Chapter One: THE FIRST PRACTICE
It's All Invented
A shoe factory sends two marketing
scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding
business. One sends back a telegram saying,
SITUATION HOPELESS STOP NO ONE WEARS SHOES
The other writes back triumphantly,
GLORIOUS BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY STOP THEY HAVE NO SHOES
marketing expert who sees no shoes, all the evidence points to hopelessness.
To his colleague, the same conditions point to abundance and possibility.
Each scout comes to the scene with his own perspective; each returns
telling a different tale. Indeed, all of life comes to us in narrative
form; it's a story we tell.
The roots of this phenomenon go much deeper than just attitude or
personality. Experiments in neuroscience have demonstrated that
we reach an understanding of the world in roughly this sequence:
first, our senses bring us selective information about what is out
there; second, the brain constructs its own simulation of the sensations;
and only then, third, do we have our first conscious experience
of our milieu. The world comes into our consciousness in the form
of a map already drawn, a story already told, a hypothesis, a construction
of our own making.
1953 experiment revealed to stunned researchers that a frog's eye
is capable of perceiving only four types of phenomena:
- Sudden changes
- Outlines in
- Curves of outlines
of small, dark objects
A frog does
not "see" its mother's face, it cannot appreciate a sunset,
nor even the nuances of color. It "sees" only what it needs
to see in order to eat and to avoid being eaten: small tasty bugs,
or the sudden movement of a stork coming in its direction. The frog's
eye delivers extremely selective information to the frog's brain.
The frog perceives only that which fits into its hardwired categories
Human eyes are selective, too, though magnitudes more complex than
those of the frog. We think we can see "everything," until
we remember that bees make out patterns written in ultraviolet light
on flowers, and owls see in the dark. The senses of every species
are fine-tuned to perceive information critical to their survival
dogs hear sounds above our range of hearing, insects pick
up molecular traces emitted from potential mates acres away.
perceive only the sensations we are programmed to receive, and our
awareness is further restricted by the fact that we recognize only
those for which we have mental maps or categories.
The British neuropsychologist Richard Gregory wrote, "The senses
do not give us a picture of the world directly; rather they
provide evidence for the checking of hypotheses about what lies
before us." And neurophysiologist Donald O. Hebb says, "The
'real world' is a construct, and some of the peculiarities
of scientific thought become more intelligible when this fact is
recognized ... Einstein himself in 1926 told Heisenberg it was nonsense
to found a theory on observable facts alone: 'In reality
the very opposite happens. It is theory which decides what we can
We see a map of the world, not the world itself. But what kind of
map is the brain inclined to draw? The answer comes from one of
the dictates of evolution, the survival of the fittest. Fundamentally,
it is a map that has to do with our very survival; it evolved to
provide, as a first priority, information on immediate dangers to
life and limb, the ability to distinguish friends and foes, the
wherewithal to find food and resources and opportunities for procreation.
The world appears to us sorted and packaged in this way, substantially
enriched by the categories of culture we live in, by learning, and
by the meanings we form out of the unique journey each of us travels.
See how thoroughly the map and its categories govern our perception.
In a famous experiment, the Me'en people of Ethiopia were presented
for the first time with photographs of people and animals, but were
unable to "read" the two-dimensional image. "They felt
the paper, sniffed it, crumpled it, and listened to the crackling
noise it made; they nipped off little bits and chewed them to taste
it." Yet people in our modern world easily equate the photographic
image with the object photographed - even though the two resemble
each other only in a very abstract sense. Recognizing Pablo Picasso
in a train compartment, a man inquired of the artist why he did
not paint people "the way they really are." Picasso asked
what he meant by that expression. The man opened his wallet and
took out a snapshot of his wife, saying, "That's my wife."
Picasso responded, "Isn't she rather small and flat?"
For the Me'en people there were no "photographs," although
they lay in their hands as plain as day. They saw nothing but shiny
paper. Only through the conventions of modern life do we see the
image in a photograph. As for Picasso, he was able to see the snapshot
as an artifact, distinct from what it represented.
