Surprise, Uncategorized

A Tiny Sketchbook To-Go (To Meetings With…)

At last, while rummaging around in an art supply coop in Montreal last week, I found a tiny sketchbook that is proving to match, or beat, the Stillman &Birn sketchbook series for on-location watercolor sketching.  This is the Pentalic  3.5 by 5.375-Inch watercolor journal, which opens up, as you might figure, to about 10.5 inches.  (It has a tiny loop at the top for a tiny paintbrush too.) As someone who has experimented with many papers (including Arches, Bockingford, Saunders, Fabriano, Moleskin, Stillman &Birn, etc.), and continues to do so, this one has been a pleasant surprise relative to all other sketchbooks I’ve tried, including Moleskin and Stillman & Birn. It has 140 lb. cotton rag cold press paper with a nice light texture; really comparable to the big names in the field, so far.  It also has a nice quality hard binding, opens flat, and has an elastic band to secure it when closed.

There are huge advantages to going small when sketching, moreover, and–if you’re using water-based media– all kinds of good reasons to choose the best paper (as any serious sketcher will confirm).  This is a sketchbook that can literally fit in your pocket or a pocket of briefcase.  (You could even take it to a meeting without drawing (oops!) much attention, and sketch the participants as a way to pass the time.)

LA market sketch

Illustration: Watercolor and ink sketch, “Market day,” by Black Elephant Blog author

Drawing small sketches can compel you to try to get those shadows on the faces or in the pulled-back hair of a figure with merely a dot of paint.  Drawing small leaves you with more energy for the larger pieces done later inside when it’s raining. So far I have three little watercolor sketches in my tiny Pentalic watercolor journal using M. Graham, Daniel Smith, and Yarka paints, as well as ink.  (It’s been very  hot and humid in this area lately so that people (and animals) are moving slower and generally are easier to sketch.)

Lake Fishing

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink by Black Elephant Blog author

The paper handles washes and heavier watercolor applications perfectly, so I thought I’d jot this down here while thinking about it. The sketchbook is only a bit bigger than my small travel palette, which measures 4.75″ x 3.75″.  So between the two of them and a paint brush, a bit of paper towel and some water, there’s a complete studio-to-go, unbelievably small and light-weight but with no compromise in quality.

Anyway, a small sketch kit is sure to make those meetings at work more interesting!  And hopefully the day is not far away when sketching in meetings will be regarded as a sign that you’re paying appropriate attention to the proceedings.  Sketching is a form of seeing, and clearly can enhance our powers of observation and sensitivity which anyone could tell you these days we all could use more of…

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Bridge Over Colored Water

Spring is finally here. This sketch made just yesterday in a bright and glorious sun is of a bridge with its destination obscured.

Bridge Over Colored Water

Illustration: Watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

In other developments, experimenting now with Strathmore Aquarius II paper, converted into an accordian sketchbook, per instructions generously provided by urban sketcher Marc Taro Holmes on his blog, Citizen Sketcher; the sketchbook is for an upcoming trip out West later this week and will be featured here in the future.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

“Creativity, Inc.”, Innovation, and an “Energy Miracle”

At last, we are underway with our classes at the university, with the onset of a “Spring” semester which, delayed by some wintry weather, has so far not felt very spring-like.  With inclement weather, though, it’s been easier to get some work done on projects related to what we are covering in class, and a chance to compose a blog post on some of this. Hence, this post is a bit less about sketching present every-day scenes and more about designing alternative frameworks for the future.  (The eventual goal is to combine both in an accessible format for different audiences.)

Illustration:  Watercolor and pen and ink study for "Waiting for Spring" by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink study for “Waiting for Spring” by Black Elephant Blog author

We have moved rapidly through diverse science and security-related issues and zoomed across the land masses of the planet to understand different climatic zones, the extent of challenges to arable land, and how incidents or policy changes at a local or national level–even on the other side of the world– can have global impacts. Not yet a month into the semester, therefore, we are confronting the realization that past experience will no longer be a reliable guide to managing many looming challenges, including the necessary transition to no-carbon and low-cost sources of energy.  Innovation thus is inescapably urgent.

