Poets, The Original Systems Thinkers

Poets are the original systems thinkers according to a recent Harvard Business Review piece, which describes the benefits of poetry for professionals. Author John Coleman covers the expected territory about poetry as a creative tool and of the strange appeal of meter to the human mind, but it is the following paragraph that struck me as much more interesting:

For one, poetry teaches us to wrestle with and simplify complexity. Harman Industries founder Sidney Harman once told The New York Times, 'I used to tell my senior staff to get me poets as managers. Poets are our original systems thinkers. They look at our most complex environments and they reduce the complexity to something they begin to understand.' Emily Dickinson, for example, masterfully simplified complex topics with poems like 'Because I could not stop for Death,' and many poets are similarly adept. Business leaders live in multifaceted, dynamic environments. Their challenge is to take that chaos and make it meaningful and understandable. Reading and writing poetry can exercise that capacity, improving one’s ability to better conceptualize the world and communicate it — through presentations or writing — to others.

While I do not know of any corporations that have poetry officers dropping references to Auden, Dickinson, Kunitz or Robin Robertson during particularly tricky negotiations, I think many businesses could do worse. In this windy age, information is a strange thing. Insights from studies bought at great expense or from those afternoon meetings shuffling to their inevitable conclusions are many times not so much simplifications as banalities. To grasp them is to simultaneously empty them of meaning. 

Not so with poetry. In a post last week, Shane Parrish, writing about former IdeaFestival speaker Nassim Nicholas Taleb, describes 'A Wonderfully Simple Heuristic to Recognize Charlatans." Parrish describes the power of "inversion," or of thinking about a particular problem in a variety of ways. One of those ways is an ancient method indeed, apophatic thinking. It's sometimes referred to as "negative" thinking, and it is particularly effective at recognizing the veiled nature of things by describing what those things are not. In the our context, an entrepreneur might work her way toward an opaque idea by thinking about the qualities she thinks it doesn't have - it's not a product, it's not inexpensive, it can't be licensed. While Parrish suggests elsewhere that "avoiding stupidity is often easier than seeking brilliance," the effect of apophatic thinking, in my view, is much more profound.

As one kind of top-down method, poetry succeeds because we are mysteries, even to ourselves, and fully capable of self-deception about what it is we really want. Its restorative power lies in an ability to comfort self-aware creatures such as us, to soothe and to do so - perversely - by laying bare, prior to the claims of reason and its grasping ally, pretext, to the high ground, to the full panting terror of limitless choice. It is true in this anxious age because from those words we feel something toward the objects of our choosing.

Give The Benefits of Poetry for Professionals a read. Bonus: the poem At Roane Head

Stay curious!


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Try this Simple Method for Thinking about the Future

Here's a simple technique for thinking about the future. If you regularly engage in forecasting on behalf of your company or organization, or just want to think a little more clearly about what might happen, Shane Parrish as Farnam Street suggests this rather simple exercise: speak in the future perfect tense.

Premortems encourage people to use 'prospective hindsight,' or, more accurately, to talk in 'future perfect tense.' Instead of thinking, 'we will devote the next six months to implementing a new HR software initiative,' for example, we travel to the future and think 'we have devoted six months to implementing a new HR software package.'

Parrish lists "avoiding excessive optimism" and challenging "the illusion of consensus" as two of the benefits of the exercise. Give his short post a read!

Stay curious.


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Fiction Is Not about Communication. It's about Communion

"Art is not about communication. It's about communion." artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer at IdeaFestival 2013

Having posted an IF Conversation with Maria Konnikova on Tuesday, I was reminded of her view of the "psychologist as novelist" by a Nicholas Carr blog entry on how fiction changes minds - not by presenting a narrative with lessons to be absorbed or a story with a particular kind of information, but by physically changing us from the inside. Carr points out that while reading works of fiction, the brain physically mirrors the setting, the themes and the protagonists and antagonists. The results are striking.

