Point of Inspiration: Beware the Brackets

The boxes labeled A and B are the same exact shade of gray...It’s March, and we’re all a little mad, of course, but it’s not the NCAA kind of brackets I mean here (although, that said, Harvard?!). The brackets I want to draw attention to are the ones we use, often without knowing, to confine our perception and judgment. These brackets can spell trouble for the creative and critical processes we rely on both in work and play. (In the instance above, we bracket the boxes labeled A and B within their immediate surroundings, and usually fail to see and believe that they are, in fact, the exact same shade of gray.) If you’re ever tasked with evaluating a number of things (pitches, positionings, creative concepts, and the like) you probably assume that you keep an open mind throughout the process and maintain a pretty even hand. Well, a recent study shows that’s probably not the case (sorry!). When researchers evaluated data on decisions made in over 9,000 business school interviews, they found that judgments were affected not so much by who came directly before, as we might expect, but on the overall strength of the entire day, which is, of course, completely irrelevant.

A lot of factors go into how we evaluate ideas and people, and many of them are external to the ideas and people themselves—that’s just life. But imagine someone is an absolute star in the making, but interviews last on a day full of qualified-to-good candidates. What happens? According to this study, our plucky up and comer will likely get scored low simply because of the mental brackets placed around that group of candidates. Interviewers, for a number of possible reasons, are reluctant to give high marks after giving several others high marks (or conversely, reverse all of the above, and a sub-par candidate could be recommended because of a number of preceding low marks). Now, replace “candidate” with anything you’re in charge of making a call on.

Often at fault in these situations is the gambler’s false belief in the law of small numbers, otherwise known as, “they can’t all be heads.” We tend to be suspicious of streaks in what we suppose to be a random series of events—we notice and question it when a coin lands head side up 15 times in a row. By the same token, if we read three strong proposals in a row, we might “correct” for our judgment and double down on the next one, which, when we see it for what it is, is a mistake in judgment.

Surely this is beginning to ring true, at least to some extent. If you’re not prepared to admit that you’ve probably misjudged some things in your professional life, let’s lower the stakes and say it’s just wine on the docket. Have you ever been to a tasting where you liked every single wine? Probably not. And yet, it’s entirely possible to like five wines in a row, without having low standards or a pathetic palette. We just assume a certain ordering of quality will emerge in any set of people, objects, or ideas.

Why should we care about this? Because many decisions we make are folded into arbitrary subsets created by the confines of a day, a meeting, or an attention span.  If we bring these brackets with us to new ideas or viewpoints, we can easily miss out on something good, or even revolutionary. This is not to say we can’t allow experience to inform decisions, but we should be open to the possibility that a streak of seemingly great ideas might really be great. In the end, some brackets are determined for us, but other times, we can, and should, expand them as broadly as possible.

Also, happy March Madness to you!

Virtues of Smaller Thinking Vol. 03: Ingenuity

Things happen for a reason. A common enough sentiment, but one that also holds much truth. In every endeavor we have a reason. In an ideal world, this reason is consistently tied to creating better ways of doing something whether it's growing an herb garden, serving inner-city youth or constructing a research methodology. In a not so ideal world (the one we live in), our raison d'être is the effort of at least looking for needed improvements in our world. In this, the third installment of our Virtues of Smaller Thinking, we will explore ingenuity and how it impacts our reaching the goals we've set.

We've established that ingenuity is the act of finding better ways of doing stuff. But how? What's the impact for ourselves? For others?

You might expect me to say that ingenuity begins with innovation or inspiration, but this is where ingenuity eventually points us. Ingenuity is harder, and is first about honesty. An altogether honest assessment of the condition of our being or the quality of an object under consideration. This is not the honesty of family reunions -- this is the brutal honesty of credit reports and blood pressure tests. In Shift, Peter Arnell tells us of his own reluctance to see himself as a 400 lb. man in favor of a more benign self-identification as merely a creative person, without all the baggage. He got past this with an unsettling realization -- his reality -- which led to a better way of living and his losing 250 pounds. Like Peter, only after we assess the subject at hand can we focus on how best to improve upon it and truly move into wider worlds of possibility. Without this candid conversation, we're probably having the wrong conversations as we move forward.

So how does this impact our work? Our processes? This is what we'll explore in more depth over the next few weeks, but know there's a good chance it might not always be pretty. We have to trust ourselves. Ingenuity can sometimes be found in fundamental changes in how we perceive ourselves and our outputs. In other words, something like epiphanies and bolts of lightning. A lot of the time, though, ingenuity manifests itself in lots of tiny revolutions as we constantly refine the way we do things. Constantly. These incremental improvements do add up and they do improve our lives. So keep your mind open to possibilities no matter where they lie. And never suppress the little voice that cries out "What if?" before hearing it out.

As for the impact of ingenuity, let's travel back in time for a moment. All the way back to the 15th century. The world is awakening from what we now call the Dark Ages. Feudal life is not a charmed one. There is no internet and no Facebook. Hell, there are hardly even any books -- and even these aren't available en masse. Along comes Johannes Gutenberg and his magical mechanical moving type. He found a better, faster way of printing books, most famously his 42-line Bible. Before his ingenuity took root, books took months or even years to transcribe by hand. Turns out, even though he changed the world, Gutenberg never became a Renaissance rock star because of his Bibles and Latin texts. He had to borrow money to keep his operations going and was even taken to court. But he persevered. And if we look closer his ingenuity produced a radical contribution to the world that continues to give.

Many folks trace everything in our modern world right back to Gutenberg's dingy workshop. Skyscrapers, VoIP, Gatorade and the combustion engine. Indeed, Mark Twain wrote, "What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg."

Movable type fed the awakening of Europe and subsequently the entire world. It helped bring about the Renaissance because texts were suddenly easier to distribute. Learning took off. On second thought, it was more like learning blasted off. Martin Luther's 95 Theses were printed and circulated widely due to Gutenberg's advancements and then eventually issued as broadsheets which led to the development of the newspaper. And now everything we know is doubled every 900 days. So while ingenuity spawned an original contribution in this instance it inspired many more to come, both directly and indirectly. Another way of saying ingenuity doesn't sleep.

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