Think of all the complex tasks you do everyday. Driving cars, playing musical instruments, the very act of handwriting- these are very complex activities.
Take teeth brushing, for instance. Somehow you have to maneuver your meat-covered skeleton made from stardust into a space where you have access to water, a teeth brush, and teeth paste to scrub your teeth. You have to manipulate the cap off the tube of teeth paste and squeeze the right amount out – not too much nor too little- onto the bristles of your teeth brush. If you are a civilized person, you’ll put the cap back on and then insert the teeth paste-covered bristles into your open mouth between your lips and cheeks and your teeth, scrubbing vigorously up and down. Then the tops of your teeth and finally the inside surfaces of your teeth.
After a rinse if mouth and brush, you’re done! But how many steps did it take you?
If you’re like most people, you don’t even think about it. One person I know even cleans his ears while engaged in teeth brushing! It has become automatic behavior, a habit, that doesn’t require conscious thought anymore- but once, it did.
Reflecting on your thinking is no more complex that brushing your teeth, yet it seems so difficult for most people. Why?
To begin with, we have our curiosity trained out of us by the educational institutions we were processed through as children. Then, we are taught at institutions of higher learning to memorize everything we can about specific subjects so we can regurgitate information on demand. Then we go to work for businesses that prescribe what we do during the time they rent from us, often in infuriating detail. At no time are we taught how to think and how to reflect on our thinking- those skills are now deemed unnecessary as the manager or leader does that as part of their job.
The result? At least three generations, probably more, of people who cannot think for themselves, figure things out, who think that everything on the internet is true (“Bon jour!”). If you were bothered by my use of the phrase “teeth brush” instead of the more conventional “toothbrush”, you might be part of that group to some degree.
To gain experience and confidence in your capability to deal with complexity, you will need self-discipline to turn the following exercise into a habit.
Start with an outcome or result of a decision you’ve made. Write it down. Next, think of all the actions you and others involved in that outcome took. Write them down. Now reflect on the thinking that led you to choose that action over other options. Write your description of the thought process down.
What you’ll likely find is that we rarely make decisions that only involve us, and we give very little thought to the actions we take. We are simply drifting through life on automatic mode, reacting to external forces based on our values and experiences (which are shaped by those very forces) in a self-perpetuating cycle of mediocrity.
But you are capable of far greater things than that! You can take control of your life and shape it into a life of meaning and purpose- if you’ll stop to reflect on the fact that your view of the world is imperfect, that differing views hold the potential for insight, that a more complete view exists, that you are capable of finding more complete views by practicing critical thinking, and that you are capable of dealing with complexity by thinking backwards from outcome to action to thought.