None of us are realists, in the strictest sense of the term.
Sometimes "reality" can seem so crummy that the problem appears to be one of too darn much reality, rather than not "enough reality"!
Yet being aware of how you make decisions and how good a "reality radar" you have is an important life skill.
Because in life you'll always be faced with challenges and having a process to help reduce errors in judgement helps a lot.
Fact: We all (sometimes) make unhelpful shortcuts, we quickly exclude, we suffice, we participate in processes of wishful thinking. The unfortunate truth is reality thinking is something that most of us are not wired up to do but the good news is it can be learned…
Inbuilt Limitations That Reduce Realism
Standing in our way at getting good are a several inbuilt limitations including:
- Being “realistic” is often not welcomed. It feels good to generate ideas, targets or goals and not have to put any consideration into what conditions need to be in order for such goals or targets to work.
- Reality thinking takes effort. We have a finite amount of conscious memory and limited ability to track a anything more than a few variables at once.
- The language we use to describe a situation or solution frames our perception about the topic under discussion often in unhelpful ways
- We suffer from numerous cognitive biases such as being over confident about our abilities and expectations about the future, biased in what “evidence” we gravitate towards, habituated to only seek out supporting evidence and are reluctant to change our minds once we have formed an opinion.
- Most of us are not taught critical thinking skills and innovative problem solving in school and even few of us are well practiced in either.
Benefits of Reality Driven Thinking:
There are many benefits to reality driven thinking which can be summed up as:
- We can know ahead of time and to a good degree of accuracy if specific decisions, projects or choices will lead to the presumed results that we want (and who doesn't want more accuracy in that?)
- We can generate opportunities
Let's look at some examples… on the career front you don’t need to invest 12 months before you figure out that some new company isn’t right for you.
As an entrepreneur or business owner you can identify if there is real opportunity to make money in your new venture or if your existing market you are in is facing structural change. Knowing this can save you time, money and give you an advantage.
But reality based thinking can be applied everywhere and can be learned.
When you apply it systematically to your own behaviour you can make a dramatic difference in just about any area of your life.
How To Become A Better "Reality-Based Thinker"
Life seems incredibly complex. Yet when we dig beneath the surface of any situation we find it is shaped by causes and effects. Specific conditions need to be present in order for specific results to occur.
An oak tree doesn’t grow to great heights without many variables operating at once. Some things occur in sequence, others simultaneously.
As reality thinkers our goal is to create a sufficiently accurate model about a situation which we can then use to make better decisions, exploit opportunities and change how we would tackle the problem. It’s an iterative process.
Unlike a shoot from the hip and see what works approach, reality thinking places a heavy emphasis on a structured, systematic examination of all keys factors an issues that are driving a situation.
There process involves five steps:
1. Get clear on what is the decision or question(s) you are trying to solve
- e.g. How will we make money in this industry?
- e.g. Are house prices likely to increase or fall?
2. Structure your analysis
- Bring order to chaos. Seek to identify what are the likely few major factors that are affecting the issue. Pattern out the key causes that are producing the biggest effects
- Use one of any number of formal structured analytic tools to organise and track your thinking
3. Map out the system
- Identify all the key drivers that are affecting the decision/question in focus
- Seek out empirical evidence from all relevant sources
- Make sure you consider both internal realities (e.g. capabilities, knowledge, skills etc) that affect the issue under consideration along with any relevant external realities (e.g. market conditions, regulations, trends etc)
- Sort your information sources by facts, opinions and guesses
- Test and re-test your assumptions
4. Formulate your solution/decision in action based terms
Once you have sorted through what is really driving the issue and got clear on both the internal and external factors and "reality tested" your assumptions it's time to decide what is the best course of action based on what outcome you are looking to create.
What new perspective on the situation do you now have and what does your instinct tell you is the best path forward given the variables in play?
Decide and where relevant create a suitable plan.
5. Execute your plan of action and review the results
Reality testing is never done with 100% foresight so after you execute your plan make sure to take the time to assess how it performed and what you can learn from it so you can improve your thinking going forward. Often experience will generate insights and "exceptions to the rules" that later become invaluable.
While the topic is a vast area in itself to learn I want to share with you a set of powerful questions you can begin to use right away to improve your thinking.
Whenever you are looking to test your assumptions/conclusions ask yourself:
- How do I know [X conclusion]?
- What would have to be true in order for X to be true? Is that really true?
- What other plausible explanations are there?
- What benefits or consequences would have to exist if X cause exists? Do they?
Use these questions to extend your thinking and raise “gaps” in your model of the world so you can reduce errors in your thought process and generate new possibilities for more successful action. It takes practise but it's worth it.
The more you do it, the better you'll become and the faster you'll reap the rewards.