Mind Like a Steel Trap

by Ron Potter


I visited my chiropractor the other day and he had a new young assistant who checked me in. As this young man was checking me in on the computer, I patted him on the shoulder as I passed him on my way to a chair. Wow! This kid’s shoulders felt like steel to me. I asked him if he was still in college and if he participated in sports. He was indeed enrolled in a nearby college and he said he was on the track team. I said, “Wow, you’re a runner?” He said no he didn’t run but he threw things: the shot and the hammer. It came clear. Those shoulders that felt like steel came from the fact that he threw very heavy things. In this case, feeling like steel was a good thing.

I’m not very attracted by the images, but when you see bodybuilders, they often look like they’re cut from a block of steel or granite. The image of Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was in his body-building days comes to mind. However, I’ve heard Arnold and other bodybuilders say that even though they work hard at building their bodies, they lose a lot of flexibility in the process. I think steel can be good, but the loss of flexibility is not.

You may have heard the old statement having a mind like a steel trap—or maybe it’s just a saying that us old engineers are familiar with. The idea is self-explanatory of course. You grasp an idea and your mind closes on it like a steel trap and won’t let go.

That’s a good thing if you’re setting up a trap to catch wild animals. It may not be the best approach when it comes to ideas.

Flexible Thinking

An article that Shane Parish wrote in his Farnam Steet blog caught my eye. His opening statement is “The less rigid we are in our thinking, the more open minded, creative and innovative we become.”

Shane has several quotes from a book written by Leonard Mlodinow. Shane’s opening paragraph says this about Mlodinow’s book: “Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World confirms that the speed of technological and cultural development is requiring us to embrace types of thinking besides the rational, logical style of analysis that tends to be emphasized on our society.”

I received a wonderful email from my grandson who is currently living halfway around the world with his parents. He said, “I look up to your logical thinking.” I certainly took that as a compliment from him but wasn’t sure it was the best thing to be known for in an ever-changing world. Shane, in his comments, says, “We need to accept that analytic thinking—generally described as the application of systematic, logical analysis—has limitations.” He goes on to say, “Although incredibly useful in a variety of daily situations, analytical thinking may not be best for solving problems whose answers require new ways of doing things.”

Experts Sometimes Know Too Much

In my years as a consultant to CEOs and their teams around the world, I would often observe a dynamic that fascinated me. Many people on the leadership team were outstanding on a particular topic. On that particular topic, they had a mind like a steel trap. However, there were many times when the team was stuck on a particular issue and couldn’t seem to come up with an answer outside of their expertise. But, on those occasions when there was a young (less expert) member of the team, they seemed to ask a question about their current dilemma that the “experts” had not thought of. In fact, they might often start their question with some qualifier like, “I don’t really know what I’m talking about here but I’ve just been thinking that it might be a good idea to explore ‘such and such.'”

I would often watch the team of “experts” go completely silent until one of them would acknowledge that they hadn’t really thought about it that way before. They were soon talking non-stop about how that opened them to a whole new way to think about their dilemma. Flexibility, not rigid “steel” thinking, had them coming up with new approaches.

“Flexible thinking” is required to work our way through our ever-changing world. Without it, we are just stuck and will quickly be left behind.

For next week’s blog I’m writing on a topic that really scares me. It scares me for personal reasons. It scares me to think about what my grandchildren will be facing in the world as they mature. It scares me for the human race in general. I’ve not yet figured out how to deal with the topic and not be afraid, but I and others must do it.

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