I have always been rather thoughtful but never particularly quick at processing information. I am a slow reader and few things ever seem completely black or white to me. I recall participating in college seminars where some of my contemporaries would give immediate, reasonably sounding responses to the discussion at hand, while I, who seemed to have more architectural insight, was uncertain as to how to respond to what I perceived as unclear and polarized issues. I didn’t see how others could respond so quickly and sound so sure of themselves. Years later I came to see that mostly their approach was to rally behind a main idea or two and ignore the numerous related implications and consequences. In some cases these related considerations were likely just dismissed as inconsequential but in many others were not even perceived to exist. Often times the overly self-confident among us actually don’t even know that they don’t know.
It’s probably good strategy to assume that there are other points of view which are just as meritorious as yours, and quite possibly better (!). If another point of view has been thoughtfully considered (sometimes this seems like an awfully big if) there is probably some merit to it that should be addressed. Any one mindset is bound to have flaws, all the more so when you consider that our understanding and communication systems evolved to help achieve basic survival, not a comprehensive grasp of unbounded nature and 21st century civilization, both of which are always in a state of constant change. Is it possible that the universe is a stranger place than we are even capable of imagining it to be? Will we ever understand quantum mechanics and dark energy or be able to describe the taste of chocolate and the smell of ocean spray? Thinking seriously about all this can sober one up to the folly of presumptiveness and the value of having a little humility.
One of the biggest obstacles to creative thinking is limiting your learning to information and creative sources you are already comfortable with. In today’s complex and competitive world this is almost certainly a recipe for mediocrity. To use a sports analogy it’s like reviewing games in which you were successful, but ignoring games in which you got beat. Losses usually provide the more valuable lessons because they are the ones that expose weaknesses and inability to counter opposition. Facing up to and accepting your shortcomings can be instrumental in focusing your perception of the world around you. Many of us lack the humility to accept that we are not as insightful or gifted as we would like and opt for a lifetime of denial in the company of other like-minded folks. As our former Secretary of State advised if you and your friends all agree with one another you probably need to get some new friends.
The more complete your input the broader your base and the more inclusive your thinking and decision making will be. Even if the final output is necessarily brief or exclusive, at least it will have been built upon a well-considered and grounded foundation. You would think more of us would possess a healthy amount of humility, but this doesn’t seem to be the case and too often the loudest, most confident sounding or most political among us garner the most attention. I don’t see humility as thinking less of yourself, it is just thinking of yourself less.
|Obie's portrait of Malcolm Wells and one of Malcolm's cartoons|