Author’s Note: This piece started out as a note written for a university student who was depressed and struggling, to offer her a way of thinking about what she was going through. It was later reworked for a more general audience, offering readers twice her age or more a perspective for reflection on their own experiences.
Most of us think of intelligence as something that can be measured by grades and IQ. We absorb information and skills at school, or receive training in the workplace, and accept an idea of intelligence defined by our grasp of an established knowledge-base which can be taught, memorised and relied on.
But there is another element to intelligence, one harder to quantify than a score on a test. It is our perspective on the world.
We each have our own way of seeing, of reaching out into life and making sense of it. Perspective is not just about gathering facts. It’s about how we figure out what to do when we can’t find the facts to help us make a decision. Or when facts contradict each other. Or, more painfully, when others contradict us. Perspective informs the ways in which we connect with the world and the people around us.
We each reach out to extend our curiosity in different ways. Some of us are most at ease with the familiar. Some enjoy finding out more about a particular area. Others widen their searches like ripples on a pond. Still others reach into unexpected, apparently irrelevant corners to seek for what might be there now, or for what might emerge.
Imagine this as tuning our antennae to pick up different signals – some close and clear, some more distant and indistinct, some faint, barely discernible.
And once we have reached out, we perceive different connections, potentials, links, variables, possibilities – the raw material for making sense of the world. Some of us seek every possible angle on a situation we are interested in, or a problem we are trying to resolve, so that we can decide which techniques and knowledge will suit it best. Others seek for the connections and principles that link a number of situations or events together. Others revel in seeking patterns where none are obvious, and working out the rules that govern them. And some of us deliberately seek out uncertainty – by reading odd and seemingly irrelevant material, by walking down unfamiliar streets, or putting ourselves in new or challenging situations, we may welcome uncertainty itself as a resource.
When we talk about what we seek, see and understand – when we integrate our sight and insight – it soon becomes clear that others may not see the world that way at all. Friends, colleagues, teachers, bosses or parents may find what we are trying to describe, and the questions we ask, a bit odd. They might call us awkward, even impertinent, or tell us we could not possibly see things in that way because we have not had enough experience.
Seeing possibilities and potential connections that others are not aware of can leave us feeling lonely. We might even feel that there is something wrong with us. In school or university, the questions we ask may be brushed aside, or seen as challenging authority. At work, we may be asked to do X, and when we reply that makes no sense unless one also considers P and Q, and possibly E and F as well, we are told we do not have the experience to make such suggestions, and to get on with it.
It can be difficult to know how to respond – we tend either to become overly insistent and risk being seen as arrogant, or to retreat and keep our perspective to ourselves. In either case, frustration and alienation can follow.
We thrive when the challenges of the world in which we work, learn and live draw fully on the perspective we bring. We flourish when these challenges are diverse enough for our curiosity, complex enough for the connections we want to make, broad enough for the potentials we want to imagine. People all over the world describe feeling confident, competent, energised, even exhilarated when coping successfully with new challenges. Psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines this phenomenon as being ‘in flow’. We’re going with the grain, and things just seem to happen right of their own accord. Our intuition is there for us, and if there are choices to make, we make them almost without being aware.
However, when our challenges are insufficient for the perspective we bring, we feel frustrated, switched off. We grow anxious, hesitant, low on confidence. We lose touch with our intuition, and if there are choices to be made, they seem obvious and self-evident, tedious and demoralizing. A ‘challenge’ that requires no judgement is no challenge – and no fun.
If the challenges are overwhelming, on the other hand, we experience a different kind of anxiety. At first we feel perplexed, and have to coax our intuition. If overwhelm increases, worry takes over. We lose our ability to navigate through complexity, and are forced to gamble rather than make coherent choices. We long for the comfort of our intuition, yet we fear it will let us down.
People seek ‘flow’ because it is a reward in itself. The feeling of being in flow gives us energy and confidence, which feed accomplishment, which in turn boosts energy, in a cycle of positive reinforcement.
Flow is not a luxury, but a staple of life. It inspires us to grow, since we seek the pleasure of being in flow as often as possible, yet as our perspective widens, we can achieve it only by tackling bigger challenges. It often feels as if our growing perspective has a life of its own as it seeks ever-farther horizons.
By seeking out associates and activities that challenge us in a positive sense – neither so much that we despair, nor so little that we doze off – we pave the way for a fulfilling, dynamic life, with opportunities each day to give the best in us, and receive the best in return.
© Gillian Stamp