How often do you think “If only I had _____, then this problem I’m facing, this situation I find myself in, would be so much easier.”
If only I had more time, more money, the right gadget, then I’d be able to cruise past this difficulty and move on to something that I actually want to do.
I think that’s a normal response considering how we’ve been sold the dream that for every problem we encounter, there’s something that we can buy to solve it.
But in the book Stretch, Scott Sonenshein encourages us to think differently about resources.
He compares and contrasts a chasing mindset (which believes that having more resources is what leads to better results) with a stretching mindset (where the idea is that it’s the better use of resources that leads to better results).
So rather than following that trained response of always looking for something new, something outside of what you already have, maybe it’s just a matter of looking around at what you do have, even if it’s something stuck away on that top shelf that you haven’t looked at in years.
The Chasing Mindset
I’m going to sketch out some of the key characteristics of each of those two mindsets and share how they apply to my life and work, and along the way I encourage you to think about whether or not these dynamics are cropping up in your life.
Upward Social Comparison
The first component of a chasing mindset that Sonenshein identifies is upward social comparison, which is this natural human tendency to look around see how we stack up to other members in our community.
No matter where we happen to land, we’re always looking up at the person one step above us, wishing we had what they had.
The danger of this is that you’re less likely to be satisfied, no matter where you are.
When it comes to resources, you’re less likely to appreciate and actually use what you already do have because you’ve constantly got your eyes set on what you don’t.
One way this has played out in my life, especially if I spend too much time on YouTube, is getting pulled into all of the tech videos where I see fancy recording setups, expensive cameras and lights and backdrops. It’s so easy for me to think “If only I had what those big YouTubers have, my work would be so much easier, the quality of my videos would be so much higher.”
But when I look at what I do have, it’s plenty already. It’s enough for me to do my work and make these videos, so my time would be better spent focusing simply on doing that work instead of thinking that it’s newer resources that I need.
That’s the type of chasing that won’t actually get me anywhere.
Another component of the chasing mindset is called functional fixedness, and this is defined as an inability to use a resource beyond the traditional approach.
So looking at every single tool and only seeing the singular purpose that that tool was designed for.
This can be true of physical objects like a hammer, but it’s not just specific objects. It also relates to money and time and people.
One way that I feel like I’ve broadened my perspective on time lately has to do with the role that it plays in thinking about and scheduling my days.
You don’t have to view time as a rigid thing, with 20- or 30-minute blocks dedicated to specific tasks, and always watching the clock so you know when you’re supposed to switch.
What if instead of managing your time in that way, you focused on managing your energy?
That’s what I explored in a recent summary of the book The Power of Full Engagement that helped me to change my relationship with time in what feels like a very healthy way.
It’s also interesting to think about people and relationships through this lens of functional fixedness.
Once certain people come into your life and you get to know them, you establish certain relational dynamics, and it’s easy for those to get locked in place.
But that type of locking limits what can come out of those relationships.
One work example is thinking about the folks that come to me to learn how to develop this skill of visual note-taking.
If you stick to a more traditional teacher-student dynamic, it would be me who is imparting my wisdom, sharing lessons with you the learner, who then goes and applies them.
But that’s a pretty limited way of viewing what that relationship could look like, and I have found it to be much more rewarding to shift the way that I teach sketchnoting in the direction of creating a learning community where we co-create resources together, where it’s the work and feedback of other community members that will support you on your sketchnoting journey just as much as the things that I put out there.
I also think about my relationship with my wife.
For a long time there was a pretty clear line between my work life and my personal life.
I would of course share with my wife the things that are going on, how work is going, but I didn’t really involve her in the process at all.
But thanks to a podcast episode of Creative Pep Talk, which I also sketched out in a recent video, I recognized that there was an opportunity to bring her in, for her to participate in the Give and Take space as the first viewer of videos like this one.
So breaking away from that functional fixedness, whether it’s a concrete object or a more abstract concept like money or time or relationships, can help free you from the chasing mindset.
Next there’s mindless accumulation – the tendency to rack up more and more resources, not for any specific goal but just to collect more, to be ready for things that you might need in the future.
