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Elevate Your Game: Think Like a Dolphin Not a Shark

| June 12, 2013 | 4 Comments

Think Like a Dolphin

The waters of our business practices are as bloody as ever. And bloody waters make for muddy waters, contributing to costly blunders, wasted motion, nonproductive expenditures and other dispiriting outcomes.

How best to change this? Think like a dolphin, not a shark.


Well, obviously, I’m not here to urge that we add ocean-going dolphins to our business school faculties. (However, most MBA candidates probably would benefit from knowing how actual dolphins fight off actual sharks . . . . Hint: Circle and ram! Circle and ram!)

But countless executives, employees and others on the six continents where I’ve talked about this (and in at least eight languages into which my books about thinking like a dolphin have been translated) have found value in contemplating my aquatic metaphorical mindsets.

There are four:

* Carps get eaten a lot, whether they are countries, organizations or individuals.

* Sharks, clearly, do most of the eating.

* Not-quite-flying fish (”NoQuiffs”) squander much of their time pursuing a quixotic ideal of absolute abundance.

* And then, there are the game-changing dolphins.

How is the dolphinthinker different?

Much of my work in this area is based on the theories and findings of the late American psychologist, Dr. Clare W. Graves. He was the researcher who discovered the hole in Maslow’s ceiling.

As you may remember from Freshman Psychology, Dr. Abraham Maslow proposed a lid on human maturity that he called self-actualization. Once you hit that ceiling, you were presumed by Maslowians (at least the original ones) of having become most of what you were capable of becoming. You had reached the limits of your maturity. There was nowhere else to go.

Initially, Dr. Graves was a fan of Maslow’s model himself. He remained so right up to the moment he realized that Maslow’s ceiling was not an endpoint but a gateway to yet other extraordinary ways to shape one’s thinking.

“The biggest surprise of my life,” Dr. Graves told me on a snowy day in the early 1980s in Newton, Massachusetts, “was the day in 1959 when I realized that some of the people I’d been testing were claiming that they had gone beyond self-actualization. One day they were saying that Abe Maslow’s description fit their ideas of maturity perfectly. Now, here they were telling me, ‘No, that’s the way I used to think. But that’s not the way it is anymore.’”

The mindset that lies on the other side of self-actualization is one of the strangest, most counterintuitive and yet most natural things to be found in each of our heads.

And yet it cannot be acquired simply by, say, taking a pill. Or a class. Or a sabbatical. Or even a leap of faith. It is a mind that can take root and flourish in us ONLY to the extent that we learn how to deal more effectively with times of surprise, shock and change.

This is the psychological bramble defined by another great researcher, the late Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

In 1969, Dr. Kübler-Ross sketched out the stopovers we encounter when confronted by profound personal upheaval. You’ve probably heard of her “five stages of grief”: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In ingenious fashion, Dr. Graves was already at work exploring this same psychological locale. What he found was this: speeding up your abilities to move more constructively through Dr. Kübler-Ross’s stages can push you through Maslow’s ceiling. This, in turn, ushers you into the presence of new abilities to deal with change, surprise and complexity.

Admittedly, this is a topic as big as the human condition and as wide as all philosophy, religion, psychology and management theory, just for starters. For sure, I don’t expect businesspeople to spend much more time digging in the technical minutiae of all this than the reader of this commentary has already spent. That’s why I created my carp-shark-NoQuiff-dolphin model of thinking mindsets.

In writing my latest how-to book on how to think like a dolphin, I spent a lot of time considering what happens above Maslow’s ceiling. I concluded that what makes the dolphinthinker different is his or her exceptional ability to find and mobilize the next right, smart good thing or move.

Sometimes, this means spotting the new simplicity beyond the complexities. Other times, it means beginning at the end of the leap and working backwards. It can mean putting your beliefs in escrow so you can forego strong feelings about what is ultimately true in the world when such feelings are keeping you from succeeding. In short, what Dr. Graves discovered above Maslow’s ceiling is a virtuoso new mindset with prized qualities for doing what’s possible, what makes sense, what’s real, what works—and doing it now, when it matters most!