None other than Bill Gates, who describes himself as an “impatient optimist,” admits that “time is not on our side” when it comes to globally applicable means of reducing carbon emissions to zero.  He puts his hopes on a “miracle” in energy R& D even as it’s plain to see investment in energy research by developed nations remains far below that in other areas.  (Gates says that the scale of innovation needed requires government investment as it involves risks that the private sector is poorly equipped to assume.) Conventional approaches to problem-solving in this area simply will not work.

energy research OECD

Illustration:  OECD chart

Already in our class there is focus on the social,  institutional, and cross-boundary aspects, as well as cognitive and psychological facets, of the problem. (It seems that, even this early in the semester, we are beginning to hear more readily the overly specialized or “silo’ed” limitations in the thinking on offer at some conference panels around town.) What does it take to harness innovative ingenuity on a global scale?  What can we learn from those who have studied processes of innovation and creativity?  Where do these subjects enter most conversations and efforts about transitioning rapidly to a low-carbon, or no-carbon, energy system?  While proposals on the global “table”, as it were, have merit, how to ensure that the collective “we” is not “betting the farm” on a strategy that will not pay-off?  Whose responsibility is it to even consider these things?  (Such are the issues we are dealing with in the classroom.)

Innovative approaches to solving complex problems, including developing the “energy miracle” Bill Gates has called for, require more than technological investment and novel financial arrangements.  They require organizations to invest in developing and sustaining creativity and strategic thinking in the workplace.  But who knows how to do this?  And have we any idea on how to be creatively collaborative across myriad institutions?  It seems that much of the material published on these topics is aimed at managers or, less often, educators.  But that may be too late for most people.  The concepts  involved must be introduced earlier in people’s careers so they have time to evaluate and internalize them with their peers. Thus such material is worked into our course at the graduate school level where students typically already have a few years of professional work experience. Understanding the obstacles to innovation–and its “fuel,” creativity–is fundamental to making progress on the complex problems, (especially “super-wicked” problems s0-called because they require the engagement of society as a whole), of today.

In many workplaces, however, the efforts of talented people are typically stifled in “myriad unseen ways,” according to Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation in his book, Creativity, Inc., Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration,  (Random House, 2014).  Despite constant emphasis (belatedly in many cases) these days on the need for innovation (and creativity, and disruptive breakthroughs), rarely is any thought given to how such creative work is nurtured, evaluated and sustained…to say the least.  So it seems timely to take a few notes from the book, Creativity, Inc., to see how these issues are dealt with in an industry (producer of the films, “Toy Story,” “Up,” and “Ratatouille,” among others) that most everyone assumes exemplifies the best of creative workplaces.

Catmull credits his experience as a graduate student at the University of Utah, where he received his Ph.D in 1974,  with introducing him to the importance of leaders who understand how “to create a fertile laboratory.”  Much of the research in the university’s computer science department was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Department of Defense (now known as DARPA).  The university laboratory leaders understood “they had to assemble different kinds of thinkers and then encourage their autonomy.” Catmull writes that the most valuable thing he gained from the university “was the model my teachers provided for how to lead and inspire other creative thinkers.”  One of the lessons from ARPA that stayed with Catmull was:  “When faced with a challenge, get smarter.”  He thus knew that, in order to “attract the sharpest minds,” he needed to put his own insecurities away.  When starting out as the lab director at the New York Institute of Technology while still in his 20s, therefore, one of his first hires was someone who seemed to Catmull more qualified to lead the lab than he was.

