Blog: Learning Curve

Wisdom Warrior #2: Clear Thinking Cultivates Wisdom

In the second of our Wisdom Warrior series I focus on Clear Thinking, perhaps the most misunderstood of our abilities.

Wisdom is the missing condition during these times of volatile change, information overload, and dynamic knowledge. Yet our inability to discern clearly has so clouded our thinking that we lack clear judgment, rendering wisdom inaccessible.

From journalists to lawmakers to educators, we no longer possess a penetrating lens to peer through cloudiness with any credibility. We can no longer advocate for the truth, nor can we call an act what it is. With our perception and judgment clouded by euphemisms and reflexive beliefs, we’ve lost our ability to think.

The Challenge

Our primary culprit of lazy thought is that we haven’t cultivated a “habit of questioning.”

This complacency commonly takes two forms:

The first is the primacy of problem-solving: we frame thinking as seeking out answers to solve problems. Once we find an answer or evidence that confirms our position, we stop questioning.

The second issue is more reflexive thinking; it lacks any questioning at all. This approach is akin to simply saying whatever is necessary to achieve a desired outcome. When asked how we arrive at our thoughts we are stymied, because no questioning has taken place.

Both views delude us into thinking that we are thinking, when in fact we are comforted by initial evidence or by the fruits of wishful thinking. At best what we claim as thinking is the activity of managing our old thoughts or beliefs, or analyzing the agreeable evidence.

Both of these views lack a habit of questioning that clarifies assumptions, discards outmoded beliefs, and makes space for new thoughts.

Thinking about Thinking: A Habit of Questioning

Whatever the reason, when we stop questioning, we dismantle the mechanism of thinking.

Thinking involves questioning our beliefs, our assumptions, and the evidence in a way that opens space for new thoughts. Philosopher Hannah Arendt points us to the issue: “Thinking aims at and ends in contemplation, and contemplation is not an activity but a passivity.”

Thinking dwells, lets itself be; and as Arendt suggests involves “cultivating the habit of questioning whatever comes to pass, or that attracts our attention.”

In this way thinking is less about cleverness, calculation, and consumption of data and more about mindfully being with situations in a free and open manner that invites each moment to present itself fully.

Thinking is related more to freedom than to facts, and aligns more with presence than reasoning.

The question then becomes: do we meet the moment freely with openness, or do we rely on old thoughts and project unexamined assumptions?

Activist and education philosopher Paulo Freire offers insight: “Even if the people’s thinking is superstitious or naïve, it is only as they rethink their assumptions in action that they can change. Producing and acting upon their own ideas—not consuming those of others.”

Clear thinking, then, first requires surfacing projections that mask as thinking, and two of the most pervasive are magical thinking and positive thinking.

Magical Thinking

To practice clear thinking, we begin by confronting our magical (“fantasy” or “wishful”) thinking, which can distort what is seen and acted on.

Magical thinking denotes the causal relationship between perception, actions, and events. It is the belief that one’s wishes or desires can influence the external world.

Magical thinking is marked by vague claims, generalizations, platitudes, or hyperbole. It wants (wishes for) something based on beliefs or hopes that have no possible reality or are not based on concrete evidence or specific details.

We’ve all had moments of magical thinking. Fifteen years ago I started a non-profit Center to deliver leadership programs without a market, funding strategy, program development or plan for training. After all, I had secured a 501(c)3, and had the knowledge, right? And with funds, I signed an office lease, designed a website, and hooked up phones.

Such events reveal our casual relationship with reality. I not only didn’t question my expectations; it didn’t even occur to me that such questioning was necessary.

You don’t need to know how to get where you are going, but where you are going must be in the realm of what’s possible or credible when looked at from the perspective of where you actually are. Magical thinking causes others to question that credibility.

OUTCOME: I employ platitudes to move others to a goal, sell an idea, or agree to terms without any details.

Positive Thinking

A common form of magical thinking, “positive thinking” attempts to frame the facts or conditions that confront you in life with a more positive interpretation. “Pollyanna,” “do-gooder,” “goody-two-shoes”—these are some of the disparaging nicknames that we have for people who avoid evidence in an effort to be positive. (Note: One can be supportive and deliver the facts without having to make it positive in this unseeing or unobserving sense.)

We say, “It’s a great idea, so it will all work out,” or “don’t be so negative, think positive.” We do not seek out counterfactual evidence, question the available (or lack of) details, or recognize how we distort conditions to spin our positive claims.

