“Convergent” and “divergent” thinking represent two different ways of looking at the world. A convergent thinker sees a limited, predetermined number of options. By contrast, a divergent thinker is always looking for more options. Many of us get stuck in convergent thinking and, as a result, don’t see the many possibilities available to us. Let’s have a look at both types of thinking.
Convergent Thinking. Convergent is a form of the word “converging” and so it means “coming together.” Convergent thinking is what you engage in when you answer a multiple choice question (although, in real life, we often only see two choices). In convergent thinking, you begin by focusing on a limited number of choices as possibilities. Then you choose the “right” answer or course of action from among those choices. The figure on the left side of the diagram illustrates convergent thinking.
Here’s an example: “People are sick or people are healthy.” For many years after becoming chronically ill, those were the only two possibilities I saw: I was sick or I was healthy. Each night I’d go to bed, hoping to wake up healthy. When I didn’t, I considered myself to be sick. It was one or the other.
Along with that, I thought I only had two possible courses of action: I could be a law professor or I could do nothing with my life. That may sound extreme, but that’s how I saw it at the time. Not wanting to do the latter, I forced myself to keep working, even though I was too sick to do so. It didn’t occur to me that I could be in poor health and lead a productive life.
Here’s another example of convergent thinking. When I considered how friends responded to me when I became chronically ill, I saw only two possibilities: those who stuck around cared about me and those who didn’t stick around didn’t care about me. I wasn’t able to see that people could drop out of my life and still care about me.
I’m not dismissing the value of convergent thinking. It’s an important cognitive tool, particularly in math and science. Unless I’m missing something, it would be silly to be open to other options than “4” when asked, “What’s 2+2?”. But convergent thinking has at times been a great source of suffering for me during my illness because it’s kept me from seeing beyond my limited vision of what is possible in this new and unexpected life.
You need not have health difficulties to see how convergent thinking—because it leads you to take a narrow view of your life—can be unskillful. For example: “It’s aerobics or no exercise at all.” With this type of thinking, if you have an injury that prevents you from doing aerobics, you’ll opt for no exercise at all rather than considering other options, such as doing something less strenuous but still valuable.
Another example: “This new job is going to be great or it’s going to be terrible.” If these are the only two possibilities you see, then if you decide it’s terrible, you won’t be able to enjoy a pleasant experience at work when it comes along. “He either loves me or he doesn’t care about me at all.” Well, you get the idea: limited options; only one “right” answer or course of action.
Divergent Thinking. By contrast, divergent means “developing in different directions” and so divergent thinking opens your mind in all directions. This opens possibilities in your life because it leads you to look for options that aren’t necessarily apparent at first. The figure on the right side of the above diagram illustrates divergent thinking.
A divergent thinker is looking for options as opposed to choosing among predetermined ones. So instead of deciding that the two choices for me are “sick” or “healthy,” I would ask myself if there are other options, like the possibility that I could be sick and healthy at the same time. It took me many years to see that this was indeed an option (and it became the major theme of my book, How to Be Sick).
When I became chronically ill, I was mostly a convergent thinker. As a result, for many years after I could no longer work, I felt useless, as if my life had no meaning. I slowly emerged from this dark place by becoming more of a divergent thinker, but I still have to work at it by reminding myself: “Look for options you haven’t considered.”
Here’s an example of how switching from convergent to divergent thinking can make our lives easier and lead to fruitful results. When How to Be Sick was published in 2010, I began to get requests for me to read it as an audiobook. I decided I could do it if I just bought a good microphone and some computer software. I announced on Facebook that there would soon be an audiobook, and I responded to the many email requests I’d received by telling people that an audiobook was in the works.
But when I undertook the project, it proved to be much more difficult than I’d anticipated. Without going into detail, suffice it to say that there’s a reason that most book narrators are professionally trained (or, at least, not limited in their energetic resources!). As I faltered, I saw only two options: Push forward, at great expense to my health; or not do it at all. I did the latter—not without having had to endure self-recrimination over letting people down.
It took me over 2 1/2 years to put on my divergent thinking cap. I thought: “Maybe there are more options than just “audiobook read by me” or “no audiobook.” I began to do some online research and found a website that matches books with narrators. (It’s a spin-off from Amazon and audible.com.) From my laptop, I signed up, submitted a short excerpt from the book, and “auditioned” narrators. They would record the excerpt, upload the audio file to the website, and I’d get an email notifying me there was a new audition.
I listened to over a dozen auditions (it was fun!) and then one day, I heard the voice that was perfect for the book. Deon reads How to Be Sick as if she wrote it; she seems to understand the intention behind every word I wrote. And so, we’re on our way to producing an audiobook. That’s an example of the value of divergent thinking—thinking in terms of possibilities instead of in terms of limited choices.
As for friends, I began to think that there might be more than the two options I’d settled on (that those who stuck around cared about me and those who didn’t stick around didn’t care about me). When I opened my mind to other possibilities, I discovered that some friends who haven't stuck around do indeed still care about how I'm doing. They aren’t in contact for other reasons. One of them is too uncomfortable around illness because of her experience with her own parents suddenly taking ill and dying within a few months. Another person, unbeknownst to me, developed serious health problems of her own.
Consider whether you tend to be a convergent thinker or a divergent one. If you’re the former, you’re likely to see limited choices instead of being open to possibilities. If you’d like to work on becoming more of a divergent thinker, I have two suggestions.
First, whenever you’re considering a course of action or forming an opinion about something or someone (including yourself), pay attention to whether you’re assuming you have limited choices—it’s this or it’s that; she’s like this or she’s like that; I’m like this or I’m like that. Second, use the Thich Nhat Hanh practice I’ve written about before: Am I Sure? Ask yourself, “Am I Sure?” before you assume you’ve considered all the alternatives available to you or before you make a judgment about something or someone. Having tried these two suggestions, then start looking for more possibilities.
Open your mind and see where it takes you!
© 2013 Toni Bernhard.
Thank you for reading my work: I'm the author of four books, including How to Be Sick: Your Pocket Companion (for those who've read How to Be Sick and those who haven't), available May 2020.