It was the morning after the first snow of the season and I was having a hard time starting the snow blower. Once started it ran sputtering, warning of trouble. At first, I wondered if the technician had loosened something while performing the annual service. But no, I remembered it ran fine after servicing. Maybe the gas was old and I had forgotten to add gas stabilizer? But no, I remembered adding stabilizer.
Explanations exhausted, I began to worry I would not finish the job before the snow blower completely died. I’d have to schedule another service call. More thoughts arose: What are the chances that the technician could come before the next storm, I wondered?
For some reason, amid this steady stream of thinking, my mind began to slow down. I heard a quiet prompting to check the run/choke setting. I saw the problem instantly: I had started the snow blower on run and was running it on choke.
Done correctly, starting the engine in the choke position reduces the air supply and allows a rich flow of fuel. But once started, too much fuel causes the engine to stall; less fuel and more air must be introduced.
Our fuel is our thinking; often the flow of our thinking is way too rich to run our lives smoothly. Too much thinking and we sputter. We need more air to reduce the flow of thinking and allow for quiet prompts of insight.
Quieting my thinking solved my snow blower problem in about five seconds. In the quiet, I checked my assumptions. Had I not checked my assumptions, I would have scheduled an expensive and unneeded service call.
My muscle memory of how to start and run the machine was unchecked; I assumed I was correct about the positions of choke and run switch. All of my useless thinking flowed from that assumption. My thinking blocked my awareness of the obvious. What was needed was a fresh thought, an insight, an a-ha moment.
In his book On Creativity the late quantum physicist, David Bohm writes, “One prerequisite for originality is clearly that a person not be inclined to impose his preconceptions on the facts as he sees it.” Bohm continues, “Rather, he must be able to learn something new, even if it means that the ideas and notions that are dear to him may be overturned.”
There is an important lesson in a minor event: I was able to realize my error, despite initially imposing my preconceptions, perhaps because my ideas about how to start and run the machine were not “dear” to me. Often though, our preconceptions are dear.
Holding onto our dear preconceptions, we flood our mind with thoughts; we are running our life and mind on choke.
We all seek to make meaning out of life; we attribute causes to the effects we observe. In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb explains the narrative fallacy. The narrative fallacy “addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.”
That describes me as I first tried to make sense out of the sputtering snow blower. I attributed the cause of the problem to events that had previously occurred (the servicing of the snow blower, adding stabilizer to the fuel). As David McRaney explains in You Are Now Less Dumb, “For all existence, there is an internal narrative upon which you cling, a story that you construct minute by minute to assure yourself that you understand what is happening.…”
In his seminal work Good to Great Jim Collins found that the most effective leaders were those who exhibited “extreme personal humility.” In business and in life, good ideas are all around us. Just imagine how hard it would be to “listen” to new ideas if you were dead sure that your narrative was correct and your preconceptions were “dear.” If you find yourself frequently irritated when colleagues or family disagree with you, you probably are too quick to accept your ego’s ongoing narrative. Suggestion: pause before you react. Even a moment’s pause can create space for wisdom to supplant our problematical narrative.
The narrative fallacy in my snowblower tale might seem trivial. And it is. Yet, a solution was needed to a problem I had created. The solution was to remove my thinking; my narrative “fuel” was blocking the needed solution from revealing itself.
This trivial example points to something critical about the nature of life. Are we ignoring sputtering signs that warn us that we are making things unnecessarily complicated and investing unnecessary effort simply because we believe in our “dear” preconceptions about the way life works? The narrative we have constructed may seem quite logical, but that doesn’t mean it is true.
The narrative fallacy robs us of our birthright. But we don’t have to keep trying to run our lives while setting our mind on choke. With a quiet mind, a fountain of insight and wisdom is ready to flow through us.