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Fear of the Unknown?

Scrared AfAm woman The "stand-out" leaders cited in the 2010 IBM Global CEO survey (those who had successfully capitalized on the increasing complexity of the global markets through creative thinking and innovative practices) encouraged other leaders to similarly increase their comfort with ambiguity and ongoing experimentation. They also advocated letting go of command-and-control management styles in order to foster more mutual trust in organizations.

Sfumato,” which translates to “going up in smoke,” is a “willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty,” and is the fourth of the da Vinci habits recommended by author Michael Gelb. He writes, “As you awaken your powers of Curiosità, probe the depths of Dimostrazione (experience), and sharpen your senses, you come face to face with the unknown. Keeping your mind open in the face of uncertainty is the single most powerful secret of unleashing your creative potential.” This ability does not come to those who rely solely on their left-brained, analytical thinking capacities.

Gelb writes that the ceaseless application of these practices led da Vinci to many great insights and discoveries, “but they also led him to confront the vastness of the unknown and ultimately the unknowable. Yet his phenomenal ability to hold the tension of opposites, to embrace uncertainty, ambiguity, and paradox was a critical characteristic of his genius.” The theme of the tension of opposites grew in his work over the course of his lifetime – we can see this in even a cursory look at the maestro’s Mona Lisa.

Gelb writes, “In the past, a high tolerance for uncertainty was a quality to be found only in great geniuses like Leonardo. As change accelerates, we now find that ambiguity multiplies, and illusions of certainly become more difficult to maintain. The ability to thrive with ambiguity must become part of our everyday lives. Poise in the face of paradox is a key not only to effectiveness, but to sanity in a rapidly changing world.”

In his self-assessment on the strength of our own Sfumato, Gelb invites us to rate ourselves on a scale of 1-10 on each point, with one being a "maniacal" need for certainty at all times, and ten approximating that of an enlightened Taoist master.

  • I am comfortable with ambiguity.
  • I am attuned with the rhythms of my intuition. Chicken or egg?
  • I thrive with change.
  • I have a tendency to “jump to conclusions.”
  • I enjoy riddles, puzzles, and puns.
  • I usually know when I am feeling anxious.
  • I spend sufficient time on my own.
  • I trust my gut.
  • I can comfortably hold contradictory ideas in my mind.
  • I delight in paradox and am sensitive to irony.
  • I appreciate the importance of conflict in inspiring creativity.

He then offers a variety of good exercises that help participants to explore the various aspects of their own Sfumato and ways to increase ability in this area.

In closing, the author points to a study conducted by the American Management Association in the 1980’s that concluded thatthe most successful managers were distinguished by ‘high tolerance for ambiguity and intuitive decision-making skill.’” In the The Logic of Intuitive Decision Making, Dr. Weston Agor reported his findings from extensive interviews conducted of senior executives who overwhelmingly concluded that their worst decisions had resulted from not following their own intuitions.

Gelb’s bottom line conclusion: Embrace and enjoy ambiguity and trust your gutCeltic knot

Again, in order to benefit from the valuable exercises that Child w Microscope investigateing daisyMichael Gelb has created for his readers, I recommend going through his How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci or the workbook by that name.

Among the more interesting questions in the author's self-assessment for “Dimostrazione” or experiential learning are:

  • Do I seek out new experiences every day, or pursue different perspectives and fresh insights?
  • Have I changed a deeply-held belief due to practical experience?
  • Would my closest friends say that I am willing to acknowledge my mistakes?
  • Do I ever practice cynicism and call it independent thinking? — Now, that's an interesting one! …And unfortunately, I would have to admit, "Guilty, as charged!"

I.    Examining Impactful Experiences:
This exercise involves reflecting on the most influential experiences of our lives, what we learned, how we apply them, how any conclusions we have drawn from them may color our attitudes or perceptions… and whether there are any that we might now reconsider?

II. The Sources of Our Beliefs:
Here, we are invited to write down beliefs we hold in at least three areas such as human nature, ethics, spirituality, or politics. We are asked what the source of those beliefs were: media, books, other people, or our own direct experience? Whether there are beliefs that we hold for which we have no experiential verification, or if there are any we might be able to test now through experience? 

III.  Three Points of View:
Just as Leonardo tried to look at everything he sought to understand or draw from three perspectives, this exercise asks us to take the statement of belief (above) that generated the strongest emotion and try to examine it from various other angles outlined by the author.

IV:  Learning from Mistakes and Adversity:
Here, we are encouraged to reflect on what we learned about making mistakes in our childhoods, what we learned from our biggest mistakes, which mistakes we repeat, and the role that the fear of making mistakes may continue to play in our daily lives at work and at home.

