Our minds are wonderful machines. At any given moment, they can be zooming through numerous different operations: thoughts, feelings, plans, inklings, and processing thousands of pieces of data from our senses. We can drive ourselves to work while listening intently to talk radio, and tapping an unrelated rhythm on the steering wheel — all while eating a breakfast sandwich. So much of the marvelous stuff our minds do happens automatically. It’s like magic — magic that happens every day.
But that can be kind of a problem, too. Here’s a quick riddle to illustrate that:
Q: How do you topple a tree with only two fingers?
A: When it’s still a sapling, pinch it and rip it out of the ground.
This little riddle teaches us two important lessons. One lesson is about how our mind’s greatest strength can also be a great weakness. Our ability to create stories and meaning from sparse details can end up manufacturing unnecessary constraints on our thinking that limit the breadth of our thinking. The other lesson is that we can often confuse thinking big with thinking small — and vice versa. We think that big problems require grand action on a large scale. But often, it is the small things, done deliberately and at the right time, that have the biggest impact.
Our minds are so good at smuggling in context and building a story that we often don’t even notice when it’s happening. In the question above, most of us hear “tree” and we immediately think of the towering things in forests with thick trunks and rough, sturdy bark. But nothing in the question mentioned how old or big the tree is — we manufactured that context and built it up in the form of a wall in our thinking. That wall kept us from thinking of the simplest, most effective answer to the question.
On many occasions, this ability to construct context and a narrative serves a purpose. It begins with our perception — where we only get bits and pieces of data from our eyes and ears, and our brains fill in any gaps, so that we seamlessly perceive the symbols and signs in the world around us. It continues when we hear incomplete or sparsely detailed stories — or when we’re trying to remember something from long ago. Our mind fills in the gaps, so that we have a story to work with. It’s not something we can (or would want to) abandon — but it’s something we need to be aware of, and ensure we keep in check in certain circumstances.
There are times that call for thinking differently, creatively, and solving big problems. When those times come, we need to understand the constraints that we automatically place on our thinking, and do what we can to remove them — so we can address big problems with the most free and creative thinking we can. That can be as simple as asking yourself what assumptions am I making about this problem? or do I even understand what the problem is, or just think I do?
Toppling a tree sounds like a big task. If I were to ask anyone on the street about the simplest and most effective way to do it, most people would answer that it takes special tools and is moderately difficult . In other words: it’s a big project. I’m sure that before I sat down to write this article, I would have conceived of it in much the same way. And that makes sense, because we as humans suffer from two afflictions that make it difficult for us to solve big problems with small actions: we think big effects have big causes, and we are blind to how small changes build into big situations.
If we want to affect big change in our environment, we usually do need a detailed plan, actions, follow-up, and coordination in order to make that happen. But we tend to underestimate how effective simple, well-timed actions can be. In the case of the tree, our two fingers can be just as effective as a chainsaw, ropes, and a team of people — if we act at the right time.
But timing takes a different element: awareness. You have to be aware of what is going on — especially with things that might be an issue for you. But in order to be aware, you have to care about what’s going on. You can’t view the people, things, and events going on around you as obstacles, distractions, and problems. Doing that will prevent you from noticing the sapling as it sprouts, and allow it to become a big tree that now costs you money, energy, and time to remove.
When we’re presented with a problem, we tend to immediately make assumptions that constrain our thinking. When we constrain our thinking, we constrain our actions. We also tend to think that only big actions will solve big problems, but that is not the case. Being aware of the impact of timing, and of small actions can be a huge advantage in more effective problem solving.