“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” — Carl Jung
My intent for this discussion is to build on an article I published called The Critical Thinkers OODA Loop.
The focus here will be on self-awareness, critical thinking, and a new idea I am developing called “Swarming the Brain”. I will use methods and frameworks from Systems Thinking V2.0, the Red Team Handbook from the Center for Applied Creative and Critical Thinking, and Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop. I will then demonstrate tools and techniques from these frameworks to show how you can improve your critical thinking abilities, as well as self-awareness.
To learn more about these methods/frameworks, I recommend you read the following:
- The Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop. I discuss each framework in this article.
- Systems Thinking V2.0. Dr. Derek and Laura Cabrera discuss simple rules of systems thinking — Distinctions-Systems-Relationships-Perspectives (DSRP) in two books I highly recommend: Systems Thinking Made Simple and Flock Not Clock. I also recommend using Plectica — their free visual systems mapping software based on Systems Thinking V2.0. Nearly every image I use in this article was created using Plectica.
- The University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS) Center for Applied Critical Thinking. I highly recommend reading the free Red Team Handbook published by the UFMCS.
- Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop. Frans P.B. Osinga provides the most in-depth description and understanding of the OODA Loop in Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd. I also highly recommend reading The Tao of Boyd: How to Master the OODA Loop.
Similar to how I introduced The Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop, here I will introduce another version of it leading to greater self-awareness. In this version, there are four simple rules for self-awareness. These simple rules will move us from information to understanding.
One thing important to remember… information does not equal knowledge. For example, “Mouth in a Mouth!” or “Rip it and dip it Richard!” If you disagree and think Information equals knowledge, then I recommend you watch the following video (if anything, it is hilarious!):
Simple rules moving us from information to understanding:
- Observe. Sense information (think of nodes within a network).
- Orient. This is the process of making sense of the information (think of the process of connecting nodes within a network).
- Decide. Thinking is introduced to connect the nodes (the connection of nodes within a network is the creation of knowledge).
- Act. When we connect knowledge we attain understanding or wisdom (think of the emergence of a network or the edges of a network).
For each simple rule, I will provide both a question and a set of tools or frameworks to use. The question should trigger the rule, where the tool or framework will lead to an emerging network. I use simple questions with simple rules because there is power in simple. Sometimes the best way to get at the heart of the matter (especially in a complex world) is to ask a simple question:
Rule #1 — Observe: The Unexamined Life
“The unexamined life isn’t worth living.” — Socrates
Rule #1: Observe (Awareness or Awakening)
Question: What lens do I see reality through?
Tool(s): Systems Thinking V2.0 (DSRP) and Who Am I?
The process of improving self-awareness through introspection takes discipline to look inward to examine our own thoughts, feelings, and motives. Self-awareness is the capacity for introspection, as well as the ability to be more enabled as a critical thinker, and more aware of your own biases. It is through this understanding of the individual that an expanded world view opens.
By reflecting on our world view, we are essentially trying to understand our mental models. The Cabrera’s inform us,
“Mental models shape our understanding of everything around us. The goal of systems thinking is the continuous improvement and refinement of our mental models such that they more closely reflect the real world. The closer the mental model to reality, the more useful it is to us.”
The Cabrera’s discovered DSRP in order to interrogate our mental models. They remind us that our understanding of reality is just an approximation. Following the advice of the Cabrera’s, I used a combination of DSRP and a Red Team exercise to understand my own mental model.
One of the first techniques we learn in Red Team training (instructed by the UFMCS Center for Applied Critical Thinking) is an exercise called Who Am I? This exercise requires reflection and introspection of your personal narratives and dynamics, culture, religion, education, and critical watershed moments that shape your worldview and values. Let’s briefly examine the method for this exercise.
Step 1. You must first recall seminal life changing events and moments that shape who you are. To do this you must conduct a disciplined self-reflection study of your life.
