By Alex Alexander
I’m a fairly smart, decently educated guy. So why do I make so many mistakes? Why do I say things I don’t mean? Why do I believe so many things I can’t explain? Why do I misunderstand others so often, and sometimes insult them when I don’t mean to? Why do I get upset — at myself and others — when it’s not justified? Why have things sometimes turned out badly for me when I was so dead certain nothing could go wrong?
What the hell is going on in my mind that makes me think, say, and do dumb stuff?
Don’t get me wrong, I think, say and do a lot of pretty smart stuff. And much of what I do turns out well. But it’s the dumb stuff that worries me.
That’s what this column is about — the dumb stuff you and I think, say and do, and how we might avoid some of the dumb stuff and do more of the smart stuff. It’s an exploration of the workings of our minds, how sometimes they don’t work so well and what we can do to make them work better. Bottom line, it’s about clarity of thinking.
Let’s start the exploration with a short anecdote about Ali, my life partner, and her son, Brett.
One day, when Brett was five years old, he asked his mother, Ali, “Mom, can we put the goldfish into the bathtub?”
And that’s what they did. They poured Goldie from his round little bowl into the bathtub. An amazing thing happened. Goldie swam in small circles, exactly the size of his bowl. It took a while but Goldie learned that he could swim anywhere he wanted.
Metaphorically speaking, we’re all goldfish, and our minds are our goldfish bowls. Our minds constrain us in ways we don’t know. We believe things that aren’t so. We think our point of view is the only valid point of view. We think what we know is true and when others disagree, what they know is not true.
We think people like us are good and those unlike us are not so good. Our minds convince us that we’re special and others are not so special. Our minds want our lives and the world we live in to be simple, understandable and compatible with our beliefs. Our minds want us to be right, to be certain, and for everything to be black and white, rather than shades of gray. Our minds want all those things and more.
We’re trapped inside our goldfish bowls as long as we don’t know about them. As soon as we learn about them, we can escape; we can swim in wider circles.
But our bowls are made up of many things, many “habits of mind.” We’re not aware of these habits of mind because they run unconsciously, for the most part, but they’re essential. They run our lives and we depend on them for our very survival. Some of them, however, need adjustment because they are the cause of most of our dumb stuff.
Fortunately, we have the ability to discover the habits of mind that aren’t working so well for us, adjust them, and by doing so, think, say and do a lot less dumb stuff and a lot more smart stuff.
There are a couple dozen brilliant scientists, foremost among them Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for his research into the workings of the mind. He and the other scientists teach us about habits of mind and how those habits mostly work well for us and help us do smart stuff. These scientists also teach us how these habits sometimes don’t work so well and make us do dumb stuff.
The problem is, Kahneman and the other experts don’t tell us what to do about it. They don’t show us how to straighten out our distorted habits of mind.
That’s where I can help. I have a lot of experience helping people—business people—improve their habits of mind. I spent more than twenty years in the field of business coaching, initially working for one of the foremost gurus in the field and later heading my own coaching company.
We didn’t know we were changing the mental habits of our clients; we thought we were teaching them business techniques. But we were actually helping our clients discover new ways of seeing their worlds and themselves, new ways of thinking.
So, when I studied the work of Kahneman — and that of the other leading scientists — and discovered the reasons for most of the dumb stuff we do, I realized that I had a tool bag of methods for helping myself and anyone else shift our thinking, get greater clarity of mind and push away the dumb stuff in favor of the smart stuff.
We’re human. We’ll always do dumb stuff. The mind is what it is and will continue to err now and then. But we can make strides toward clarity, toward the smart side of life. And that’s what this column will be about in the months ahead. I’ll take one fragment of the goldfish bowl at a time, explain the good and the bad about it, and suggest how you and I might put clarity in its place, thus opening the door to more and more smart stuff in our lives.
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