In my experience as a new parent, it’s so easy to collect toy after toy, gadget after gadget, sometimes inheriting those from friends, other times people in the community who are getting rid of things, plus all of the gifts that come in.
Even with twins like we have, there’s a whole category of twin-specific products that could fill multiple warehouses.
Yes, some of those are helpful, and some of those things we use, but it takes real attention and energy to not always look for a new product to solve the current challenge, and an equal amount of time and energy to cycle through whatever ones you do bring into your life, to sell or donate the things that you no longer use.
As much as I love learning, I feel like in some cases the collection of physical books fits into this category of mindless accumulation and of a chasing mindset, thinking that it’s just one more book that I need to read to finally unlock whatever feels locked, which brings with it the practice of constantly filling your Amazon cart every time a book catches my eye.
I way too frequently do that, and want to be more aware of when it’s a chasing mindset that’s driving that behavior and that desire.
The fourth and final component of the chasing mindset is resource squandering, and with this one we’re looking at to what degree the increase of resources available to you actually leads to improvements with whatever it is you’re working on.
At first, as you’d expect, there’s an increase: the more resources you have, the more improvements you’ll see.
But there’s a point at which that curve switches directions, where more resources actually leads to fewer improvements.
That’s where you start to squander your resources, not use them well, because you feel like you have so many.
The sweet spot, then, is at the top of that curve, where you have enough resources to take risks but not so much abundance that you pay little attention to how effectively you’re using them.
I’ve noticed this dynamic with time, especially in the first year of parenthood.
I sometimes think about what my days were like before I had a family, when I had the entire day, even the entire week to myself to make progress on my work, and how I squandered a bunch of that time because I had so much of it.
Now that I’m a parent with less time to myself, I’m a lot more efficient with the time that I do have.
Throughout much of the last year I was a little too far to the left, not having enough time to take creative risks, but I feel like I’m getting back to that place near to the top of that curve, where I do have that time, where I can try things out that might not work.
The Stretching Mindset
So those four elements of the chasing mindset give you a sense for what to watch out for, the mindsets to avoid. Let’s next look at some of the components of a stretching mindset.
One idea that stood out to me here was the value of diversity, and how in many situations random teams of people outperform dream teams.
I think the best type of scenario to think about here is gathering together a group of experts in a particular field – that’s your dream team – and there’s some complex problem that they’re trying to solve.
If you compare their performance to a random team that has an expert or two plus a whole lot of outsiders, the diversity of that random team leads them to perform better at whatever task is in front of them, whatever problem they’re trying to solve.
That’s because that diversity of people, of experiences, of backgrounds, of perspectives, leads to more expansive thinking about the resources that are available, and that expansive thinking about resources leads to more divergent ways of approaching problems.
I think that’s the best description that I’ve ever seen for the inherent value of diversity within a group.
The group of people that I spend the most time with are the community members inside of Verbal to Visual, where yes there are lots of courses that I’ve created about sketchnoting, but there’s also a lot of conversations going on, some of those happening live for the folks that are able to make it out to our weekly workshops, others that occur asynchronously as folks share their work or post a question within our learning platform.
What I appreciate about the group of people that’s gathered there is 1) how global of a community it is – that’s the benefit of building an online learning community, folks can join from anywhere in the world which helps lead to those varied perspectives, and 2) we’ve got people from a bunch of different professions and people in various stages of life.
More and more I find myself thinking about how best to tap into that diversity, how to create the space for people to have conversations with each other and support each other on each of their individual sketchnoting journeys, and even more broadly their creative and life journeys.
In addition to those benefits of diversity within a group of people, there’s also a ton of benefits as an individual to diversify your experiences, because those same type of benefits crop up. The more diverse your life experiences have been, the more expansive your thinking will be about resources, which will lead to more divergent ways of approaching problems.
I like those dual goals of diversifying your individual experiences and also seeking out (and helping to create) diverse communities to better solve whatever challenge you are focusing on.
Sonenshein also describes two different regulatory modes that we might find ourselves in.
One of those modes being planning – the process of thinking through the actions that you might take – and the other is actually moving forward, taking some sort of action.
It’s so easy to get stuck in that planning stage, the resource-gathering stage, thinking that you need to have everything in place before you can actually start acting.
