Discover your thought patterns, then act on that knowledge.
We all develop habitual patterns of thinking: channels along which our minds run all too easily into recurring patterns of mental behavior. People often aren’t fully aware of these patterns precisely because they are so much part of their lives. It’s terribly easy to miss the role they play in limiting your options and determining how things will nearly always turn out for you. Once you grasp the automatic way that your mind tends to work, you’ll be better able to see what part you are playing in keeping things the way they are now; and what you will need to do to change.
The only sure way to change anything for the better in your life or career is to change what is causing it to be the way it is. To do that, you must step outside the fog of your habitual thoughts and opinions and see things for what they are, not what you unthinkingly and automatically assume them to be. Those habitual mind-sets are not “the truth,” even if you believe they’re true. There’s always more that you don’t know and aspects that you haven’t yet considered.
Coming to grips with your own thought patterns offers you new possibilities. You can make choices that are far more likely to work well for you, since they’re based on understanding first what conclusions you’re most likely to jump to, and then what aspects of the situation you’re almost bound to ignore as a result. Once those are clear, you can choose deliberately to step outside your habitual mental attitudes too increase the information and possibilities available. Doing so will immediately give you more positive influence over just about all aspects of your life.
Some typical thought patterns.
There are many variations on habitual patterns of thought and no two people’s will be precisely the same. These are some of the commonest, simplified for the sake of clarity. Your own pattern may contain a little from all of these, but there will probably be a preponderance of one, or at the most two, patterns.
- Do you feel best when you have lots of people around you? Do you enjoy making new relationships and keeping old ones fresh? Do you have many friends, yet are always adding more? Do others see you as more of a social animal than most? If so, your mental habits have probably become set in a Relationship-oriented pattern. You’ll spot all the human, relationship-based aspects of a situation easily. Other aspects may be much harder for you to see without concentrated effort.
- Do you prize fairness? Does injustice and hypocrisy make you angry? Are you naturally drawn to good causes? Do those who know you well see you as the kind of person who feels high standards of behavior are critical? If so, your typical mode of thought probably lies in an Ethics-oriented direction. In any situation, you’ll jump right away to noticing what’s fair and what isn’t. That may grab your emotions so completely that you become almost blind to anything else.
- Are you an active go-getter? Do you prefer less talk and more action? Are you driven by the need to succeed and the sense of satisfaction that comes with reaching your goals? People like you gravitate towards fast-moving roles with clear objectives and challenges to be overcome. Their natural thought pattern is Achievement-oriented and focuses on what can be done right away. Putting nearly all their attention on that often obscures anything else that won’t lead quickly to action of some kind.
- Do you enjoy ideas for their own sake? Are you drawn to discovery? Are you always taking classes and adding to your knowledge? Are you the curious kind—the type of person who wants to know how things work? Are you the one that others naturally turn to when they want to know something? If so, your thought pattern is Expertise-oriented. It can lead you into approaching situations with such a narrow viewpoint that you fail to see the overall picture. Experts often focus only on those few aspects of a situation that relate directly to their area of expertise. The rest is ignored.
- Do you need to feel what you’re doing has a specific meaning? Do you like to see things done correctly? Are you careful and precise in what you do? Do your friends know that you won’t give up on a task until it’s completely finished—and as near perfection as you can make it? People like that usually develop Precision-oriented mind-sets. The result can be anything from getting lost in the details to that old cliché: “paralysis by analysis.”
- Perhaps you’re creative and innovative? You prefer to solve problems with brain rather than brawn. You’re excited by innovative possibilities. You may even be a visionary who sees far into the future and thrives on radical change. People around you can’t always follow you; maybe see you a something of a dreamer? Creative-oriented thought patterns probably come naturally to you. The obvious draw-back is a tendency to miss what is right in front of your nose.
Understanding your primary thought patterns is the key to making change work.
The purpose of trying to understand your commonest thinking patterns is two-fold: to avoid being blind-sided by what they won’t show you and to broaden them whenever you can.
People’s thought patterns focus naturally on the areas where they have learned most, gathered most experience, and feel most at home. They act like blinders or mental filters, presenting you with a neat picture of the world, tuned to your biases and assumptions. What you see as the truth is only what they let you see. What you do as a result may therefore be seriously flawed, as well as limited.
Relying on patterns of thought that have become too narrow involves high risks. Like animals and birds that become over-specialized, fitting too closely into a single niche can lead to disaster when times and circumstances change. To be able to prosper in the widest possible range of environments, you need to become more adaptable—which means adding to your ways of collecting information and reaching conclusions. The wider the kinds of thinking in which you can you can operate with reasonable success, the more successful you are likely to be. True “geeks” are often hyper-intelligent, extremely determined, and amazingly well-informed . . . but in a very narrow field. If they are often denied the respect and success they deserve, it’s mostly because their thinking and interests are too narrow for their own good.
What you need to do next.
Which thought patterns from my list do you most recognize in yourself? If you’re still uncertain—or want to check out your conclusions—you can often get a sound grasp of them by considering what people say is “typically you.” You may not be immediately aware of the typical paths your mind follows, but nearly everyone else will be.
Careful reflection is vital, as is the honesty to see what’s there, whether it’s what you expected (or wanted) or not. Many people find that keeping a journal helps. So does talking openly with trusted friends. It’s also worth listening to criticism, which often focuses on what patterns in your assumptions and opinions most irk other people. However you do it, it will be time well spent—but only so long as you then act on what you find. A thought pattern—a mind-set —is neither something to be ashamed of nor a reason for pride. It’s always a call to focused action to move your thinking into other directions to provide greater balance and flexibility.
No one can control their future; yet everyone can influence it to some extent. How successful that influence will be depends a good deal on luck. But a sound understanding of where your habitual patterns of thought are going to lead you, unless you re-direct them on occasion, can give that luck a strong push in a positive direction.
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order, who now lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. Recent articles there on similar topics include How to find and recognize a civilized job and Why fear of failure is the most common blockage to success. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.
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