The Habit to Think

Though it is an old phenomenon, of late, its severity has approached disturbing limits. The impulse to act supersedes the intellectual discipline to think. Even when time is allocated for planning, i.e. thinking through how a project or task will be done, it is used sketchily with little concern for detail and least to visualize the process and its result. Getting into the activity or implementing instructions takes precedence. Picturing the end goal – what form, shape, feel, quality it should have – is a sweeping thought taken over by confusion. With this limited clarity on the outcome, most often the process backfires and the result is unexpected with wasted resources and demoralized people. Even then, when probed to assess their performance, these people will grade themselves high. When asked, why so high, they mention the appeasing and trivial rationale of having made the effort to attempt.

Cultivating minds that think

In search of reason for such behaviors, several insights connect the dots. In childhood, parents have a ready blueprint by which their children have to live their lives, just as was done by their own parents. There is little or no thought behind the age-old prescription scripted by society to earn esteem. This blueprint gives confidence of a ‘respectful’ (izzatdar) life, to acquire an honorable status, a decent job, an attractive marriage proposal and, hence, to breed children who will be respected, will get into good schools, get good jobs, and so on. The scene is set. Having worked with the extremely underprivileged to the mentally and physically impaired, I have observed that the family’s’ desire for a white collar job surpasses the need to have any job for the sake of the dignity of being self-reliant. The same holds true for the economically middle to affluent ones. The vision to educate a generation to uplift a community or the country is far from personal reality. It is considered fanatical, idealistic and impossible. As long as the first three rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are fulfilled, life is well-spent.

Even if the naturally-inclined-to-idealism youngster wants to plan a self-professed future, hammered down upon them is the guilt of deciding contrary to their parent’s wishes. At times, they will first study as per parents’ demands, then pursue their own interests, if the luxury of time and money allows. 8 in 10 youth with depressive problems that I have counseled suffer due to compulsions by parents, mostly in matters of deciding their careers or their choice of a life partner. These youths are martyrs of their parent’s inexorable but unfulfilled dreams.

Going back to circumstances earlier in life, hardly any parent involves their children in discussions pertaining to making a plan for a picnic, a family celebration, redecorating the house, the menu for a dinner party, a shopping trip, what they would like to wear on Eid and, most importantly, the ‘why’ of all of these situations. No parent I’ve interviewed has ever asked their son or daughter “What is your opinion…..?” to enable them to connect to their ability to think, analyze, reason and express. Then we condemn the media for feeding into our minds – when the minds are empty, anything will fill it. The tremendous intelligence Pakistanis are blessed with is diverted to justifying and rationalizing why something ‘cannot be done’ and blaming others who have ‘supposedly’ not done it, instead of using it to stimulate the intellect to inspire growth.

Powers of Visualization

We are visual beings. Children are told fairy tales to spark their imagination. If this unique-to-humans quality is not stimulated, the present physical world becomes the reality forever, with all its limitations and body-centric demands. We end up living a life only placating our senses, just like any animal. With a healthy imagination, we can look far, far into the future and determine what it should be. We can build a thousand bridges over rivers and oceans of conflict, strife and struggle, and raise a civilization to the higher level it must evolve to, to avoid extinction. With imagination, combined with the mind’s other faculties of 1) Common sense, 2) Thinking, 3) Values, and 4) Memory, we are able to fight nature’s default entropic condition and advance our special inborn states of leadership and mastery.

This same milieu continues in schools, with children placed on an assembly line of regurgitating text and teachers churning out report cards. Discovering the aptitude of a child, let alone nurturing it, lies outside the realm of ‘education’. Aptitude – this God-gifted ability to be distinct – is sacrificed on the altar of subject-specific focus to get into college to, yet again, land a ‘good’ job, where ‘good’ implies status, money and security.

