Thinking Beyond Straight Lines

Thinking Beyond Straight Lines

We misjudge the nature of reality. Facts, processes, histories, developments, stories, we see them all as progressing in neat straight lines. We imagine sequences of elements, events and considerations occurring in a well-mannered series of things that follow inevitably into one another. Reality, however, is more amorphous cloud or chaotic canopy of branches than a train on metal rails. So our understandings vary from the over-simplified to the down-right false. This proves to be a very limiting factor when we are called upon to plan for events, design processes or execute tasks that are not precisely covered by the scope of our past learning.

The root of our misconceptions is that the difficulty of early learning is vastly simplified by reducing reality to nuggets of understandable straight lines. “In theory” becomes our idea of how things work, and few of us progress to the point where we put together the nuggets and lines to form more complete understandings, and through them a more useful, realistic and adaptable expertise.

In part, the linearity of things forced by the pressures of learning has its uses. It is not popular fact, but fact nonetheless that there are many out there who can only comprehend the straight lines and may never be interested in bigger picture learning or thinking. Learning in fragments and digestible instructions suits them well and in general suits those who work well under instruction. For those who have to invent the instructions so that bigger goals get achieved, however, learning needs to be broader and deeper.

Unfortunately, we are increasingly designing a world where we reduce everything to the point where the lowest common denominator can feel satisfied with their performance rather than challenged, or worse, defeated. In doing so we make universal this linear, task-based and recipe-based thinking, making the ones capable of more system-level understanding reconsider the way they see the world as either inferior or false. Linearity becomes de facto and there are fewer and fewer capable of decoding the world, designing processes and encoding them into discrete instructions or making unforeseen connections.

We didn’t push back against the blind pressures of instinct and predictable animal impulses as a species, only to be be enslaved by our own invented artificial models of thought. Yet, that is what we are doing. Not even systematic nature works in straight line processes, and we like to think we transcend its programming. If that is to be true, we must realise that we can’t be very human until we strive to step aside and learn, until we think and imagine beyond the straight lines we draw too seriously in the stars.