Catmull’s book is the story of his journey in learning to sustain a creative work environment.  Nearly every page contains a memorable lesson applicable in other fields, such as:  “Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.”  The challenge for him and his colleagues in the mid-1970s was to solve technical problems involved in applying computer animation to the film industry.  There were a few companies working on these problems and most, Catmull writes, “embraced a culture of strictly enforced, even CIA-like, secrecy.”  By contrast, Catmull and his colleagues decided to share their work with the outside world instead; his view was that “we were all so far from achieving our goal that to hoard ideas only impeded our ability to get to the finish line. [emphasis added]”   (Might this view be relevant as well to the energy challenge mentioned at the start of this post?)  Catmull notes that the “benefit of this transparency was not immediately felt” but that the “relations and connections we formed, over time, proved far more valuable than we could have imagined, fueling our technical innovation and our understanding of creativity in general.”

As his project teams grew, Catmull had to move his organization from a flat team-like structure to more of a hierarchical approach.  He realized that his team at the New York Institute of Technology actually functioned more “like a collection of grad students–independent thinkers with individual projects–rather than a team with a common goal.”  Catmull describes the influence of “Starwars” and George Lucas on the field of computer animation, and traces the trajectory of his own career, and long partnership with Steve Jobs, through the lessons he learned along the way.

To give some sense of these lessons and their broad applicability, here are a few from the book:

  1. “There is nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning.”
  2. Books with advice like “Dare to fail” divert people from addressing “the far harder problem: deciding what they should be focusing on.”
  3. “Being on the lookout for problems…was not the same as seeing problems.”…”The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff.”
  4. “Originality is fragile.”
  5. “We realized that our purpose was not merely to build a studio that made films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions.”
  6. “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture…was a day-in-day-out, full-time job.”
  7. “Ideas come from people.  Therefore, people are more important than ideas.”
  8. “The hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms.”
  9. “…without the critical ingredient that is candor, there can be no trust.  And without trust, creative collaboration is not possible.”
  10. “The key is to look at the viewpoints being offered, in any successful feedback group, as additive, not competitive.
  11.  “By resisting the beginner’s mind, you make yourself more prone to repeat yourself than to create something new.  The attempt to avoid failure, in other words, makes failure more likely.”
  12. “The pressure to create–and quickly!–happens at many companies…and its unintended effect is always the same: It lessens quality across the board.”
  13. “When we put setbacks into two buckets–the “business-as-usual” bucket and the “holy cow” bucket–and use a different mindset for each, we are signing up for trouble.”
Unexpected 1

Illustration: Watercolor wash and pen-and-ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Dealing with “The Hidden”  Catmull’s book is exceptional for its sophisticated treatment of many tough management issues that arise in virtually any field, including learning to see “hidden” issues in the corporation and, just as important, realizing that just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they do not exist.  He says that one of his core management beliefs is “If you don’t try to cover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill-prepared to lead.” He also emphasizes that our ignorance about randomness affects our ability to face the unknown.  Catmull writes, for instance:

“We are quite adept at working with repeatable events and at understanding bell-shaped variance…[But] how can we think clearly about unexpected events that are lurking out there that don’t fit any of our existing models?  Catmull notes that there is a “human tendency to treat big events fundamentally different from smaller ones.”   This sets us up for failure, he explains, because we fail to realize that some of the small problems have long-term consequences and are, therefore, “big problems in the making.”

In another excellent section, “Learning to See,” Catmull describes how he hired an art teacher to come in to the organization to teach everyone “how to heighten our powers of observation.”   People who draw better than the rest of us, he says, “are setting aside their preconceptions” and everyone can learn to do that.  His point is that there are ways of learning to overcome biases while considering a problem.

In Sum:  It is easy to forget that the lessons in this book are derived from managing computer graphics and animation laboratories and not from the daily occurrences in organizations closer to one’s own experience.  It is thus relevant for people trying to move their organizations into a mode that makes the most of the talent within, and without (!)–or outside–, them. Understanding the forces that block our inspiration and effective creative collaboration both inside and beyond our organizations today  is key to moving forward on the many formidable challenges (some of them metaphorical“black elephants” ) facing the globe. (This is why, earlier on this blog–such as here and here and here— there has been a focus on the work of various experts regarding the barriers we face to even thinking effectively about these problems.)  Facing as many unconventional and complex challenges as we do today, it’s safe to say there are not enough books like this one and, for many people, not enough time to read and absorb them.  Some of the needed changes might not be “news-worthy” but still hugely impactful: Learning to draw, counterintuitively, may be part of the solution at the societal level, to inculcate ways, per Catmull, to overcome our ingrained biases and to sidestep cross-cultural barriers.

