Antifreeze for your brain

by Paul Raworth Bennett

Frozen in your tracks… unsure what to do… unable to solve a problem… Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt this way.  Wow, that’s a LOT of hands!  So how can we keep things moving?

Well, one of my New Year’s Substitutions is to replace overthinking with action (hmm… sounds vaguely familiar…).  But in order to do that, I’ll have to learn to change how I think so that I can spend less time in my head and more time in action.

This morning I was browsing Shane Snow’s new book Smartcuts:  How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success (HarperBusiness, 2014) and within 5 minutes found a great example of how changing one’s thinking can be so important:

Pretend you are driving a car in the middle of a thunderstorm and you happen upon three people on the side of the road.  One of them is a frail old woman who looks on the verge of collapse.  Another is a friend who once saved your life.  The other is the romantic interest of your dreams, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet him or her.  You have only one other seat in the car.

Who do you pick up?

There’s a good reason to choose any of the three.  The old woman needs help.  The friend deserves your payback.  And clearly, a happy future with the man or woman of your dreams will have an enormous long-term impact on your life.

So, who should you pick?

The old woman, of course.  Then, give the car keys to your friend, and stay behind with the romantic interest to wait for the bus!

This is an example of what Snow calls “lateral thinking”, i.e. seeking to find fresh perspectives on a problem.  Doing so often reveals innovative or even brilliant solutions, because everything looks different from your new perspective.

In the present case, lateral thinking moves us beyond the frustration of “OMG, I’ve got to make sure I pick up the right person” towards something like “if I offered the seat to my buddy… what then could I do?”… or “if I offered the seat to my future sweetheart… what then would be possible”… or (fortunately) “if I offered the seat to the old woman… what then might my options be?”

Certainly, one must also be willing to take real steps, even baby ones, towards a newly discovered solution..

Studying different perspectives does more than help to solve the problem at hand; it also makes it easier to tackle them down the road.  Zen-folk like to say “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”.  Seemingly impossible dilemmas usually aren’t.  It’s all about learning to, as Apple Computer says, “think different”.  This is the strategy of chess grandmasters and their nemesis, Watson (IBM’s supercomputer).  And it can be yours, too.


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