Adrian West

Adrian West

Sep 262017
 

Let we remember

Invert, always invert” recommended Jacobi. Like a cat, when we’re trying to see something clearly we should move our head around quickly to get different viewpoints before pouncing (style is important too). One way to do that with “thinking” is to ask, “if I turn this upside down, will I see it differently? does it make any sense?”  That is one axis we can move our viewpoint along.  Depending on the thinking task at hand, we may understand the problem better, or it may be a way of moving our trapped thinking to get new ideas.

An example. If the focus is on dealing with the problem of an ageing society. Invert the problem: is it the ageing society that’s the issue or is that element in fact ok, and it’s the young end of the spectrum – attitudes, work practices, how the economy works – that is actually the issue leading to a focus on the elderly as being the problem?

Another.  People who identify a plot on the part of the establishment, are called “conspiracy theorists“. Can we invert this idea? Yes,  we get something like “lack-of-conspiracy theorists“. Is there any value in that? Where does it lead though?  Well yes, people who unquestioningly accept whatever the establishment says are historically just as dangerous, possibly more so than those who see more suspicious explanations. But as far as I know we don’t have a corresponding term for lack-of-conspiracy theorists. Still, that’s the start of what may be a productive line of investigation for an idea, which is the point: invert -> new idea; new way of looking at a common-place.  After all, looking for something genuinely ‘new’ isn’t historically as successful as looking at the same thing that everyone already sees, but seeing that same thing in a way no-one else has done – to paraphrase Schopenhauer.

Similarly “Luddites” are people who distrust technology and want to hold it back. But is there any inversion of that term. A term to identify those who accept any new technologies uncritically as obviously good and unstoppable.  Isn’t that just as dangerous an attitude? – shouldn’t we have an equally provocative term to signal that danger – even if it happens to go against the mood of our particular times? Perhaps the mood of the times is as it is, in part because we don’t have such a term to make that alternate view ready to hand.  Instead of the unquestioned vision of the Star-Trek future (next-gen) where technology has advanced and almost flawlessly is at our service, it might be we’re headed for the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide future, where nothing quite works as it should and no-one is able to fix it – perhaps the microsoft future? If that’s a possibility we should be considering, so that we can handle it better, then we do need a word for blind unquestioning faith in technology and new ideas,  just as urgently as we need “Luddite”.

Or another phrase: “innocent until proven guilty” is richer than the obvious inversion. There are all sorts of re-combinations. One that strikes is “innocent even when proven guilty” . Does that happen? Indeed it does seem to apply at times – for example the “Train-gate” splashed over newspapers casting doubt over Jeremy Corbyn’s honesty…. now that the leaked full videos from the train are available they show Corbyn having been entirely accurate (there were no rows of empty seats, different frames of the video show heads of children and others appearing from them). So the media are guilty of misrepresentation on that occasion, but apart from some small-print retractions, they carry on as innocent, telling us what to believe now, with equal certainty.  It seems there is some mileage to be had pursuing the line of thinking that “innocent even after proved guilty” – by comparing and contrasting cases in society where retribution falls upon the guilty, and where it does not: which was the point. The start of an idea.

But for entertainment, lets take something more pointed – depending on your beliefs (beliefs simply being ideas that you identify with). The one I would like to develop here is Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s exhortation at the 2016 Labour Conference, that we  should not dwell on mistakes of the past, but instead celebrate our achievements – which makes a certain forward-looking sense in everyday life. The uneasy  feeling here however, is in spotting the conjurer’s trick, that what we’re being asked to ignore – not even acknowledge and actually learn from, but to ignore and leave behind as unimportant -  are not every-day-life things, but enormities occasioned by those when last they held power. The statement provokes the thought of generations who directly experienced two world-wars, namely “lest we forget“.  Those people were really concerned, scared, that after two wars to end-all-wars, there would be a third we would blunder unthinkingly into, immune to the prospect of the conseqences. Hence the UN, and the emotive call to sanity in the wording of its charter. It meant a lot to them with that experience which few alive now have visceral access to.

