Sophie Brown

Sophie Brown

Jun 122021


What should be, or ought to be, is different from what is” (the error of ‘speculative thinking’ as defined by Robert Thouless).

What can we do to make sure the future we want happens?  Is that even possible, when so much is unpredictable and beyond our control – especially if knowing what we “want” isn’t actually that straightforward?

Reality is Contingent
Much of what happens in our careers (and lives) is outside our control – however strong and single-minded our visionary belief. If you ask academics (or anyone) what chance events had a big positive impact on their careers, you always get interesting and surprising stories. Scientific laws define the boundaries of what is possible, but what actually happens is largely down to historical chance happenings: the “contingent” nature of reality as Stephen Jay Gould put it. If you apply for positions, fellowships and so on, the outcome will depend at least on who else happened to apply for the same positions – for example.

designing_future_CoMDo Something!
Yet it’s also true that you can “make things happen”. This is easy to see if we consider the alternative: if you do nothing at all it’s far less likely that much will happen! You can be confident and make Herculean efforts…that come to nothing; and you can make a tiny nudge that topples an empire. But in both cases you learn a lot along the way and create new possibilities – if you’re not so blinded by self-belief that you are able to see them. “Doing something” has a power – “problems” of any significance require us to start solving them just to understand what the problem actually is.

Capacities for success?
Taken together, those points advocate a strategy for success that is a combination of energy, action, wisdom, playfulness, persistence, courage, and common sense – as you might expect. It doesn’t say “what” to do, but it does indicate why those obvious qualities are, in fact, important.

What to Actually “Do”? (and Why We Don’t).
The common problem is to have a rather fixed view of what we want ‘next’, which at the same time is (perplexingly) rather vague: “some sort of fellowship”; “some sort of intermediate academic position”, or “I don’t really want to think about it”. Which are hard things to execute on.

But, maddeningly, other concrete things do have to be done ‘now’ and within our immediate focus – an experiment; writing a chapter; teaching tomorrow; a meeting…so it’s very difficult to put serious energy into the more vague, further away, futures. The difficulty of a task isn’t so much the technical challenge, it’s more about emotional resistance to doing it, or a lack of clarity about what exactly to actually “do”. We’ll definitely need to master this “managing the present, while creating the future” if we end up responsible for other people.

A Trick
Have big ideas to move forwardThe trick is to make the vague definite; the fixed flexible; and the not-doable long term, into short-term things we can easily “do” today. As a caricature, let’s use the ambition of becoming a “Star Researcher” for example. You can find out what you’ll need to have achieved by, say, five years from now. Then you can work backwards to identify steps you can actually execute on today. Time is shorter than we think; but you can achieve more than you imagine you can by making steady small steps of useful progress, from which we will at least learn, and perhaps therefore adapt our plans and goals as we progress. You will end up way ahead of people who never quite got around to it – which may include your ‘old’ self.

One Way to Get Going
Pushing and motivating ourselves can be lonely, hard and delusion prone. Many of us are more effective when working in a team towards a goal we all believe in. For people who enjoy collaboration and find the above relevant to their future, one way is to create a team exercise, where each “topic team” or “research group” is in friendly competition with the other teams, to achieve the most progress for their individual members.

Practise Skills; Build Capacities
Anthropologists tell us that the unique human capacity isn’t intelligence, but imitation. As a species we’re stunningly good at it, unknowingly. Think of language, civilisations, religions, cultures, skills, and professions. It is why humanity has made the unique kind of progress that is has. That being so, you’re perfectly adapted to transcend evolution because you can consciously make choices about what you ‘imitate’, and practise those to acquire abilities and capacities, and hence shape what you become. We’re less ‘fixed’ than we think we are, which is reassuring really.


Adrian West

Mar 212020


Dreams and reality

People can be unreliable, untrustworthy, self-serving, incapable and more besides. When things go wrong in ways they shouldn’t have – people’s behaviours are often the true causes. But it’s worse than that. After any one such situation ask the people involved and they’ll have good reasons to “explain away” their less than helpful behaviours… and as often as not they believe their own explanations, despite all evidence to the contrary. This time it was different; it wasn’t their fault;  they were busy in ways they didn’t expect; etc. In their own minds it’s all good. But to everyone else looking in: no, it’s the same as last time, and the time before that, going back years.

