16 Mar March 19, 2019 – Elastic Thinking Leonard Mlodinow and Education Entrepreneur Laura Sandefer
A guy came along and said shoppers can get their own stuff. That
seemed absurd. But it worked, it became the Piggly Wiggly chain.
He made billions of dollars. Elastic thinking is the talent to let these
revolutionary ideas come into your mind.
Leonard Mlodinow’s previous books include the bestsellers Subliminal (winner of the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science writing award), The Drunkard’s Walk (a New York Times Notable Book), War of the Worldviews (with Deepak Chopra), and The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking), as well as The Upright Thinkers, Feynman’s Rainbow, and Euclid’s Window. He also wrote for the television series MacGyver and Star Trek: The Next Generation. His new book answers the question ‘where did ideas like Airbnb, Uber and jumbo movie popcorn come from?’ In Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change, he explains how elastic thinking will help each of us to survive and thrive in our rapidly changing world. Elastic thinking allowed early man to capture fire and work together to hunt great beasts and it will help us to navigate and prosper in the modern world.
Laura Sandefer – Founder of Acton Academy and Author of Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down
The weird secret is that you can’t do anything unless you
are willing to suffer. Its the sacrifice that is the part of passion
that people forget. Passion is about something dying within you
and you having to sacrifice for it.
Laura Sandefer is on a mission about giving children hands-on entrepreneurial experience. Her Acton Academy hosts Children’s Business Fairs, giving children the opportunity to be entrepreneurs — boosting their confidence, teaching valuable lessons and giving them an experience they will never forget. The Academy also emphasizes hands-on real-world projects life and apprenticeships. The schools use adaptive game-based programs through Khan Academy and other online tools for teaching core skills, as well as Socratic discussions to challenge and equip children to be independent and lifelong learners.
Highlights from Leonard’s Interview
Human thinking can be put on a spectrum. At one end is the thinking that we’re most used to, logical, analytical thinking. It’s where you start with a certain framework by which you’re assessing an issue, problem, or assumption, and you know what your goals are and what questions to ask. Then you use the laws of reasoning, the rules of logic, to go from A to B to C to get to your endpoint.
That works well for situations that we’ve encountered before, where we know what the framework should be, and we reason our way to optimize or to find an answer. That’s what corporations generally look for in job interviews. That’s what college is look for in the essay, and so forth.
But when you encounter a new situation, then you can’t do that, you need to find a way to create the framework by which you’re going to analyze the problem. You need to figure out what your assumptions are.
Or if things are changing, you need to be able to question your assumptions or the framework. That’s what elastic thinking is. That’s the other end of the thinking spectrum.
That’s the kind of thinking where you’re rising above conventional mindsets, you’re reframing or you’re framing questions, you’re opening yourself to new paradigms. You’re getting ideas using your imagination. And in the past, people thought that that was mainly useful to writers and artists and musicians and scientists, but it’s really useful and necessary for all of us these days, because we’re constantly encountering new challenges in the world, because things are changing so fast.
Even using your smartphone, you’re getting new apps, you have to figure them out, and you don’t have a manual that tells you what to do, like in the old days. You have to figure out how they work, or if you get an update things can be different when you’re on your computer.
People are sending you phishing emails, how to recognize them? Their tactics are changing. There’s so many challenges that we’re having from all fronts. And if we don’t exercise this more creative thinking as a part of our normal lives, then we can get stuck. We can get in trouble, and we won’t thrive.
There’s tons of examples in the corporate world. What happens If you don’t think flexibly is you end up like Kodak, you end up like Metallica, you end up like Blockbuster.
Let me just take what happened in the encyclopedia business, right? There used to be these books that we had, and they were written by experts, and you could look up any subject you want in it. Then when the internet came, of course, it was an easy idea to say let’s put this online. The revolutionary idea that Wikipedia had was to challenge the assumption that you need experts to write this.
They said, “Well, we have millions of people who will chime in and write in and work on this as a hobby. And yes, some of them will be right, and some of them won’t know what they’re talking about. But we’ll let the wisdom of crowds take care of that.
Wikipedia challenged the industry’s assumption that their method couldn’t work. Wikipedia also said, “In this new world, we don’t have to charge for the product, we’ll give it away, and will rely on donations.” Well, guess what? That worked too!
