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Seeing Possibility

by Tom Lane

April 8,2009

Have you ever had the experience that something you really want or need has been “under your nose” for a long time but that you just didn’t see it? Think about it. Have you ever gone to the fridge or pantry looking for a particular item and just cannot find it? Then someone comes along and points it out in a matter of seconds. This happens to me all the time, especially at the grocery store. Why does this seem to happen? One helpful woman at the grocery store told me it was because I am a man. I don’t doubt this but I do think there is a more universal answer. Apart from gender, one reason could be that we only see what we are looking for or what we expect to see. If we think that paprika comes in a metal box, then we might not see it if it’s in a bottle. 

This story might illustrate why it is important. A good friend of mine was on flight 1549 from New York to Charlotte. In recounting what it was like on the plane as everyone was escaping, he told me about a very interesting story. Almost every passenger was trying to get off the plane over the wings. A bottleneck formed and it was taking a much longer time to get off than the people at the back of the line were comfortable with. The people at the back of the line then noticed something peculiar: there was literally no one walking up to the front doors and getting off there. When the people at the back began to shout to the people in the front to walk up to the front doors, no one moved. It seems that they were so fixated on getting out of the wing doors that they did not SEE the possibility of using another door. Of course, the people who were waiting DID SEE the opportunity and eventually had to climb over the seats to get around the bottleneck and get out. We all know the plane floated for a while after it landed in the river, but what if it did not? Would not seeing other possibilities by the people in the front have doomed some of the people in the back? 

Now think about the economy we are in and think about how you are thinking about it. Recently I spoke to a sales manager who said that many of his sales people are hoping the old days would come back and were riding out this storm until they do. Well, no one knows if the old days are coming back, least of all me. But I do know that a thriving economy requires creative and innovative thinking. How does one produce this type of thinking? Using the example of flight 1549, I would venture to say that it is the people who are open to change who create new possibilities. The people near the wings acted like there were no other way out because that was what they were expecting to see. The people in the back were not fixated on one way to get out, they were open to other means. It is not surprising that they were the ones to see the new way. 

Our actions are based on how we see the world. If we continue to see the world one way, then we will continue to act one way. This produces very predictable results. If the situation you find yourself in requires different results than the predictable ones you tend to produce, you need to see the world differently. When you give up attachment to your point of view, it creates the space for new possibilities. 

I invite you to think about how you are thinking about your life and career in these uncertain times. Are you open to seeing new ways of doing things? Can you give up your existing point of view and see what is right under your nose? Experiment and see what occurs. The worse thing that will happen is that you will eventually get out over the wings.

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