We Are All Exponential, Aren’t We?
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We Are All Exponential, Aren’t We?

The good news is that if we even can unlearn creativity, we also must be able to unlearn linear thinking to (re)open new horizons of looking to the world.

Paul Epping

I have read the articles about thinking and abundance/scarcity mindsets with great admiration. We got good summaries of the phenomena of linear vs non-linear thinking, abundant vs scarcity thinking, and how all that relates to exponential dynamics that most of us are witnessing today. Several articles have been published e.g. Luca Leonanrdini / Beatrice Barbazzeni / Roberto Mario De Stefano

The title of Beatrice’s article is intriguing, specifically: “…how to reverse your thinking…. “, which sparked my thinking and wanted to include some different opinions, let’s say ‘thoughts from an ‘opposal mindset’. Indeed, there have been so many authors before her (and me) who addressed the topic of ‘linear thinking’ and ‘non-linear thinking’, as well as ‘exponential thinking’, ‘abundance thinking’ and ‘moonshot thinking’ and what have you. Welcome to the ‘echo-chamber’ of ‘exponential’ thinkers about ‘exponential’ thinking.

Moreover, we often hear people talking about these exact same brain activities trying to replace ‘thinking’ with ‘mindset’: ‘linear mindset’, ‘scarcity mindset, etc. Is ‘having a mindset’ also a way of thinking that lost its plasticity or is that rooted in something else? It feels like setting something in a certain position (and leaving it there for a while until something repositions that). I’m not a neuroscientist, so don’t expect a detailed investigation of the topic, but observations of the use of these ‘brain positions’ and trying to figure out what it means.

Lots of questions and confusion and Beatrice’s article leads us nicely through all the buzz, science, etc.

Let me get straight to the point: I don’t believe in dichotomies of linear vs. non-linear or abundance vs. scarcity', and all the other ‘thinkings’ or ‘mindsets’. I think that thoughts, mindsets, hard- or soft-wired, are depending on the context, and are systemic by nature and in most of cases preferential. Trying to fragment, including our own thinking (mindsets!), is how we created and create a fragmented world where ‘experts’ dominate all imaginable playfields. Time to start to defragment a bit. For that effort, we probably need technology that helps us to keep oversight about what’s going on around us (presuming that you don’t live in areas where people hardly have enough to stay alive).

In this article, I’d like to deepen the discussion by adding some other ways of looking at the above-mentioned fragmentation and exponential dynamics.

Magic!

If it is true that our brains are not able nor designed to understand the fast-changing technological world we are living in now, then how is it possible that we are able to write and talk about it with a certainty that makes you believe that it is absolutely right? The fact that we’re witnessing every day the developments of autonomous vehicles (cars, drones, ships, aircrafts), gene editing (vaccine, crops modification, new colors in flowers, more resistant bees), IoT (you’re stumbling over sensors everywhere and there is even a shortage … pondering who is getting priority in this area of scarcity), VR, MR, Immersive (digital sound, VR glasses, Meta, experiencing everything that can’t be touched, felt, nor smelt as it is), AI, ML, DL (where has it not yet been applied?). And the list goes on and on. What Salim Ismail coined as ‘the Gutenberg-moments’, hitting us at the same time. The fact that we see that, share it, echo it, means that we can comprehend it with our ‘linear minds’.

At school we were (are) daily exposed to math, literature, geography, history, physics, biology, and chemistry to just mention a small package of a random program. If we factor in sports and art (the latter is not so common), I think that this is a lot of new stuff to take in. Because we also have to do some homework during the evenings, usually in a very short amount of time, our neurons behave like creatures hanging out on an exponential curve. Guess what? Our brains can do all of that, while signaling us that we are tired and maybe it is time to go to bed… I’ve to admit, all those activities cannot be done at the same time, but in a very short amount of time we are capable to accomplish a lot. After a hard period of studying, the magic of the brain kicks in: all that new information can be used for problem-solving, daily stuff, etc. simultaneously. That makes us a kind of ‘walking Gutenberg moments’, all the time. So, do our brains miss something that we suddenly are not able to deal with (all) the technologies around us? If you explain Moore’s law to an eight-grader at school, bet that she or he ‘gets’ it in a minute or two! Does this qualify them now as ‘certified’ exponential thinkers, and those who need a bit more time don’t?

Our brains are still fine!

I think that there is nothing wrong with our brains (in general), although they shrunk during the last 10,000 years, or so, about 150 grams. That’s a whole lot of neurons, now I’m thinking about it! As a matter of fact, the question is, will its volume continue to shrink, e.g. due to our tendency to outsource more of our handlings (mental and physical) to technology? This could be relevant when power grids, for some reason, are down for a longer time. The outsourced sources are still completely dependent on electrical power and thus we (our brains) do. Everybody who lost their smartphone knows what this means. Now imagine that we are going to outsource that capacity 10x! Will our brains experience a ‘cold turkey’ when the power is down?

Let us go back to the concepts of linear- and exponential thinking.