Step 2. Share your Who Am I? in a group setting or with another individual. The people or person listening should not speak or interrupt you in any way. So find someone who is good at active listening and explain to them specifically what you need prior to beginning the exercise.
This is also a great team building exercise. You will find that you truly get to know each other on a deep level by simply conducting this exercise.
During my own self-reflection, I uncovered something truly amazing. I can proudly say that I have been diagnosed with Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). You might have noticed the word “proudly” in the previous sentence — this was not a typo. When discussing ADHD, I tell people it is my greatest skill. My mind is constantly bouncing around like a bingo-ball. Yet, I love it and I wouldn’t have it any other way. As a child, I would have been embarrassed to admit this. What’s more is that parents are horrified when their child is diagnosed with ADHD. In fact, it’s almost like telling them your child has a disability or disorder… hmm, I wonder if the words “deficit” or “disorder” in the term itself give this impression?! Isn’t it crazy how Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder(ADHD) possesses an inherent stigma?!
With that said, let’s use two tools offered by the Cabrera’s in Systems Thinking V2.0: Thinkquiry and Plectica.
Thinkquiry. Is the term the Cabrera’s use for thinking differently about how we ask questions from a systems thinking approach. What’s different about Thinkquiry is the underlying logic of DSRP which is multivalent. Traditional question logic is born of Socratic Logic (which is bivalent logic) and typically employs such rubrics as the 5Ws (Who, What, Where, When, Why). DSRP Logic expands on this bivalent Logic, which means that these kinds of questions can still be asked, but we are encouraged to penetrate deeper into our topic and ask deeper questions. Figure 2 illustrates some of these questions.
Plectica. It is a visual systems mapping software based on Systems Thinking V2.0. I personally use this free software daily to visualize, analyze, and synthesize concepts to gain a greater understanding of ideas or concepts in their entirety.
Using Thinkquiry and Plectica, let’s examine how I gained a greater understanding of ADHD. Figure 3 identifies Distinctions (what is ADHD and what is not ADHD). I also recommend watching the following video for a deeper understanding of Systems Thinking V2.0 — DSRP:
Figure 4 illustrates the Systems (what are the parts when looked at from different viewpoints — Disorder or Superpower).
Figure 5 demonstrates the Relationships (how are the parts of ADHD related?).
Now examine Figure 6. This is what happens when you simply change your perspective.
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” — Wayne Dyer
I found it amazing how a simple change in our perspective about something completely changes the thing we are looking at. Figure 7 illustrates this point. The way I see (the point) ADHD (the view) is the complete opposite of how the typical parent or person (the point) sees ADHD (the view). Where they see ADHD as a Disorder, I see ADHD as a Superpower.
This awareness allowed me to refine my mental model (Figure 8 provides an illustration of a mental model). It allowed me to notice that my mental model did not match reality and this is the point in which I plan to drive home throughout this discussion. This is the paradigm shift I am seeking in parents and their perspectives on ADHD.
Richard Paul and Linda Elder write in Critical Thinking: Concepts & Tools that we live with an unrealistic sense that we have figured things out. I have recreated the stages of critical thinking development from Critical Thinking: Concepts & Tools in Figure 9 below.
Using my ADHD example, I found that we move through a paradigm shift in our thinking. As we move from the thought of ADHD as a Disorder to a Superpower, we progress similar to the stages of critical thinking development. For example, a parent or child who sees ADHD as a Disorder is like that of the unreflective thinker. They are unaware of significant problems in their thinking. This is why Rule #1: Observe (or Awareness) is so important. Something has to awaken or serve as a trigger/sensor for the unreflective thinker. One example is simply reading this article. This should provide a trigger for the unreflective thinker to awaken.
Questions also serve as excellent triggers. Using questions from The DaVinci Method by Garrett LoPorto and an ADHD Self-Test from Additudemag.com, let’s examine how simply changing how you phrase a question can bring about a paradigm shift.
