarity.

When you do what's right for you, your soul (or psyche) will support you. Jung said the most important problems of life “can never be solved, but only outgrown.” If you have insomnia, or feel restless and confused, Dr. Hollis' book may be appropriate to gain a sense of direction.


Clear thinking requires empathy

The term empathy has been used to refer to two distinct, yet related human abilities — mental perspective taking and the vicarious sharing of emotion. Scientists call the first cognitive empathy and the second emotional empathy.

Cognitive empathy has evolved due to its ability to enhance social functioning, so we can respond to the demands of a complex social environment. It enables us to understand and predict the behavior of others, and helps facilitate conversation and social expertise.

Emotional empathy motivates us to behave altruistically towards others. Scientists have also found that this kind of empathy may be determinant in moral development. Empathy is the better half to our self-interested nature and it's at the core of who we are.

You can involve your emphatic tendency through listening. Holding back from talking and letting the other person finish their thought, for example. Thinking about the person behind a task, as in the case of the recruiter who was reminded with a reality shock.

Talking to people you don't already know and connecting through curiosity can help overcome assumptions. When you start to really see, a whole new world of opportunity opens up.

A couple of years ago, when I traveled to Modena 2-3 times a year, I was in the city center with my mother. We were walking and talking while window-shopping when we saw the reflection of an old man in a wheelchair. Upon turning around, we saw he was begging.

My mother noticed he looked thirsty and hungry and asked, “what do you want?” while eyeing the gorgeous bottega that also made panini. She saw you had to step up into the store, stepping up she did in more than one way.

He had tears in his eyes while he thanked her and told her his preference. She walked up into the store and ordered a panino with the meats and cheese the poor man had indicated. She handed him the fragrant package while she went next door to the coffee shop to get him bottled water. 

“Grazie, grazie,” kept saying the man. You see, money would have not solved the problem. It was human intelligence and action that provided the meal. The man would not have been able to wheel up on the steps, nor they would let him in the coffee shop to buy water.

“I'm the money,” says Eva Green in the James Bond reboot of Casino Royale.# I had the money out in no time, but it was a means to the end of eating. Money gets you access, but doesn't solve the problem. People do.

As George Orwell said in Down and Out in Paris and London, “It is worth saying something about the social position of beggars, for when one has consorted with them, and found that they are ordinary human beings, one cannot help being struck by the curious attitude that society takes towards them.”

What if you're cut out from earning a decent living, as many have been in recent, sweeping layoffs all across America? It's not just about money, is it? Self-respect, the ability to contribute to growth and earn a living are vital to people.

“I'll know it when I see it” is where empathy can help. The rest is all action.


*From Piazza Natale Bruni clockwise After the demolition of the ancient city walls (among the most beautiful in Italy) between the end of the XIX and the beginning of the XX century, a long avenue with trees surrounds Modena. Photo taken May 2019.


I've been sharing ideas and perspectives about business and culture in my weekly email to more than 1,000 new subscribers and growing. I organize issues by theme to minimize overwhelm. Subscribe here, if you're curious about reframing and rethinking business and ideas.

, ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *