Thinking…About Boxes and New Clothes

Linear? Non Linear? What Kind of a Thinker Are You?

Mar 22, 2011 by

This morning I was thinking.  Honest!  I was lying in bed and a kitten was curled up on my stomach purring her heart out.  I didn’t have the heart to disturb her so I lay there with nothing to do but think.

I thought about thinking and the different ways people think.  Most people think—except for the ones who call about subscribing to the newspaper.  When I tell them I get the paper seven days a week they invariably ask, “what about Sunday?” Perhaps they live in a parallel universe with eight-day weeks, but I doubt it.  I think they live in a parallel universe that tells them to read the script without deviation.  Which makes them like most people – linear thinkers.

While there are admittedly a few linear thinkers in my circle, I also have more than my share of people with “alternate styles.” I, for one, am a lateral thinker.  That means I can solve lots of weird problems on IQ tests, but couldn’t play chess to save myself. It also means I get accused of being ADD – a lot! To which criticism I respond with a quote (I no longer remember from where), “I don’t have ADD, I have ADOLTAS:  Attention Defi—oh look, there’s a squirrel!”

My oldest daughter, Elizabeth, is pretty linear.  She can plan ahead and intuit consequences, and she views life in a “normal” straightforward way.

My younger daughter, Torrey, has been accused of thinking “out of the box”.

I disagree.  I don’t think she’s even figured out where the box is, if it exists for her at all. Her friends tell of the physics class in which the teacher was explaining that a thrown football traces a parabolic curve.  The teacher asked what might interfere with that curve.  Students responded with the usual factors: the way the football was thrown, the wind.  Torrey piped up, “a bird could fly into it.” Reportedly, at least one of her friends was asked to leave the class until she could stop laughing.

Torrey will argue with any statement. After her seventeenth respectful and logical question in response to a simple request of mine, I told her she should never enlist, because she’d drive the army nuts. “Why?” “Because in the army you have to learn to obey orders without question.” “Why?” “Because when the general tells you to ‘take that hill’, he has to know that all the soldiers will charge up the hill even knowing that some of them will die.” Prolonged silence.  She’s great at prolonged silences. It means she’s pondering.  “But if all soldiers are taught to just obey orders and never think about them, what happens when they are in charge?” My comment stands – she should never enlist.

And then there’s Eleanor, one of the dearest people on the face of the earth.  I call her my “emperor’s new clothes” friend.  (You remember the Hans Christian Andersen tale? If you don’t, look it up, it’s a great lesson.)

We used to work for a Fortune 500 company. Other, smaller companies were always trying to sell us something. They would show up at our offices, high tech equipment in tow, and put on “a presentation”. The experience invariably involved dogs, ponies, smoke and mirrors. After an hour of such extravaganzas we would all totter out of the room bedazzled and murmuring adjectives such as “fantastic”, “intriguing” and “amazing”.  I would look at Eleanor and she would say, “But why would you do that?”

The effect on the group would be somewhat like what I imagine an astronaut in training feels when someone at NASA pulls the plug on the weightlessness chamber. Crash!  Eleanor doesn’t have what is called a good “bullshit detector”, because that term implies a level of cynicism that she simply doesn’t possess.  She just doesn’t notice the fluff.  What counts for her is the substance.  She’s invaluable!

My more traditional friends sometimes look askance at non-linear thinkers, declaring them impractical or out of touch. Don’t believe it!  In an age when diversity is king, surely diversity of thinking is a gift.

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About the Author

Tani Wolff Has Written 17 Articles For Us!

I also write for a college admissions blog and create marketing materials. However, my true passion is preparing articles about Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ upcoming festival season. I spend eight to ten months each year researching the composers, librettists, time periods and performance records of our productions (as well as the music) to put together pieces that will enhance the enjoyment of our fabulous and devoted patron community. It is truly a labor of love.
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  1. I so totally agree with what you’ve written and am delighted you decided to wake up thinking this morning. All my life I’ve been accused of “coming up with an odd way of looking at things.” I don’t think my thinking is odd, it’s imaginative and I embrace the fact that I try to find creative ways of looking at things. My sister is the linear thinker in the family, but we often tackle problems together. When you put different ways of thinking together, the solutions can be amazing. Maybe that’s what world leaders need to do…get a little “out of the box” thinking in their circle of friends. Either that or actually listen to the female perspective. Thanks for writing this post. Debra

  2. Rebecca Crichton

    I am so glad you wrote this Tani. I know I am not a linear thinker and I remember a time when someone looked at my resume with all the different things I had done and said, disparagingly: “It certainly look like you’ve had a hard time deciding what you want to do.” My response, uttered withouth thinking: “There are lots of other designs than straight lines.” We need all the kinds of thinking we can get in our complex world and the creative, non-linear ones are crucial to our survival. Your creativity and great sense of humor is a real gift. Thanks. Rebecca

    • My resume probably looks alot like yours, Rebecca! I get the same reaction from linear thinkers. But when I happen upon a fellow right-brainer, they completely understand the value of my being able to excel in a variety of areas (which are all somewhat related, if one takes the time to look closely enough). Someone like me is more open to change and shifting markets and I’m able to think beyond the limited confines of a “job description”. The era we’re in right now doesn’t scare me in the least. Where people see challenge and hardship, I see great potential. – SerenaK

  3. Yes, yes!! Any divergent thinking is a gift and something to be cultivated. After all, who would be funny if everyone thought in exactly the same patterns?

    And, Tani, you did the right thing by not moving the kitten. I don’t know why this is, but I’m pretty sure there are dire consequences for moving a cat … at least that’s what cats tell me. 😉

  4. The creative mind is definitely a gift in this new era. As most of the “linear” jobs have been shipped overseas, those who will survive in this economy are the right-brained thinkers. Those who can create their own jobs, rather than filling out a traditional resume and hoping someone will hire them. Our culture has been linear-thinking for a long time – and you cited the perfect example, Tani: the Army. It’s shifting, and much of the conflict and polarity we are seeing now is a result of the two sides of the brain coming together. I am an artist and I hear lots of artists complaining that they are having difficulty selling their work in this economy. That surprises me because the world needs artists now more than ever – to show them how to tap into their creative minds. – SerenaK

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