By thinking meta-cognitively (thinking about thinking) we are able reshape connections in our brain and reshape our mental models. You will actually reshape connections in your brain just by simply watching the following video:
Rule #2 — Orient: Hang a question mark on things
“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted. Many people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do.” — Bertrand Russell
Rule #2: Orient
Question: What would have to exist for something to be true? Or why must something be true?
Tool(s): Simple Rules and the String of Pearls (Think IF-AND-THEN)
In Flock Not Clock, the Cabrera’s provide an example of using simple rules leading to emergent behavior in an organization. This is a powerful technique and is the foundation for this entire article (as this article is essentially simple rule for an emergent behavior). Let’s see how this works.
Step #1: Identify Your Future State
For example, in my ADHD discussion, the future state is simply — A paradigm shift in the way parents (and children) view ADHD (from Disorder to Superpower).
Step #2: Identify Simple Rules
Rule #1: Observe
Rule #2: Orient
Rule #3: Decide
Rule #4: Act
Step #3: Emergent Behavior (What Can We Actually See)
My simple rules in Step #2 lead to children with ADHD becoming aware of their Superpower — by “Swarming the ADHD Brain”. Thus, a child with ADHD learns how to use observe the real world via a new mental model, orient to reality, make good decisions, and most importantly… to act (while receiving and reflecting on continuous feedback).
Furthermore, the String of Pearls technique can be found in the Red Team Handbook. It is a way to ensure teams consider unintended consequences. It is a tool to help prevent “wishing” or “assuming away the problem” and to identify weaknesses in thinking or a plan.
Moreover, similar to the domains within Bloom’s Taxonomy, this technique uses domains. Bloom’s Taxonomy provides three domains: cognitive domain (reflects knowledge); affective domain (reflects emotion); physical domain (reflects the body). Let’s further examine these three domains.
The Cognitive Domain: Reflects knowledge — the mind completes levels of understanding of a concept; building to the next higher level of understanding. To me, this is like visualizing the Rubik’s Cube as a brain.
The Affective Domain: Reflects emotion — our attitude and awareness. We feel levels of emotion about recognizing and synthesizing information.
The Physical Domain: Reflects the body — we connect mind (Cognitive Domain) to body events in a way that generates muscle memory for an action.
Events (also known as actions) are called 1st order effects and occur in the Physical Domain. 2nd order effects represent how we feel about the event (Affective Domain). 3rd order effects represent thoughts about the event (Cognitive Domain). Furthermore, cascading effects follow a chain of actual causality (If-Then) as they occur in the Physical Domain — where one event precipitates the next.
Figure 12 is an example of a simplified version of the String of Pearls technique. To see a complete version, read the Red Team Handbook.
In the figure above, events subsequent to 2nd and 3rd order effects which precede them are unintended consequences of the first event. However, they are not caused by the original event. For example, 3rd order effects (child is placed in special education class) do not produce 4th order effects (child drops out of school), they simply introduce the element of choice into the equation. 2nd and 3rd order effects help focus our attention to see how a plan affects how people feel, think, and act. By identifying unintended consequences, we can minimize the likelihood of overlooking something.
The following three questions are key to this method:
- Will your plan or actions produce a cascade of other events? If so, what could they be?
- What message or information is being conveyed by the plan or action and to whom is it being conveyed?
- How will the message be interpreted by others?
Moreover, before we progress to Rule #3, let us first examine an excerpt from Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile (which he asserts is when something is actually strengthened by the knocks!),
“Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.”
The point here is that while orienting we should embrace chaos and randomness. We can’t run or hide from it. Even if we could, why would we?
Lastly, if you take Taleb’s following excerpt and really think about, then you might find that we can truly shape our mental models in any way we wish. I recommend you do not read the next passage in any religious or spiritual context whatsoever. Simply think of it as a person possessing the ability to shape his or her own mental model. If everything is a delusion, then do we not have the power to create the delusion?