Experts such as Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis make us believe that ‘linear thinking’ is thinking that is ‘hard wired’ and ‘always’ predictable. The remnants of our ancient souls won’t help us in today’s exponential world. I studied the famous example of 30 steps in the linear world versus 30 ‘steps’ in the exponential world. The difference between 30 meters and 1,073,741,824 meters is significant indeed. I really tried hard to get this in an exponential thinking frame, but I had no idea how to do that. I divided the 30 exponential steps by 40,075,000 meters (which is the circumference of the earth at the equator), and concluded that it is about 26 times around the earth and was amazed and lucky at the same time, that my linear brain could still grasp that. Also, if you add a speed to that track, you can calculate where you will be at a certain moment in time, even if that speed is increasing. I even introduced a shift from linear to circular thinking, rounding the earth in my imagination. But that didn’t bring me much further in my quest that ‘exponential thinking’ is so different. After all these years of wandering around in the ecosystem of exponential thinkers, I started to worry. I can’t think exponentially (anymore)! Something must be wrong. On top of that, we also learned that you must avoid experts because they tell us that something is not possible. However, now all these experts are telling us that exponential thinking is possible! I’m desperately confused…

Creativity

I started to think if a solution could be found in the non-linear world. I associated that with ‘creativity’ and that reminded me of a longitudinal study done by NASA, some 30 years ago, finding that a young child (4-5 years) has a 98% score on the creativity scale. Once we are sending them to schools, we are pumping a lot of ‘linear’ stuff into creative minds, leaving less room for creativity, incrementally (parents who are reading this, you still can save your child!). After 5 years creativity is down to 30%. That’s almost 70%! Then 5 years later, when they are about 15 years old, only 12% of the ‘paradise of creativity’ is still there! So, we are paying schools to beat the creativity out of our children (which we all were a few years ago…). This is like mental and physical torture! The same test was conducted to adults. 2% of creativity was left! We must dig really deep to find the creativity that is still there. It feels like having exchanged children’s play yards for the Mariana Trench where creativity hardly can escape from the pressure of all the water, whereas we need creativity to solve the world’s grand challenges, don’t we?

If creativity can be seen as ‘non-linear’ (and how much we obviously ‘hate’ that like the plague, as described above), then I can understand that scientists have figured out why human minds do have so many difficulties with non-linear relationships between facts and elements, whatever those may be. It is difficult to investigate and talk about non-linearity if we hardly know anymore what it means and try to clarify it with the thinking that killed it in the first place! Once you see this, you know that we are in a very strange place.

The good news is that if we even can unlearn creativity, we also must be able to unlearn linear thinking to (re)open new horizons of looking to the world. I’m not elaborating on that in this article and how that can be done, but certainly will question that in a future article.

Building some more confusion

For now, let me conclude, that our brains are not wired for linear thinking only. It is ‘just’ a function amongst many. Linear thinking usually is connected to predictability. We feel (more) confident if we know what is going to happen when we must make certain decisions. Well, nature invented that capability to survive in all sorts of daily activities. The many decisions we are making while driving a car or a bicycle (yes, I’m from the Netherlands…), are just examples of that capability. Does this mean that we can’t deal with uncertainties? Hell no! We wouldn’t be here, right now, and reading these sentences. As babies we started to walk, most of us managed to do that. The rest is history.

But ‘linear thinking’ also seems to be a bit in the way of embracing the grand opportunities in the exponential era. This presumption needs to be unraveled to prevent us from falling in a ‘we know better’ pitfall.  Organizations, as systems, are out there to add some value to society. If consumers are buying services or goods, delivered or produced by these organizations, it has value whether we like it or not. It would be helpful for these organizations if we would assist them by analyzing how future proof their services and/or products will be. When we have our ideas more or less formulated about that  (the future is uncertain anyway), then we can start to develop a strategy to replace things with something else. However, because of our ‘we know better’ attitude, we tend to classify organizations as doomed, because they are not immediately jumping into something new but instead incrementally improving their products or services because they ‘are stuck in their linear mindset’.

Strangely, in these cases, Apple always comes to my mind. Incrementally moving to the most valuable company in the world while we still have iPhones, iPads, iMacs, iWatches, iTunes, and iCloud. The results are pretty exponentially, achieved with a linear mindset. If Apple couldn’t predict what their new product (e.g. iPhone) or service (e.g. iTunes) was going to do in the market, they would have been in a way stranger place, yet they are exponential.

To conclude

We need concepts to express the reality that we are experiencing. That’s the nature of our way to create understanding. The concepts are subject to further exploration. I miss the nuances of the use of concepts, as described in this article, when I’m attending conferences, seminars, conversations, journals, etc. It gives rise to the confusion and underestimation of the adaptability of many of our sophisticated neurobiological systems. “In fact, it has been argued that the information processing capacity necessary for representing the complex social relationships in social groups was one of the driving factors in the evolution of the large primate and human cortex”, Monica Eckstein et.al. summarizes the complexity of our brain that simply cannot be expressed merely in phenomena such as ‘linear’-, ‘exponential’-, ‘abundant’-, ‘scarcity’ thinking. Continuation of this type of fragmentation neglects our systemic nature by design, which gives birth to a technocratic erosion of who we are.      


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Paul Epping

Serial entrepreneur, chairman Xponential (transformation company), global keynote speaker, ExO Ambassador, ExO Coach. Critical thinker, curious by design. Intercultural explorer. Executive coach.