 

 

 

 

 

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Innovation, Risk, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Driving Innovation on the Fuel of Creativity

When Bill Gates says, as he did recently, that we must “drive innovation at an unnaturally high pace” to transition to a globally-applicable non-carbon source of energy in time (to save the planet), it raises the question (or ought to) of what’s involved in doing that?  If creativity is the “fuel” of innovation, how does one go about gaining and sustaining that fuel source?  Do we wait, in a comfortable sunny spot, for inspiration to hit us?

Zoo sketch 1

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, graphite and bistre ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Sometimes we think of creativity as something that occurs to us when we are relaxed, doing something routine like driving through a toll booth or even–or most likely–when we are doing nothing at all…  Is that what we must accelerate?  Or are there more reliable means of spurring and sustaining innovation (and creativity) ?  There have been a number of books on this subject, including on the need for “entrepreneurial states,” but in fact there’s been little noticeable tie-in of this material to the renewable energy challenge Gates and others are highlighting.

With the onset of a new university semester (as soon as suitable paths to class are plowed through the snow) looking at some of these issues, and investigating what it means to be innovative, or creative, in the workplace, this blog soon will turn to the experience of Pixar Studios as related by its co-founder, Ed Catmull, in Creativity, Inc.:  Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, (New York, Random House, 2014).  Some of what he has to say may surprise you but all of it is relevant to all of us when tied to prospecting for pathways to a sustainable energy future.  How to sustain a creative work environment is the challenge, and the theme, of this book–to be highlighted here soon.  Given that the author is from Pixar Studios, it comes as no surprise, but still is surprisingly fascinating, to see that he has a lot to say about art, sketching, paying attention, and hand-drawn approaches to animation.  Coming up next…

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Wax-Resist & Creative Intelligence

A recent two-day artists’ workshop in “wax-resist techniques” provided loads of food for thought not just about this artistic process but also about the importance of thinking ahead to what you are trying to achieve…and how to get there.

Tulum wax resist 4

Illustration: Tulum, Yucatan Mayan structure in ink wash (Higgins waterproof black India ink) with wax marks, charcoal, Conte crayon, and Char-koal pastels by Black Elephant Blog author

It is normal to fall back too readily on what we think we know and on what we expect to see, and this blocks our ability to learn new things and see things in new ways–  which is so fundamental to art, innovation, business success, and progress.  As Ed Catmull, the author of Creativity, Inc. (Random House, New York, 2014) writes, “the best managers make room for what they do not know… not just because humility is a virtue but because until we adopt that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur.”

As a newcomer to the wax resist technique, however, I found myself falling back onto old habits and ways of thinking.   Without a doubt, these were blocking my ability to internalize and apply these new approaches.   The wax resist approach, like any other truly artistic approach, benefits from taking a great deal of time studying the subject first.

“This process insists that you have a goal or else you get into trouble,” warned the instructor. “The wax is not forgiving,” he said.  “Everything you don’t plan” comes back to bite you.

The process involves repeated washes, first with plain water, and then ink washes, and a lot of intervals of drying the paper.

Drying art

Illustration: Drying the paper after one of the ink washes (after an initial waxing of the image)

This activity needs a large workspace that is forgiving of water drips and ink splashes!  The stipulated paper dimensions in this workshop were large too, so as to better capture details with the wax.  This paper  takes a beating, with multiple washes, and being hung to dry on a line after each wash (often after some time on the floor so that still wet ink wouldn’t run down the page.)

What is difficult to realize ahead of time is the repeated and gradual nature of the process of building up the darks and the clever use (not over-use as in the example here) of the wax.  This is not about painting or “rendering”, but it takes a while for the novice wax resist-user to grasp this.