Our minds are also designed to string events into story lines, whether
or not there is any connection between the parts. In dreams, we
regularly weave sensations gathered from disparate parts of our
lives into narratives. In full wakefulness, we produce reasons for
our actions that are rational, plausible, and guided by the logic
of cause and effect, whether or not these "reasons" accurately
portray any of the real motivational forces at work. Experiments
with people who have suffered a lesion between the two halves of
the brain have shown that when the right side is prompted, say,
to close a door, the left side, unaware of the experimenter's
instruction, will produce a "reason" as to why he has just
performed the action, such as, "Oh, I felt a draft."
It is these sorts of phenomena that we are referring to when we
use the catchphrase for this chapter it's all invented. What we
mean is, "It's all invented anyway, so we might as well
invent a story or a framework of meaning that enhances our quality
of life and the life of those around us."
Most people already understand that, as with cultural differences,
interpretations of the world vary from individual to individual
and from group to group. This understanding may persuade us that
by factoring out our own interpretations of reality, we can reach
a solid truth. However, the term it's all invented points to
a more fundamental notion that it is through the evolved
structures of the brain that we perceive the world. And the mind
constructs. The meanings our minds construct may be widely shared
and sustaining for us, but they may have little to do with the world
itself. Furthermore, how would we know?
which is often too simply described as an orderly process
of accumulating knowledge based on previously acquired truths
even science relies on our capacity to adapt to new facts by radically
shifting the theoretical constructions we previously accepted as
truth. When we lived in a Newtonian world, we saw straight lines
and forces; in an Einsteinian universe, we noticed curved space/time,
relativity, and indeterminacy. The Newtonian view is still as valid
only now we see it as a special case, valid within a particular
set of conditions. Each new paradigm gives us the opportunity to
"see" phenomena that were before as invisible to us as the colors
of the sunset to the frog.
To gain greater insight into what we mean by a map, a framework,
or a paradigm, let's revisit the famous nine-dot puzzle, which
will be familiar to many readers. As you may or may not know, the
puzzle asks us to join all nine dots with four straight lines, without
taking pen from paper. If you have never seen this puzzle before,
go ahead and try it ...before you turn the page!
If you have never played this game before, you will most likely
find yourself struggling to solve the puzzle inside the space of
the dots, as though the outer dots constituted the outer limit of
the puzzle. The puzzle illustrates a universal phenomenon of the
human mind, the necessity to sort data into categories in order
to perceive it. Your brain instantly classifies the nine dots as
a two-dimensional square. And there they rest, like nails in
the coffin of any further possibility, establishing a box with a
dot in each of the four corners, even though no box in fact exists
on the page.
Nearly everybody adds that context to the instructions, nearly everybody
hears: "Connect the dots with four straight lines without
taking pen from paper, within the square formed by the outer dots."
And within that framework, there is no solution. If, however, we
were to amend the original set of instructions by adding the phase,
"Feel free to use the whole sheet of paper," it is likely
that a new possibility would suddenly appear to you.
It might seem that the space outside the dots was crying out, "Hey,
bring some lines out here!"
The frames our minds create define and confine what
we perceive to be possible. Every problem, every dilemma, every
dead end we find ourselves facing in life, only appears unsolvable
inside a particular frame or point of view. Enlarge the box, or
create another frame around the data, and problems vanish, while
new opportunities appear.
This practice we refer to by the catchphrase, it's all invented,
is the most fundamental of all the practices we present in this
book. When you bring to mind it's all invented, you remember that
it's all a story you tell not just some of it, but all of
it. And remember, too, that every story you tell is founded on a
network of hidden assumptions. If you learn to notice and distinguish
these stories, you will be able to break through the barriers of
any "box" that contains unwanted conditions and create other
conditions or narratives that support the life you envision for
yourself and those around you. We do not mean that you can just
make anything up and have it magically appear. We mean that you
can shift the framework to one whose underlying assumptions allow
for the conditions you desire. Let your thoughts and actions spring
from the new framework and see what happens.
from The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and
Benjamin Zander Copyright© 2000 by Rosamund Stone Zander and
Benjamin Zander. Excerpted by permission of Harvard
Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. No part
of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission
in writing from the publisher.