“Any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion.” — Nassim Taleb
Rule #3 — Decide: Crisis hunters
“Decisions without actions are pointless. Actions without decisions are reckless.” — John Boyd
Rule #3: Decide
Question: Where are the pattern of bullet holes NOT located?
Tool(s): Scout Wheel and the Dialectical Wheel
Nassim Taleb writes in Fooled by Randomness,
“In the markets, there is a category of traders who have inverse rare events, for whom volatility is often a bearer of good news. These traders lose money frequently, but in small amounts, and make money rarely, but in large amounts. I call them crisis hunters. I am happy to be one of them.”
Taleb goes on to inform us of an asymmetry in knowledge. In his discussion on why statisticians don’t detect rare events, he provides the following example,
“Common statistical method is based on the steady augmentation of the confidence level, in nonlinear proportion to the number of observations. That is, for an n times increase in the sample size, we increase our knowledge by the square root of n. Suppose I am drawing from an urn containing red and black balls. My confidence level about the relative proportion of red and black balls, after 20 drawings is not twice the one I have after 10 drawings; it is merely multiplied by the square root of 2 (that is, 1.41).”
Taleb continue with the following remarks,
“Where statistics becomes complicated, and fails us, is when we have distributions that are not symmetric, like the urn above. If there is a very small probability of finding a red ball in an urn dominated by black ones, then our knowledge about the absence of red balls will increase very slowly — more slowly than at the expected square root of n rate.”
Here is a key point in his discussion,
“On the other hand our knowledge of the presence of red balls will dramatically improve once one of them is found. This asymmetry of knowledge is not trivial.”
What does this mean?
What if red balls were randomly distributed as well? As Taleb informs us that we can never get a true composition of the urn. He provides an example of an urn with a hollow bottom, and as you are sampling from it, a mischievous child (without you knowing about it) is adding balls of one color or another.
“My inference thus becomes insignificant. I may infer that the red balls represent 50% of the urn while the mischievous child, hearing me, would swiftly replace all the red balls with black ones. This makes much of our knowledge derived through statistics quite shaky.”
So, what’s the point?
Taleb points out that we take past history as a single homogeneous sample believing we have significantly increased our knowledge of the future by observing the sample of the past.
Taleb asks two questions at the end of his example:
- What if vicious children were changing the composition of the urn?
- In other words, what if things have changed?
The point of this discussion is that things do in fact change. As self-aware critical thinkers, we should not be worried about increasing our knowledge about the absence of red balls… we should seek to improve our knowledge of the presence of red balls. Thus, we should never forget that things will change.
This brings me back to my earlier discussion on changing how we phrase a question. A simple change in how we phrase a question allows us to completely change our perspective and potentially bring about a paradigm shift. The change here is the following:
Change “absence” of red balls to “presence” of red balls. Thus, you seek to become a crisis hunter — an asymmetry in knowledge.
For those of you who are a fan of Sherlock Holmes and have read The Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop, go back and read my section titled SDWFAP. This is a mnemonic I created that essentially provides key questions similar to searching for the presence of red balls. See Figure 13 below.
Scouting (S): Think like a Scout — the drive to see what’s really there.
Dog (D): Find the Dog who isn’t barking.
Was (W): What would have to exist for something to be true?
Frightened (F): What’s not right in Front of us?
At (A): Ask what evidence is not being seen, but would be expected for hypothesis to be true.
Patterns (P): Where are the Pattern (or location) of bullet holes NOT located?
Moreover, we can visualize using SDWFAP to swarm our brain. Using simple rules similar to how Artificial Intelligence (AI) would using swarming tactics: Sense — Decide — Act. Let’s see how we could “Swarm the Self-Aware & Critical Thinking Brain”:
Let’s now examine a method I use to develop some of these crazy ideas — The Dialectical Method (combined with cognitive dissonance).
