Flexible Focus #7: Inside the lines

by William Reed on June 24, 2010

The common catchphrase for creativity is thinking outside the box. This metaphor originated from the nine dots puzzle, in which you must connect nine dots in three rows, using just four connected straight lines. As long as you stay inside the box, you cannot solve the puzzle. Only by going outside of the square can you actually connect the dots. This puzzle is often used by creativity and management consultants to encourage people to look at problems from a fresh perspective.

Although this metaphor has captured the popular imagination, the real challenge is to engage in applied creative thinking that solves real problems. Tennis, for example, is a game that is played entirely within the box. It would certainly be easier at first to play tennis by taking down the net and ignoring the lines on the court. But players would not progress and audiences would find nothing worth watching. The presence of rules and limits is a prerequisite for progress in any discipline. Of the ideas and approaches that appear to come from outside of the box, the most exciting and productive creative work is often produced and performed inside the box.

It is on the court inside the lines, where action occurs. The word court has multiple meanings. A court can be a field of play in tennis or basketball, an interior garden court, a court of royalty, a court of law, or even courting as a process of wooing to gain attention and affection. A court implies focused action or judgement inside the lines.

The Mandala Chart is a court of play for your thoughts. You start with an 8-Frame Mandala Chart. To expand your thinking you do not go outside of the box, but rather dive deeper into the box by expanding each of the 8 frames into a 64-Frame Mandala Chart. You can change your focus by zooming in or out, as you flexibly reframe your thoughts.

As a practical matter, anything past the first level of 64-frames probably belongs in a library or database. You can also divide 8 by 8 to create a single frame, and this can be part of another set of 8 or 64 at a higher level. But as a practical matter, too much abstraction and you lose the plot. A great number of practical issues can be solved by simply reframing by 8 to the level above or below.

The Magic of Memory

George A. Miller, a cognitive scientist at Princeton University in 1956 published a famous study in which he argued that the largest number of objects a person can hold in working memory was the magical number 7, plus or minus 2, a phenomenon now known as Miller’s Law. The 8-Frame Mandala Chart is well within Miller’s Law, and its companion simply multiplies 8 x 8 to create a 64-Frame Mandala Chart.

Memory experts seem to defy this rule through such feats as memorizing the random digits of pi (the ration of a circle’s circumference to its diameter) beyond the textbook definition of 3.141… out to an astonishing number of non-repeating decimals in the tens of thousands, as recorded in the Guinness Book of Records. However, all mnemonic devices and memory systems work by converting abstract data by association into more familiar images that can be chunked and compacted into strings and stories that are easier to recall.

Musicians do the same thing when they learn to sightread a musical score. In effect, they juggle the same magic number of mental objects, but manage to connect more of them together by chunking and mental association. This is a good example of flexible focus, and  how performance improves with practice.

Both mental depression and memory loss are associated with a loss of the ability to make flexible mental connections, leading to a feeling of disorientation, feeling cut off from everyone and everything. The hippocampus is the seahorse of the brain most closely connected with this process, and neuroscientists have discovered that it has the capacity to regenerate as well as to atrophy. It makes sense to give your brain’s seahorse lots of exercise in flexible focus.

The Unfettered Mind

The process of flexible focus was described by Takuan Soho (1573-1645), a Japanese Zen priest and a genius of Renaissance proportions, in a work entitled The Unfettered Mind. This remarkable piece was written to Yagyu Munenori, head of the Yagyu Shinkageryu School of Swordsmanship, and is now a well-known classic on Zen in Swordsmanship. Takuan cautions that the stopping of the mind in an abiding place is what leads to ignorance, and can be fatal to a swordsman. Takuan advises that the unfettered mind has the ability to see all of the leaves of a tree, without being fixed on a single one, to catch the essence of movement without being caught in the details.

Olympic athletes work with attention control training, a field pioneered by Robert Nideffer, who found that tennis players, divers, gymnasts, golfers, and other athletes shift their attention flexibly from broad to narrow, and from internal to external focus, depending on the demands of the moment. In this case, enhanced performance depends on a flexible attention style.

So we return to the tennis ball, which of course must be served and returned over the net and inside the lines. That is where skill is developed, and where practical problems are solved. Whatever your game, use the Mandala Chart to develop flexible focus and enhance your performance when the ball is in your court

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