American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once defined high intelligence as “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” How many people do you know think this way?
Recently I discovered that someone in my extended family does not believe in science. He has full faith in religion, yet questions the validity of carbon dating (a well established scientific method to determine the age of an object). This revelation was both fascinating and saddening. During the conversation, this person denounced a viewpoint with which he doesn’t agree. A shame really, as he has limited his outlook to that of his own. A perfect example of “either/or” thinking, which is a trap we can easily fall into as human beings. When faced with opposing ideas, we immediately try to determine which is right (and which is wrong).
Because it’s easy. It helps our minds (over) simplify the complex. It’s how we cope with the multitude of challenges and obstacles life presents. The main point being this: while your mind may default to this strategy, it can lead you astray. Take a step back and think about both sides! When you’re the person in the room doing this, you immediately open your brain to new ideas and solutions (and appear smarter in the process!).
From a business context, its what is known as integrative thinking – holding opposing ideas in your mind at once, and instead of settling for one alternative or the other, you generate a new, better idea that has elements of both. In Roger Martin’s excellent article How Successful Leaders Think (Harvard Business Review, June 2007) he states that this ability is what separates great business leaders from their peers.
So what does that mean for you?
When the world around you is chock full of “either/or” thinking, be different. Leverage your integrative thinking skills to create new solutions and help avoid over simplistic decision making.
If you’re like me, you’ll catch yourself at some point holding tight to your way of thinking (“I know I’m right on this one!”). That’s ok. We all do it. Identify it for what it is (your brain trying to make things easy) and then step back – and THINK. Don’t fall prey to your ego.
Pay attention to this for the next 3 days and leverage your integrative thinking!