This kind of distorted thinking places a layer of positive sentiments or delusion between us and what we are dealing with, like a layer of fog. Instead of dealing with the conditions in front of us, we are left to navigate the fog, so we become better at describing the fog.

OUTCOME: I employ a positive spin on circumstances to make myself and others feel good.

Clear Thinking

Clear thinking is the ability to question assumptions critically with the ability to engage in independent and reflective thought. It involves questioning concrete evidence and specific details that point to causes and conditions with evidence, concepts, logic, and/or context.

  1. Concrete details are tangible. For instance, the house at the end of the block is on fire. This claim is understood by three concrete items: house, fire, block. These are clear by the level of agreement (understanding) for each—that is, we can all point to and verify these items.
  2. Specific details or logic are explicit and precise. For instance, the fire’s temperature reached 800 degrees within 10 minutes because of 50 mph winds in the area last night. Notice the precise conceptual items in this statement: temperature, time, miles per hour, and temporality.
  3. Specific details reframe conditions in context. For instance, the fire offers urgency to create a neighborhood association that can support community concerns to manage our safety and security issues.

OUTCOME: I consider and question the available evidence and seek out details that offer a credible interpretation for the matter at hand.

Thinking and Action

The thinking we bring to a situation leads to specific expectations and actions.

Consider this scenario: a company has created a new strategy that changes its position and direction in the market, and the strategy demands many changes in a short period of time.

Three longtime employees have left the organization within 90 days of the strategy being announced and implemented. Below, we can see how each mode of “thinking” views the departure of these three employees.

Magical Thinking: They will be back once they get out in the world and see what it’s really like.

Positive Thinking: Everything will be fine, maybe even better, as the remaining employees will easily make up for any loss in productivity.

Clear Thinking: The new direction changed our priorities, and some employees were likely to depart. It is probably productive that any senior employees are choosing to depart early in the process. We can take the next 90 days to figure out what new roles or expertise we may need to continue implementing this strategy.

Clear Thinkers

A clear thinker begins with the premise, “I do not know.” This allows for questioning the available evidence while acknowledging subjective experience to view causes and conditions in a credible framework.

Clear thinkers view situations as they are, free of embellishment one way or the other. They consider all they are present to. The “direct experience” from within oneself surfaces any bias, or impediments, and informs how one questions the “verifiable evidence,” which discloses the context and the situation. (See blog on Mental Hygiene to help cultivate this mindset.)

This direct experience allows thinkers to acknowledge the facts as they are, understand concepts, and place the conditions in a context that is relevant to the situation. It is neither negative nor positive and can be either constructive or supportive, or both. It can be direct or indirect, but it is vivid, concrete, specific in detail.

Most importantly, clear thinkers evolve; they let go of outmoded views and with a habit of questioning do not settle for static beliefs or faulty assumptions. They grow by becoming open to new thoughts, penetrating questions, and different views.

They become present to new possibilities by questioning what they think they know. And with the humility of such questioning, they cultivate wisdom.

tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His focus includes ontological inquiry, into the nature of being; Integral theory to include Eastern wisdom and practice with Western learning and business models; and, Zen Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.

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Wisdom Warrior #1: Certainty v. Clarity

“Wisdom Warrior” is an odd name.

It combines two seemingly contradictory terms. This is precisely where wisdom exists—beyond knowledge or the practical—with tensions at the intersection of paradoxes, opposites, or contradictions.

Warriors have a steely mastery that focuses on the battle at hand. Our battle involves the clouded mind that often conceals important wisdom.

Holding these tensions can often question our thinking, cultivate our minds, and expand our views.

This blog begins a series to distinguish specific items that can support cultivating wisdom. Each item, labeled “Wisdom Warrior” will inquire into a specific “tension” or idea. In this case: Certainty v. Clarity.

Meet the “U” in VUCA

Most of us in the learning and development profession have become familiar with the acronym VUCA—Volatile, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity—during the last two decades.

Each of these terms represents a phenomenon that affects the human condition and influences our view of reality.

Volatility and complexity tend to measure externalities that define the pace or scope of change. Uncertainty and ambiguity often describe internal conditions that define our experiences and perceptions of change.

Certainty and uncertainty require deeper exploration.

Certainty v. Clarity

Let’s begin with distinguishing these two terms.

Certainty is an emotional state. It is informed by fear that offers a sense of safety and security in a predictable outcome. We grow to expect a specific outcome to hold fear in abeyance.

