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Convergent Divergent

Remember playing with a magnifying glass as a kid, using the light of the Sun to burn holes in leaves? Well, that’s a convergent lens: it takes parallel light rays and focusses them on a point.

parallel light rays

The lenses in our eyes do the same thing: focusing what are called “real images” onto the retina.

In a way, our mind acts like a convergent lens: we focus on the task before us to accomplish an outcome. Call it “convergent thinking.” This is our usual mode of thought and works well for direct, logical thinking.

But deeper, less direct questions or problems often can’t be “solved” using that kind of thinking. For instance, how do determine what happened at a crime scene when you weren’t there to witness it? We have to employ a totally different approach: divergent thinking, or more correctly, "divergent perception."

Take a look at the divergent lens below: the light traveling into the lens spreads outward - it diverges.

light traveling into the lens

If you extrapolate the radiating lines backward, they will form a sort of virtual focal point, or “virtual image.”

This idea of a virtual image can be a little hard to grasp at first but, as you’ll see, virtual images are a very “real” part of our lives!

Here are three examples:

The first is a crime scene where investigators are trying to figure out what happened. They collect clues and eventually piece back a picture of the event: what happened, who was there, how it occurred, and when. They basically recreate the event without ever having actually witnessed it!

crime scene

The second example is what physicists do when they smash atoms. They can’t “see” the actual event, but from all the particles that fly off and hit their detectors, they extrapolate back to the “virtual image” of what must have happened.

The third example is a little more esoteric but you will appreciate this: imagine wondering, “What’s my purpose in life?” The convergent mind tries to focus on it and “find” it. You won’t be surprised to hear that doesn’t work! The harder you try to focus on it, the more elusive it can be. That’s because some things – particularly the invisible – require the use of divergent perception.

We have to look at the divergent rays of our life and extrapolate back to the virtual image – in this case, our purpose.

woman sunset

I have an extended exercise on this important subject but I’ll provide a simple short cut for illustration purposes.

Look at any period in your life and capture two things: what you were doing and what you were really “up to.” The doing part is easy to identify because it employs convergent thinking. But what you were really “up to” is less obvious.

For instance, one of my favorite job roles early in my career was as a product manager. I interfaced with and coordinated engineering, marketing, finance, and sales to define product, packaging, pricing, promotion strategy, etc. That was the doing part.

But what was I really “up to?” Why did I love that job so much? When I reflected, I realized I was most passionate about aligning people toward a common objective. I enjoyed using my relationships skills to gain buy-in, overcome roadblocks, and get to the best overall solution for success.

What I was “up to” was much different than what I was doing. The “doing” was developing and launching a new product. What I was “up to” was creating collaboration, alignment, inspiration, celebration, and embracing teamwork.

Now, imagine doing this exercise for multiple periods in your life or career. Capture the “doing” part (briefly); then take a deeper look at what you were really “up to” during each of those periods. What was motivating you? What were you really seeking (consciously or not)? Who were you being?

If you changed your career or life circumstance a few times, the “doing” parts can seem quite different and unrelated. But what you were “up to” is most often not: because it’s part of who you are, not what you do.

If you extrapolate back what you were “up to” in all those circumstances, you’ll start to form a virtual image of yourself: who you really are and what you’re really “up to” in life. Purpose, then starts to come into view.

This article isn’t necessarily about how to find your purpose – it’s about a different model of conceiving to “see” those things that are out of view. It’s to show how we get locked out of so many mysteries in life because we habitually apply convergent thinking to the kinds of problems that can only be solved through divergent perception.

If you’re struggling for a breakthrough in your life, it could be time to try a different approach. The first step is to realize you may be stuck in a pattern of thinking that doesn’t work. Transforming that paradigm can bring access to a whole world previously unavailable to you.

This isn’t always easy to do on your own because we are all creatures of habit and habitual thinking. The second step, therefore, would be to reach out to an expert on shifting thinking to access and achieve new levels of success and fulfillment in your life.

Give me a shout and we can set up an exploratory session together.

See this 5-minute video below for further explanation:

I'd love to hear your insights or reflections in the comments at the bottom.


As an executive coach, I work with leaders to transform their influence and impact on their organizations and the world. You can reach me at  

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