Idly inverting that phrase of hard-won pained experience  gives “lest we remember“, a handy aid for politicians when seeing recent history isn’t helping their agenda, and when people should be encouraged not to think about the horrors we supported last time…(and reminded that the reasons we gave were, to be generous,  obscure). Isn’t the risk of this that we’re just setting up to do it all over again?

There’s some insight value here if we explore.  All those labour party MPs voting against having any inquiry into the Iraq war…perhaps didn’t want to remember, or to learn from the experience – understandably.  Or perhaps they thought all useful learning has already been had, and it’s time to move on. Well, I suppose they would, wouldn’t they? It’s a  psychological and real-politic necessity. However there’s little evidence to the public of that learning, beyond the words.   And to generalise the insight, if winning is all important, then mistakes and errors of the past tarnish us, and must be forgotten  – which does make learning difficult. That would be why we blindly go about  setting up the  conditions to go round the same old treadmill yet again. “Without power we can do nothing” (untrue historically – think of the Suffragettes; anti-slavery…); “and we are just and therefore must attain power so that we good people can benefit all”…. ” now we have power”…. “the most important thing above all isn’t in fact to do the good we promised, but … to … hang on to power (because without power we are nothing)”… “therefore we must, for the sake of unity…”…. and so it goes on.  Be wary of people who say “the most important thing is winning”. Douglas Adams was right.

If that’s all so, then what can we learn from this exercise? Is a better way forward to genuinely acknowledge a past; acknowledge rather than dismiss it, and  then actually learn from it in order to move forward – as JF Kennedy did after the Bay of Pigs, hence handling the Cuban missile crisis more wisely. Obvious, and easy to say, but it does seem by observation, that such an attitude of genuine learning and adapting is rare in practice. The “lest we remember” gambit is common though.  Yet this is a powerful opportunity  because people sense whether we’re genuine, or dismissing and explaining away. That is why trust vaporises. If everyone is playing the same game we ourselves don’t notice (“they’re all the same”)  until… someone people can trust comes along, then there’s shock all round that the game isn’t being played properly. Perhaps having values you believe in turns out to be more important than compromising them in order to win….truly rare indeed in politics it seems, but yes, really.

I won’t pretend the above are crisp work-shop-able uses of inversion as an insight/idea tool, and whether you like that particular line of thought will depend on your own beliefs. But I think it does illustrate how the mundane use of inversions can lead to ideas and investigations of perspectives we might not otherwise come up with.  In that example it’s important to say there is still work needed to develop and make constructive use of those explorations,  it just illustrates an effective way of exploring further when otherwise we feel stuck, or worse, when we’re certain and don’t believe we need to look any further.

 

May 172016
 
 Posted by  Nature of Thinking Tagged with: ,

too_close_to_see

What difference would it have made to the human race if we had never discovered reading and writing? How would your life have been different if you were born into a society where reading and writing had never been invented? If I try to really imagine that, then in comparison it’s as though there would be no ‘memory’ as we are used to it, just what I can remember. And no ‘facts’ as such either, just remembered hear-say and experiences. I couldn’t check facts, other than asking someone. And how could I learn other than from listening to others?  It is very hard for me to think what that would be like, because reading and writing are such a part of what we are and what we depend on. Of course people got by before writing, but it’s an unimaginably different world for me.

Such an enormous transformation comes from an idea that seems so simple as to be hardly worth describing - making marks to represent words.  Yet apparently it wasn’t so simple at all, and for thousands of years  no-one thought of it, or if they did it must have seemed a useless idea,  a bit abstract and silly perhaps, not very practical or exciting, and anyway everyone would have to learn stuff for it to be any use, and there’s more important things to do.