In an especially useful twenty-minute stream-of-consciousness writing exercise, we are asked, “What would I do differently if I had no fear of making mistakes?”

V. Learn from Role Models and “Anti-Role” Models:
We can learn a tremendous amount from paying attention to others demonstrating what not to do. Also, some of our anti-role models may be our positive role models for us in other ways. This exercise invites us to look at what we have learned from our positive and less positive role models.

VI. Practice Internal Anti-commercial Martial Arts: 
We are asked to consider the impact that some commercials may have had on our worldviews.

Monkey & camera

Learning through dimonstrazione is the second of Leonardo da Vinci’s lifelong habits advocated by Michael Gelb, author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. Gelb describes this approach as “a commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.” 

The leaders in the 2009 IBM CEO study who successfully managed innovative resurgences in their organizations urge other leaders to increase their comfort with ambiguity, ongoing experimentation, and taking "calculated risks." Fostering organizational cultures that encourage questioning and the challenging of assumptions and that continuously solicit new and original ideas leads directly to experimentation, which involves exploring lesser known paths. Not all of these paths will necessarily lead to success.

Is there such a thing as "a mistake"?
Some say, "No," that “there are no mistakes.” Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “Experience never errs; it is only your judgment that errs in promising itself results as not caused by your experiments.”  The maestro certainly had his share of failures. Yet, while he experienced tremendous adversity which resulted in periods of self-doubt, he never gave up. Gelb cites studies by Dr. Martin Seligman that find career success is directly linked with resilience in the face of adversity, and that this hardiness goes hand-in-hand with a willingness to make and learn from mistakes. Gelb and Seligman assert that awareness, a sense of humor, and deep contemplation help us overcome adversity, just as they did for da Vinci.

Following my own instincts, learning through experience, and sometimes going "by the seat of my pants” is what I’ve done much of my life. However, I would not be honest if I didn’t share that I have mixed feelings about this approach and that I don’t think that it is always the smartest route. Some who know me well as the ardent follower of my own drummer might be surprised to hear me say this. And so, I've struggled more with this post than with others as I've sorted this through to find resolution, as you will read further down.

Is there a generational divide when it comes to learning by doing versus learning from elders?
I'm not so sure there is. 
There has been considerable discussion in the training and development field about experiential learning as the preferred learning style of much of the Millennial Generation. I recommend a particularly well-written blog piece on this topic: Do Millennials Think That They Can't Learn From Boomers? The Surprising Truth. The article asserts that Gen Y'rs do look to their elders to help them to learn some of the more nuanced areas of knowledge which generally come through experience, such as how to read people, how to negotiate, etc.

And while Millennials prefer learning many new skills by doing, they also want mentors who will give them immediate feedback and who solicit their ideas for ways to enhance the learning process. The latter helps them to engage more enthusiastically, draws on their considerable creative thinking abilities, and will likely yield valuable improvements. I believe that most adults of any age would prefer this style of learning, given the option. Unfortunately, there was less choice offered in how previous generations were educated and trained. Hopefully, the learning-style preferences of this sizeable younger generation will serve to create changes in training delivery that will benefit all. 

Both/and: Trial, Error & Mentors Horsehead yin-yang
It seems to me that, as with so many other things in life, the key may be to find the right balance: to seek out opportunities to learn by doing and to find wise mentors. The last words of the Buddha were said to have been, “Be a lamp unto your selves.” In other words, listen to what wise teachers have to share, and read the great books, but don’t accept everything they have to say without question. We need to process their teachings through the illumination of our own reasoning and experience, so that they become part of our own knowledge base, instead of someone else’s.

Unfortunately, those who didn't have good mentors when they were young and necessarily became self-reliant don't always realize that they would benefit from wise champions, and therefore don't seek them out. But I believe we would all do well to find caring mentors who encourage us to imagine, create, and experiment while also sharing enough of their own experience with us so that when we fail, we don’t fall too hard or precipitously. 

Most of the stand-out leaders in the IBM study said that mentoring is the style of leadership toward which they have been shifting, as opposed to that of command-and-control. The "persuade and influence" approach they endorse permits leaders to step back and encourage experiential learning and some risk-taking, while also providing a sounding board and support in thinking through ideas. I believe that it is this style of leadership that will fill organizations with the critical and creative thinkers who will themselves lead.

The next post will contain a few exercises from Gelb’s book that will help us to  explore the role experiential learning has played in our own lives and how we feel about (gulp!) "mistakes" we have made.

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