  • Certainty is grinding on the last 10% of a decision to get all possible information, at the expense of time and possibly market advantage.
  • Certainty rests on how and what. It requires that we know the outcome and that we’ve figured out how any choice will impact the outcome before taking any action.

Clarity is a state of mind. It is the result of an inquiry that clears the mind. It allows us to know the next step without having to know every aspect of the outcome.

  • Clarity occurs when you have enough information to make an informed, optimal decision. Then you make that decision.
  • Clarity rests on a grounded sense of why. It gets you out of bed with a sense of deep commitment before you know whether customers are lining up to purchase your services. Here, purpose is key.

The term, “attached,” above is from an Eastern wisdom context for “attachment” to mean “fixated on” or “obsessed with.” This is different from a Western context that tends to mean “bonding with.”

Knowing v. Discovering

Clarity says, “This problem deserves your attention,” while certainty tells you, “Wait until you know the answer.”

Here’s the rub: the essence of VUCA and the nature of change reveal that we can never know all the factors of any endeavor. In fact, we discover some of the most important variables after we’ve moved forward with our effort.

If we become attached to certainty, we will miss critical signs, patterns, and possible opportunities to alter, question, or clarify our direction.

Sure, we may produce our “expected” outcome, but we may be headed for a cliff. Or, we may miss critical opportunities to learn, innovate, and grow in ways that produce a different or more sustainable result.

The wise person realizes this: nothing is fixed or permanent. The best-laid plans or thoughts are subject to influence. Only a clear mind—unattached to an outcome—can be with the uncertainty that opens us to discovery.

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki points to this level of openness: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”

So, how do we move forward in uncertainty?

Unclear v. Uncertain

There’s a big difference between being unclear and being uncertain.

Being unclear is not knowing which step to take.

Being uncertain is not knowing what the outcome of taking that step will be.

It’s important to distinguish between the two and to be able to recognize whether it’s a lack of clarity or the fear of uncertainty that’s getting in the way.

Unlike certainty, clarity isn’t reached via a tortuous route that can involve our identity or ego. When we personalize outcomes, our ego conflates being certain with being right. We then filter out ideas that question our desired outcome, ignore feedback we do not wish to hear, or deny data that “gets in our way” that we do not wish to see.

According to Steven Stosny, Ph.D., “To create a feeling of certainty, the brain must filter out far more information than it processes. In other words, the more certain you feel, the more likely you are wrong.”

And here’s an important paradox: the more self-assured one is of an outcome, the greater the chance of being caught off guard or paralyzed by fear.

Because clarity is not an emotional state, it is unclouded and unhindered, with the humility to choose the best next step.

  • Those who are clear expect to be wrong or surprised and can choose in the face of change.
  • Those that must be certain before acting find themselves trapped—unable to act until they are certain.

A time-tested truism states that the only way to predict the future is to create it. Develop yourself to embrace uncertainty: use the result of each step to pave the direction to that future, now.

What You Can Do to Embrace Uncertainty

The good news is that you possess the clarity required for any effort. We simply need to let go of any attachments to goals and outcomes and to trust our choices. These practices offer support:

  1. Find a mindful practice that creates space in your life for reflection, introspection, and inquiry.
  2. Notice any disappointment. When it occurs, first, discover any expectations. Then practice tolerating uncertainty by letting go of any attachment to expectations or to the outcome.
  3. Learn to distinguish between being unclear (not knowing which step to take) and being uncertain (not knowing what the outcome of taking that step will be).
  4. Practice differentiating outcomes as a fixed event or result from direction as a way forward from one’s intention, purpose, or commitment.

tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His focus includes ontological inquiry, into the nature of being; Integral theory to include Eastern wisdom and practice with Western learning and business models; and, Zen Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.


  1. Avatar
    Kathy Harman May 22, 2019 at 8:46 am - Reply

    Tony, thanks for clarifying this(pun intended)! This is a great take on something that stymies many of my clients, and will help my coaching students understand how to work with their clients to become comfortable with uncertainty.
    As usual, you offer so much wisdom to the world!

    • Tony Zampella
      Tony Zampella May 23, 2019 at 10:57 am - Reply

      So very pleased that it supports them. These items can cause much confusion on where to focus and therefore create much suffering. Thanks for your encouragement and support, Kathy.

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Imagination is Key to Rethinking Stale Business Formulas

Would you rather be stuck in an elevator or listen to an elevator pitch? This is a tough call for me: both evoke stressful situations.

My niece—a young, brilliant artist—recently graduated from a design school with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She graduated armed with two formulas to sell her services in the “real world”: mastering the elevator pitch and finding your customer’s “pain points.”