Cognitive dissonance is a tension experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs or ideas. You could visualize cognitive dissonance by looking at an action and belief where you examine an unpleasant tension between them leading to a potential change in one of (or all of) the following: change in action, change in believe, and/or change in perception.
The Dialectical Method looks at a thesis (point or claim) an antithesis (counterpoint) and synthesis (new creation from the tension generated by the thesis and antithesis). Figure 15 provides an example of how I used this method with my ADHD example.
Rule #4 — Act: Success = Sensors + Feedback
“He who can handle the quickest rate of change survives.” — John Boyd
Rule #4: Act
Question: Where is the dog who isn’t barking?
Tool(s): Swarming the Brain and Assuming Risk
If children are going to succeed as adults, we must first empower them to succeed as children. To do this, parents must change their own perception of things like a Disorder (the word itself is wrong). My hope is that I have convinced you that ADHD is not a Disorder (it is not a death sentence), but it is a Superpower!
However, this type of paradigm shift takes dedicated and deep self-reflection. This led me to the crazy idea of “Swarming the Brain” which I discussed earlier to improve our critical thinking brain. For this version of swarming, let’s look at it a little different.
Here the swarm follows the same simple rules within the OODA Loop, yet there are specific actions the swarms must take. The swarm must activate and alter functions within the child’s brain (think neuroplasticity) — for which Lara Boyd discusses this key point in the following video:
So what do you think the primary driver is for neuroplastic change in the brain of a child (and in our brain)? If you watched the video, then you know the answer is behavior. Thus, if we change our behavior we change our brain.
“Swarming the Brain” is priming the brain to learn and we can do this through the development of sensors (or triggers), exercise, nutrition, reading and learning, the development of a morning routine, and receiving (and reflecting on) continuous positive feedback. As parents, we must also identify key indicators of change. These allow us the ability to assess change and the ability to place key sensors in the form of Indicators (or Expected Change).
Moreover, the first rule is the most crucial — Observe. If the parent is not aware then the child will not be aware. This is why something must serve as the sensor or trigger to bring about awareness (which is why reading this article is so important). This reminds me of how I use my favorite iOS application — WikiLinks Smart Wikipedia Reader. This app mimics the way I think as it maps and connects concepts and narratives. For example, if we are only aware of the term ADHD as a diagnosis of a Disorder, then we will not be aware of any additional knowledge. But if we are aware of additional knowledge, and aware to the fact that ADHD is not a Disorder, then we start to see more links, then more links, then a paradigm shift takes place. See Figure 16 for a visual representation of the WikiLinks Smart Wikipedia Reader.
Figure 17 illustrates the use of swarming tactics on the ADHD Brain — progressing through what I call the ADHD OODA Loop. Here, a parent must first shift their perspective from, “If my child is diagnosed with ADHD — And it’s a Disorder — Then my child will receive Negative Feedback.” to “If my child is diagnosed with ADHD — And it’s a Superpower — Then my child will receive Positive Feedback.” Once the shift takes place, they should establish Indicators (Expected Change) and set the conditions so that the swarm can proceed.
The following are what I call Swarming the Brain Tactics:
Exercise and Nutrition: Dr. John Ratey wrote about one of my favorite topics — Neurogenesis in one of my favorite books Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. He found that, as we age, our brain is still forming new brain cells and can change its structure and function.
Reading and Learning: Through reading and learning, we can reshape our brain as it brings in new challenges and keeps the child cognitively active.
Morning Routine: Establishing a morning routine allows a child (and you!) the ability to wake up before anyone else, kick start your metabolism, and provides you time to read and exercise (I do them together by listening to audio-books).
As I was debating on how to conclude this discussion, I had an epiphany of sorts while researching a completely different problem. Essentially, a large organization has a policy discriminating against a large portion of its employees. I personally do not feel as though this organization is looking at the unintended consequences (think String of Pearls from earlier). They are selecting specific people to examine the policy in order to provide justification for its existence (think confirmation bias). The one major group they are ignoring is the same group affected by this policy.
