Seeing the Big Picture (Building a Bigger Frame)

shellThe Idea: It’s going to take a new, more expansive kind of thinking, by many people with different points of view working in collaboration, to solve the world’s most intractable problems. Here are some thoughts how we could achieve that kind of ‘synthetic’ thinking.

This morning, as I slowly awoke, I had an ‘aha!’ moment. I will tell you about it soon. I think I finally know what I was meant to do. Even more than writing, though writing is a small part of it. It came to me when I was combining things — goals, ideas, and perceptions. And then I suddenly saw the big picture, how all the pieces fit. It’s an amazing experience, and one that we should all have more often, and learn how to make happen.

Let’s take an example. On Monday I posted a conversation with myself about how to save the world, showing two very different approaches. It was genuine, not written for effect — I have these arguments with myself all the time, which is why this blog sometimes comes across a bit schizophrenic. What was interesting was that quite a few readers, in the comments thread, via e-mail and even over at Grist, seemed anxious to take sides — which argument, the green or the beige, made more sense, and what was wrong with the other side? Which side was the real Dave’s view? The debate was not a rhetorical device. It was an example of our constant struggle to decide between, or reconcile, different goals, choices, conceptions or perceptions. But it seems to be a proclivity of Western thinking that we always try first to decide, to dismiss, to discount one of two dissonant ideas as inferior, and accept the other as the right one, the better one, the lesser of two evils. The result is polarized thinking, and in the West it has become something of a cultural disease. Most of Lakoff’s work on frames is about trying to reframe debate, change the perspective of the opposing side, so that the right (or more accurately left) point of view comes out on top, looks better. Why is there no effort instead to understand the ‘opposing’ view, not as a means of capitulating to it or becoming vulnerable to it or defeating it, but rather as a basis for finding a third point of view that encompasses both.

The words we use for this process betray our distaste for it: accommodation, compromise, reconciliation. There is a latent aggressiveness and intolerance in our disinterest in finding more holistic answers: “Those guys aren’t looking for a win-win answer so why should we?”

To the Eastern mind this must appear bizarre, militaristic, even self-defeating. As citizens and as consumers we are inundated with alternatives and choices, and forced to ‘choose one’: Coke or Pepsi, Toyota or Ford, Windows or Mac or Linux, Democrat or Republican, public or private, Red or Blue or Green, Black or White. Your choice determines which community you belong to, whether you’re with us or against us, good or evil, winner or loser, patriot or traitor, friend or foe. Even those who talk about peace want it on their terms: No peace without justice, no peace without security, no peace without freedom. No surprise that there is no peace.

Synthesis is the outcome of the merging of two or more things: in Hegelian philosophy it is the emergence of the combination of thesis and antithesis. Synthesis is not compromise, it is transcendence, a higher conception than either the thought or its contradiction. “The combining of  separate elements to form a coherent whole”. The great discoveries of human history and science have often come from synthesis of previous ideas, conceptions and points of view thought by lesser thinkers to be irreconcilable. What made Einstein such a brilliant thinker was his ability to synthesize, transcend, come up with unified theories. Yet in common parlance, the terms synthesis and synthetic are most often used to mean artificial, not real.

Synergy is “the interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects, cooperative interaction among groups that creates an enhanced combined effect.” It is used to describe the supposed positive effects of the merger of two corporations, two corporate cultures — yet 85% of all such mergers actually destroy value rather than creating it, leaving morale and productivity worse off than before, and usually resulting in the ‘acquirer’ involuntarily imposing their culture on the ‘losing’ one. So the prevailing response to calls for, or assertions of, synergy has become one of cynicism and raised eyebrows.

Integration is “combining into a complete and harmonious whole”. But for those that aren’t in mathematics or semiconductor construction, we most often think of the term as the forced desegregation of US school-children, or the absorption (and disappearance) of one thing into another.

Holistic means considering the inseparable nature and interrelationship of all of the elements of a system. In the West, our normal approach to dealing with systems is the opposite: Piecemeal — the doctor specialist treating just one symptom or part of the body, the traffic and planning departments deciding what roads to build in isolation from impact on other communities, and corporations completely disregarding ‘external’ costs (degradation and reduction of the commons, social and environmental damage, non-renewability of their assets) and long-term impacts to focus narrowly on only the costs that appear on the income statement and the impacts in the next fiscal quarter. Holistic approaches are openly ridiculed by specialists and self-styled pragmatists as impractical, idealistic, and unscientific.

Not surprisingly, we tend to use these four terms incorrectly or disparagingly when we use them at all. And our adulation for specialists and the way we teach our children reinforce this narrowness, this denigration of and antipathy towards the big picture and the long view.

Why do we do this? And more importantly, what can we do to rectify it? How can we teach ourselves, and our children, how and why to think synergistically and holistically, and to synthesize and integrate ideas and information?

My guess as to why we do this is that Western ‘scientific’ man has come to loathe uncertainty, mystery and imprecision. The whole notion of complexity and chaos theory triggers revulsion in many people: “What do you mean we can only use systems thinking in complicated systems, not in complex ones?” “Who says most of our systems are complex and therefore largely unknowable, and the best we can do is look for meaningful patterns that, at best, modestly improve the probability that our predictions for the future will be accurate?” The whole Gaia theory, which perceives the world to be a single, complex, self-managing organism was scorned for a generation until more and more evidence emerged that it was a better model of reality than the parochial theories it synthesized. We hate not knowing, and we love simple answers and simple choices — from political leaders, from the hawkers of commercial brands, from preachers in the pulpits, and from the education system (when we are young) and the media (as we get older) that lay out those answers and choices for us.

