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Book Review: Elastic By Leonard Mlodinow

Does it seem to you the world is becoming an increasingly more difficult place to understand and make sense of? Is it harder to make a living today than ever before? Do you often feel you’re in need of reinventing yourself? Leonard Mlodinow, author of Elastic: Unlocking Your Brain’s Ability to Embrace Change, claims that these feeling represent today’s reality, and he helps us to deal with these challenges. His basis for confirming our feelings stems from the fact the world is changing at an ever-increasing rate, and with that change come new facts and circumstances that require us to let go of what we know and explore new ways of thinking about modern problems. Disruptive change demands new paradigms and different ways of thinking.

Central to understanding the points made in the book is an understanding of top-down analytic thinking and bottom-up elastic thinking. Analytic thinking is linear, moving from one related thought to another, based on facts or reason and in sequence. It’s the type of thinking we do all day long making capital allocation decisions and figuring out how to bring more efficiency to any operation. In so doing we use heuristics or tools, we either learned or developed on our own a long time ago. At its worst, this type of thinking becomes scripted and automated as we implement it without necessary thought. At the opposite end of the spectrum is bottom-up elastic thinking, which demands that we get comfortable with ambiguity and contradiction. This sounds like the real world. In order to effectively implement it, we must be open to new paradigms and rely on our imagination as much as logic. We must be willing to experiment and tolerant of failure, no matter how resistant we are to the idea. Furthermore, we must be capable of handling multiple threads of thought in parallel while generating and integrating a wide variety of ideas. And most importantly, reframe ordinary questions into powerful questions that lead to revolutionary ideas. There’s another way to describe elastic thinking: creativity.

How elastic thinking achieves our ideas and solutions isn’t entirely clear. What is known that neural networks in our unconscious mind learn through example and weigh complex traits in a way we can’t describe. But the end result is that our unsupervised bottom-up thinking provides us with unexpected insights and new ways of looking at situations that produce accomplishment.

The author recognizes that we all possess our own, unique cognitive style, or how we typically draw conclusions, make decisions and solve problems. Some of us are adaptors prefer to do things better through tried and true methods. Others are innovators, elastic thinkers, who like to find new approaches to problems. We’ve each developed tools through experience to help us do so. What has worked in the past is retained and the rest are discarded. Those retained tools are a blend of analytical and elastic thinking that changes with the circumstance and your mood. The key for any organization, regardless of size, is to mix the two styles in an environment that rewards the synergy of each working together. The good news is that our typical approach can be altered if we work at it with the right mindset. But first, before we can change, we need to understand the thinking process.

The author defines thinking as evaluating circumstances and making a meaningful response by generating ideas. Scripted information processing, as an automaton would do, does not qualify, and we are urged to recognize when we’ve fallen into this mode and snap out of it. Mindfulness facilitates identifying this thinking pattern and we’re encouraged to practice meditation to become more mindful.

In an effort to outline how good ideas emerge the author draws the distinction between ideas and insights. An idea is a composite developed over a period of time and made up of many component notions. An insight is an idea that represents an original and fruitful way of understanding an issue or approaching a problem. Making unusual associations through elastic thinking, facilitated by allowing your mind to relax and wander. Avoid focus and straightforward logic. Free yourself from automated thinking through mindfulness. When doing so avoid timelines and interruptions at all costs. Starting to see a recurring theme here of blending divergent resources you already possess while using a new lens to view the issue.

The book states many great solutions come from the brain forming associations among seemingly unrelated ideas. Those who have a wide range of interests are typically better at this as a solution to financial consideration may be inspired by knowledge of something bearing no relationship to the issue’s domain. The underlying structure in the brain facilitating associations is called a concept network, which, collectively, are the building blocks of our thought processes. Neurons overlap and share connections among the many areas of our brain related to knowledge of specific fields, such as music, art, or flower arrangement.

In an effort to generate more good ideas the author poses the question, “where do new ideas come from?” The most important source is a paradigm shift or alteration of the entire framework of our thinking. The most powerful revelation we can experience is to recognize that circumstances have changed, old rules no longer apply. At this point, we must question our assumptions and rise above old, fixed paradigms and restructure our thinking.

