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How to Use New Perspectives

Note: This is part of a series of articles that starts here: What is Radical Thinking?

One of the most famous examples of a "thought experiment" is that of Albert Einstein imagining himself running alongside and catching up to a beam of light. He says he was sixteen at the time, and this exercise in imagination eventually helped him develop his theory of special relativity. He did similar thought experiments regularly. The basic idea was (and is) to use new perspectives to see things in new creative ways.

There are always more perspectives than we first perceive in a situation or subject. For example, when we argue, it is obvious that the other person has a different perspective. In order to better understand an issue, we might even try to think from that perspective for a moment at least. But how often do we think of (or from) the perspective of someone watching the argument? Do that and you might see something that both sides are missing.

If we take an issue like religion, we know that people see it in many ways. How does Christianity or Judaism appear to an atheist? What would Jesus Christ have to say about modern Christianity or Islam? How do religious people view other religions? What would a visitor from another planet think about our variety of faith-based beliefs? What about the perspective of the "witches" killed by Christians in the Middle Ages? Or those helped by Mother Theresa?

Each of these people or groups will (or would) see the various religions differently, and if you want new ideas on the topic you can adopt the perspective of each as a mental exercise. But for even broader thinking and more radical ideas, don't limit yourself to only the various perspectives of people. Our imaginations allow us to think of such things as, "What would the Earth think about various religions?" or "If other animals could think in ways similar to humans (use abstract concepts and reason), how would they see the religions of the world?"

The Power of Perspective

A visitor from another planet has taken over this body. At least I like to think so from time to time. Why? Because this perspective always makes things clearer to me.

The first time I did this thought experiment, I quickly realized that the alien visitor might have no interest in my own limiting thoughts and feelings. If he intended to use my body and brain for his own purposes he might see only the knowledge, capabilities and possibilities inherent in me. My feelings, failures and even stress wouldn't necessarily exist for him, unless he was somehow bound by my own habits and inclinations. He might be too ignorant of my past and concerns to even know what to worry about. My "problems" might be challenges at most, or just games to play.

Now, what occurred to me from this (the first time I did it) is that my worries and stresses are not "mine," since they obviously didn't belong to my body or brain. They are created by thinking in certain ways, and only become part of "me" when I identify with that thinking. If I don't identify with those thoughts, my "problems" cease to exist as problems, and become nothing more than "choices" or "challenges."

The alien wouldn't identify with my body, my brain, or my feelings about things. He simply would use what is there to do what he can. So could I do the same? This isn't really a new idea, since this learning to un-identify with ones thoughts and self is a basic part of Buddhism and other spiritual traditions. But my alien thought-experiment made it very real to me. In fact, when I think from the perspective of being an alien with my goals and my body, my worries and limiting thoughts largely drop away (at least temporarily), and I start to see what can be done. That is the power of perspective.

Using Metaphors to Change Perspective

I have covered how you can use metaphors to generate new ideas. One of the primary ways they do this is by changing your perspective. Is business a game, a public service or a battle? Those three metaphors are essentially three different perspectives. Each will lead to different ideas.

Now, for a more specific example of how to use metaphors to change perspective and create new ideas, let's look at an imagined scenario. Sam is the owner of bookstore, and wants to do some new things to generate more business. He sits down with a pen and paper, and starts to think of any possible metaphors for his business. Here are some of his results:

A bookstore is: a refuge... a library... a school... a restaurant for the mind.

Going to a bookstore is: taking a vacation... an adventure... a job.

Selling is: teaching... showing... a contest... talking... sharing.

Notice that he has metaphors for the bookstore itself, the activity of going to a bookstore, and the activity of selling. It helps to think widely about the things and activities to which one can apply new metaphors. He might have even added to list such "idea starters" as "A book is..." and "A business is..." To these he can add various nouns in order to create new metaphorical understandings that lead to new and profitable ideas.

Working with the list he has, Sam starts at the beginning and spends a little time with each metaphorical perspective. A "refuge" makes him think about those adults who come to relax at the bookstore, and this leads to an idea to have a quiet room where children aren't allowed. "Library" suggests a book-rental program. "School" makes him wonder if having free "classes" could help sell books. A two-hour introductory Spanish class might help sell Spanish books and dictionaries, and an investing class might get people buying many different investment books.

He already has a coffee shop as part of the bookstore, but a "restaurant for the mind," gives him a new idea. What if waiters brought books, magazines, tapes and videos to customers at their tables to read or look over? The customer totally relaxes with food, drinks, and any books or other materials he or she wants to peruse. When she is done, she either leaves the books and other things or tells the waiter which ones to add to her bill.

"Taking a vacation" suggests ideas for making the bookstore experience more fun and/or relaxing. Selling as "talking" makes Sam think about having recorded readings of book chapters that customers can listen to with headphones in comfortable chairs. Selling as "sharing" leads to an idea for having customers review books, and then posting those reviews next to the books on the shelves.

Obviously, not every new perspective is going to produce usable ideas. Nor are the ideas produced always going to be radically new or unique. Perhaps only one out of every hundred ideas will be a good one. The solution to that, however, is to just have more ideas. Using techniques like these makes that easy.

I'll have a whole lesson devoted to using metaphors coming soon.

An Exercise in Perspectives

Here are a few ideas to ponder that rely on taking a new perspective.

- If an idea was a virus, how could it infect as many people as possible?

- In the science of ecology, the Gaia hypothesis starts with the perspective of the Earth as a living organism, of which we and all other living and non-living things are a part. It has led to some interesting ideas. What other metaphors can you think of for the Earth, and what ideas do they suggest?

- If you were designing new humans, would you have fear as part of their programming, and how would it work differently than in current humans?

- If your cat or dog could think and talk, what would he or she say about the way you live your life?

Okay, some of these new perspectives may seem too silly. They are silly perhaps, but the above is meant as a personal mental exercise, so you don't have to actually discuss them with others. Just use them as "imagination practice," and for generating new ideas. In any case they are no more silly than Einstein pretending he was running alongside a beam of light!

Continues here...
Using Metaphors for More Creativity

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