Henry David Thoreau was an American philosopher and treasured writer during the early 19th century. As a transcendentalist, he believed in the possibility of elevating his thinking beyond the physical and religious world. During his peak of creativity, he left society to live alone in nature for two years. He built his own cabin, hunted and gardened for his meals, and focused on his thoughts without interruption (Thoreau, 1854). This led to his writing of the American classic of “Walden; Life in the Woods” which was about self-reliance in living simply and a mandatory read for most high school students (Henry David Thoreau, 2019).
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a contemporary expert on concentration. His life’s work centers around how the brain can achieve a state of being in the zone of concentration without being interrupted. He coined this state as flow (Csikszentmihalyi M. , Flow: The psychology of optimal experience, 2008). When achieving this state of mind, he found significant performance boosts and increases in creative thought (Csikszentmihalyi M. , Flow and the foundations of positive psychology: The collected works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi., 2014). Believing that this focus helps to provide clarity where ideas and insights are born (Csikszentmihalyi M. , 1996).
This state of extreme concentration is essential to achieving creative enlightenment. This state of mind is also hard to achieve as an individual and even harder for a group of people to achieve this state of mind together. People naturally create distractions making flow harder to get into. Flow can be enabled though, by having breakout sessions where individuals are asked to concentrate and reflect individually. Having two or more people mentally sync to achieve flow would be a second-order state of mind. This dynamic comes from significant time spent together where individual nuances and prompts are known and enabled by the team.
General Ulysses S. Grant was known as a quiet introvert. He was also lauded for his calmness when under great pressure. The typical battlefield Commander is in a triage state during combat operations as they try to process and react to the excessive amounts of information that bombards them. During the Civil War, however, Grant being extremely thoughtful, would whittle sticks outside of his command tent to help his strategic thinking (Chernow, 2017). Achieving a close state of flow, Grant was a master at cutting out unnecessary distractions to give his full mental attention to the most important quandaries.
Operational managers succeed if they have refined their executive thought process. Their decision-making ability is quick and based on repetition of experience. This thought process is also shallow and of low value. Complex issues take time with deeper thought to process and analyze. If an executive spends most of their time focusing on making quick decisions, they will also fill their schedules with these items because it will give them a false sense of productivity. Shallow thinking pays attention to symptoms instead of causes. This executive thought process never achieves problem resolution because it has defaulted to the first order symptom that never achieves the creative and deeper levels needed to effectively problem solve.
If executive thought remains persistent, the person becomes susceptible to loud noises. Instead of taking proactive measures, their gut instinct is to react even if the item is of low value to the overall strategy. If you become vulnerable to the issues of the day, you will turn your thinking to a checklist. At the end of the checklist, your mental capacity will be tapped out of energy to put into original thought and creativity.
Morten Hansen has spent the last few years researching high achievers in the workplace. He found that the most successful workers were the ones that worked less. The key to their success was that they were highly selective over their priorities and strategic in letting go of many opportunities. With their laser focus on a few priorities, they were able to perform masterful work instead of doing average work on numerous tasks (Hansen, 2019).
Marshal Joseph Joffre
Born in the 1850s to vineyard owners, Joseph Joffre, found himself at an early age as a career military officer in the French Army. Spending his early career as a military engineer traveling throughout the French colonies of Mali and Madagascar he became know for his proactive nature. This led to his promotion to General in a move to infuse the French army with more aggressive Generals instead of defensive ones (Joffre, 1932).
At the beginning of World War One, Germany, invoked the Schlieffen Plan which would amass 28 Army Corps, greater than 250,000 soldiers, and send them through the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. This would enable the German army to attack the French left flank and subsequently capture Paris. The French being overwhelmed subsequently retreated to approximately thirty miles away from Paris. Marshal Joffre was ordered to protect Paris all costs and instinctively disobeyed the order. He believed that he could counter-attack an overstretched German Army and nullify their advance. The counter-attack did work and was later known as the First Battle of the Marne (Vivaini, 2016). By using clarity of thought and speed to attack, these actions were later regarded as what saved Paris from falling to the Germans and a quick end to the war.
Joffre was regarded as a unique General that broke from the conventional norms with ease. Generals during active wars typically get less than four to five hours of sleep per night. Joffre, however, rested a sound 7 hours per sleep at night with no disruptions. His sleep was not to be disturbed as he felt it was necessary for him to be rested and operate at peak efficiency. He looked upon himself as an athlete that had to achieve the highest performance. Present-day research backs up Joffre’s beliefs where studies repeatedly emphasize the importance of rest for brain functioning. One key military command attribute of cognitive flexibility was recently researched by Washington State University. Cognitive flexibility deals with a function of the brain and its ability to change thinking based on new information. The study found that a lack of sleep significantly reduced cognitive flexibility (Washington State University, 2018). Joffre, one-hundred years earlier knew the importance and impact of the decisions that he was making and used sleep to ensure he maintained his clarity of thought.
Chernow, R. (2017). Grant. London: Penguin Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow And The Psychology Of Discovery And Invention. New York: Harper Collins.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Flow and the foundations of positive psychology: The collected works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Berlin : Springer.
Hansen, M. T. (2019). Great at Work: How Top Performers Work Less and Achieve More. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Henry David Thoreau. (2019, August 14). Retrieved from Walden: https://www.walden.org/thoreau/
Joffre, J. (1932). The Personal Memoirs of Joffre: Field Marshal of the French Army, first volume. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishing.
Thoreau, H. D. (1854). Walden; Life In The Wood. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.
Vivaini, R. (2016). Addresses in the United States by M. Rene Viviani and Marshal Joffre, French Mission to the United States, April-May, MCMXVII. Sydney: Wentworth Press.
Washington State University. (2018). Sleep Deprivation Takes Toll on Decision Making. Neuroscience News.
Watson, M. (2018). Common Strategies and Practices Among Facilitators of Innovative Thinking in Organizations. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest.
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