My epiphany came while reading/listening to Fooled by Randomness (mentioned in detail earlier) while running during my morning routine. If we seek to improve our self-awareness, then we must first be aware of what is actually taking place (hence, we must see what’s really there). One way we can do this is to examine the type of risk or errors we could make with a decision. We will always have to assume risk, but how do we identify which risk to assume and which to avoid?
I recommend we use a technique similar to testing a statistical error during hypothesis testing — Type 1 and 2 Errors. The go-to example here is a courtroom, where the null hypothesis is that a defendant is innocent. If the person is not guilty, yet found guilty, then we have committed a Type 1 Error. If the person is guilty, yet found not guilty, then we have committed a Type 2 Error. Using this example, which type of error (or risk) would you rather assume?
I would argue that most people would rather allow a guilty person go free than lock up an innocent person. If so, then we would assume the risk of allowing a guilty person to walk free (Type 2 Error).
Let me turn back to the first part of my epiphany. Using a similar format to the courtroom analogy, let’s see if we can identify which type of risk is worse. Without going into specific details, we essentially have a large organization that has implemented a policy preventing (and kicking out) pregnant female members of an organization while at an academic institution ran by the same organization.
Examining Figure 19, we an clearly see that a Type 1 Error will cause ~500k female members to become ostracized. Therefore, if we keep this policy we are assuming a very damning risk. On the other hand, if we eliminate this policy, we run a very small risk of having to do extra work for ~20 people. This clearly shows which risk the organization leadership should assume.
The second part of my epiphany — also from Fooled by Randomness was brought about by Taleb in his discussion of the Wittgenstein’s Ruler. Taleb writes,
“According to Wittgenstein’s ruler: Unless you have confidence in the ruler’s reliability, if you use a ruler to measure a table you may also be using the table to measure the ruler. The less you trust the ruler’s reliability, the more information you are getting about the ruler and the less about the table.”
What exactly is he saying here?
If we look at the discriminating policy as the table and the female members of the organization as the ruler, then we can start to unpack Taleb’s remarks. In this example, Leadership is currently using the table (policy) to measure the ruler (female members). Leadership has no trust in the ruler’s reliability (in this case it’s value not necessarily reliability). This brings about unintended consequences where Leadership is actually getting more information about the ruler and less about the table.
Instead of speaking with the female members and receiving their feedback, Leadership is using the policy in a way that will cause more people to focus on the discrimination of an entire population. This will bring in those from outside the organization, groups the Leadership would not like to be part of the discussion. However, if they used the female members to measure the policy, Leadership would find that the policy is not ethical and is causing harm to female members within their organization. Essentially, they would realize that the juice is not worth the squeeze and it’s the wrong thing to do. This would prevent quite a few problems that are definitely looming for the organization.
Moreover, we are all shaped by the weight of history and what we hear and see during our early years shapes and defines us. I read an intriguing blog post called The Wittgenstein’s Ruler, where the author provides two ways for us to escape the trap of being shaped by the weight of history.
- Knowledge. Acquire new knowledge in large quantities and slowly history will start having a lesser effect on you. Increased knowledge through reading and travel can expand our brains. Then we become capable of making wiser choices. Remember to read more, specifically read what you disagree with.
- Withdrawing the Biases. Accepting that there can be many different methods to look at a problem is equally important. Instead of fitting every reality into the space defined by one individuals core concepts, sometimes we should check to see if tinkering with some of the core concepts can explain the reality in a better way.
Finally, we all have the ability to improve our self-awareness. If we follow the simple rules outlined in this discussion, we have the chance to improve and become better (more self-aware) critical thinkers. Thus, we have a chance to bring about an intelligent emergent behavior.
“People often do not realize that they have a chance, so they miss it.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb