Ignore the Flapping

Leonardo Da Vinci, inspired by his observations of birds, built an ornithopter—a wing-flapping contraption that was attached to a man. His ornithopter, like most that followed, didn’t work. Da Vinci’s error was understandable—the most obvious thing about a bird flying is the flapping of wings and Da Vinci sought to emulate what he observed. Of course, we now know it is lift and not the flapping of wings that is the invisible critical element in flight. Here is one explanation of lift:

When a bird or airplane is moving through the air, the air splits its path at the front edge of the wing and meets again at the back of the wing. Because the top of the wing is curved, the distance from the front of the wing to the back of the wing is shorter for air passing under the wing. Air passing over the wing top moves more quickly than air under the bottom. The fast-moving air atop the wing creates less pressure than air underneath the wing. The higher air pressure under the wing lifts the bird upward.

Almost all of us repeat Da Vinci’s error of observation every day. We are fixated on the obvious, and we ignore what is essential.

Da Vinci’s ornithopter

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret,” the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Daily our minds may be filled with loud and raucous thoughts about grievances we have with ourselves and others. But, are our thoughts really true? Or, are they just our interpretation of reality? If we are sure our thoughts are true, there is no room for fresh thinking. There is no room for helpful insights. Our problems will become intractable.

Just as fixating on the flapping of wings kept Da Vinci away from understanding lift, the “flapping” in our mind keeps us from understanding the true nature of our mind. Thoughts will come and go, if we allow them; and loving inspired ideas are only one thought away.

It is our very loud thoughts that get our attention. If we turn away from them, they “flap” mightily to turn our attention back to them. What is essential in us is still and quiet; those thoughts can only be heard when we value them enough to no longer be fooled by our flapping thoughts.

Think of it this way. If you pinch yourself hard and go about your business, the red mark will quickly disappear. If, instead, you return to the site of the injury to see if the red mark is still there and if again you pinch yourself, the red mark will never go away.

And so it is with our thinking. We turn to our thoughts to those that “flap” the loudest such as: “Why did she say that to me?” “I’m not going to take that anymore.” “If only I had a bigger house and a new car then…..” Those thoughts, feelings, and problems will seem very compelling and real. We can spend our whole life pinching ourselves and wondering why the red mark never goes away.

Not surprisingly, what we do as individuals, we do collectively as a society. We turn away from what is essential, and we turn towards those who make the most noise. Read or listen to the news. Listen to talk radio. Listen to the pundits on MSNBC, Fox News or CNN. What do you hear or read? Does not the media hang on the words and deeds of politicians and celebrities?

Are these the people that enrich our lives? Do politicians really make the economy grow? Or, is it the efforts of ordinary people and entrepreneurs that make the economy grow? Should we be studying the latest utterances of politicians and celebrities?  Or, should we studying the great thinkers who provide guidance for a vibrant and free society and human wellbeing?

If we continue to think the flapping in our own mind is important, we will turn in fascination to the flapping of politicians and celebrities.

There was a time in our society when we knew how to “fly.” Citizens knew the principles of “lift.” And now our politicians and their intellectual enablers promote the equivalent of economic ornithopters—flapping about printing and spending money for the government to use recklessly.

We listen to their nonsense because we believe in our own personal ornithopters—namely, we think we can achieve happiness by manipulating and controlling the world. Like those who have actually built ornithopters, we will never get off the ground. The first step in increasing personal happiness and improving our economy is the same—ignore the flapping.

4 Responses to Ignore the Flapping

  1. Chris Claypoole says:

    Bastiat: What is seen, and what is not seen.
    Will Rogers: It’s not what we don’t know, it’s what we think we know that isn’t so.
    Groucho Marx: Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?

    As you point out, this is a very old problem. People see the “obvious”, the first effects, and miss the underlying principle and the ripple effects. Possibly, too much metaphorical Ripple may be largely at fault. Your phrase, “raucous thoughts”, is on point. In Da Vinci’s time, the problem may have been insufficient information, but now may be too much (to sift out the wheat from the chaff). Some one once said that a breakthrough invention is one which everyone agrees was simple and obvious after the fact; but only one person saw through the murk of the present to envision the future of that breakthrough.

    I have notes over my computer screen reminding me to stop and consider whether something that “sounds good/right” is actually true, and the questions, “So?” as well as “And?”. (They remind me to think about implications.) The notes don’t always work, but I believe they have prevented me from making many errors in judgement. I’ll take improvement over my baseline any day. Utopia is not an option.

    • Barry Brownstein says:

      Thanks, Chris for your always astute comments. I like your point about breakthrough inventions. One of my most cherished comments about my leadership book is “his book tied it all together and gave me one of those rare and valuable moments of, “Of course – it should’ve been so obvious!” that so often mark the truly groundbreaking.” What more can an author hope for?

  2. David Bodman says:

    It was only this morning I was talking with a client about the ‘thought that speak the loudest’ but have little wisdom. Thank you Barry for this perfect little article. I suggested to my client that listening to a quieter voice that stills our inner self and reminds us of our wholeness. Peace everyone.

    • Barry Brownstein says:

      Thanks for the kind words, David. Of course, we are all tricked every day by our “loud” thoughts. They seem so compelling because we don’t believe they are just thoughts. We think they are valid interpretations of reality. So we can train our mind to at least question our thinking anytime it becomes loud and urgent. I feel grateful for the limited understanding I do have.

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