Materials for Wax Resist

Illustration: Photo of some of the materials used in the ink wash and wax resist project

Now that class is out, there’s so much to practice.  Fortunately, the necessary supplies are readily available–such as Gulf Wax which can generally be found in a grocery store.  It’s the thought process that is more difficult to acquire.  It takes time and guidance, persistence, and, for the best results as demonstrated by our instructor, clearly some enormous talent that few of us can assume.

This workshop was an extraordinary learning experience relevant to much more than art. It underscored the huge gaps in our thinking processes when it comes to learning how to re-perceive what is right in front of us.  Such ability to reframe the obvious in new lights (and darks) is key  to achieving anything artistic, let alone the sort of breakthrough innovations we increasingly acknowledge are needed for (nothing less than) the future of the planet.   Strategic and design thinking come together in use of wax resist in this process, as well probably in other applications, such as watercolor painting.

Tulum watercolor sketch

Illutration: Watercolor and pen and ink sketch of Mayan structure at Tulum in Quintanaa Roo, Yucatan by Black Elephant Blog author

For goals of still larger scale, such as enabling a global transition to a low-carbon economy, how to create environments that can accelerate our ability to grasp these ways of thinking will be the subject of future posts.  The experienced artist who also is an effective teacher has a crucial role to play in the transition to the needed new thinking.

 

 

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Risk, Uncertainty

Strategic Intelligence on a Rainy Night

It was a dark and stormy night, but you wouldn’t have known it inside the brightly lit and charming home of the organizer of last week’s salon gathering featuring a timely and informative talk by the author, Michael Maccoby, of a new book, Strategic Intelligence: Conceptual Tools for Leading Change (Oxford University Press, 2015). True to form, this salon–held in the heart of Washington,D.C.– convened a diverse array of professionals, including a photographer, a portrait painter, members of the military and national media, teachers, an energy research expert, consultants, psychologists, retired think tank professionals, and recent university graduates.

Lead Speaker Image 1

Illustration: Pencil and ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Salons seem to be pretty rare in this age of instant news and busy schedules.  This form of idea exchange has been around for several hundred years, perhaps reaching its height of popularity in the 18th century…  On this evening, what brought us together, in these uncertain times less than a week after the devastating attacks in Paris and Beirut, was the subject of leadership.

After the dinner plates were cleared, the evening’s speaker, Dr. Michael Maccoby, took his place in front of the hearth where he faced the approximately 30-40 guests who were seated in the living room and into the hallway.

Attendees 1

Illustration: Pencil and ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Dr. Maccoby has worked in many corporations and taught at several universities, and spent several decades studying what effective leadership entails.  His academic background is in psychology and anthropology and he also has focused for many years on issues related to technology, work , and character.  He also studied philosophy as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at the New College Oxford.

Speaker 1

Illustration: Pencil and ink sketch by Black Elephant blog author

He noted that there are countless studies available on leadership, many of them so deeply flawed that one leadership expert has even published a book called, “Leadership B.S.”  He offered his insights based on many decades of research and dealing directly on these issues with people in positions of leadership in both commercial and government fields.  He noted that there are many definitions of leadership but all fall short. Leadership is not, however, management.  He suggested that the interesting question is not the definition but instead:  “Why are people following this leader?”

“Some very effective leaders are not easy to characterize,” said Maccoby, mentioning names of some people he’s met whom many in the world associate with the concept of “leaders” but who do not actually fit the bill. In addition, leadership training often is very bad because it is decoupled from context, separated from the work, underestimates people’s capabilities, and the people “who go into leadership training programs often don’t want to be dealing with people.”

But leaders all need to work in teams; “even narcissistic leaders only succeed if they create a team.”  Maccoby added:

  • “A great leader creates a common purpose that others will buy… “
  • “The best leaders have developed a philosophy.”