Psychologists and neurobiologists have begun studying what goes on in our minds as we read literature.... One of the trailblazers in this field is Keith Oatley, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Toronto and the author of several novels, including the acclaimed The Case of Emily V. 'For a long time,' Oatley told the Canadian magazine Quill & Quire, 'we’ve been talking about the benefits of reading with respect to vocabulary, literacy, and these such things. We’re now beginning to see that there’s a much broader impact.' A work of literature, particularly narrative literature, takes hold of the brain in curious and powerful ways. In his 2011 book Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, Oatley explained that 'we don’t just respond to fiction (as might be implied by the idea of reader response), or receive it (as might be implied by reception studies), or appreciate it (as in art appreciation), or seek its correct interpretation (as seems sometimes to be suggested by the New Critics). We create our own version of the piece of fiction, our own dream, our own enactment.' Making sense of what transpires in a book’s imagined reality appears to depend on 'making a version of the action ourselves, inwardly.'”

"...When, for example, a character in a story puts a pencil down on a desk, the neurons that control muscle movements fire in a reader’s brain. When a character goes through a door to enter a room, electrical charges begin to flow through the areas in a reader’s brain that are involved in spatial representation and navigation."

Carr goes on to point out that while visions of reading-as-software would have us think of it as a social event, brain studies tell us that the opposite occurs: "the reader withdraws in order to connect more deeply." Nor should we think of reading as a one-way exercise with the goal of "communicating." While ebooks and sharing apps certainly have merits, for Carr the "technical enthusiasts" who think of the fiction as portable data are missing the profoundly inward and expansive rite or reading. Like Carr, Konnikova and Lozano-Hemmer, I find it remarkable how willingly we've swapped the idea of art and literature as a set of shared experiences that can enlarge our range of sympathies for the much poorer model of art and literature as a form of exchange whose value is captured by what can be said, or what can be measured, in its passing.

Read Carr's outstanding essay here.

Stay curious!


The Start is Half the Deed

The historian Will Durant noted that the ancient Romans were fond of saying that "the start is half the deed". I have been thinking a lot recently about how prepared you need to be to before you launch your idea, product, company, etc. I have to admit I tend to lean heavily toward the "just start it" crowd. There is a saying floating around the entrepreneurial community something to the effect that "if you are not a little embarrassed by your product when it launches then you have waited too long to launch".

Not that preparation isn't important. But too much of anything can sometimes be dangerous to your health. Often we are presented with an opportunity that can't wait for the "right time". And no matter how prepared you think you are, you don't know if something is going to work until you try it. But moving quickly doesn't mean moving recklessly. You always need to understand and be able to manage the down side. Here is a good piece on all of this including how Richard Branson actually "launched" his airline.

Stay curious.


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Creativity Tied to Nonconformity

How many times have you been urged to stick to the tried and true, or been told that it "will never work?"

I thought so.

Dr. Lynne Vincent, co-author of 'Outside Advantage: Can Social Rejection Fuel Creative Thought?,' published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, writes that successful creatives use rejection to their advantage.

Vincent's work is referenced by Entrepreneur magazine, which points out that when people say they value creativity what they're saying, most of the time, is they liked what happened after the fact. But because truly creative ideas are also novel ideas, it's the before-the-fact change that gives pause. Risk is uncomfortable.

As a researcher, Vince wants to know why some persevere in the face of social rejection and others don't. Entrepreneur summarizes a few of those findings in its article. One: people who persevere have the requisite knowledge and skill to reach the innovative end they have in mind.

To break the rules, you first need to understand why they're there. 'Most people aren't going to create a creative rocket if they don't know anything about rocket engines,' Vincent says. 'You have to have that foundation first.'

At the end of the day, creativity is directly tied to nonconformity - 'You can't be overwhelmingly influenced by social expectation,' Vincent says. 

And indeed, the greater fear for many creatives is not the risk of change, but the peril of complacency and stagnation.

Read the rest of the story at Entrepreneur. Vincent's work may be found here.

Stay curious.


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