Why is there a difference between how we see ourselves (and are convinced our view is accurate) and what others see who experience  our actual repeated behaviour? Darwin noted that when he heard criticism of his work his mind would expunge the detail of the criticism within 20 minutes. He found that he had to write it down quickly if he really wanted to learn from people telling him home-truths about his work, yet he wanted to learn so he could make his work better. A rare person. We have an image of ourselves. If our behaviours don’t match that, most of us are skilled at the mental gymnastics of explaining why what we did was perfectly good. If others point out flaws in our story, then like Darwin, the details are lost and we’re just left with an impression that other’s don’t quite get it. It works with groups too. It’s why after government and other fiascoes, we’re told “lessons have been learnt“, when demonstrably they haven’t -  nothing changes, the same sorry episodes repeat. But work was done – inside the group to justify why they were in fact right, and why the external criticism is naive and misplaced. That was the real effort and learning – learning how to explain it away. And so nothing changes, no matter how obvious the shortcomings are, measurably, by evidence and clear fact, to the rest of the world. It’s why politicians can’t hear facts they don’t like, they can only hear them as “meaningless waffle”. It’s a real talent.

VR, AR, AI – are not new inventions

These virtual worlds of our own rightness have been with us since the dawn of time. We’re masters of illusion. Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Artificial Intelligence.. are not new inventions. It’s why other people can seem superficially rational, yet we become aware that they seem to be living in some dream world of their own. Easy to see in others.  So VR isn’t new, What would be new would be “Reality” – to see it how it actually is, rather than our own satisfying dream fantasies of why we’re right. Then it would be possible to learn. Then it would be possible to move forward, instead of some groundhog-day where the same obvious mistakes repeat, and we explain why this time it was different, this  time there were good reasons why it wasn’t our fault… and then forget (like Darwin) the ‘this time’, lose it in the fantasy world of our imagined past where we’re always good and right,  and repeat again with the ‘next time’.  VR isn’t a new invention. Reality would be.

Mind power

Where did we get these talents? And how do we persistently mislead ourselves, largely unknowingly, in ways that in the long term, are  to our cost?  The mind is a fabulous instrument after all, clearly capable of wondrous achievements.

Laptops and NASA

And that’s the point. A modern smart phone is similarly impressive – you have more computing power then every computer used in NASA’s  Apollo computers combined. But how do you use it? Do you learn a few ways of getting by? Do you use it just to rant on social media, then get angry when you can’t figure out how to send an email, or get the printer to work? Are you stuck at your desk cursing because you never bothered to figure out how to make page numbers work properly? Again. Did the astronauts throw their hands up in despair because they pressed the wrong button again to separate the module? No. They put effort in to learn what had to be learnt to use the technology they needed to use. You may have good reasons for not learning how to use your computer – but if you’re getting the same thing wrong year after year, and it’s a big part of your daily work… don’t you think you should put some effort into learning how to do it properly, and then mastering that?



The mind is the same. Skilled experts don’t solve problems by coming up with lots of options and then mathematically assessing each to get the optimal solution. For most situations there isn’t time to do that for everything that’s important – think of people who make decisions for fire crews. Instead, experts see situations and their training and experience causes them to recognise what’s going on.  Then they “simulate” in their minds the course of action that recognition brings to mind. If that simulation reveals some problem, then a way around it comes to mind, they simulate that, and if it looks good, they act. That’s how Captain ‘Sully’ can make decisions that save his aeroplane and passengers in seconds (ref: landing a plane in the Hudson river) – all of his life experience comes into play at lightning speed.

Recognise → Simulate → Act.(What expertise gives you)

That’s the high-powered instrument you’re in the driving seat of. You have a choice. You can use your experience and cleverness to find an interpretation where you’re right – and simulate the scenarios to prove it to yourself – just as you search with your smartphone for the opinions and groups that already think like you do.

Or you can force yourself to learn to use the tool responsibly, in a way that actually works with reality (again, like Darwin). Where you can learn lessons, and get better by testing against reality, rather than how well the fit is with your own fantasy. That’s not easy. Like learning to use your office computer to the level you actually need to do your job, rather than repeatedly complaining about how hard it is to do simple things. Which button separates the landing module again?


