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How do we get from Point A to Point B? Not just a particular A to B, but in general. Do you think of yourself of taking a linear or meandering path?
The answer might not be as, well, direct as you might think.
As a journalist and policy analyst, I long thought of myself as taking the rational, direct approach. Yet there have been many times when this strategy led me only to butt my head against a brick wall. By necessity, I had to learn to go around, particularly when working across cultures. For someone with a Midwestern background that prioritizes order and frowns on uncertainty, it was an acquired skill, to put it kindly.
As I’ve spent more and more time in Asia, particularly since China has incorporated into its financial risk strategy the gray rhino metaphor I coined for obvious but neglected dangers, I’ve realized two important things. First, my approach to problems is very different from most Americans. Second the Western ideal of rationality is not as rational as we’d like to think; it’s more of an illusion.
My gray rhino metaphor makes the simple point that we need a fresh look at the obvious because humans tend to tune out ever-present risks and thus are surprisingly vulnerable.
Gray rhino theory thus directly contradicts Western ideals of rationality and agency: if something is obvious, so the thinking goes, of course we’re dealing with it –so if something goes wrong, it must be because it was beyond our ability to foresee and predict. This is not direct, clear thinking: it is circuitous rationalization.
Many Asians, by contrast, intuitively understand what I mean, and apply gray rhino thinking to everything from financial risk to urban safety to personal lives.
What explains this difference? The answer lies partly in how different cultures process information –in systems or silos, in close or broad focus– and in how members see themselves and their ways of thinking.
The Chinese designer Yang Liu, who grew up in both China and Germany, expressed the differences between Asian and Western thinking in her 2015 book of infographics, East Meets West. The image that I’ve included above this post involves the difference between Asian and Western views of connections and contacts; Westerners see a greater number of bilateral relationships, while Asians see a much more complicated web of connections.
Another drawing in Liu’s book represents a Western approach to problem solving as footsteps marching straight through the middle of a dot, contrasting with the Asian approach of walking right around the edge. And yet another shows Western self-representation as a straight line between two dots, compared to a circuitous line between two dots for Asians.
After looking at Liu’s images, I was startled to realize that I identified much more closely with the Asian views than the Western ones. I grew up in the Midwest and Texas, made my first trip abroad to Germany and Belgium, and worked in Latin America early in my career, this came as something of a surprise.
Liu’s book goes to show that not every Asian or Westerner is like every other, so it’s important not to let stereotypes constrain how we see other people.
Her images also show the importance of complex systems thinking –something I will explore over the course of this series. Great power comes from embracing serendipity, and from stepping back and take a big-picture look at the connections between our ideas and experiences.
My friend Jerry Michalski maps his brain using The Brain app that shows not just what he’s been thinking about, but how those thoughts and ideas connect to each other. He’s amassed hundreds of thousands of entries.
Since I’ve been writing and speaking a lot about risk lately, the first thing I looked for was what Jerry had thought about risk.
Jerry’s been working on trust building lately, so naturally he included an article connecting risk, trust, and impact. The piece’s premise was a familiar theme for me –that promoting innovation means supporting “good” risk—but it added some welcome nuance, particularly that you can’t support risk without building trust.
The authors cited a survey of philanthropy by the Open Road Alliance that found donors and grantees rarely had frank and open conversations about risk and unexpected obstacles. The result is that foundations generally fail to provide enough support for grantees should events take an unforeseen turn.
One of the Open Road Alliance’s recommendations, thus, was that grantmakers open a conversation about risk throughout the application process, signal an acceptance of the presence of risk, and formally exploring partners’ risk appetites.
I could not agree more. In fact, I’ve been spending much of my time lately having exactly this sort of discussion with people of all kinds of risk sensitivities and preferences, and exploring how people manage differences within relationships and teams. Part of that involves understanding how we came to our attitudes about the risks and opportunities in our lives, and that those paths are not as linear as we might think.
This column is about many things, but above all about the connections among many parts that both make up the backbones of systems and connect to other systems. I’ve called it “Around My Mind” to reflect the wide range of ideas and connections among them, as opposed to a more traditional and linear “On My Mind.” I’d love for you to join me on this journey.
I’ll be writing more about these issues in this weekly “Around My Mind” series. You can subscribe by clicking the blue button on the top right hand of this page. If you like it, I invite you to subscribe and share with others. Please don’t be shy about leaving comments or dropping me a private note with your own reactions.