The way Sonenshein describes that planning mode is the strong drive to evaluate potential uses of resources comprehensively, whereas in the acting mode you’re doing anything to move away from status quo and closer to your goal.
For most of us, I think we spend way too much time in that planning mode and not enough in the acting mode.
But it’s not about one or the other, it’s actually the combination of the two that leads to the best results.
To bring it back to resources, it’s about not getting stuck in the mode of thinking that you need to accumulate more resources or plan out how to use what you have before you start acting.
Yes, do a little bit of planning, but take action as soon as you can and then observe what happens, adapt the plan as needed, and continue acting.
For me this shows up when I think about how I spend my days, how structured and strict the schedules are that I set up for myself, how much planning I do compared to taking action.
This again makes me think about the shift from time management to energy management.
I think when you manage your time, it’s too easy to get stuck in that planning mode, whereas if you’re managing your energy it’s much more about action.
So for me the takeaway here is this: don’t get stuck in the comfort of the planning stage, and remember that it’s not planning that gets you anywhere, it’s action.
There’s also an exploration of expectations, the beliefs that we have about ourselves and other people.
Sonenshein uses the specific term of positive prophecies, where the belief in the potential of someone else leads to better performance.
This is very impactful for educators working with students and parents working with kids. As an educator or a parent your own belief in the potential of a given person or group of people will either explicitly or implicitly affect that other person’s performance.
So again bringing it back to resources, the way you think about your own ability to use a resource or the way you think about the potential of someone you work with to make use of a particular resource, those beliefs, those expectations, have a tangible impact on performance.
Note that this can go too far – there is such a thing of having too high of expectations, at which point it shifts from being a positive prophecy to performance pressure.
For your beliefs and expectations to land in the category of positive prophecy, and for those to lead to better performance, those expectations need to be credible and they need to be delivered in a way that avoids performance pressure.
For me, thinking about parenthood in particular, I can see how that’s a hard balance to strike: believing in the potential of your kids or your students, but at the same time not letting high expectations create the condition where your kids or your students feel like they have to perform at a certain level otherwise you won’t be proud of them.r
One of my favorite children’s books strikes this balance really well, the book Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave by Jessica Hische, where there’s a page that goes “Tomorrow I’ll be all the things I tried to be today: adventurous, strong, smart, curious, creative, confident, and brave. And if I wasn’t one of them, I know that it’s okay.”
The last idea that I’d like to share here is the difference between bucketing and mixing.
As you think about any given resource, bucketing is the practice of siloing off that resource into a single category, kind of like what we talked about with functional fixedness, whereas mixing encourages you to view your resources more flexibly and seek out unlikely combinations.
An example Sonenshein brings in here is food trucks, which can be the unlikely combination of high-quality food served from a truck, as well as the combination of competition and friendship that exists within the industry.
He talks about how supportive different food trucks are of each other, sharing resources, filling in for each other, and how that combination of competition and friendship leads to better results for everybody.
I think the place where I’ve tried to do less bucketing and more mixing has to do with the combination of my personal and professional life.
I talked a little bit about that with my wife playing the role of first viewer in the Give and Take space.
I think it also applies to the ideas that I choose to share in these videos, the books or the podcasts that I’m sketchnoting, and how more often then not those topics arise from something going on in my personal life, which I often reference when creating a video like this one.
There are still boundaries of course.
I don’t share everything about my personal life in these videos, or even inside of Verbal to Visual, but there is enough blending for me to feel like I’m not living two separate lives.
I feel more integrated when I blend those two together.
Stretching with Visual Note-Taking
I hope that the sharing of how I’m applying the components of a stretching mindset to my life and my work has been helpful.
If you like this way of working with ideas, this merging of words and sketches, then come join us inside of Verbal to Visual, and make sure that it’s not because you feel the pressure to add one more skill to your resume.
It’s not about accumulating one more skill or moving one step up that social comparison ladder, but if you feel like visual note-taking will help you make better use of your time, of the experiences you’re already having, of the resources you’re already tapping into, that is a good reason to develop this skill.
Good luck weaving a bit more stretching and a bit less chasing into your life.
I look forward to sharing more ideas with you next time.