Liminal Thinking: A Book About Change
It was odd that the day I finally cracked open Dave Gray’s book “Liminal Thinking” was the day after Donald Trump won the Presidency. Dave Gray has inspired me since 2005 when I stumbled across his business XPlane and his book “The VP of No.” He is a designer, change maker and business leader. Liminal Thinking is about change; or, as the subtitle says “Create the Change You Want by Changing the Way You Think.”
And the day after the most astounding election in my lifetime when I and others were trying to make sense of how this all went so horribly wrong, “Liminal Thinking” actually started explaining it to me. I expected the book to help me in my human-centered design business. But it did more than that; it once again grounded me in people, how they think, act and confound us.
Before I get into the actual book, let me take a moment about the title. Actually the first pages in the book define and describe that word. Usually I resist things with words like this. The word heuristic positively drove me crazy. It still feels like an overly academic word aimed at confusing some people while exalting academics. Just say Rule of Thumb, for god’s sake. I had no idea what the word “liminal” meant before, it’s not anything I’ve ever heard anyone utter ever, in a university or in a business setting.
Liminal means boundary, portal or doorway. Liminal thinking describes a state of ambiguity that is necessary to navigate change; to understand and continually evaluate your own and others beliefs. It sounds big and academic. The book, however, is anything but.
Dave Gray fills this book with stories, drawings and examples that are all easy to understand and digest. Some ideas will jump right out at you so that you’ll want to try them right away. Others you’ll have to think a bit more deeply about. At the end of every one of the short-ish chapters, Gray provides examples for you to try out that allow you to experience his ideas. He encapsulates the key points on the last page of every chapter. He is super story teller and, thus, a natural teacher.
“Liminal Thinking” deals primarily with beliefs and reality. Gray explains that they usually don’t have much in common. What we think is reality is in actuality our beliefs about reality. He shows us his model, in sketch form of course, of how we humans construct our beliefs on top of reality. And that all beliefs are imperfect. In effect, we are all wrong about most things. And that’s okay.
My favorite story in Liminal Thinking is about Dave’s dog. A rescue dog and a problem dog in one view and a dog worth saving in another view. We get a snapshot of the Gray family’s world shaped by their beliefs and even the dog’s world shaped by its beliefs! The power in this, and other stories, is that we can change our pictures and stories of what we believe will happen and thus change what actually happens. It is a powerful picture of positive change.
The one section that leaped out at me the day after the election, though, is the chapter called “Create Safe Space.” Gray references David Rock’s model SCARF: A brain based model for collaborating with and influencing others. SCARF stands for:
If we don’t need these emotional needs in the people around us, they can and will react strongly. It reminded me of a very angry group of neighbors when I worked on what seemed like a very simple community challenge. As I dug in deeper, I found that these people didn’t really care about the issue at hand but they reacted vehemently because they felt that people in power had dismissed or ignored their SCARF needs. And they were completely right.
It’s a solid way to describe the white working class Trump voter this year. They’ve experienced lower status, they have little certainty in their job prospects, as they become more dependent on others, including the state, they feel less autonomous and when they watch the winners, the urban professionals, the Wall Street bankers and the millennial techies, they feel that the system is unfair. Maybe if the Democrats had paid more attention to SCARF…
But I digress.
“Liminal Thinking” is a short, enjoyable book that should make you more aware of what drives you and the people around you. It has already changed the way I act at home with my wife and kids. As a professional tool, it provides me with more design tools to play with.
If that wasn’t enough, it’s also a short and easy read that has substance. That’s not a description I give to many business books but Dave Gray’s “Liminal Thinking” deserves it. Put it on your reading list.