The task then is to get closer to reality and the truth, rather than build our own fantasies. So obvious it’s cliche. Yet so uncommon for people to behave that way, as to be worthless to point it out.

Sages have wrestled with this whole thing. The Buddha, clearer than most, saw his life’s task as getting closer to truth and reality, rather than clinging to the mind’s fantasies. And he discovered it was was really hard work to do that.  That’s why he wasn’t keen on actors. They are training and encouraging people to do the opposite – to escape further into fictions.

But he did come up with a key observation.

“To know, is to act accordingly”.

If you really knew something, then you’d act accordingly.  Lessons would actually have been learnt.  It’s not easy for most of us brought up in fantasy-loving, responsibility evading society. Why is it a problem? If you’re unknowingly living in your own dream world, necessary in order that you’re “right”, then you are in some sense sticking your head in the sand. As Ricardo Semler says, the problem with that isn’t just that your vision is unlikely to be accurate, but that it makes your rear end such a big target. So learn to see what there is, not what you think there is. Especially about yourself.

Dr. Adrian J. West: A write up following a breakfast time discussion with Sophie J. Brown.


Photo Credit: “I Can’t See You…” by Peter at Copyright (CC BY-SA 2.0) at

Apr 192016

colour circle: consumers and users
How do specialists in different disciplines make explicit use of “thinking and mind” in their work?  We’re pleased to invite guest writer Brian Jens, a design professional, to offer insight from his experience on one key element of his work.


Have you ever wondered why you prefer this or that color?

colour_circle_brian_jensColor plays an important role in human life: it can affect decision making, change your reaction, or be the cause of it. Under the influence of a particular color, you may experience a change in pressure and appetite. We do not generally focus the attention on color in everyday life, so the importance of understanding its effects comes to us only when the color is absent: for example, on a cloudy or rainy day we may feel depressed, and the world around us seems to be unfriendly.

Color awakens unconscious reactions that may vary depending on our individual personal characteristics. The color that we prefer and respond to can tell us a lot about ourselves, namely about our concerns, fears, aspirations, and so on.

The greatest problem in our industry is the fine line between all the scientific research and the reality. Despite all the progress in the study of color and its impact on a person, it is still not possible to find a clear correspondence between them. Therefore, the piece below is the belief of our DesignContest team, which is based on personal experience and partly supported by independent studies and known facts. We do not pretend to know the truth – we just hope that our observations will help you in this or that way, when it comes to using colour in practice. Continue reading »

Apr 082016

sun in the sky

In every side-show tent most of the audience are taken in by the illusionist: either marvelling at the magic, or strenuously looking for “how it’s done”. The elephant disappears; the rabbit comes out of the hat. How extraordinary, wonderful, impossible. And it’s precisely because it is so obviously impossible that we look so hard for the trick, we know that what we see can’t really be happening. If the illusionist is good you won’t even be looking near the right place to see the sleight of hand – it’s already happened.

When you come into the world, you find yourself in one or another side-show tent, depending on geography, time, surroundings, parents. The side-show is the world presented to you by society, by the media, politics, corporations, the powerful and so-on -  wherever they got their own beliefs from.  The illusions are not so obvious because they are familiar, they are what you are expecting to see. If an elephant can be made to disappear, how much easier to win an argument, to convince people of how it is and what they should do. We are fooled into believing that life is just about jobs, markets, rulers, priests, science, progress, ambition, success, being rich, famous, or rebelling against the injustice of those who are; that you should really be thinking about it as a ‘financial asset’, or a game of monopoly to be played and, above all, to be a winner.

If the illusion is one that you are susceptible to, or want to believe, you won’t even be looking for a trick: after all, no elephants are disappearing (actually, come to think of it they are!).  The protagonists appear to be presenting the different, reasonable views, and arguing fiercely with each other about which are the right rules or what the rules should be, or what is right, and what is wrong. As we puzzle confusedly over those questions, we forget to ask ourselves why we are even playing the game, and are fooled by the superficial magic.

Yet even in the illusionist’s audience a few are not taken in, not asking where the trick is, and not interested in playing the game. They leave the tent and find a world of sun, sky and trees and what is real.