The same is true of ‘counting’ – for the extraordinary value our species got from the blindingly simple idea of just counting things, you’d wonder how there could have been an eternity before that idea had occurred, or seemed worth anything, to anyone at all. Or how about the idea of making pictures of things? – that hadn’t occurred to anyone at some point, yet again as an idea more powerful in history, more dramatic than anything Apple or Google have invented.  We could keep going – how about “finding out by going and looking” – a radical idea, heretical at the time, which we’d now call “science” – doesn’t seem all that complicated or interesting at all now. In fact, for all these most important of inventions the problem may well have been that they seemed too simple to be useful, too ‘obvious’ to be interesting, too ‘easy’, and therefore hard to see the value in. The fish being unaware of the water it’s swimming in because it is everywhere; not being able to see the wood for the trees; or what is right in front of our face:

Too close to be recognised,
Too deep to grasp
Too easy to believe
Too amazing to be understood intellectually

Answers to the most important challenges – poverty, depleting resources, pollution, war and violence, and so on might be delivered by science, technology, communication, information or economics. But those paths are just as likely to make things worse – accelerate destruction or be used just to make the already wealthy wealthier, as they are to solve the big problems for us all.  Because of that, what is really needed most urgently is an advance in how we use our minds. How we think and decide, individually and collectively without getting lost in narrow argument and name calling. The most important breakthrough therefore is not science, technology, information or economics, but in “how we think” – something that has received comparatively little attention to date.

If we keep thinking in the same way that we do now, then I’m doubtful that advances in other fields will make much difference – it is, after all, how we use those advances that will make the difference, and that means how we think about the tools we invent, and how we act in consequence.

That breakthrough “thinking” might be complex and sophisticated, like relativity.  Sophisticated and clever solutions have appeal – from our Hollywood education we learn to expect any worthy solution should have a super-hero persona. Yet as we have seen, as often as not the dramatic steps forward come from directions too mundane to be interesting.  And like the early days of scratching marks on stones, I’m inclined to think the big answer is already staring us in the face: too close to see.

Too close to be recognised,
Too deep to grasp
Too easy to believe
Too amazing to be understood intellectually

 Adrian

 

Note

Graphic design: Sophie Brown

Mar 032014
 

lost_worlds_of_your_mind

Have you had the experience of remembering something you read, but you can’t remember where you read it or what the important details were? And worse, you then spend ages trying to find it again? Or do you get great ideas when you’re out and about, or distracted, that you can’t recall later on? Isn’t it fascinating how much we come up with, or come across that seems so useful, inspiring, and interesting which is then lost to us forever, slipping through our fingers.   Sometimes it seems like ideas come when we’re not “looking” and the moment we try to look for them they go away – like looking at dim stars at night.

Why should that be important? After all, we can’t remember everything and probably wouldn’t want to. It’s important because later when we really want ideas – for writing reports or articles, things to pursue or make better, ways to do our jobs, new markets, products, research… our minds go blank, and all we can think of is doing the most obvious thing like we did last time.

Because of this, we come to believe we can’t make new and interesting contributions, or see opportunities for positive change at the time when we most need them to act upon them.  Imagine all the ideas and thoughts you have over a year, or decades, that are ‘lost’ – it’s an extraordinarily rich repository to draw upon.  If you agree with that view, then you’ll agree that we do have plenty of ideas and interesting things to offer…it’s just that only a small fraction of them are available to us when we really need them.

Perfect Memory

If you think it would be useful to have more of your storehouse of ideas and experiences available to you, then what can be done to make that happen? Memory is one route. There are great techniques that take a bit of practice. Some people do have the most extraordinary memories [1] which implies that the human brain is indeed capable of much more. Few people get taught memory techniques – so there’s plenty to gain, and that’s surely valuable. Yet that does seems like work: is there an easier way? Taking notes surely helps – writing was a great invention. The problem is will we ever find those notes again – probably not. To make a real difference we need a way of noting what’s important, and ensuring it’s readily available when we need it. Without both of those parts working well, it’s more likely to just add to the frustration.

