The utility of the open mind

If you ever read a book on creativity, you will find a recurring theme: the muse.

It will be talked about in varying ways, but the central idea is generally the same: that rather than coming up with ideas ourselves, they are instead “given” to us by an outside force (the muse, the universe, God, whatever), and we act as nothing but a conduit for its wishes.  According to this theory, we might say our brain is somewhat like a radio – it tunes into messages that are floating around us in the ether, and a “creative person” is merely someone who is receptive to them, and allows them to flow through their consciousness and onto the page.  In other words the creative person “creates” nothing at all.

As Piet Mondrian said:

“The position of the artist is humble. He is essentially a channel”.

Do you believe this?  Quite possibly not.  If you aren’t spiritually inclined then it’s hard to see how you could swallow such a concept.  As such you may be inclined to dismiss the idea altogether – which is a shame because, true or not, this idea has apparently worked for the greatest creative minds in history.  Experience suggests that, however, the process “actually” works on a neurological level, acting as if it works indeed brings results.  This leaves the dismissive sceptic at a profound disadvantage.

Personally, I love this idea, because it neatly illustrates a little-discussed tension that we must embrace if we are to become effective decision-makers.  That is:

We don’t have to know how something works in order to embrace it.

In pretty much every field outside of pure mechanics, systems are too complex for us to decipher completely.  We might isolate something true at a micro level, but miss thousands of other contributing factors which add up to a functioning whole.

This kind of reductive thinking, where instead of trusting things based on their results, we trust them based on our understanding of their processes, has plagued modern thinking.  It has led to us replacing many things that work well-but-mysteriously with things that work poorly-but-understandably, with predictably corrosive results.

If you want a topical example of this, it’s interesting to note how the coronavirus pandemic has led to sharp revisionism on the subject of sun exposure.  For decades we’ve been assured – against all common sense – that on balance, sunlight is bad for us.  “Wear sunscreen”, so said Baz Luhrmann, “the long-term benefits of which have been proven by scientists”.  Of course in a one-dimensional manner, this is true – excessive sun exposure can cause skin cancer.  But in the macro it has proven to be horribly false, for many reasons but not least the connection between vitamin-D deficiency and immune system impairment (it has been found that corona mortality correlates strongly with low vitamin-D levels).  It has even been suggested that sun avoidance increases the likelihood of skin cancer – because spending 50 weeks of the year hiding from it and then 2 weeks on vacation in the blazing rays is far more “stressful” on the skin than simply spending time in the sun consistently.  The relationship isn’t linear.

Needless to say, I’m not here to make a case for sun exposure or even to defend the above claims (not my field) – I only use it to illustrate the principle: what we understand and what works are not the same things.

Another example of this phenomenon which I find very entertaining, and useful at least at an intellectual level if not a practical one is that of “proxy structures”.  A proxy structure is the name I give to “made up” narratives which we use to explain things that somehow exist, but we don’t understand.  The muse, for instance, is a proxy structure.  Assuming she doesn’t “literally exist” in a formal way, she is an explanatory vessel for helping us tap into something that does exist, but which we don’t understand well enough to ossify into scientific language.  Maybe it’s just the way the brain works, or maybe it’s something more mystical; either way, it doesn’t matter.  Either way, the muse is a stand-in for something real.  A further proxy structure might be astrology.  However sceptical we might be about astrology, the one thing we have to admit is that it has proven incredibly durable, and remarkably cross cultural for thousands of years.  Because of this we might infer that there is “something” there, even if that something in reality bears no relation to the proxy structure we use to describe it.  It’s like picking up a faint scent of something in another room, and building a whole mythology around that thing without ever actually knowing what it is.  The mythology may be completely off base, but it at least acknowledges the smell, rather than dismissing it out of hand.

Getting comfortable with this general idea is essential for strategic thinking, and effective decision making in general.  Why?  Because, if we’re honest, strategies are proxy structures themselves.

Strategies are pleasing stories we tell ourselves which make sense of complex webs of relationships well beyond the grasp of our understanding.  They don’t represent the “truth” any more literally than the muse does, or with any more scientific rigour than the vague notion that sunlight is good for us.  But, like those things, they give us a direction of travel with a happy ending – which really is all there is to it no?

This means that the most crucial attribute for a strategist to have is not intellect, or experience, or knowledge, but simply an open mind.  An open mind, to me, is not one that is willing to believe anything it hears – but it is willing to entertain anything it hears.  An open mind doesn’t demand official approval before it will engage with something, but is instead able to engage with it on a conceptual level out of pure intellectual curiosity.  It doesn’t scoff at, say, a ghost story, but thinks “wow, how interesting that you believe that” – even if the interesting part is merely the internal logic of the belief, rather than anything supernatural.  The open mind is at home in the world of untamed knowledge; the things we half know but haven’t fully grasped yet.  Its point of focus isn’t set on what’s happened in the past but what could happen in the future.  And finally the open mind doesn’t pastiche the opinions it doesn’t believe in; instead it argues earnestly on their behalf, so it can fully understand both its own position, and the counter point.

For all these reasons, the strategic mind is an open one – with all the weirdness, speculativeness, and inevitable wrongness which that entails.

So personally I would encourage you to engage seriously with non-serious ideas.  It isn’t credulous, or uncritical, quite the opposite.  It is instead a fluid method of analytical thinking, one which can digest a far more varied diet of information than that which is tolerant only of facts.

And what is more, it’s fun too.

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