Seeing the best in life's challenges

Conceptual vs. Linear Thinking

on December 6, 2011

(note:  I wrote some more on the topic more recently: Looking Toward the Future:  Linear vs. Conceptual Views.)

I was listening to something the other day, that spoke about the idea that more kids these days are born “conceptual” thinkers.  They already see the big picture, they already intuitively understand things.  The suggestion was, give them the big picture, then ask what questions they have.

The step-by-step approach, or linear thinking, just makes these kids bored.

Well, I can relate.  I realized from the description, that I am a conceptual thinker.  My mind is always multi-tasking and working out puzzles and possibilities.

Have you seen the move Next with Nicholas Cage?  Cage’s character, Cris Johnson, is a magician who has a special ability to see a few minutes into the future.  When I watched the movie, this idea didn’t seem so far-fetched to me — most of the time, if you are paying attention, the consequences of people’s actions and human behavior aren’t too hard to predict.  Ok, so the movie goes on….. Cris meets a girl named Liz.  Somehow, when Cris is with Liz, he can see far into the future.

At the end of the movie, as Cris is trying to figure out how to handle a situation so that it works out for everyone, there is a scene where he runs through possible scenarios in his mind, very quickly one after the other.  When I saw this, it blew me away, because THAT’S HOW I THINK.  I thought, that’s me, that’s it.

No, I can’t see into the future.  But I can, very quickly, weigh possible outcomes, what is likely to happen, and how it will affect people.  It’s a constant search for the best outcome.  It’s not just thinking logically, it’s a big part inspiration or intuition, and it happens all at once.  It’s definitely not a step-by-step, linear process.  If I had to force myself to slow down, or to explain the steps, that would be really difficult and maybe impossible.  It just happens.

No wonder we label these kids with ADD.  Their brains don’t work the way we expect them to.  We put them in school, which is still primarily linear, and drive them crazy, bore them to death, tell them there is something “wrong” with them….

Inside, these kids “know” that they understand things.  If you talk with them and observe them and let them tell you about something they are interested in, this is very obvious.

In years past, when we needed to educate people to live in a linear world of assembly lines and accounting firms, we needed people to be linear thinkers.  And now, as China is following in our footsteps, they are churning out linear thinkers, kids who spend hours and hours doing homework, who follow the steps and the rules, and they are doing a better job at it than we are.

MAYBE that’s because we are moving on to the next step.  Our innovators and creative thinkers, those who will come up with cutting edge technologies and ideas, aren’t linear thinkers….they are conceptual thinkers.

Read about Steve Jobs and how he drove his employees crazy with his approach (“I’ll know it when I see it.”)  Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great article that speaks to this.  Jobs life story is a good example of how a creative, conceptual thinker navigated a largely linear world.

Seems to me that there is a lot of hand-wringing going on, that is a result of trying to fit square pegs (conceptual thinkers) into round holes (the linear paradigm).  If we reframe the issue, and instead focus on how we can nurture the conceptual thinkers, the path forward will be much easier!

A continuation of this discussion is here, in case you are interested.

4 responses to “Conceptual vs. Linear Thinking

  1. […] of my most popular topics has been Conceptual vs. Linear Thinking.  This post provides a good example to apply the two ways of […]

  2. […] mentioned before in a post about Linear vs. Conceptual Thinking, the movie with Nicholas Cage where he can run scenarios quickly through his mind.  There is […]

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