Technology to the rescue? – perhaps

Like many people, I seem to get my best ideas or insights in inconvenient places: showers; running; driving… and by the time I get to write them down they’re gone. (Darwin noted that if he didn’t write down an idea that challenged his views, within half an hour, his mind would work to reject the memory of it, much as the body rejects transplants) [2].

Solutions that make it easier to capture ideas before they’re lost don’t have to be high-tech. A scuba-diver’s waterproof notebook is great for baths or for when you’re out running, or diving come to that. But it only helps with the important task of ‘capturing’ ideas. It’s no help for making them available when needed later – you’ll just end up with piles of inaccessible notes. The access problem is a bit harder. In this case technology really can come to the rescue. There are plenty of applications offering to help you capture anything you like – images, pdf’s, cuts/paste’s from ebooks – and store them for you for searching later. The problem for me is that when I use them I end up with an indiscriminate morass of stuff I don’t seem able to make sense of. Some more discipline is needed. A key question when it comes to technology isn’t “can it do x” (it nearly always ‘can’) – instead the question should be “how easy does it make it to do x”. [3]

Lost worlds reclaimed – some personal progress

So what is needed to make recalling anything we’ve captured easy, in the way I’m thinking of? Your mileage may vary depending on your preferences, but for me the job to be done is that of decanting new ideas into something best described as a continually growing “encyclopedia” of my own thoughts and encounters that matter to me. Happily the Free Software community, which I happen to like, has a well tested beast for this. It’s best known use is for the big public encyclopedia with 30 million articles in 287 languages, and tens of thousands of contributors. You’d surely think that the same software will be capable of maintaining an encyclopedic collection of personal ideas and inspirations that you want to remember – or at least it’s a great start to finding out what works.

There are surely other ways to do it, but it’s good to start somewhere, so here’s where I’ve got to with using this promising platform for the specific goal of making interesting ideas we have, or come across, available to us when we want them. [4].

index_ref_wikiIt takes a little thinking to use the categories, tags and pages of an encyclopedia to capture the kinds of ideas you have, but not too much thinking. Something designed to have thousands of authors surely copes well with the evolving fuzziness that’s  going to be part of this experience.

buffet_ref_wikiHow do I make use of this? Whenever I come across something I want to remember, I add it in. With books for example, I prefer to make brief notes in the back, then type them up roughly.

A key point we can confirm, is that the physical act of making notes, albeit brief notes, is what makes the points stick in your mind. [5] It’s a key part of making the process effective for you. Just cutting and pasting “everything” means you don’t get to think about it along the way. And because pictures make more of an impact in memory, if you fancy adapting the software, you can get it to fetch the book picture and details from, say Amazon, as happens here. It’s magical how pulling in pictures automatically makes this psychologically effective – a big reward for little effort.

concepts_ref_wikiNow the neat thing, is that if I’m having ideas about the concept of “creativity”, for example, I  can throw my ideas onto a page, but can leave them there and only need to tidy them up when I  want to make use of them – they are all exactly there when I want them.

Solving the Conundrum

Anything that comes to your mind that’s worth you wanting to keep – things read, ideas had – can be offloaded into your own version of what might be the world’s best encyclopedia builder, and they really do become available when you next need them (I couldn’t remember where I’d come across that Darwin quote above for example, but found it magically – something which previously would have definitely taken far longer looking through books).  For me it solves the conundrum. How wonderful is that!  Depending on the work you do and your interests and lifestyle, it may work wonders for you too.

Finally, there’s another reason why remembering where your key ideas came from, is important. Too often, our  beliefs are based on half-remembered things we’ve seen or read, which accumulate to take on importance in our minds, typically aligned with our prejudices.   We end up arguing for them, when we can’t remember where the ideas came from, or why we believe them – we just “do”.    If we could remember, we could go back and check out what we’re saying, and why we came to believe it – at least for some of the important things.   Half the time you’ll find it was some bloke in a pub, or a journalist on a mission to sell a story, or an academic with their own career agenda biasing what they present. So if you can remember your sources, you can check them out more carefully.   It can be surprising to rediscover where your beliefs come from and on what evidence they are actually based. And if we want a better Thinking Utopia (well, why not?), then that’s going to be a key part of our practice.

