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Looking Toward the Future: Linear vs. Conceptual Views

I have previously written about Linear vs. Conceptual thinkers, and it’s a post that gets a lot of google hits.  Plus, I’m noticing how many people are wondering about what the future holds, what changes are in store, and how that’s going to happen.   In the meantime, I’m re-reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.  This is my attempt to put all three together to help describe what in my opinion is a global transition from the Linear to the Conceptual.

Linear Thinking goes step by step.  It’s methodical and tends to follow rules (which have been established based on what has worked in the past).  Some disciplines are more linear than others, but linear thinking can be applied to any situation.  Even someone doing something very creative, say learning to paint, can take lessons based on someone else’s methods.  Then they might use these methods to create a unique picture – but it would still be largely a linear creation.

Conceptual Thinking sees the big picture. While holding the picture of the destination in mind, the conceptual thinker lets creative ideas bubble up in each moment and is constantly evaluating possibilities and how they will contribute to reaching the goal. Conceptual thinkers are those who can think outside the box.

The two approaches, on a day-to-day basis, might not appear so different.  There may be similar steps undertaken to reach the goal.  It’s just that the Linear approach will rely on established methods or external direction in deciding what the steps will be; the Conceptual Approach will be much more fluid and adaptable.  The Conceptual thinker will consider the established methods alongside creative options that haven’t been tried before.  The Conceptual thinker relies on inner guidance and intuition, rather than what others think they should do.

So, in any one job or industry or task, there might be those who approach things mostly Linearly and those who approach them more Conceptually.  I had mentioned before, the biography of Steve Jobs is a great description of a very conceptual approach in a linear world.  I am sure that those who were drawn to working at Apple, and those who were hired, were largely conceptual thinkers.

Of course, if we are looking at this as a Transition, then any individual will use their own a blend of Linear and Conceptual; there is a broad range of approaches amongst people and organizations as we move toward becoming more conceptual.

How does this relate to how we are looking at the future?

When Linear Thinkers look at the future, they tend to extrapolate – they project what has happened in the past, and extend that into the future.  When they are trying to figure out what’s going to happen, they assume a lot of sameness, a continuation of what has been.

When Conceptual Thinkers look at the future, they allow themselves to dream.  They ask, What If…?  They ponder the possibilities.  They don’t assume things will remain the same.  And they are less concerned with how they will get there – they know that they will come up with something to try, and if that doesn’t work, well, they’ll try something else until they get there.

These days, the Linear Thinkers are looking forward and all they see is more of the same.  More conflict, more war, more government, more problems like the ones we have always had.  Based on the fact that these problems have not been solved in the past, they see no way out.  Their impulse is to try harder in applying the old methods, despite the fact that those methods aren’t working.

The Conceptual Thinkers, however, don’t see why we have to remain in that rut.  They aren’t totally sure of how we get out, but they know we can get creative, and try some new approaches.  As long as we keep trying, they know we can get to a future that is different, if we put our minds to it.  Anything is possible, and there is no such thing as failure.  If one thing doesn’t work, you just try another.

But, especially when looking at the future, the Conceptual Thinkers can have a hard time totally breaking out of the habit of Linear thinking.  Since the world has been largely linear, we are used to knowing how things are going to work.  When a Conceptual thinker shares their vision of a brighter tomorrow, they are still asked, “how will that happen?”  And we still want to know the answer to that question.  It’s not totally comfortable or satisfying to answer, “I don’t know how we get there, I just know we can do it!”  This is when conceptual thinkers are called foolish or crazy.  Fully jumping off the cliff and trusting that it’s all going to be ok still takes a lot of faith (and yes, maybe craziness) to believe.

So now let me try to bring this all together with The Tipping Point.  The book focuses on how trends happen based on real world examples.

This is really important: Gladwell points out that his conclusions represent radical thinking about how the world worksThe world doesn’t actually work the way we think it does.