Imagine a grocery store saying, “Come in, take what you want, and pay what you want.” It’s absurd. That person would be questioning the assumptions of the grocery business. And right now, to us, it seems absurd. But if a company started doing that, and it started working, and then 10 years later, all the companies did that. You’d look back and go, “Oh, that was an obvious thing. I wonder why nothing except that happened in the grocery business.”
About 100 years ago, grocery stores thought that they that the customer shouldn’t touch the product. They had people standing at the counter, you told them whatever you wanted, and they would get it for you. That was terribly inefficient, and the grocery stores weren’t doing much business.
Then this guy comes along and says, “I’m going to put the stuff out on shelves and have the shoppers get their own stuff.” That seemed absurd. It worked, it became the Piggly Wiggly chain, and he made billions of dollars.
The point is that elastic thinking is the talent to let these revolutionary ideas come into your consciousness. How do you do that? How do you generate them, and then be open to them? I’m not saying that they all work. I’m not saying that you should accept every strange idea that comes along. But what we need to do is learn how to open ourselves to them, so that when we get those ideas, we give them serious consideration. And not just on a big scale like revolutionizing business or the way Einstein revolutionized physics with special relativity, but also in in our daily life.
How do you react when you have a problem on your computer, or when you go to the refrigerator and you want to make dinner and there’s not much in there? How do you concoct something? Where do those ideas come from? Elastic thinking is about getting new ideas and new ways of looking at things, so that you can adapt and adjust in a world full of challenges.
Some big companies have that kind of corporate culture. A friend came to me recently and we talked about a company that is very much in that along those lines. Their whole approach is to have the ideas come from their workers. You don’t have to be that radical with it. But I had a friend whose boss said, “My job is to get ideas, your job is to execute them.” If you have that corporate culture, you’re not going to get any ideas from below, and you’re not going to have happy workers. If they’re smart, creative people, they’re not going to like that.
The newer tech companies tend not to work that way. They tend to be intellectual ventures. Google certainly started out that way. They were giving people 20% time off just to ruminate, think of new things, and propose them. Those are the kinds of things that younger people, smart, tech savvy people, want in a job. They want to be able to be imaginative and to be idea people in their own workspace, and that’s what generates the new ideas and the disruptive approaches that we’ve seen.
These aren’t exactly startups. I wouldn’t call Google a startup anymore. But changing the corporate culture is very difficult, depending on how old and how entrenched the corporation is. But they have to adapt.
In the 1950s the the average lifetime of a Fortune 500 company was 60 years; now it’s 20. And that’s because these companies aren’t adapting, and because change and challenges are coming at us so fast today due to new technologies and globalization, that companies won’t survive.
Elastic isn’t just about how this works in the business world and in science. It’s really about how it works in your own life. I was reading the New York Times about Meg Ryan, you may remember her, she’s a famous actress. She used elastic thinking in her life. It’s not just corporations that need to question and challenge.
In our work life and our professional life we have to adapt, but we can all also gain by doing a little personal R&D. We can examine our own life, our own assumptions, our own happiness, our own relationships, instead of moving along with frozen thinking and accepting the state that we’re in, until we retire and finally die. We can examine our own lives in a more imaginative way and question the assumptions of our lives and see if we’re really leading the happiest life we could given our circumstances.
That’s not just if you’re not doing well. Meg Ryan was a very successful actress, and she looked into herself started questioning. She said, “I’ve done very well. I’ve made a lot of money, I’m famous, but am I happy? Is this the best way for me to continue?” And she realized that she wasn’t happy, and she made a change. She stopped making movies some years ago, and that’s a very difficult thing to do. But she had enough money and she had the opportunities and if she thinks that making more movies is not the thing that’s going to lead to more happiness, like a Wikipedia she said, “I can try something else.” That takes courage. But the important thing is to learn how to do that, to be mindful, and to examine your life, and to react and adapt.
Elastic thinking has many different dimensions. For example there’s neophilia which is the love of something new. There’s schizotypy which is related to your originality, there’s mindfulness. I talked about the different qualities of elastic thinking in the book, and I give questionnaires, or as psychologists call them, inventories. You can fill out these questionnaires, and score yourself, and see where you are in these different qualities. I also give exercises that you can use to strengthen yourself in different areas.
The first thing is to work on your thinking, and become a natural elastic thinker. When you do that, you’ll find that these ideas and these insights come to you automatically.