Adrian

References and Notes
1. Luria, A.R (Aleksandr Romanovich): The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory, 1968

2. Warren Buffett: Letter to Shareholders (2000).

3. There’s a theorem in computer science known as “turing completeness“. In essence it says that all (normal) computers are ‘equivalent’ in terms of that they ‘can’ compute.  Like hammering nails in with your fists, you ‘can’ but a hammer makes it ‘easier’.

4. I installed the Mediawiki software on a private server – it’s nice to have your own data on your own server with your own (i.e. Free) software, don’t you think? It means you’re less vulnerable to the whims of providers and software companies, which is important if you’re aiming to invest your effort for the long term.   But there are plenty of ways to try out Mediawiki if you wish to. If you have a website and a hosting provider, they usually offer this, or try typing “Mediawiki hosting” into a search engine and see what comes up. An alternative would be WordPress, which also offers some excellent facilities, though isn’t as purposed towards being an “encyclopedia”.

5. Howe, M.J.A.: “Using students’ notes to examine the role of the individual learner in acquiring meaningful subject matter“, Journal of Educational Research, 64, 61-3.

Nov 242013
 
creative-leadership-an-outline

St George’s Park – venue for “The Creative Leader”

We wanted to invigorate a leadership development programme, and had some ideas about how we might blaze a trail for our people to be “thought leaders”.  How that situation came about was recounted in our last post. When we tried to figure out what it was we needed to introduce, the words that hit home most were “Creative Leadership”. Here, we want to say a little more about the thinking we engaged in to come up with a sequence of five elements for our programme and what those were. And we hope these may be helpful to you, as a template that can be applied and experimented with in different ways. Continue reading »

Sep 202013
 

certainty-stops-you-doing-maths
Somewhere in a Psychology Laboratory

What you believe affects your ability to do maths, apparently. If you make up a question about a medical drug and ask people whether the numbers you present mean that the drug is effective, most get the correct answer. But if you rephrase the study to be about gun control instead, those with strong views on the topic will be much worse at seeing what a few numbers really mean. If you’re intrigued about the details of the questions, see the study itself which is from Yale [1]. What’s surprising is that being good at maths made no difference to the outcome. It’s as though the more skilled someone is the more quickly they ‘see’ an interpretation they want to see, or the more they strive to find one. That’s a problem if you think that having good information is all that’s needed to improve our decisions. Continue reading »

Aug 272013
 

measures-of-success-culture-at-workIf you inherited £5 million tomorrow (from a relative you didn’t know you had), would you still go back to work? Many would say “no” – 70% in America apparently[1], and perhaps that’s what you’d expect. Yet the interesting follow on question is … “if not, then what would have to change at your workplace, for you to want to?”[2]. You could take a moment to write your answer….. It’s likely it will be about people, purpose, or in summary: “culture”.
Continue reading »

Jul 202013
 
 Posted by  Society and Culture Tagged with:

whistle-blowing-good-or-bad

“Sticking your head in the sand not only limits your vision,
it makes your rear-end such a big target.”(1)

I’d like to take a contentious topic, and try to approach it a little more clearly, at least avoiding some of the usual pitfalls that limit our thinking. The topic is “whistle-blowing”. It gets strong reactions and emotions run high, so we’re readily susceptible to all the usual distortions when thinking about it.
Continue reading »

Jun 172013
 
 Posted by  Change Tagged with: , ,

stop-trying-to-change-yourself

It seems we really do desire to be clearer, more in control, more organised. Even if we find ways to do that, we’ll surely need to change ourselves if there is to be any real difference. But changing people, especially ourselves, is hard. Mustering all our will power often results in only modest success – if you are like me, then in all honesty a lifetime personal best for self-change is “eating slightly fewer cheesy snacks” [1]. Continue reading »