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March 18th, 2023
The Fallen Dancer is a series here on Tinkered Thinking exploring a recent shift in perspective. The resulting framework appears to tie together many topics explored on Tinkered Thinking over the years such as resilience, struggle, patience, curiosity, emotional regulation, artistry, entrepreneurship, winning, honesty, and communication. This series will be an attempt to unify them in a cohesive treatment.
Part IX: Lateral Disposition
Do you take a chance, or do you wait until you are given a chance?
The difference between the use of the word ‘chance’ in each of these questions is subtle but profound. In the first it’s more akin to risk. In the second it’s more like opportunity. Yet, each day we are faced with an opportunity, but our perspective on luck determines which question we use to meet the day. It determines how we see the day, what details about our circumstance we notice and concentrate on, and ultimately what actions we actually take. The “correct” answer might seem obvious: you have to take a chance! But things are not so black and white.
Another popular idiom fits right into the discussion: Carpe Diem, or Seize the day! Is this a matter of taking a chance or being given a chance?
In fact, it’s both.
Each day we wake up we are given a chance, but if this simple and profound fact remains obscured by an unfortunate wrinkle of perspective, we can remain inactive, waiting to be given a chance, not realizing the chance has already been given. The choice of question at the beginning is a Red Herring. Each day we are given a chance. But do you take that chance that has been given? Do you seize the day? Do you even realize a chance has been given? Or does the day float by like hidden leverage, invisible to the perspective we use to see the world.
Decision paralysis seems to be a natural response to this daily chance. In a time of such abundant technological ability and personal possibility, the options for what to do in order to properly “seize the day” can be overwhelming. The opportunity of each day is really a question of: should I do this or that? A nearly infinite set of choices are on the menu. It’s the same daunting potential a writer faces with the pure and perfect blank page. Choosing a direction can feel like disgracing the beauty of the limitless possibility on offer.
However, the catch is that our life and present circumstance is not a blank page. We each wake up to a complex set of variables at our disposal: there are responsibilities and needs that must be dealt with, be it something as simple as what to eat, or something as complex as taking care of a few kids, or a demanding job. Even a child does not have a completely blank page upon which to scribble a decision, though this is often how adults view the lives and circumstances of children. The youth often have more of a blank page because they have fewer responsibilities that overwhelm and obligate the choice about what to do on any given day. This comparative lens is a trap. It’s an inversion of trying to “keep up with the Jone’s”, and a facet of victim’s perspective. It’s a cop-out founded on bad logic that dictates: because other people have more freedom and more resources, I have less freedom and fewer resources, so I can’t seize the day. The difference in degree does not change the fact that there is always some amount of chance that can be taken, seized and potentially leveraged into greater agency.
Again, the crucial element is being able to see the chance that can be taken, and this depends on perspective. Perspective filters the details of our day and circumstance, allowing us to see some details and remain blind to others. Where one perspective will seize the opportunity, another perspective will squander it due to simple ignorance - by being blind to the opportunity. Most people literally can not see the pockets of potential that speckle their their life and days.
So how does a person blind to the opportunities of their own life change perspective so they can see such details? This question is at the heart of all self-help, but it pokes at a much larger swath of human behavior. Probably the closest technical term for shifting perspective in this way is termed Lateral Thinking. As opposed to logic and analysis, lateral thinking involves counter-intuitive approaches to problem-solving. Counter-intuitive is just a fancy way of saying: seeing things that aren’t obvious, and as our discussion about the filtering nature of perspective has laid bare: what is counter-intuitive for one person might be blatantly obvious to another.
Lateral thinking is what allows kids to figure things out at speeds that seem mind-boggling to adults. Unexpectedly, it’s also what we induce when we drink alcohol. People with a mild blood alcohol content score better on tests for lateral thinking than sober people. It’s perhaps also why people become so childish the higher that blood alcohol content gets. But we seek the effects of lateral thinking in a huge array of ways. We seek it with a meditation practice. Even reading this book, or watching a new show is really a drive to experience a perspective other than our normal one. As the term implies, all of these practices and strategies are an attempt to take a step to the side of our own perspective and see the world from a slightly different point of view.
Much of what we seek in life, both in terms of hedonistic consumption and productive creation both stem from the same drive: the desire to stretch out from who we are and enjoy a different perspective for a little while. Writing a brand new story or essay feels satisfying and productive because it requires an expansion of perspective in order to accomplish - this is why I personally enjoy writing so much: I get to discover aspects of my perspective that I didn’t know existed. But the thing is, those aspects don’t exist until I invent them through the act of writing. Writing doesn’t uncover something that was already there, it exercises the mind to become more than it was in order to produce the words on the page.. Strangely, an evening spent chatting and laughing with friends over a couple drinks also feels satisfying and even productive because the experience induces an expansion of perspective: we think, feel and act differently. It’s also no secret nor should it be a surprise that many of the great writers have also been habitual drinkers. As Hemingway once instructed: write drunk, edit sober. The reason for the prior is that lateral thinking is also just a fancy word for creativity. The expansion of perspective is even built into one of our most used idioms. After work, people want to unwind. Unwind what? Unwind perspective, allow it to expand in order to enjoy a larger array of experience.
This explains why successful artists are the envy of so many people: they get paid to engage in a challenging mind-expanding activity that feels good… unlike so many people stuck in bullshit jobs who are paid to keep their minds wound tight, narrow and shut. Humorously, this characteristic of traditional company jobs is why consultants exist. Contracting a consultant is an attempt to expand the perspective of the company itself, to laterally shift from all of the current perspectives of employees and take the advice of someone with a different view. Perhaps if jobs weren’t designed to box perspectives in such narrow fields of function, consultants wouldn’t be needed, and companies could be more flexible, adaptive, and creative. An easy way to highlight just how insidious jobs within an established company can be for the perspectives of individual employees is to ask: does a scrappy start-up hire a consultant? Presumably a scrappy start-up can’t even afford a consultant. But more importantly, a scrappy start-up is engaged in constant creative problem solving. The founders of a start-up are their own consultants. But the topic of start-ups goes even deeper. Start-ups are looking for hidden leverage that can benefit many people, not just themselves. Of course, the incentives for individuals within a start-up is very great, but it’s a non-zero sum game. Start-up founders who create something of real value don’t just enrich themselves, they usually expand the agency of many other people by giving those people a new tool or providing a useful service. Start-ups discover hidden leverage and scale that leverage across populations. When Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, he was certainly looking to benefit personally from uncovering the hidden leverage coiled within the unique capabilities of Tungsten, but even more importantly, the lightbulb unlocked an enormous amount of human agency because people were suddenly able to operate at night without expensive candles and gas-lit lanterns.
But notice also how the traditionally “positive” and “negative” avenues that we take to achieve this difference in perspective can both turn negative: people can become dependent on substances like alcohol and end up destroying their life. Likewise people can also become “addicted” to work, becoming workaholics who allow other parts of their life, like family and personal health, to fall by the wayside in ways that also destroy their life. I remember talking to an old man who said he was very wealthy but he had wrecked his health. He said he had a lot of money, but his wife had left him and now his body was broken, and he asked me why he’d done it all? Why had he worked so hard? Because now, he said, the money is useless.
So given that so many things that we do are geared toward this issue of shifting or expanding perspective, how does one reliably edit perspective in order to see hidden leverage?
How do you begin to see something that you think might exist but which appears invisible?
This sort of shift goes deep and requires an honest look at core disposition. Are you pessimistic? Or do you consider yourself a “realist”? Or are you an optimist?
Regardless of which one you know you are, which one do you think is most likely to see hidden leverage?