When I was a little girl, I loved to go up to the attic of our 18th century farmhouse. It had a unique smell in that attic—a warm, slightly musty smell that said here is a special place. The beams that held up the cedar shingle roof were pegged at the peak, and as a child I loved to imagine the huge pegs being driven into the two beams so they could be held in position as they were lined up to make the roof.
But the real attraction for me was the windows at either end. From these small apertures, I could look out over our farm from a high place. I could look over trees, seeing their leaves flat against my view so that I could see the distinctive greens of their species. I could watch the effect of the wind blowing over the grass in the fields. I could see the wash being gathered by my mother as she expertly pulled the pins, not letting even the sheets touch the ground. It was another perspective of my young world that formed in me a desire to always see things from high up. Perhaps that’s why even today, so many years later, I love mountain climbing and riding Ferris wheels.
As I grew older, I loved to draw. I drew the leaves of the trees on our farm, made images of common objects, and even made paintings of the seeds that came from the flowers and fruits we grew. What I may not have known initially, but gained as I proceeded, was that drawing and painting was a way to see the object at a level of detail that never comes from a glance or even a photo. I learned at another level when I drew. Greater insight from the detail of the object and its environment excited me—especially when it was unexpected.
Living on a farm, there are always chores that need doing. As a very active child, I found these chores annoying until my mind slipped into what some might call daydreaming mode. You can collect a lot of eggs or weed a lot of weeds as you wander in your own thoughts. I actually remember one day as I collected eggs, I was forming a mathematical proof in my mind that allowed me to get a new perspective of myself. (Shelley Carson in her book Your Creative Brain describes this as cognitive disinhibition, “the relative loosening of these filter mechanisms so that more stimuli (often irrelevant to our current goals) are allowed into consciousness.”)
It’s hard for me to find ways to see with new eyes today, yet it remains a constant quest. I spend my life exploring the problems of organizations where physical images are barely the start. In my work today, it is essential that I understand how others see the world, what they think works or not, and energizes their desires. Now, my ‘images’ are drawn in words that attempt to capture these dimensions of opinion, knowledge, dreams, and values.
Instead of climbing to the attic windows, I listen to naïve voices that haven’t yet been formed into standard perspectives. You can always ‘forgive’ them their ignorance as it is precisely their ignorance that you wish to harness.
Instead of drawing the detail, I listen to as many voices as possible so that the same ideas are expressed in different words. Opposing opinions are allowed to live side by side in my notes, leaving out my own biases as much as I can as I wrestle to find the essence.
Instead of collecting eggs, I take pleasure in everyday chores like dish washing that occupy my hands while my mind can wander, play, and think through the details to gain a new insight.
We all face challenges and issues that beg for a new perspective. When you face one, these three steps will bring a new way to evaluate the possibilities.
Seek a higher view by calling upon children asking them to talk or ask about the issue you are struggling with. I’m unsure why in our society we discount the perspectives of children. Their minds may not contain all the facts and experiences we have in ours, but their minds are inquisitive and just as intelligent. They need support to offer their thoughts and ask their questions, but once you open the logjam, you may be surprised at the insights they attain. Give it a try.
Listen to as many voices as you have time and resources to do, and just listen with the intention of capturing their ideas—leaving analysis to later. As a sociologist, I love doing interviews. I even love being interviewed. The tougher the question, the more I enjoy it, because the question itself forces my mind to explore possibilities that may have been buried, or a new combination of ideas may force its way forward. This insight about myself opens up my own listening and note taking so that judgment is held at bay until I have things all together, and then I let the data (findings) tell their own story. And what a tale they will tell.
Occupy your busy executive mind so that your amazing imagination can play with the ‘facts’ in your mind and come up with an unexpected combination that presents the key to new understanding. Each of us has things we do on ‘automatic pilot’ as if the activity is simply inside the body. Washing dishes is one of the most common, but so too is taking a shower or shaving your beard or walking the dog or cooking your old but favorite dish. I suspect that is why actors, musicians, and dancers rehearse. When the play or song or dance is inside their bodies, they can add the nuances to their performance that moves it from good to great. But I digress. The key is to give yourself daydreaming time, more formally called reflection, in ways that won’t turn on the guilt machine. Nothing gets in the way more of gaining new insights. Do what you can to allow your mind to play.
Carson, Shelley (2010). Your Creative Brain. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.