“Solutions come through evolution. They come through asking the right questions, because the answers pre-exist. It is the questions we must define and discover. You don’t invent the answer, you reveal the answer.”
I read recently that our brains process 11 million bits of information every second.
Yet, our conscious minds can only process 40 to 50 bits of information each second. Our subconscious minds filter that information and present it in a way that makes sense given our underlying beliefs and notions about how the world works.
This has got me thinking: What am I seeing? What might be just in front of me but I’ve not programmed my subconscious mind to let it into my reality?
I’ve been pondering the same question for the duration of my career in climate policy: how to mobilize trillions to enable every human on earth to address loss and damage, develop resilience to, and ultimately, to thrive in the midst of global challenges like, but certainly not limited to, climate change?
This is the aim of everyone who works on Loss and Damage, though we might focus on different aspects of the solution. This is the question we work towards solving.
No big deal, right?
If I’m truly honest I’ve felt for some time that we’re stuck. We keep recycling the same set of potential solutions which themselves don’t fully address the problem.
But they’re all we’ve got so far. So we keep going back to them over and over again. Which if I’m not wrong is the definition of insanity (though evidently not one proposed by Einstein).
There is one fundamental problem with our approach.
We’re not engaging with folks from other fields enough. Folks who could help us see the problem through different lenses and, in doing so, could help us come up with solutions we’re not seeing. Better solutions. Ones that fully address the problems and help us also transform systems in doing so.
Matthew Syed writes about this in his book Rebel Ideas, which I draw on frequently in my work. He argues that not only is “groupthink” not equipped to address complex challenges, but that it can have disastrous consequences. He gives many such examples in his book.
It’s clear that we need more cognitive diversity to address global challenges like climate change.
One of the many things that cognitive diversity brings to the table, is different ways of seeing the world. And that brings different questions which unlock different answers and that leads to different and usually better solutions.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to ask better questions lately.
I recently took Naveen Jain’s quest on Mindvalley which is called The Power of Boldness. The quest is about developing and taking moonshots, translating bold ideas into action, which ultimately change the world.
Moonshots address the root causes, rather than the symptoms of problems. In doing so, they make the world a better place to live for millions, if not billions, of people.
Jain argues that in order to address root causes we need to think like a novice and ask the “dumb” questions. He maintains that what he calls “moonshot thinkers” think about the “why” rather than the “how”.
In the quest Jain provides examples of some of the most fundamental questions plaguing our societies today. One such question is:
Is the education system broken?
If we want to understand that, we don’t need to understand why it’s broken but rather:
Why do we educate children?
If the purpose is for children to eventually become functioning adults with skills that allow them to get jobs, then we need to teach children the skill of learning to learn. Jain argues that:
Given that most problems are multi-disciplinary, children will need to learn to learn about multiple things at the same time and to tie them together.
In my view we should also be teaching children skills like meditation, mindfulness and how to develop a growth mindset, among other topics that will help them live a better life. But that’s another story.
Another global challenge is energy. At present, most of our energy comes from fossil fuels which is highly problematic. Yet, Jain notes that every 90 minutes more solar energy falls on planet Earth than we use in the whole year.
The problem is not that we don’t have enough energy. It’s that we don’t have sufficient tools to convert solar energy into energy that we can use at the scale needed.
Better understanding the root causes helps us solve the actual problem rather than addressing the symptom of it.
Beginner’s mind is key to doing that and cognitive diversity brings beginner’s mind to every situation.
However, we need to cultivate cognitive diversity. We need to build bridges across communities of practice, have broader conversations and develop ways of fostering more collaboration if we are going to address global challenges.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how a beginner’s mind might look at Loss and Damage. If the goal is creating a world in which every human has the tools and resources they need to thrive, do we really need to mobilize trillions of dollars? Or do we need to better distribute what already exists? Or do we need to re-think the whole system? Or all of the above? How might someone completely new to Loss and Damage look at things differently? What insights might they bring?
Clearly we’ve got a lot of work to do. And what if we’re not seeing the questions because we’re not allowing them in? What if the solutions are in those 11 bits of information that our brains are exposed to but that our conscious minds don’t process.
Our conscious minds process and present information that makes sense for it, in a way that is aligned with our beliefs and notions of how the world works. So if we want to see different information we need to have different beliefs.
No big deal, right?
It can be. I honestly believe that if you decide that reprogramming your subconscious mind to see a different reality is going to be easy peasy, then it can be. It hasn’t always been that way for me, but that’s also because I expected it to be hard. And that’s also a limiting belief; one I’m still working on.
The first step is to focus our reticular activating systems (RAS) on what we want rather than what we don’t want. The RAS is essentially the gatekeeper, making sense of the information the brain receives and making sense of it.
As Mehmet Yildiz writes in an article on how to manifest by focusing your RAS on what you want in your life, our RAS is responsible for keeping us alive. Way back when our ancestors were not at the top of the food chain as we might consider ourselves to be now, the RAS was programmed to see threats from predators which might be lurking around the proverbial corner. Though those particular threats no longer exist for most humans, most of us are still wired to see negativity. If you want to understand more about the workings of the brain you can delve into that through the work of neuro-psychologist Rick Hanson.
I’ve written about the importance of focusing our RAS on what we want to see in our lives in previous blogs about why I was optimistic about the outcome of both COP 26 and COP 27. Because I know that the more I program my RAS to see good things, the more good things it brings me. That’s literally how it works.
So circling back to the questions we ask. We’re asking the same questions because we’re thinking the same thoughts based on the same beliefs which culminate in the same actions. It’s the same, same but not different - every single day. We are literally chasing our tails.
How do we stop doing that?
First, we need to understand that we are seeing a very small part of what’s out there. Then we need to assume a beginner's mind by engaging with folks from other fields, with different perspectives and ways of seeing the world. Only through cognitive diversity can we come up with better questions which will get us better solutions.
And then we need to do our own work. Both as individuals and as a collective. To reprogram our subconscious minds, rewire our brains to scan the world for positivity. To expect good things. To believe we can find solutions to the answers we seek. And then once we do that, we can expect those questions to come and intend that the answers will follow. And they will.
A version of this article was first published on Medium. You can find it here.
Erin Roberts is the founder and Global Lead of the Loss and Damage Collaboration. These days she is focused on cultivating cognitive diversity and seeking insights from other fields of inquiry to formulate better questions that arrive at more robust solutions on Loss and Damage.