5 Questions with Dave Gray: Liminal Thinking, Doom Loops, Attention, Beliefs, Filter Bubbles & More

Infinite information is constantly competing for our attention and has quickly escalated to extremes. So how can we take back control of our own attention?

Dave Gray’s book Liminal Thinking was one of my top books read during 2016 with many lessons, including practical advice on how to manage attention.

I was fortunate to be connected with Dave through our common friend Diane Loviglio in 2014 and every discussion with him turns up new questions to ask. Sure enough, after reading Liminal Thinking I wanted to ask Dave some follow up questions. Below are his thoughtful answers, a few book excerpts and examples of his visual thinking approach.

Q: Before your book, I had never before come across the word “liminal” and could barely even pronounce it. What is liminal thinking?

A: Liminal is a word that means threshold. It is mainly used in anthropology. It’s often called the space “betwixt and between” and it refers to the moments or times of transition and change that are all around us in life. When we are young we leave our family to go out on our own. When we are older we might move from one place to another, from one job to another, from one career to another. We might get married, or divorced. Going from being alone to being a couple, or back to being alone. We might buy a house. We might have a child.

These places and periods where change is happening are the moments when other big shifts become more possible, where there are a lot more opportunities for change than usual. Think about it. When you move to a new place, you have all these new things to figure out. You haven’t got your routine set yet. You don’t know where you’re going to shop. You don’t know how you’re going to get to work.

There are all these new things you need to figure out, and each one is also an opportunity to change your habits and create new behaviors. The idea behind liminal thinking is that you can intentionally create more liminality in your life. If you’re feeling stuck, or in a rut, you can actually create liminal times and spaces where more change is possible, where it’s possible to break out of existing patterns and create a new you, a new self, a new habit, a new routine. That’s the idea behind liminal thinking.

Q: You discuss moving from a doom loop to a delight loop, and also emphasize that liminal thinking is not the same as positive thinking. Can you elaborate on this subtle yet important difference?

A: Let me start by explaining those terms for those in your audience who haven’t heard them. A doom loop is a vicious circle, sometimes called a downward spiral, where you’re stuck in a pattern of behavior that is getting you the results that you want, and yet, you continue anyway for some reason, which reinforces and amplifies the negative result. It’s like smoking. You might get the short-term reward from having that cigarette, but yet, you’re continuing to propagate the long-term doom-like pattern.

A delight loop or a virtuous circle would be something similar but more positive. For example, you start a exercise habit and as you reinforce it, you become more and more healthy.

Now let’s talk about positive thinking. Positive thinking is this idea that by simply thinking positively, thinking positive thoughts, you can change things. I am not sure where I heard this analogy, but I think it may have been Edward de Bono who said, “If you’re in a room that is locked, would you rather have the power of positive thinking or would you rather have the key?” I think that most people would say that positive thinking can’t get you out of a jail cell or a locked room as easily as a key can. Personally, I’d rather have the key that unlocks the door. There are situations where no matter how positively you think about the situation, you’re not going to be able to resolve it simply by being optimistic.

Positive thinking can easily morph denial of your circumstances, or pretending that the reality around is different than it really is. Liminal thinking is much more about paying very close attention to subtle cues around you, becoming more in tune and more aware of the reality around you, while remaining very aware of our very strong tendency, and ability, to lie to ourselves. So often we tell ourselves what we want to hear instead of dealing with the reality of our circumstances. Liminal thinking is a toolkit for countering those tendencies, so you can examine and explore reality much more like the way a scientist explores the universe, to really understand what’s going on.

Then, once you have a very good understanding of what’s going on, it’s like the key to that locked door. It opens doors, so you can see opportunities that you might not otherwise see, or that other people perhaps cannot see. That’s the difference.

Q: One of the challenges we all have is living in our filter bubble. What can we do to avoid some of the dangers of getting trapped in our own filter bubble?

A: Well, let me start by defining what I mean when I say filter bubble. We all have bubbles of belief that we live in, and the bubbles of belief that define our reality are based on the experiences that we have had. In life we have certain experiences. We’re paying attention to certain aspects of those experiences. As we pay attention to certain things, certain concepts and ideas become reinforced. We tend to notice those things more. We want to repeat the same experiences that make us happy, and try to avoid the experiences that make us unhappy.

One of the ways to get outside your filter bubble is to broaden your experience. The more limited your experience, the more limited your filter bubble’s going to be. That means stepping into zones where you might be uncomfortable. That means talking to people that you might not otherwise talk to. It means going places where you wouldn’t otherwise go. If you live in the city, go to the country. If you live in the country, to go to the city.

You can never eliminate your bubble, but the broader the set of experiences you can draw from, and the more things that you are actually paying attention within those experiences, the more expansive your bubble’s going to be.

When you hear something that doesn’t make sense to you, try not to quickly discount them, saying “that this person’s crazy” or “they’re an idiot,” but actually listen to them and ask yourself, what would you need to believe for those things to be true? Try to understand where those beliefs came from.

Instead of arguing with someone who’s beliefs are different than yours, ask how they came to those beliefs. What were the experiences that led them to have the beliefs that they hold? What were the experiences that they had? What were the emotional aspects of those experiences? If you can recognize that your beliefs are the product of your own experiences and emotions, and that other people’s beliefs are the product of their experiences and emotions, it becomes much easier for you to start understanding the beliefs.

I’m not here to say that all beliefs are equally valid. We do have a tendency to lie to ourselves, to tell ourselves things that we want to hear, and to notice the things that reinforce the beliefs that we already have. We tend to discount things that run counter to the beliefs that we already have.