Thus, the muscle of visualization, and intellectual capacity to think shrivels and becomes limp. As adults, this disability plays out in most sectors of society, whether Public, Corporate, Social, Education, or as citizens. In the Government, committees plan forever, every time bringing in one more resource who may have the magic wand. Discussion is good but too much dependence and delayed decisions further adds to the limp. Whenever there is planning, too much weightage is put on the past evils and how to fix them instead of fresh creative ideas for rebirth.

Survival of the Smartest

Centuries of human history have proven that those in the survival mode will survive, while those who thrive are a different breed: they think differently. Every invention is preceded by a question. It is the quality of this question that determines the size and impact of the outcome. The human brain became powerful under conditions where thinking and motion were a constant. There are two ways to beat the cruelty of the environment: You can become stronger or you can become smarter. Humans chose the latter. It seems most improbable that such a physically weak species could take over the planet not by adding muscles to our skeletons but by adding neurons to our brains. We moved from the 2,000 who inhabited the earth to the 7 billion by:

  • Giving up on stability
  • Not beating back the changes
  • Stopping to care about consistency within a given habitat – not an option
  • Adapting to variation itself

We took on the entire globe. We didn’t become stronger; we became smarter. We learned to grow our fangs, not in the mouth but in the head. Those unable to rapidly solve new problems or learn from mistakes did not survive. We are hardwired to be flexible.

Our brains are so sensitive to external inputs that their physical wiring depends upon culture. The adult brain, throughout life, retains the ability to change its structure and function in response to experience. This throws any excuse to not change out of the window, yet puts great focus on the forces in the environment. Whereas the brain is predominantly (instinctually) oriented toward ALFAL (Appetite, Laziness, Fear, Anger, Lust), it has the higher power to construct newer civilizations by altering the information it seeks and creates. The quality of this information generates physical energy, which, in turn, encodes a relationship with the self, others and the environment. It’s the number of door handles on the entrance to information that determines the content, i.e. my personal meaning of myself (my identity and, therefore, my narrative and meaningfulness); the timing at which this occurs, i.e. more useful when youthful; and the environment that encourages me to express it to build positive associations.

Let’s extract our courage from our construct – the material we are made of. Predominant in forming our nature are mirror neurons, which are: 

  • Remarkably subtle
  • Scattered across the brain
  • Self-corrective; predict error; retrospectively evaluate input for errors
  • Perceive unfavorable circumstances and call for a change in behavior

The job of the mirror neurons is to:

  • Reflect their surroundings
  • Replicate reality
  • Imitate behavior

Tied with this constant (the mirror neurons), is the immense power of curiosity.

  • From birth starts the ability to discover, which brings immense joy and is an addictive drug
  • Exploration creates the need for more discovery so that more joy can be experienced
  • An in-built reward system that, if allowed to flourish, will continue for life
  • As children get older, they find that learning not only brings them joy, but it also brings them mastery
  • Expertise through discovery breeds confidence to take intellectual risks
  • If not in the emergency room, these may end up with a Nobel Prize*

We as parents, educators, managers, and leaders are responsible for forming an environment where the mind’s natural need and urgency to evolve is facilitated. How come the Apples, Googles and the Facebooks of the world are shaking a whole industry? How come Wal-Mart tops the Fortune 500 list, above the petroleum giants, when so many others sell shampoo, meat and clothing? How come teams of researchers tirelessly and passionately, for decades, sift through atoms to maybe discover one more healing drug? What does it take for some to look up at the stars and see the galaxies beyond, to build means to get there? Or those who can see deep into the core of the earth even if it is to extract its heat to warm a home?

Yes, exactly that – ask questions. Ask, and thou shall receive. You aren’t getting because you haven’t asked. Children are natural askers of questions, and then we kill this superior ability. Thanks to those parents who guide their children at home and leaders at work who provoke their teams to remain on a quest for answers and solutions, we can look forward to next generations building their tracks on thinking, enquiry and adventure.

* Extracts from ‘Brain Rules’ by John J Medina