Great leaders have three qualities, according to Maccoby:

  1. Purpose
  2. Passion about purpose
  3. Courage

Maccoby quoted Samuel Johnson as saying that “courage is probably the most important” quality because nothing can be accomplished without it.  “Courage comes from the heart… it is different from bravery,” said Maccoby.

Effective leaders also have “profound knowledge” and “insight from the heart rather than the intellect,” added Maccoby.  “One of the major challenges today is to move from tribalism to interactive humanism,” he said, so these attributes are ever more necessary to coping successfully with the complex challenges of our world.

The U.S. constitution is based on such a philosophy, he added.

In this context, “strategic intelligence” is a quality of an effective leader.  Its essential attributes are:

  1. First and foremost, “foresight.”  An effective leader is always aware of changing threats and opportunities. (Maccoby added that studies have shown that the weakest quality of the U.S. government [historically] is “strategy,” suggesting that this is an area that needs attention.)
  2. Vision” is the second attribute of an effective leader. It involves “taking what you see and creating something.”
  3. An effective leader is also adept at “systems thinking.”  He or she can envision a system that will bring you where you want to be.
  4. An effective leader also is engaged in “partnering” not only internally but externally to the leader’s organization.
  5. He or she also engages and continually motivates people, enabled in doing so through their “profound knowledge.”  This knowledge [as explained in Maccoby’s book] involves understanding of systems, variation, and knowledge creation, as well as motivation.
  6. An effective leader also understands psychology.
Book Cover 1

Illustration: Photo of Book

The phrase “strategic intelligence” is composed of “strategy”, which means “the art or skill of careful planning toward an advantage or desired end” and “intelligence,” which means “the faculty of understanding; intellect.”  In Dr. Maccoby’s book, he explains the skills needed for strategic intelligence and examines four different primary leadership types.  He notes the work of a psychologist, Robert Sternberg, who distinguished between different types of understanding and different sets of intellectual skills.  For instance:

“Analytical intelligence,” writes Maccoby, “is the type tested in IQ exams.”  It includes analysis, memory, logic, and problem solving.  Analytic intelligence is necessary, but not sufficient for strategic intelligence.  Someone with only this kind of understanding and ability will do well on tests but not in relationships.”

Doing well in relationships requires “practical intelligence,” notes Maccoby, which is a “kind of understanding necessary for partnering and motivating, but it is not enough for foresight and visioning.”

Foresight and visioning requires “creative intelligence,” including “pattern recognition essential to making sense of changes in the business environment that either threaten or indicate opportunities for the organization,” writes Maccoby in his new book.  “Visioning requires systems thinking, the ability to see the interaction of elements that combine to achieve a purpose, and imagination.”

A Q&A period followed Dr. Maccoby’s presentation.  Differences among audience members occasionally sparked debate, sometimes over things which happened over 20 years ago, reminding us that understanding our past is also key to strategic intelligence.  As the daily headlines suggest, mounting complexity, ambiguity, and contradictions are demanding  alot not just of leaders but of individuals around the world.  Effectively leading change in such a context is a challenge which deserves careful study.   Dr. Maccoby’s latest work makes an important contribution which hopefully will get the attention it deserves from those who need his insights the most.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Sense-making in a “Shapeless” World

It’s been said that we’re living in a “shapeless” world. What is meant by this is that our understandings about the geopolitical shape of our world has become fuzzy, hazy, or contradictory.  People, whether formally recognized as decision-makers or not, must make decisions. Some are becoming aware of having to work harder to make make sense of things.  They might wonder if they have the necessary tools to do so.  Often, however, people (especially experts) would not want to admit such uncertainty.

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author on Arches 140 lb. Cold Press paper (October 2015)

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author on Arches 140 lb. Cold Press paper (October 2015)

There is a deeply-held belief in modern life that knowing things and eliminating uncertainty gives us more power and security, and that anyone who exhibits uncertainty and/or reflectiveness is therefore weak and indecisive.  (This is related, as well, to being perceived as  “doer”–a “climber”, a “mover” and a “shaker.”)  Deeply ingrained concepts of success are tied to our perceptions of others as confident, bold, and expert.   Certainly, we know, the stock market does not like uncertainty, and that’s because it’s made up of people having to make decisions. People do not like uncertainty and, for some potential setbacks, go so far as to buy insurance to protect themselves so as to better manage risk.