Feb 242014


When was the last time you gave some serious thought to the business of making decisions? Rarely? Never? Isn’t it strange, given that making decisions is what we as humans spend most of our time doing, that very few of us will actively consider how we do this and importantly, what we might do to get better at it.

cupcakes_1Consider these two little cupcakes. If you had to choose one, which would it be?  Would it be the cupcake with the cherry on, or the other one?  The bigger or the smaller one? Neither? What do you think you would base your choice on?  What are you experiencing when thinking about how you might make a decision? Continue reading »

Feb 032014

“Earthrise” 24th December 1968 by astronaut William Anders, Apollo 8 mission (1)

“Like so many iconic American products, Los Angeles smog is now being made in China”

Noticing this intriguing statement in a cafe newspaper the other day, we continued reading. The brief excerpt went on to say that recent research concluded that “Pollution caused by China’s manufacturing for export contributes as much as 12 to 24% of daily sulphate levels in the Western US”. (2)

The “Boomerang effect”
That in itself is interesting, as it demonstrates that the by-products of industry are being exported half way across the world. (It makes one wonder where the leaks from Fukushima will end up…but that’s another story). What is pertinent, and somewhat ironic, is that this increase in air pollution has actually been caused by companies in the US. Continue reading »

Dec 142013


We’re running a workshop, Adrian is in full flow delivering our “Practical Thinking” programme. I set up my laptop on a side table and to make the most use of down time as it occurs, I decide to write a piece for Fellowship of Mind

At this point  I hear a light knock on the door and go out to answer it. A construction worker in a high-viz jacket tells me he was just passing and points to a bag that has been left in the corridor and could I take care of it? I carry it quietly, intrigued and a little anxious about finding its owner, back into the room, as the delegates grapple with critical thinking exercises.  Prompted by the mystery parcel, my storytelling imagination weaves a metaphorical tale…

Continue reading »

Nov 182013


You know what they say: “It’s been a journey”. I say it glibly, with my tongue firmly placed in my cheek.  This saying, (familiar to most for all the wrong reasons) has become very clichéd since the likes of X Factor and other similar Saturday night TV talent shows have claimed it for their own.  Never one to want to run with the crowd,  I hold my breath and say instead: “Maybe, I have grown – no that’s not it…hmmm – I think I have learnt a lot!

Let me set the scene.  It is mid-May 2013.  Imagine if you will, my thought processes. I am trying to bring to life an idea that has been germinating in my mind for more than a year, about how to invigorate the core Leadership programme for developing the managers of our organisation. There seemed to be something missing from our development mix, some skills these people needed that we hadn’t covered, but I couldn’t put my finger on what these were. Continue reading »

Nov 042013


“There’s mental inertia – my favourite  – which is a whole bunch of philosophies and attitudes and beliefs – about yourself, about other people, about the world we live in, about groups of people. This – all – must – go! “  Gabrielle Roth,  (1941-2012)  Founder of the world-renowned movement practice “5 Rhythms” Dance

Loosening up
We’re  in a high-ceilinged hall. There’s fourty five or so of us, male and female. We’re at the start of a 5 Rhythms dance class, loosening up minds and bodies, rousing physical and mental energies to overcome inertia, getting present, clear, and creative.

Warming up, we’re moving in all directions to flowing music as we begin to collectively inhabit the empty room. Walking barefoot on the warm, wooden, well-worn floor, we’re  shuffling, strolling, striding, as befits our mood while traversing the space. Sensing those around us as we do so, we catch each other’s eyes, self-consciously or in recognition, notice each other’s form, movement and demeanour. Continue reading »

Oct 032013
"Lady with an Ermine" by Leonardo da Vinci, 1489-90.

“Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci, 1489-90.

It is almost a truism that we, ourselves, are our own worst enemies when it comes to understanding ourselves and thinking clearly. Without investigating the pioneering psychoanalytical work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, I would like to take a simple model of a conscious/unconscious mind and see how that might help us understand ourselves a little better and help us think more clearly.

Why we do things is often quite mysterious. I want to explore how accessing the less accessible parts of our minds and personality enable us to think more clearly and make decisions that are more in tune with our whole personality rather than based on purely rational factors.

Let’s look at some history of the idea of “outside influencers” within the human mind, some modern examples of the shadow self and how this might work in practice when it comes to making decisions and sticking to them. Continue reading »