Possibility Thinking

Mind Over Matters Success Strategies

by David Krueger, MD

In a classic study, the audience is asked to watch several people dribbling and passing a basketball. Their job: to count the number of passes each person makes during a one-minute period. Intense concentration is needed because the ball moves quickly. Then, someone dressed in a gorilla suit crosses the floor, walks through the players, turns and thumps his chest, and leaves. How many people saw such an obvious phenomenon? Researches Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris found that consistently 50% of people failed to notice the gorilla. This “inattentional blindness” is our brain at work trying to construct meaningful and consistent narratives from an inconsistent world. Things that don’t fit the storyline get unconsciously edited, or, simply fail to register as relevant.

Einstein said, “It is the theory that decides what we observe.”

What we see is what we believe. This means that we are not just data determined, but also hypothesis determined. The brain as computer and as biological evolutionary system determines a story constructed to be called reality.

What is the practical value in this? About decision making? About how to change some mental models?

  1. For any situation, look at the data, but also at the hypothesis–the default assumption that appears as “given.”
  2. Since we shape and filter the world by our assumptions, they need to be continuously tested.
  3. Examine the assumptions that work and the ones that don’t work.
  4. Challenge your thinking and assumptions. Interact with diverse people and keep an open “beginner’s mind” rather than a quick foreclosure to a new idea. Life as a series of experiments keeps a system open to the new. Premature closure occurs by too-rapid judgment, as well as moving a new idea into an already existing model to lose the context of a new model. This style of dismissal occurs frequently among very bright people with significant life experiences who immediately relate something new to something that they already know, absorbing it into an old context or meaning without sufficient examination.
  5. We become comfortable and dependent on our old habits; uncertainty and discomfort result when moving away from existing internal models.
  6. Use data to test a hypothesis rather than to automatically confirm it.
  7. Distinguish between transforming your thinking and being caught up in a new fad. Focus on the foreground without losing sight of the background’s big picture. Repeat zooming in and out to keep perspective. Both microscopic and macroscopic views offer benefits.
  8. The best way to excise something from your life is not to ignore it. The best way to avoid something is to be informed by it. By avoiding something, you engage it, and keep it central in your life. The more you run away from something, the more you engage it—and the more apparent it becomes. To ignore takes energy, and moves you from a centered, healthy place. Decide what you want to keep, what you want to avoid, and what you want to let go.
  9. You are always free to change your mind.

The clearer we are about what we want, the more power we have. Success results from being all of who we really are, and having all of ourselves go in the same direction. Self-validation and affirmation result from having an internal ideal–a sense of “good enough”–and consistently attaining it. We each uniquely define our own meaning of success and fulfillment.

Individual success involves a full understanding of what we create to facilitate and to interfere with success. Revising a life story begins with changing our minds as well as behaviors, because we are authoring the fundamental plot and storylines. Past, present, and future are current constructions. The world occurs to us in the ways that we see and believe it to be. Beliefs drive behavior. Behavior drives performance.

We perceive possibilities only that for which we have a map (a framework or paradigm) to recognize. Everything else is a gorilla on a basketball court — superfluous or not noticed. We invent our perceptions and experiences, just as the map created is not the territory itself. And we sort information into patters and categories in order to perceive it.

Fear, adventure, change, and possibility are all synonyms, just viewed from a different spot. Possibility may simply be a different way of looking at something, a new way of thinking, or openness to feeling and reflection to what was previously unknown or foreclosed. We each have to see and experience for ourselves the advantage of tolerating change and living into possibilities. And we have to judge what needs to remain the same, as it may be difficult to resist some changes, such as an impulsive decision.

Consider these three caveats of possibility thinking:

  • The prerequisite to possibility is not necessarily insight and understanding. You have to be in a new story before you can give up an old story. Significant life change occurs by doing and experiencing things differently in the present moment. Or, some changes you have to get ready for after they happen.
  • Someone does not have to be motivated to begin doing something. An action can generate its own motivation. The professional athlete who gets up in the morning and goes to the gym may not be motivated to do so. He just does it. Sometime during the course of the workout, perhaps late into it, he becomes motivated. Or he may just do the workout because he knows that it is the thing to do in order to do what’s next. Motivation isn’t essential—but a plan and sticking to it are. (I knew I was ready to make the transition from Psychoanalysis to Executive Coaching when I sent a cartoon to the New Yorker of a patient lying on the couch with the analyst pointing to the ceiling painted with the Nike “Just Do It” swoosh.)
  • Both possibility and change require ownership of a person’s story. Authorship is an active, self-determined process, not ghostwritten by past experiences or hidden assumptions.


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Author Geneen Roth lost everything to Bernie Madoff. Read her comments about The Secret Language of Money.