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.

Really?

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:

Prudence.

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

Authenticity.

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

Realism.

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.

Vigilance.

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

Keenness.

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

Persistence.

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

Wholeheartedness.

Be highly selective about your fights, then implacable.

Malleability.

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

Virtue.

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

Alertness.

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

Accountability.

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

Resilience.

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.

 Image Credit: Shutterstock.com


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