Still, I think that it is important while on the one hand recognizing that not all beliefs are equally valid, at the same time to recognize that all beliefs do have some validity, sometimes based in an emotion or personal experience. We should probe and try and understand what those emotions and experiences are before we discount a belief.

Q: Some beliefs are particularly hard to change, which you refer to as governing beliefs. How can we at least start to explore these and why is it so hard to change them?

A: Governing beliefs are beliefs that form the foundations of a lot of other beliefs. One of the reasons that they’re hard to change is because governing beliefs are deeply intertwined with your sense of yourself, your identity. Who you are and what you believe are not two things that are independent of each other.

For example, If I believe that I’m a creative person — and I do — and I believe that there’s a creative solution to every problem, I’m going to have a hard time changing the belief that there’s a creative solution to every problem without questioning whether I’m truly a creative person or not.

Religion is another common one. If you have built your whole life and made a bunch of decisions based on certain religious beliefs, if you’ve chosen your mate, you’ve educated your children, you’ve moves across the country, or in whatever ways that your beliefs have become manifested in the world — as you act on your beliefs — you build a kind of fortress of actions. Through your actions, you’ve built a life; you’ve built a sense of yourself and your identity. Those things can be very difficult to challenge.

When you find that those fundamental governing beliefs are being challenged, you will probably feel as if you’re being attacked, and it can be very hard to question them yourself because you’re also questioning your own identity.

How to explore these things? I think first it’s important to recognize that these feelings exist, and why that’s so. When someone says something, or starts to promote or discuss a belief that causes a strong emotional reaction within you, be aware that your reaction may be not so much due to their beliefs but due to your own beliefs.

When you feel that strong feeling, that strong reaction, try to ask yourself, “Why do I feel this way? What is it about me that makes me feel uncomfortable and emotional when I hear this opposing or alternative belief? What is it that makes me feel threatened or emotionally unsafe when I hear this?”

Ask yourself that question before attacking or arguing with the different belief. Start by asking yourself where your own beliefs are coming from, what experiences they come from, what emotions they come from, and perhaps try to explore that with the other person.

Q: At the start of “Liminal Thinking,” you have a dedication to Kurt Hanks. Could you share a bit about your story and Kurt?

A: Kurt Hanks is a wonderful man, a brilliant guy. He is like a father or brother to me. I first came across his work when I was a young man, looking at a book called “Rapid Viz.” It was one of the first books I had ever seen that talked about drawing as a mode of thinking, as a way of not just making a picture or communicating, but exploring ideas and thoughts. For me, that was a very exciting moment when I found that book. Twenty years later or so, looking on a shelf, I saw that book, and I thought, “I wonder if Kurt Hanks is around or where he might be.” I looked him up on the Internet, and I sent a note to him.

I wrote, “Hi, Kurt. Just letting you know that your work has been inspirational to me and wonderful, and I really want you to know that you’ve made a difference in at least one life.” To my surprise and delight, he replied to my e-mail in a way that indicated that he was aware of my work. That started a dialogue, a wonderful dialogue. He invited me to come visit him in his home in Utah, which I took him up on. My wife thought I was crazy that I was going to drive across the desert to visit with a strange man that I had never met, but I did go.

I had a wonderful time with him and his wife, and that’s blossomed into a friendship. Kurt and I talk frequently on the phone or by Skype, and we have an agreement with each other, which I think is a wonderful agreement for creative people to have. Each of us has given the other permission to steal freely from the other’s work so we can grow and build and share together. I think it deepens our friendship and it also improves our ability to work creatively. There’s something about the free exchange of ideas that comes out that kind of agreement that’s very powerful. It gives you a sense of being on a team that has a true mission and purpose. We’re having a lot of fun and we’re very good friends.

Q: XPLANE, your company, originally had the purpose to make information clear to overcome complexity and confusion. How did things evolve from this starting point?

A: It’s in the name. Although it’s got a funny spelling, XPLANE is about explaining things. At the core of the company is a problem that many people have, which is that they have something they need to explain, and they’re having difficulty explaining it. If you think about that from the side of the person having the knowledge, that’s a very difficult problem to have, to have information that you feel could be useful to other people, without having the power to convey it effectively. That’s a very lonesome feeling.

Then from the other side, there are people who need to know that information. Maybe customers, or employees, or partners. They are curious, they want to learn, and then to have the teacher, or boss, unable to express those ideas, it’s frustrating on both sides.

My background in visual thinking and visual design and information design is all about the process of learning through drawing. As you draw ideas, you can start to understand them better. As you turn a concept into a picture, it makes it more clear and concrete. More understandable.

When we started, people were coming to us and and saying, “Well, we have this thing to explain,” and we would help them explain it. As we got better and better at explaining things, we got pulled into very complex and very fascinating situations within businesses. As people started to recognize us as the experts in explaining, they started to tell us “I’m not exactly sure what I need to explain. But here’s the result that I want. Here’s a business result that we need to achieve. Help us figure out what we need to explain in order to make that happen, in order to bring that to life.

What do people need to hear? What needs to be explained? What do they need to understand?” It’s been a fascinating journey from being a newspaper infographics artist just starting out in business to building a company that is focused on clarifying and communicating the most complex and difficult problems in business, which are often very abstract and hard to explain. For a creative person, that is about the most interesting challenge you could ever imagine.

XPLANE is continuing to evolve, but core is still about bringing clarity to complex and potentially confusing situations and helping to drive understanding as broadly as we possibly can.

If you enjoyed Dave’s thoughts above, you should definitely read Liminal Thinking.