Logical, analytical thinking is when you sit down and go A, B, C, D. I’m not against that kind of thinking; you need both. As much as I’m promoting elastic thinking, I don’t mean to belittle logical, analytical thinking. It’s just that there are plenty of people who praise that, and I’m focusing on the alternative. The thing about elastic thinking is it comes from your unconscious mind. Underneath your consciousness, outside of your awareness, your brain is constantly making associations. Every time you hear a word, 20 other words pop into your brain with different ideas. Every time you have a thought, other thoughts are connected. It’s like a brain cauldron of bubbling ideas. In the end there’s so many of them, that if they came into your consciousness, you wouldn’t be able to function, you would lose touch with reality. But in your brain you have cognitive filters, which play the role of keeping out most of those ideas and, only letting through the ideas that are most likely to work. We’ve evolved to do that. And our experience has, has tuned those filters. So what is most likely to work? The same old, same old conventional ideas are. Not only are crazy ideas being kept out, but also imaginative, new, original ideas are being kept out.
If I say to you, “Go to the grocery store,” in your head might be the idea of flying there. When you heard the word go, it has so many meanings, and they all pop into your unconscious mind until you realize which one makes sense in that sentence. Only that meaning is presented to your consciousness. But there’s so many other ways of going there, other than walking or driving, and they’re stupid, silly ways that you wouldn’t think of, because your filters are keeping them out.
Your filters are also keeping out to the ideas that would be most original. One of the ways of enhancing your elastic thinking is to learn how to relax those filters. Once those ideas start coming through, that happens in all areas, in your personal and your work life. That’s why when we look at some of the most imaginative people throughout history, they also seem to be eccentric, because they have original ideas.
Columbus, for example, didn’t wear socks. Nowadays that’s not such a big deal, but back then it was. He didn’t smoke, as his wife didn’t like it. But if he was walking down the street and saw a cigarette, he picked it up and smoked it.
We think these things are cute for Einstein, because we know he was Einstein. But if you see some guy doing that on the street, you go to the other side. But people who think imaginatively get those ideas, those filters are losing to those ideas coming through.
The idea in the book is to learn how to take control of that and how to loosen the filters up and use them when you need them. What makes those filters really strong and what turns up their power to keep things out is to focus your attention is on something. When you’re consciously focused on an issue or a problem, you are going straight ahead, and you are keeping out all the other original or different ideas. That’s great when you’re applying your logical, analytical thinking. But when you want the ideas to come, you need to get away from that. You need to not focus on certain activities like mowing the lawn, taking a shower, or jogging. Those are great because they don’t take much mental energy, so you’re not really focused, and you can’t think logically or deeply because you’re somewhat occupied, so it’s during those times when our conscious, logical, analytical thinking is not on, the filters relax, and ideas can pop into your head.
One of the things to do is to learn not to get frustrated when you hit a roadblock. Instead, tap the confidence that you’ll figure it out and go do something else. Chill or just take a break for 10 minutes.
A lot of times as a physicist, I’ll be working on a problem or a mathematical issue, and I’m struggling, and I get frustrated, and I get tired. So I take a break, and I go off and relax, and then within five minutes, I’m back to work as an idea popped into my head. That’s what you need to be able to do, is to let those ideas pop into your head, and to realize that you can’t always analyze your way through things. Sometimes you have to let them just pop into your mind.
I’ve worked with the guys who write for Star Trek. I’ve also worked with real elastic minds like Stephen Hawking in real life. I use myself as an example, because one thing that I’ve done is always questioned what I’m doing, and whether I’m happy, and considered other opportunities I could pursue. That might be a risk, but will lead to more excitement and satisfaction. Have I done this long enough? Have I gotten everything there is to get out of it? And I’ve changed careers. I was a physicist. Of course, I still am a theoretical physicist. I still do that as a hobby. But professionally, I switched. I broke into Hollywood, and wrote for shows like MacGyver and Star Trek. Then I got into computer games. And then I went back to Caltech, and now I’m writing books. So I’ve done different things. Sometimes that means paying your dues over and over In different fields, but the point is, people say what’s the commonality? And the commonality is elastic thinking. So if I can think elastic, I can apply it in physics and math, in art and business. You can apply it anywhere, and if you can do that, then you can be successful.
Elastic is available anywhere books are sold, and online at Amazon. My Twitter and Instagram are at mlodinow. My website is at leonardmlodinow.com.
Why we need elastic thinking so much now, is the job market is splitting. There are very low-paying jobs where you do one thing, and high-paying jobs that require a lot of ideas and imagination integrating things. You need to be more and more sophisticated if you want to make a good living,