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Distill Your Mind

We tend to label people or things and assign them into “boxes” – by gender, race, political persuasion, nationality, you name it. And, even though we may be aware that these are gross generalizations, it can develop into a habit of mind with limiting, negative side effects.

Here’s the “positive” side of labeling and putting things in “boxes:” it’s efficient.

Learning how to drink a cup of water was once a complex series of actions we had to learn: look at the glass, reach your arm toward it, grasp with your fingers, and then raise it to your lips . . . without spilling it. We wouldn’t want to relearn that every time we got thirsty!

Similarly, to name something “hot” is a convenient way for us to communicate that there is inherent danger regarding an object and to handle it carefully. It's a short cut and it works. We all get that.

However, these shortcuts, while efficient, can foster an unsophistication of mind that limits our ability to address more complex issues in life.

For instance, think how we label people as “conservative” or “liberal.” This one statement paints a wide variety of individuals with an incredibly blunt brush, collapsing numerous attributes into one “box.”

The shortcut has done just that: cut things short and, in effect, cuts them down to a radically crude approximation. With one word, with one label, we can lump an entire swath of humanity into “us” or “them” thinking – a remarkably hijacking of, what we deem to be, a sophisticated and sentient being.

Here, I'll invoke the metaphor of “distillation” to expand thinking and to open new solution paths.

Distillation is the process of separating components from a substance. Below is an image of distilling crude oil into various petroleum products at different boiling temperatures.

distilation method diagram

What I've described above is a sort of reverse distillation: a “collapsing” our thinking into boxes where we reduce distinct components into a lowest denominator whole. It would be like pouring all these distilled petroleum products back into the original tank - a crude mixture indeed!

We do this all the time! The problem is that we do so largely unknowingly and, thereby, lock ourselves out of more spectral thinking.

A business example

A large corporate client of mine was trying to upgrade a particular initiative that had been around for decades. They couldn’t. They were stuck envisioning their options within the collapsed structure of the current initiative. It’s akin to what Henry Ford once (supposedly) said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would answer ‘A faster horse.’” I worked with the client and their team to break down the problem into its component parts and challenged each on its own. That opened up new doors and were able to develop a radically transformed solution that generated outsized results.

A personal example

On any given weekend we may have infinite choices but we get stuck by competing voices. We could go for a drive, go wine tasting, get some exercise, go to a museum, etc. But after negotiating with the different aspects of ourselves, we come down to very few novel choices and usually revert to whatever feels comfortable or habitual: "Let’s just stay home and watch sports."

Breaking it down

Richard Schwarz, in his book, No Bad Parts, explains how “we” are not one monolithic entity: we each have different “parts” within us. Understanding that, enables us to listen to each of our parts, and then choose powerfully rather than give up trying to mitigate the conflicts within. This idea that “you” are comprised of multiple “you’s” could be a transformative realization on its own. But now think of aligning multiple people in a group setting. Yikes!

Bottom line

When you have a challenge before you, see if you can distill out the factors that you have bundled into some sort of box: get the jumbled thinking out of your head and onto paper where you can see it in the light of day. Then you have a chance in hell of breaking out of fixed thinking.

Hopefully you come up with multiple potential solutions and then your only “problem” is choosing which one! If it’s not immediately obvious then you can apply any number of decision frameworks available to determine the right solution for you.

I'd love to hear your insights in the comments box 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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