I’m not sure to what extent it is possible to wholly pin down what we mean by “thinking differently”. Nevertheless, let’s put some broad stokes on the canvas and see what emerges.
The first observation is that it is a relative concept – “differently” to something else. To what exactly? And how is it different?
I would simply suggest that we use this quote from Mark Twain as our starting point:
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
This is the absolute minimum. It isn’t that the majority are necessarily wrong but unless you are asking questions that the people around you aren’t asking you aren’t on the path to thinking differently.
Start by “simply” being in the present moment and observing what there is to be observed. Don’t think about it! Instead, strip away as much as possible of your habitual thinking apparatus and just notice.
- Observing without filtering.
- Not having expectations.
- Embracing the fullness of the experience.
- Creating space for moments of magic.
N.B.: See further down in the article for a deeper dive on each of these.
Up for a quick test?
Please look through the window below and “experience it”.
What did you experience?
- On one end of the spectrum, you may have just soaked in the beauty and complexity and connectedness. It is a single environment with neither beginnings nor endings – it just is. Everything is connected to everything else and contributes to the whole.
- On the other end of the spectrum, you may have ignored the wholeness and split what you saw into sky, sun, clouds, mountains, lake, trees, reflections…..
- Or you may have been somewhere in between at different moments.
Just getting a sense for how you are paying attention and processing the information you receive gives you insights into how you engage with the world.
The Gateway to Thinking Differently
After stripping back as much of our judging and classifying as possible it is then about being:
- Curious – in particular about what others may not be noticing or indeed questioning.
- Imaginative – as Albert Einstein put it, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Why? Because knowledge is limited (i.e. finite) whereas imagination need not be. What if….?
- Patient. Why stop at the first logical answer? The invitation is to keep going and see what insights we may unlock from finding multiple possible answers – logical and perhaps illogical or at least counterintuitive.
For a more creative take on thinking differently, Apple’s Think Different ad campaign, narrated in this instance by Steve Jobs, may offer a different form of inspiration:
“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, about the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
Watch the video on YouTube!
Here are some expanded notes for those on the road to mastery.
A. Observing Without Filtering
We don’t simply observe, paint a canvass and then sit back and contemplate it.
Instead, we firstly have ways that we pay attention. These allow us to notice certain pieces of information more than others.
We layer this with a whole set of filters that typically build up over time (experience, habits, thinking patterns). These essentially combine to show us the world we want to see or at least the world we are accustomed to seeing.
To think differently, we need to be hyper mindful of how and to what we pay attention. We then need to continually reflect on how our brains might be filtering what we are then observing.
B. Not Having Expectations
I love this quote from Alexander Pope:
“Blessed is (s)he who expects nothing, for (s)he shall never be disappointed.”
And yet expectations go well beyond disappointment to in many ways limit how we experience the world. This episode of the Time Academy Podcast explores expectations.
C. Embracing the Fullness of the Experience
The left hemisphere of our brains loves putting the world into categories. Let’s say you meet someone who describes themselves as a coach and you immediately think “Oh, you’re a coach. I have a coach box – I know what you do. Actually – I also have these other boxes, Executive Coach, Leadership Coach – which box are you in?”
And yet, in doing this we lose pretty much all of the nuance, and it is the nuance that marks the difference.
D. Creating Space for Moments of Magic
Thinking differently is not a linear experience. It is about wandering. It is about being willing to embrace “not knowing” and dive deep into a particular situation. It is therefore about being patient and not expecting magic to appear on demand.
It involves a playful approach where you engage in the process for its own sake without any end goal in mind. Curiosity, as Einstein noted, has its own reason for existing.