How can we learn, and teach, our children and ourselves to see the big picture, to synthesize and synergize and integrate ideas and conceptions and perceptions and beliefs, to transcend parochial and overly simplistic and antagonistic and dyadic us-versus-them thinking and evolve new answers and options and ideas that are holistic and higher, above parochialism and dogmatism and narrow self-serving ideology, and more unified, more profound, and ultimately more useful in solving the world’s problems?

My sense is that there is no easy answer to this, as much as we might want one, and as much as some advocates of various theologies and ideologies will push them forward as answers, as holy grails to ascend to a “higher level of consciousness”. Programmer Dale Asberry has pointed me to the intriguing but opaque Reciprocality site which suggests most of us have been indoctrinated to unlearn how to see the big picture, because living in an artificial and limited world is easier and keeps us in line. It says some people are just naturally able to see the bigger picture. I’m neither that optimistic (I don’t know anyone that sees synergistic solutions easily) nor pessimistic (I believe anyone should be able to learn or re-learn how to do it).

I believe we will probably have to teach, and learn from, each other to become better at this. True collaboration is a synergistic process, so it makes sense to me that holistic, synergistic thinking is probably best learned by collaboration with others. I am sure that there is a synthesis of the two opposing views in my conversation with myself Monday on how to save the world, for example, but I am skeptical that any one person (other than perhaps an Einstein) is likely to be able to come up with that synthesis. If we’re going to learn how to do this, we’re going to have to learn together. That means lots of practice.

I also believe state of mind is important in this process. My ‘aha’ synthesis this morning was a semi-conscious application of the 7-step mantra that Cyndy at MouseMusings and I developed, though I wouldn’t presume to believe it would work for others:


Observe, listen, pay attention, focus, open up your senses, perceive everything that has a bearing on the issue at hand. Connect.
Self-control: Don’t prejudge or jump to conclusions. Don’t lose your cool. Focus.
Understand: Make sure you have the facts and appreciate the context. Things are the way they are for a reason. Know what that reason is. Sympathize.
Question: Ask, don’t tell. Challenge. Think critically.
Imagine: Picture, hear, feel what could be. Be visionary. Every problem is an opportunity. Anything is possible.
Offer: Consider. Give something away. Create options, new avenues to explore. Suggest possibilities. Lend a hand. Help.
Collaborate: Create something together. Solve a problem with a collective answer better than any set of individual answers. Learn to yield, to build on, to bridge, to adapt your thinking.

What do you think? If we’re going to save the world and stuff we’re going to have to follow Einstein’s advice: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” I sense that thinking that bridges, unifies, synthesizes conflicting points of view might be the kind of thinking that Einstein used to solve problems. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Seeing the Big Picture (Building a Bigger Frame)

  1. Dale Asberry says:

    “It says some people are just naturally able to see the bigger picture. I’m neither that optimistic (I don’t know anyone that sees synergistic solutions easily) nor pessimistic (I believe anyone should be able to learn or re-learn how to do it).”I would agree that few see synergistic solutions easily. My own take on R is that some are naturally able to “feel” incongruence and are then driven to investigate the status quo.

  2. Jon Husband says:

    One of the ongoing problems, as I see it, is to somehow free oneself from the *weight* and inertia of the current systems’ impact on us (as individuals) to free up the time and energy otherwise spent wrestling with moving along through daily life in *that system of systems*.It may be aboutthe level of sacrifice or giving up of things, in order to move more closely and consistently to core purpose.

  3. Rayne says:

    You’ve just posted a request for us to literally move to a higher state of consciousness. There are those of us who are able to make the move, many to most of us cannot. Ken Wilber’s premise is that folks who cannot will be pulled along by those of us who can; therefore, emerge we must, and take the rest of them with us.

  4. SB says:

    Yes, I think what you describe requires intense, I would almost say ‘spiritual’ discipline — necessary, but difficult. For me, even, perhaps, impossible.

  5. anonymous girlfriend says:

    It’s not that highbrow. When someone says “Choose this or that” insist that it is possible to have both.An example is abortion. Anti-abortionists believe they are saving unborn babies. Pro-abortionists believe they are saving women from back alley abortionists. Both sides believe they are saving lives. Lock both sides in a conference room with a huge blackboard and some urns of coffee. No one gets out until an elegant solution is created that saves BOTH babies and mothers.Life is not an SAT/ACT test but if it was nature tells us the answer is always D. All Of the Above.AG

  6. lugon says:

    “I don’t know anyone that sees synergistic solutions easily” may mean that possibly our main problem is *speed*? I mean, cooking takes time.I read in Harrison Owen’s (of Open Space Technology fame) “Practice of Peace” book that one of the preconditions for self-organization (as well as not too many prior connections etc) is having a “shell”: a protective environment in which the new connections can happen. So maybe 5 minutes of practice each day, saying “both” instead of “ommmm”?It’s not just suspending judgement – it’s more like delaying taking sides, introducing as many “let’s look at this” tools as you like.”Explore before you choose” – but how do you explore?

  7. Christopher says:

    We need to use our common ground to reach higher ground but must learn to respect another’s sacred ground. This is where we fail because all to often another’s sacred ground is distasteful to us.As long as we remember to not inflict ourselves upon each other we can go beyond what we are now.The goal should be in creating solutions–many of them so as to allow the different needs of everyone to be met and to allow the power of our creativity to find answers not yet found. A “one size fits all” response will always fail. What is good for one may not be good for another.By allowing variations of the themes we will find all the answers we need and remove the taint of having to coerce others to follow along. We need to finally realize that “WE” are the ones we have been waiting for. By keeping the creation in our hands instead of a central authority we prevent our answers becoming hostage to the power plays of politicians. both those who hate your solution and want to kill it–and even worse those who will sacrifice your answer to maintain their power.

Comments are closed.