When you are desirous of such a mindset, you find yourself wanting to know everything you can know about how your brain works.

To now, neuroscience’s most impressive discovery is just how accomplished that extraordinary three-pound organ in our heads is at figuring things out. Evidence of its ability to “get at the truth of the moment” happens all around us every hour of the day. But, unhappily, the brain is much less skilled at getting its user—you and me—to pay attention to the truths it has arrived at. Unless, of course, we’ve made the effort to think differently. To think, as I am suggesting, like a dolphin and not like a carp, a shark or a NoQuiff.

`         Thus much of the essence of thinking like a dolphin is doing what it takes to help your brain get in touch with and act on the truths it already knows or has just arrived at. How do you do that?

Here are some of the guidelines I recommend:


Remember that what is wise and true is nearly always inclusive—it draws people and things together, connects them.


Guard against wanting something simply because it is appears to be less obtainable.


Realize that not being stupid means knowing when it’s time to let go and move on—that something is over and done—and not doing it again.


Hedge against irrational exuberance (“the optimism bias”) by applying the law of the desert: “Trust God, but tie up your camel.”


If you can’t judge someone by their ideas, judge them by their companions and their surroundings.


Don’t let the good become the enemy of the not good enough.


Be highly selective about your fights, then implacable.


Be pliable as you confront vagaries and shifts in the evidence.


Remind yourself hourly which side you are on, favoring alignment with the angels.


Keep close watch on what can make things happen for you so you don’t waste the “adjacent possible.”


Head off the problematical by letting your thinking get there first.


Remember that the human experiment is best viewed as infinite, even though we ourselves aren’t.

Such thinking qualities are never more practical and productive than in times like ours, when great technological shifts are forcing us to consider vast, often strange new awakenings and agendas. That’s another thing the dolphinthinker’s brain has figured out—it pays to be wise about the power of next. This means realizing that the toolmaker is civilization’s foremost game-changer.

And that, in terms of our own personal thinking skills, the toolmaker is us.

Dudley Lynch is president of Brain Technologies Corporation of Gainesville, Florida. His latest book is LEAP! How to Think Like a Dolphin & Do the Next Right, Smart Thing Come Hell or High Water. Print and e-book copies of LEAP! are available at www.braintechnologies.com or most major online book services.

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  • Scott_McMan


    Something that I find to be an encumbrance, is a general failure to utilize senses. We as a race rely less and less on our own abilities stemming from senses and more on in your face stimulus. And why not? After all, stimulation is provided in such an absurd amount and rate, you have little choice but to pull in and let it do all the work for you.

    I’ve learned over my life that taking full advantage of senses (or as full as possible) opens up amazing new avenues. I speak not of merely the general 5, but the many sub-levels associated with them. Furthermore, the sort of awareness I speak of is easily attainable in many instances.

    For example: Sense of touch for most is associated with engaging physically to an objective. If you were to expand that to include the electrical field inside and around your body, you’ve already become more aware than most people you know. In fact, human cells have electrical energy rivalling that if lightning bolts.

    Have you ever been deep inside a building, in a room nowhere near the outer walls (windows, doors), yet you knew it was raining or about to rain? Obviously that’s your body feeling the change in barometric pressure. However, asking most in the room, would get you little support because they are not in touch with the change that their body is feeling. Some might after thinking for a minute, agree that yes, it did feel like rain. This is a case where they consciously had to make a concerted effort and they may still not be able to tell you why they think it’s going to rain.

    Discovering these sub-levels and applying them is not so difficult, it’s applying them independent of conscious thought. This of course requires sometimes years of repetitive exercise. However, once you are free of having to apply attention, you become even more aware, in my opinion.

