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3 Ways to Gain Perspective

Lessons from the Grand Canyon.

On a summer visit to Grand Canyon National Park, a park ranger told me: “You know, it’s about perspective. The Copper Canyon in Mexico is deeper and longer than the Grand Canyon, but it’s covered with vegetation. Here, the rock layers show perfectly, which makes it look much more massive. We also have the marketing going for us—the Grand Canyon.” Perspective, like the lack of vegetation in the Grand Canyon, can make a world of difference in how you perceive what you see. In other words, how to gain perspective is how to gain depth in your thinking, creativity, and problem solving skills. Let’s explore 3 ways to gain perspective.

The Insightful Bean articles strive to contribute a unique perspective so that hopefully you have a different, slightly better way of looking at something. Perspective is a point of view. A point of view depends on the position from which you observe something in particular, like a scenic viewpoint on a highway. Your perspective has an effect on your capacity to act, your attitude, and how you feel about different situations. Of course, two or more people can be looking at the exact same view from the same position and still see different things. The properties of perspective are a lot like the properties of canyons: Canyons visibly have depth, undergo weathering, and form ecosystems. Consider the following:

a) Canyons’ depth

Depth and height play a crucial role in perspective. Imagine you are at the top of the canyon. How far can you see? However, if you hike down a canyon you’ll realize your vision is much more limited. Whenever we have a problem, we tend to focus from our immediate position. To improve your perspective, consider how you can position yourself in a way that you can see farther away. Conversely, if you have too many options or possible solutions to a problem, you might also want to hike down to see what the problem really is. You bring the problem down to earth. Perspective is being able to take many angles into consideration. Ask yourself:

  • What am I not seeing?
  • What have I not considered?
  • Am I trying to understand the problem, or am I trying to come up with a solution?

One way to gain perspective is by acknowledging what you don’t see. In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb elaborates on Via Negativa: “If I spot a black swan (not capitalized), I can be quite certain that the statement “all swans are white” is wrong. But even if I have never seen a black swan, I can never hold such a statement to be true. Rephrasing it again: since one small observation can disprove a statement, while millions can hardly confirm it, disconfirmation is more rigorous than confirmation.” It sure is pretty to see the views from above the canyon, but it’s only when you hike down that you discover what carved it. Depth in your perspective is considering both the big picture and the little details.

b) Canyons’ weathering

It took millions of years for the Grand Canyon to form. Canyons can have rivers, perennial streams, pockets of water, and occasional flash floods. All these elements cause weathering and continually carve the sandstone into a canyon. Problems happen in the same way. We have to deal with continual challenges, perennial challenges, or problems that come in a flash flood. Some problems need a quick fix, and can be fixed soon, but other problems are better solved over time. Just like the weathering of a canyon, these difficult problems need to be met in a series of steps—with the next actionable becoming apparent as we solve the previous one.

In Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation, talks about the Unmade Future. Highly creative endeavors are hard to envision because they don’t yet exist. He states, “But how do we go about creating the unmade future? I believe that all we can do is foster the optimal conditions in which it—whatever “it” is—can emerge and flourish. This is where real confidence comes in. Not the confidence that we know exactly what to do at all times but the confidence that, together, we will figure it out.” Originality, he says, happens in that sweet spot between the known and the unknown.

At one point the Grand Canyon did not exist, just like any imagined creative project. Take the problems and transform them into opportunities to improve, to grow, and to shape your future. Be the river that carves the sandstone into a canyon. Turn and adjust to discover more creative ways to weather your most difficult rocks. Over time you’ll gain perspective; unconsidered paths become apparent and creative solutions become possible.

c) Canyons’ ecosystem

Something you can observe when you see a canyon is its ecosystem. Canyons can have vegetation, rivers or streams, animals, trees, and human activity. Over millions of years, canyons shape up to become beautiful geological formations. Different elements interact with each other, and those interactions create a system—bigger than any of the individual parts. Problems rarely happen in isolation; they’re usually a mix of other problems (causes and effects). How to gain perspective has a lot to do with thinking in terms of systems. Avoid focusing on individual elements, and focus on the interactions between them. Like canyons, humans are subject to social, economic, political, and environmental systems. If you consider how those elements interact, you’re more likely to have an edge in detecting which interactions are causing the problem and implement a countermeasure.

Take Robert Greene, who in his book Mastery suggests we alter our perspective by looking at the “how” instead of the “what”. He says, “Our conventional tendency is to look for a single cause or a simple explanation, which then reveals to us how to fix the problem. […] Although we think we are being rational when we think in this way, most often problems are more complicated and holistic; we are simplifying them, based on the law that the mind always looks for shorthands.” Like a canyon’s ecosystem, Greene invites us to look for the interactions: “Everything in nature has a structure, a way that the parts relate to one another, which is generally fluid and not so easy to conceptualize. Our minds naturally tend to separate things out, to think in terms of nouns instead of verbs. In general you want to pay greater attention to the relationship between things, because that will give you a greater feel for the picture as a whole.”

The 3 ways to gain perspective are about being able to see from different points of view. When you gain perspective, you can uncover hidden tools/methods at your disposal, and increase your optionality. With improved perspective, you can see better so that you can do better. Like the Grand Canyon without vegetation, you can see more clearly its magnitude and are more likely to know where you’re headed and how you’ll get there. Gaining perspective is about facing difficult situations and opportunities from a higher ground. Depth gives you understanding and improves your vision. Weathering gives you patience and unlocks your creativity. And systems thinking points you in the right direction. All that is left is what you can do with it. What canyons could you create? How strong of a river can you become?

Juan F. Diaz

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