Thinking About Thinking

Vic Napier


I have never thought much about the way I think – although I often wonder why others do not see some things as obviously as I do.  What seems to me to be obvious sometimes leaves others puzzled unless I make an effort to explain my chain of reasoning.  A little of that goes a long way to sounding condescending, a trait I cannot tolerate, especially in myself.  

However, most of the time it leads to interesting insights and discussions.  Take the controversy regarding gay marriage, for example.  Just last week a friend of mine commented that he hoped more states would recognize same sex unions.  I pointed out that marriage is on the decline in the straight world, and probably for good reason.  If the straight world is finding marriage less than desirable what logical reason is there for gays to want to share in it?  To open up a new market for struggling divorce attorneys? 

Matrimonial cynicism aside, he was thinking in terms of equality and justice, while I looked at the same issue in terms of how it works in practice.  Of course, I made sure to email him the cover of the current Business Week, just to drive my point home. 

I have not always thought as I do now.  It is hard to explain, but my knowledge and experiences bound me to a particular  perspective.  I have learned to change perspectives and use the knowledge and experience of others to look at things from different viewpoints.  It is as if I am thinking laterally, vertically, or diagonally instead of in a straight line.  Sometimes I revert to my old patterns, and end up limiting myself, but I have been developing the habit of more liberal thought for 20 years or so now, and it is almost second nature. 

After a little reflection, I am realizing that I got a glimmer of this new style of thinking when I was in college, and suddenly realized during my senior year that all the subjects I had been studying related to one another.

I figured out that the subjects I had been studying did not exist in isolation from one another, but had a symbiotic relationship.  Geology is related to Political Science, and both had application to Psychology.  Put concepts from any two or more together and they create unique ideas and insights that are more than a sum of their parts.  

It is no coincidence that this insight came at about the same time that I realized that education was about satisfying my needs and curiosities, rather than my professors’ expectations of my abilities as a student.  This subtle change in perspective resulted in a major change in my life as a student.  I no longer spent hours trying to second-guess the expectations of the instructor and instead followed my curiosity wherever it took me.  From the perspective of 25 years, it is no surprise that I became a much better traditional student, as well as a much better learner, but at the time, it was quite a shock.

This ability to see relationships between seemingly unrelated events was fine-tuned while I worked for a social service agency in Tucson.  I was responsible for analyzing anti social and self-destructive behaviors of community based clients, and developing plans that would teach appropriate replacement behaviors.

When I analyzed behaviors of mentally handicapped clients one of the central questions I would address was “What goal is the client accomplishing with this behavior?”  Often there would be no apparent advantage to the behavior, because the only consequences were negative – physical restraints, social disapproval, even short-term institutionalization in a locked mental ward.  It was only by shifting perspective to the client that I could make any progress in understanding the utility of the behavior. 

Being familiar with the history of many of the clients I worked with helped me to understand that what I was able to see was not necessarily everything that was influencing the clients’ behaviors.

For example, clients with long histories of institutionalization often exhibit very bizarre behaviors.  The reason for this has a lot to do with the character of the organization supporting institutions.  Bureaucracies that determine the absolute minimum number of staff needed to accomplish ADLs, (Activities of Daily Living – bathing, eating and that sort of thing), administer most institutions.     

Of course, human beings are fundamentally social beings and demand social interaction at times not recognized as planned social interaction opportunities by the bureaucracy.  The result is that only the most bizarre behaviors receive attention from the harried staff.  Institutions often become arenas in which clients compete for human contact by displaying ever more dangerous and intrusive behaviors.

The clients I worked with often came from institutions, and were especially challenging because of their intellect.  Although technically mentally retarded and mentally ill this did not mean that their brain functioning was uniformly diminished.  Many of the clients I worked with were multi lingual, for example, or had impressive social skills and insight or demonstrated impressive mathematical or abstract thought abilities.  

They were also very skilled at out maneuvering staff interventions, manipulating bureaucratic systems and defeating traditional behavior plans.  When these well-honed institutional skills and abilities occurred in community settings, they were quite destructive to clients, as well as programs and agencies.  Every other service provider in the area had rejected the clients I worked with.

By mentally putting myself into another context or system from which the client might be operating I was often able to develop plans and staff behavior sequences that satisfied the goal the client was seeking, while teaching more socially appropriate ways to get there. 

This vocational habit spurred me to practice what I now know of as inductive and deductive reasoning.  Applying general concepts, ideas and facts to specific situations, or generalizing the lessons of specific events to broad areas has become second nature to me. 

I often find myself testing the hypotheses of political or social arguments by applying the argument to slightly different situations.  For example, every year fraternities at college campuses are lauded for organizing “safe walk” services in which females on campus can request male escorts.  The premise for this service is that females require an escort because they are more easily victimized because of their small size and physical weakness.  By slightly changing the context a revealing contradiction in values becomes evident.  If we believe that women are so weak and easily victimized, why then do we hire them as police officers and soldiers?  These kinds of insights makes for interesting discussion, as well as a springboard for an examination of our personal values and how they apply to our support or opposition to public policy. 

Once, while my MBA class was making and reacting to arguments justifying various management choices, I removed myself form the situation, simply observed their behavior, and applied some of the concepts I had recently learned about values and culture.  It occurred to me that each of my classmates was arguing for their own values, revealing a lack of a coherent culture within our group.  That was the lesson that I walked away with – even though we were very similar in many ways, and had studied the same books and concepts for the last two years, our values were still miles apart. 

Homogenous culture and effective leadership are easy and fun to talk about but very difficult to create or practice.   

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