    Theoretically, this applies directly to those who claim psychic ability. More specifically, those who honestly believe they are psychic. I believe it merely an exercise in expanding and utilizing senses beyond the norm where many would rather think it some sort of mystical power. Even with the “psychics” themselves, most can’t explain their abilities and frankly, I don’t believe they try. In reality, some just naturally take advantage of senses without realizing it and in these cases just deem themselves to have psychic ability.

    How this relates to a dolphin is very evident. Dolphins not only take full advantage of their senses, they actually have to do so in order to survive and become successful in the different aspects of their lives.

    The utilization of senses gives an advantage in the various aspects of human life as well. There comes a point at which you can read people and size them up in less than 5 minutes, feel danger coming before it strikes, make value based decisions and the list goes on.

    A dolphin (your dolphin) is not only self aware on a higher level, a dolphin is also aware of everything that surrounds him on a higher level.

    When you can subconsciously process sense driven cues, life success is not far off.

    Dudley, I hope I am not being too vague as there is so much more to it than what I’ve related here. Thanks for the opportunity to read and respond. I look forward to reading your book.


    Scott McMan


  • http://www.SociallySpeakingLLC.com/ Penina Rybak MA/CCC-SLP

    My blogpost today on Tumblr references this article: “What Dolphins Can Teach Female Entrepreneurs”. Find it here: http://niceinitiative.tumblr.com

    I saved this excellent article, to both my Evernote and Pocket portfolios, I was that impressed. Especially since it references Maslow’s ceiling and The Five Stages of Grief by Kubler-Ross; 2 behavioral concepts I am already familiar with, given my psycho-educational background.

    This article is living proof that economics after all, is really the study of behavior, human, and in this case animal, and the ramifications for geopolitical, technological, and societal trends affecting commerce. How many more women would flock to economics classes and pursue entrepreneurship if the secret gets out??

    Learning about behavior from animals should thus be started in childhood, when a sense of self emerges, causing the child to understand what it means to be a Me, and is nurtured (hopefully) to help that child become a We; at home, at work, and in the community. Learning about animal behavior helps us make sense of our own, and instills in us useful tools of the trade for being human, as well as an entrepreneur: observation, empathy, perspective, and communication. These are all traits seen in the best public speakers, negotiators, leaders, and entrepreneurs. These are traits we can learn particularly from dolphins.

    Yesterday, Wired.com ran an article, “Researchers Find More Evidence that Dolphins Use Names” by Brandon Keim.


    Apparently, “new research shows that dolphins respond selectively to recorded versions of their personal signatures, much as a person might react to someone calling their name.” The implications are vast, including the idea that Self Concept isn’t an exclusive feature of being human. This seems to indicate that “We likely underestimate the complexity of their communication system, cognitive abilities, and the depth of meaning in their actions.”

    What does this mean for female entrepreneurs? What’s in a name? How important is branding? Are the two related? Yes!

    We are living in the iEra, where individuality, transparency, and visual digitalization marketing, are keys to success and maintenance of business ventures. But we need to remember that our behaviors, on and off “the court”, affects both the way we execute our Business Plan/Mission (in the name of what exactly?) and our own digital reputations.
    Penina Rybak MA/CCC-SLP, TSHH
    CEO Socially Speaking LLC
    Director: The NICE Initiative for Female Entrepreneurship
    LinkedIn Page: Penina Rybak http://www.linkedin.com/pub/penina-rybak/37/900/191
    Email: penina@niceinitiative.com
    Twitter: @PopGoesPenina
    Tumblr: The NICE Initiative http://niceinitiative.tumblr.com
    Pinterest: Peninaslp http://pinterest.com/peninaslp/the-nice-initiative-for-female-entrepreneurship-tb/
    Facebook: The NICE Initiative https://www.facebook.com/TheNiceInitiativeForFemaleEntrepreneurship
    Google +: The NICE Initiative https://plus.google.com/u/0/107985614582687079940/posts/p/pub