Up to now at least, accumulating facts, expertise, and scientific knowledge–and mastering the material world–seemed to suffice for decision-makers.  So, what’s changed today?  Cannot the facts of any matter provide us the answers we need to steer a safe course through choppy waters?

Of course, it is debatable what shape the world was in when it had more shape in our minds: the “Cold War” comes to mind. It gave shape to things, but perhaps not a shape most of us, at least those with any appreciation of history, would care to repeat. There also was the shape of the 1990s when it seemed to many that technological advances and globalization would inevitably lift all boats.  The Financial Crash of 2008 upended many experts’ basic beliefs about the essential shape of the world, and many experts today acknowledge that nothing yet has taken the place of the old certainties now pretty much ripped to shreds.

Into this incoherence comes a new book that may help us to self-diagnose, at least. Our yearning for “shape” is the focus of this book by Jamie Holmes, a “Future Tense Fellow”, at the New America Foundation, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, (Crown Publishers, New York, 2015).  Drawing from many interviews and lively case studies, Holmes looks at how we make sense of the world. He studies the neurological wiring that makes us calm or agitated in varying states of certainty or uncertainty.  He finds that uncertainty is an “emotional amplifier”:  “it makes anxiety more agonizing, and pleasure especially enjoyable.”  Holmes examines how the world of medicine has changed in a data-abundant world, for instance.  And he delves deeply into  how our sense-making minds naturally work to solve the puzzles of every day existence.  So, what has changed that makes the world seem shapeless, at least to some, today?

The paradox of modern existence, according to Holmes, is that “technological acceleration–in transportation, communication, and production–should provide more free time” but, in fact, most of us feel “continually squeezed” by overwhelming options and limited time to assimilate and evaluate information,” he writes.

Indeed, abundant information has created more uncertainty!  So much information “makes even the simplest decisions–where to eat, which health plan to sign up for, which coffee maker to buy–more fraught.”

Avoiding this reality or denying it would be of little use, Holmes writes.  “Managing uncertainty is fast becoming an essential skill.”  In his prologue, he cites economist Noreen Hertz’s argument that “one of today’s fundamental challenges is “disorder–a combination of the breakdown of old, established orders and the extremely unpredictable nature of our age.””

In his book, Holmes demonstrates that “being able to handle ambiguity and uncertainty isn’t a function of intelligence.”  (Interesting too that being a “superforecaster” also is not a function of intelligence (see previous post).  But it is an emotional challenge.  This is because individuals have varying needs for “closure,” a concept developed by psychologist, Arie Kruglanski, Holmes writes.  People who understand this concept, even merely intuitively, actually can manipulate others’ discomfort with ambiguity.  “When our need for closure is high, we tend to revert to stereotypes, jump to conclusions, and deny contradictions.”  This is the stuff of radical and dangerous shifts in popular attitudes over the course of history; it merits our deeper understanding.

What’s important in this work is Holmes’ seemingly original and certainly unusually accessible treatment of the importance of contextual circumstances in changing individuals’ need for closure.  This trait is not as hard-wired as many of us might assume.

Learning how to deal with what we don’t understand is a critical skill becoming more necessary for all of us in this “shapeless” and still fairly new century, according to this author.  It turns out that uncertainty and contradictions provide the environment for people to unleash their creativity.  Making sense of a shapeless world requires imagination and other cognitive skills which most people have but may not have had occasion to exercise as much as they would have liked.

Speaking of which: due to an abundance of choices, and must-do’s, today, this subject will be continued at a later date here on this blog, of that I am fairly certain.  Understanding what our options are for making sense of complexity is a subject that deserves our undivided attention.  Having read this book, I am confident that it does too.  So, to be continued…

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