Being able to envision a new framework relies on elastic thinking skills or imagination and integrative thinking. However, for this to happen you must be open to altering your attitudes and beliefs. If you can you will likely gain an advantage in life. To better understand your deeply held, no longer questioned beliefs, ask yourself the following questions: What are my strongly held beliefs? What would others say about them? Could any of my strongly held beliefs be wrong? How so? Be honest, open and objective.

Another very impactful source of good ideas come from how we frame any situation that confounds us. How we frame any situation profoundly influences the results of our analysis. The author calls out the nature of riddles, which uses our wrongful interpretation of the situation, through scripted behavior, to make us appear foolish. Here we automatically employ a method of thinking about the riddle we deem appropriate based on past experience. Or, what we think we know! Instead, the author encourages us to reimagine the framework in which our thinking occurs or the terms in which our mind defines the issue. In other words, use judgment. Effective thinking is our ability to restructure our framework of thought about the facts and issues. But also be aware of how our professional, social and cultural norms influence our ability to arrive at new representations.

The largest, most productive source of good ideas is the unconscious mind. The author claims that ideas come from an elastic mind and don’t consist of a linear train of steps. Instead, they’re produced unconsciously. This is the key to elastic thinking. But, in order to have unconscious thoughts, we must quiet the executive brain functions we’re all over-developed with. The author refers to R.E.S.T., which is an acronym for random episodic silent thinking. Facilitating R.E.S.T. is resting, daydreaming, and taking long walks. Idle time allows our integrative thinking processes to reconcile diverse ideas without the executive brain getting in the way and censoring those ideas. For most problems, all we need is already within us. What remains is connecting divergent information to generate new associations and to reframe our issues and problems. We must find time to unplug and let this process play out.

The author’s call to arms is for us all to liberate our brains. In order to explain what he means he refers to the two mental maladies of functional fixedness and frozen thought. Functional fixedness is the affliction of not realizing a tool traditionally used for one thing can be used for another. Our usual mode of thought can constrain the breadth of new ideas. Frozen thought is a deeply held idea and principle that we long ago developed and no longer question. This is a fixed orientation that determines the way you frame or approach a problem. Critical thinking is what we do when we rise above frozen thought. And just as important it is for us to avoid frozen thinking, it's equally important to figure out what our opposition’s frozen thoughts are and take advantage of them.

One of my favorite passages in the book has to do with the concept of the Ideal Expert. In order to understand who that is, it's important to all of us to realize expertise makes you dumber in the context of discovering the unusual, clever solution, a condition referred to as dogmatic cognition. This is processing information in a manner that reinforces your prior opinion or expectation. The Ideal Expert is one who has great breadth and depth of knowledge but continually maintains a beginners mind, open to new ideas and different ways to consider things. The author urges us to seek out others with opposing viewpoints, and invite unconventional ways of viewing events.

The book concludes with the important concept known as the brain’s idea filter. The idea filter is the brains cognitive filter of ideas which has been developed over our lifetimes. We continuously adapt to our environment but, most importantly, we’re wired to interpret the world through the lens of what has worked in the past. We’ve adapted, but our way of filtering ideas has not. What’s important is to know that our filter is constantly running, passing judgment on virtually everything we see. But in order to promote original thinking and non-conformist behavior, we must relax such idea filter and allow more ideas and material through to the unconscious mind and let it make hay of them. Be aware of negative emotions which also narrow the scope of possibilities that your cognitive filters allow through. Bad moods discourage elastic thinking and positive ones work with and reinforce creative problem-solving.

The author and his concepts outlined in this book resonated with me. Perhaps his ideas found a home with me given my own recognized imbalance of top-down versus bottom-up thinking. Everyday challenges involve developing analytical models, assessing historical data and generating projections of where future performance might go – all top-down executive brain function. Decisions are judged by their logic and rationale. However, as I have progressed through my 33 years in the real estate investment business I gain a deeper appreciation every year of creative solutions even when applied in a highly analytical context. Having learned the tools of financial assessment a long time ago I now spend far more time attempting to grasp the deeper, underlying meaning of what is currently going on and how I want to play within the context of those events. I not only recommend the book but also suggest trying to develop the balance of analytic and elastic thinking the author calls for.

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