Big Thinking

It’s been a while since I’ve passed along thoughts from Roy H. Williams, Wizard of Ads. In last week’s Monday Morning Memo he curated three quotes from big thinkers on topics we most often avoid.

We avoid such thoughts because we can’t define their parameters or fully contain their implications in our minds. Their overwhelming nature feels defeating, like a fruitless effort, so we throw in the towel and busy ourselves with the easier stuff.

Roy’s point is that this habitual avoidance of those thoughts which are decidedly too big for us, is the root of many avoidable disasters in our lives, businesses and society. It’s a failure of imagination.

You’ll want to read Roy’s entire post, but just to get your gears turning, here are those three quotes:

“We often talk about Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 in terms of failures: failures of intelligence, failures of planning, failures of communication. But these catastrophes were first and foremost failures of imagination. Did we know that a major hurricane could destroy New Orleans? Yes: it was even part of the tour guides’ spiel. Did we know terrorists wanted to bring down the World Trade Center? Yes: they made a credible attempt in 1993. And what did we do with what we knew? Nothing. Some disasters, I think, are so big and so awful they are literally beyond our power to conceive. So, we dismiss them out of hand, retreat to the ‘knowledge’ that a thing can’t happen because, well, it just can’t.”
–Leonard Pitts, July 6, 2006

“Sometimes I think we’re alone (in the universe.) Sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the thought is staggering.”
–Buckminster Fuller

“All the problems of heaven and earth, though they were to confront us together and at once, would be nothing compared with the overwhelming problem of God: That He is; what He is like; and what we as moral beings must do about Him.”
–A. W. Tozer

Have you spent enough time pondering the unanswerable?

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8 Responses to Big Thinking

  1. I’ll tweak back with a question….Even if we were to think about this, (which we should), then what?

    Politicians are notoriously short-term thinkers, not terribly interested in much beyond their next election (i.e. big picture thinking doesn’t fit their needs); scientists and economists may speak a language few of us are sufficiently educated to understand, let alone debate intelligently – and journalists (me) are under peer pressure to chase the “hot” story instead of spending the time, energy (months) it might take to get to the root of the more complex issues we really need to think about now.

    I agree with you. I fear the multi-disciplinary complexity of it all is also somewhat confounding. We need to break issues down into more manageable components, but then I think they get claimed and silo-ed — without the discourse *between* thoughtful analysts and those with the political and financial power to do anything about it all. I very much saw these patterns relating to gun use/regulation when I wrote my book about women and guns.

    • jkurth says:

      Yours is an inherently impossible question to answer — which is precisely what makes it great!

      I think the value in pondering the unanswerable, thinking about the unimaginable, is to broaden our collective scope of reality, and thereby increase the playing field within which our collective ingenuity can be applied. The fact that you asked, “then what” means that at least the two of us are now trying to answer a question that might never have been articulated before, let alone all the possible solutions we’ve not yet discovered.

      At the heart of this issue is the concept of innovation. Innovation of every kind is limited to the fringes of the known universe. Very few new technologies or new businesses or new social constructs are more than an incremental improvement on something that already exists — because what we know is all we have to work with. There’s a book that addresses your concerns about the constraints of multi-disciplinary silos called The Medici Effect. It discusses why the most fertile grounds for innovation are those at the intersection between industries and cultures — where known universes collide and expand.

      So let’s say we put the politicians, scientists, economists and journalists in a room together discussing the same problem from their disparate perspectives with their disparate incentives. Then what?

      Well, then, probably something more than we have today.

  2. Patti Ross says:

    We need the optimism of thinking “What then?” We need the power of imagining what is not easy to grapple with or comprehend. Your quotes are great. I remember an article I read long ago that I cannot cite. It was about the power of imagination in the world of sports. World records are often held for years and years, in part because people cannot imagine ever running faster, throwing farther, whatever. Then someone actually breaks the record–and it becomes a possibility! Many times there is then a period of rapid turnover in the record because so many are succeeding in their imagaintion of being able to do it too. Just think what that could do for the world!

  3. Pingback: Big Thinking (via Succincity) « Evolution. Transformation.

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  5. Thinking outside of our comfort zone goes against the mind set of the many. Imagining and understanding the impossible is the path to genuis or failure. Whoever there is a fimne line between both as there is with sanity and genius. After all Van Goch was a penniless asylum rfesident for many years, however history now deams him a genius who indeed challednged conventional thought.

  6. apologies the above needs editing for the obvious elementary spelling mistakes. Embarrasing ! Apologies

    • jkurth says:

      Totally understand, Chris — no need for formality here.

      Great point about the sometimes indistinguishable difference between genius and failure. You illuminate the fact that these are completely subjective ideas. Just as Van Gogh’s failure of contemporary popularity came to be recognized as enduring artistic genius, the scientific genius of Einstein, Fermi and the Manhattan Project came to be recognized as a failure of human decency, which they themselves later came to regret.

      Nonetheless, both imagined the unimaginable, reshaped the world and are remembered for it.

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