How Shared Vision Prevents Small Thinking

When we’re not able to see that we are part of something bigger…We become part of something smaller.

Recently, I read the book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Dr. Atul Gawande. Gawande is a surgeon and author.  The book is an excellent read about how individuals, cultures, and the medical profession deal with the concept of mortality.

In a decidedly challenging but altogether interesting narrative, Gawande surfaces an interesting concept that is directly useful to those of us thinking about strategy, talent, culture, and inspiration.

Namely, in one part of the book, Gawande outlines research by Laura Carstensen at Stanford University on how mindsets related to aging cause us to close off our horizons.

It seems that as young people with boundless time ahead of us, we (that’s you, me, and every other person in the world) think expansively, we seek new things, and we value unfamiliar experiences.  We “plug into bigger streams of knowledge.”

The world is our oyster.

Interestingly, as we age, and as we come to terms with the waning amount of time we have in the world, we become much more interested in spending time with people we know and love, focusing on what is tangible and immediate, and enjoying the things we are familiar with.

As you age, “your focus shifts to the here and now.”

Carstensen did multiple studies to test this hypothesis.  The survey based research on this topic shows that young people generally value adventure…expansive vision and activities. Older people generally value a smaller view of the world…their circle and its inhabitants.

But there is one shocking revelation about this that the book provides…

The closing off of horizons isn’t about age.

It’s about perspective.

For instance, among the ill, the age differences in mindset disappear. Young people who are terminally ill think “like old people”–small horizons, immediacy, and intimacy are important.

On the other side, when posed with hypothetical questions of how they would spend their life if a medical breakthrough extended it for another 20 years, old people think like young people–expansively and in terms of adventure.

Similarly, young people faced with major crises or uncertainty start to think “like old people.”  A great example is given from the research, which happened to bracket some very uncertain times for its subjects. To wit (and this is from Gawande’s book with my emphasis added):

“…A year after the [survey team] had completed its Hong Kong study, the news came out that political control of the country would be handed over to China.  People developed tremendous anxiety about what would happen to them and their families under Chinese rule.  The researchers recognized an opportunity and repeated the survey…Sure enough, they found that people had narrowed their social networks to the point that the differences in the goals of young and old vanished.  A year after the handover, when the uncertainty had subsided, the team did the survey again.  The age differences reappeared.

“They did the study yet again after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, and during the SARS epidemic that spread through Hong Kong in the Spring of 2003 killing 300 people in a matter of weeks. In each case, the results were consistent.  When, as the researchers put it, life’s fragility is primed, people’s goals and motives shift completely.

It’s perspective, not age that matters.”

People with a view of being part of bigger things–a longer future, for instance–think bigger, more creatively, and more adventurously.

People with no view of bigger things think smaller.

How this applies to you…

This insight is not about aging… It’s about how our minds deal with vision, purpose, and inspiration.

For instance, there are people in your organization right now who have no view of a bigger, longer term purpose for themselves in the organization.

It might be just a few…

…It might be every. single. one. of. them.

The research cited above says something very simple:  When people believe they are part of something bigger…that they have a future–No, strike that, even that they believe they could have a future that is long and interesting–they think more expansively and creatively.

When they don’t?

They worry about themselves.

Their world becomes smaller, intimate, and guarded.

So what?

You want to cultivate an organization that is creative, expansive, and vibrant?

Try helping people understand their future within it.  Be explicit about the long term, about how people are cared about; and about the prospects for the future for them and for the organization.

You want to cultivate an organizational culture that is insular, turf driven, selfish, dull, and dogmatic?

Try focusing people on the short term.  Ensure that word gets around that nobody is safe. Manufacture crisis and ambiguity. Conduct layoffs right along with your annual budgeting cycle. Fire people for taking risks. Create uncertainty and fear. Propagate a vision of the future that is inscrutable for the rank and file or simply insensitive to their goals.

The research cited above says that you and I think “old” when we undergo times of strife, uncertainty, and major change.

In short, we think “old” when we have no positive or stable vision for what the future holds.

Insularity, selfishness, and small mindedness are the insidious outcomes of a lack of vision.

So, when we’re not able to see that we are part of something bigger, we become part of something smaller…Namely ourselves and our own immediate circle.

A healthy vision of the future and what’s in it for the people in the organization just might be the key to keeping your organization forever young.

I’d be interested in your comments.

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  1. […] When life is long again, we expand our horizons and think big.  I wrote about that a while back in this blog post.  In it, I outlined how shared vision of the future prevents small […]

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