thinkers (and stories)

One of my favorite ‘thinkers’ and authors is Edward de Bono. He’s written a good stack of books – 62 says his website – on creative thinking. He also teaches courses around the world on direct thinking. Some of his better known books (and processes) are “lateral thinking”, which is now part of our everyday language, and the Six Thinking Hats.

One of his books that I’ve had for over a decade now is Letters to Thinkers: Further thoughts on Lateral Thinking. I was given the book by a fellow I met in Belize in 1999. He was on his way back north to Canada after traveling through South America for close to a year. An appreciator of ‘thinking’; he said the book had been great for provoking various pondering while sitting on a train, or waiting for some bus.

I think the book was one of my initial introductions to de Bono and over the years I have borrowed many of his books from various libraries.

In Letters to Thinkers de Bono talks about ‘stories and metaphor’:

Stories and metaphor are most useful for carrying lessons and principles. There is much more appeal than with a simple statement of an abstract point. A story is much easier to remember. Metaphors are not meant to be extended or worked over in detail. Once the point has been made it floats free and must be challenged as such. The metaphor is only the ‘carrying case’. Destroying the metaphor does not destroy the principle. Occasionally, there is a delight when exactly the same story can be used to illustrate the opposite principle…

A good story – no matter how amusing – never proves a point in an argument. Nevertheless a story can show a type of relationship or process which becomes a possibility. Once it has been thought a ‘thought’ cannot be unthought.

Ordinary language is rather poor at describing complex processes and relationships. It is much better at describing things. We are beginning to inject into language ‘function’ words which do manage to convey functions. Such words as ‘threshold effect’, ‘take-off point’ and ‘win-win situations’ are a step in this direction. Some people are inclined to dismiss such words as jargon – which they may sometimes be – but there is a usefulness in higher order language which allows us to deal with processes as well as things. As suggested above, once the possibility of a certain type of interaction is raised then that possibility must be considered.

To say that ‘this is a threshold type of investment’ means that nothing might happen for quite a while; there is nothing to be seen; then – when the threshold has been exceeded – it all begins to happen. In other types of situation the same thought might be expressed with the term ‘critical mass’ (this suggests that nothing happens until there are enough interactions for an explosive effect to take place).

So there is a spectrum from words to ‘function’ words to metaphor and on to stories. What I like about stories is that the listener [or reader] can see not only the obvious meaning but also other levels of meaning.

(It should be pointed out that de Bono first published this book in 1987 – about 20 years before Malcolm Gladwell published The Tipping Point.)

To illustrate his point de Bono hand drew the following image:

He also tells this great little story about a friend of his who owns an avocado farm in California and also has two dogs. One of the dogs took a liking to eating avocado pears – especially when he wasn’t supposed to. The other dog had no interest. To teach the avocado-eating dog a lesson, the farm owner sprinkled – rather liberally – avocados with cayenne pepper. The avocado-eater noticed quickly and left a bunch of half eaten avocado pears. The other dog took an interest, and took a bite. He loved it and ate all the cayenne sprinkled avocados.

Now the farmer has two avocado eating dogs.

What are morals? asks de Bono:

1. That obvious strategies may turn out to be counter-productive.

2. That dogs, like people, are unpredictable.

3. That if you make something spicy enough at first bite you might entrain a buyer.

de Bono, for me, highlights my hope and purpose here – to tell stories that: “can show a type of relationship or process which becomes a possibility. Once it has been thought a ‘thought’ cannot be unthought.”

Exactly my point, as the time for salmon ‘management’ through the 1900s has now past. Now that we are about to see the coming to an end of the first decade of 2000 – maybe it’s time for some new stories, new metaphors, new function words, and even new words – especially in relation to wild salmon?

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