Trends spread just like epidemics which have three characteristics:

  • Contagiousness
  • The fact that little causes can have big effects
  • That change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment (the Tipping Point)

Then there’s the Law of the Few:  “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.”  Gladwell describes how the Connectors, the Mavens, and the Salesmen each play a role in spreading new information.  If you haven’t read the book I hope you do – I found his descriptions of how these people operate very recognizable.

There is a “stickiness factor” – the information or the message has to be memorable enough to spark one’s interest.  And Context matters more than we might think – basically that the timing and the environment have to be right for change to be possible.

We all know how great ideas don’t always “make it.”  Gladwell describes how an innovative idea might be accepted by the “Early Adopters,” but there has to be a process of “translation” that occurs to make that great idea acceptable and understandable to the majority.  Certain people act as Translators to reframe the message or product into an acceptable form.

What if the spread of conceptual thinking is the epidemic of the day?

We are ready for this one.

My personal observations lead me to conclude that we are on the cusp of a radical change in thinking, a sudden transition to a world that thinks conceptually and creatively, that is not bound by rules and linear thinking.  When is the Tipping Point?  Some people want to know the date when this will occur – but that is the old Linear paradigm wanting the know the details.  As a conceptual thinker, I may be called a fool or a dreamer…..but I can tell you that my faith and craziness tell me we are going to get there, whenever and however it happens.

“Those who are successful at creating social epidemics do not just do what they think is right.  They deliberately test their intuitions.”

“What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus.  This, too, contradicts some of the most ingrained assumptions we hold about ourselves and each other.”


The Gift of Fear

A friend gave me this book by Gavin de Becker sometime in 2007.  I know it was then because I finished reading it while visiting friends in Alameda that fall.

I was initially a little hesitant about the book, because the title seems to say that fear is a good thing, and I happen to think overcoming fear is really important.  But what I found, is that this book provides a really good analysis of the subject.  Some of what we call fear is extremely important to us, and some can be very counter-productive.

The scenario described in the beginning of the book, from the perspective of a young boy facing a scary situation, is really powerful.  De Becker has a seemingly natural ability to remained detached and unemotional when examining situations that would evoke powerful reactions from most people.  He has taken this ability and turned it into a very successful business, a “consulting firm that advises at-risk individuals on situations that might escalate to violence.”

(About the same time, I read the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.  There were some interesting overlaps in content, and I still sometimes forget what was in which book.)

The book points out that certain fears are good for us.   They help us to survive.  These are the bad feelings we get in our gut, when we are experiencing a situation or interacting with a person.

It also lists behaviors to look for, that are warning signs of impending violence.  To me these were recognizable signs of manipulative behavior.

Society teaches us rules, what we should and shouldn’t do.  Unfortunately, we are not taught to listen to our instincts or to trust ourselves.  In particular, many women are taught to be nice, to get along, not to create conflict no matter what.  Women, especially when it comes to interactions with men, learn to ignore their instincts and fear signals.

We’re talking about our built-in “shit detector” as a friend of mine calls it.

De Becker also talks about the fears that are not useful to us.  The fear of something that MIGHT happen or the expectation that bad things are coming — this is not useful fear, it is really anxiety and worry.  And anxiety and worry only distort our ability to take advantage of the gift of true fear.

For me, becoming more aware about the differences between real fear, and worry and anxiety is really helpful, especially in how I decide to raise my kids.  I’m a huge fan of Lenore Skenazy and her book Free Range Kids.  (That’s another topic I’ll have to write about…)

De Becker’s analysis is directly applicable to how we teach our kids to protect themselves.  The “helicopter” parents, who do everything to try to protect their kids from what MIGHT happen are really full of anxiety and worry, not true fear.  Unwittingly, they cripple the very children they are trying to protect, by teaching them to be anxious and worry about possibilities, rather than empowering them to recognize true fear by listening to their instincts.


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Conceptual vs. Linear Thinking

(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.