Did I mention she graduated from an art school?

Some of our business concepts can offer real solutions, but others can be reductive and can pollute education, learning, and the human spirit.

Two such ideas include the elevator pitch and the popular pain-point primer for pitching products.

1 – Ditch the Pitch

Much of what we call an elevator pitch demands a formula for reducing services to a 15- 30-second script. Elevator or not, I often feel trapped when delivering or receiving such a script.

For those who have a well-defined need, no pitch is necessary—but if it works, great. For most of us meeting you, and getting to know you as an offer, the pitch is a turn-off in at least three ways:

— People do not buy products based on the words you use. Most purchases are based on how you make the consumer feel or because they see a possibility for themselves. Before you fill a need for others, they connect either with you or the possibility you create.

— A pitch relies on a canned script, something you’ve thought through before connecting with the person in front of you.

— A pitch is another word for “sell.” It reeks of an icky agenda, informing what comes out of your mouth as obvious and often cringeworthy.

Instead of a pitch, consider three or four scenarios that you might find yourself in. Practice speaking to yourself in each scenario, imagining the person in front of you.

  1. Ask questions and listen to the person—not your agenda. Pause, and reflect on what was said to seed a conversation (perhaps with more questions).
  2. Remember your why. Speak from the purpose or commitment that animates you to make a difference. What is that difference you wish to make? How do you see your offers leading to that?
  3. Share examples or stories about client benefits. People often find themselves in stories they can relate to.
  4. Take the next steps: Create a possibility to set up a meeting or follow up with an email. 

The goal is to transform “making the sale” into “making a connection.” An authentic connection will either lead to work or to a champion of your work.

2 – No Pain, Big Gain

A pain point is a specific problem that prospective customers of your business are experiencing. Some common examples include pain points in finances, productivity, process, or support. This is where you step in to relieve your client’s “pain” with your service or product.

The pain-point formula drives much of today’s marketing, branding, website design, and business value statements.

My quarrel isn’t with the idea; it can work, and it can produce critical insights. My problem is that we stop thinking and start relying on the formula. This leads to narrowing our mind.

1 – We adopt a problem-solving mindset that reduces our focus and all ideas to problems. We seek out problems and quick fixes without truly understanding issues.

2 – We come to rely on problem-solving with binary thinking that destroys imagination in ways that quash our ability to create possibilities.

Is this difference between problems and possibilities just semantics? Only in the way that achieving success is qualitatively different from not failing. In the latter, we focus on the problem: not failing.

Such a focus frames our assumptions about human potential and capacity regarding creativity and imagination.

  • Problem-solving discovers solutions to make something unwanted go away.
  • Creativity discovers new methods and approaches to bring things into being or to fashion novel solutions.
  • Imagination cultivates ideas beyond what exists or what currently seems conceivable.

Imagination is the ability to envision something that does not yet exist, the ability to form a mental image of something not yet perceived by the five senses. According to Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

Instead of reciting pitches or relying on pain points, become curious. Imagine a future your clients wish to create or think of aspirations they wish to cultivate. Position yourself as the paintbrush on your client’s wide-open canvas.

What is the future your clients imagine? How can their offers or products create or impact that future? What kind of leadership will that future require?

When Companies Imagine Beyond Pain

What great companies like Apple do is invent twice. First, they imagine a new world as an aspiration, and then they return from that world with inconceivable ideas to invent products that both create and then serve that world.

They do not invent products first. They create a new world for those products. That requires imagination.

If we explore the iPod, what pain points did it set out to resolve?

The iPod solved the yet unknown pain points of finding, buying, storing, managing, and transferring music. Had Apple focused there and fixed those issues, we’d have some peripheral products to resolve these concerns.

Apple likely realized these pain points. But if it had offered a product to resolve those alone, I would have passed.

Instead, Apple imagined a world in which its product resolved issues we didn’t know about to connect us to music. When marketed, the iPod promised to “place 1,000 songs in your shirt pocket,” just like the Mac originally promised “a computer on every desk.”

Apple imagined an unimaginable world that offered us possibilities yet to be discovered.

To imagine its world, Apple built a whole ecosystem around iTunes and apps. Without it, the iPod would have just been an expensive niche MP3 player or perhaps the Zune.

3- Imagination Is Key

Many of our intractable issues today in government, education, business, and society are not for lack of creativity or problem-solving; they suffer from a severe dearth of imagination.

Resolving the magnitude of issues in an interconnected, volatile world requires imagination beyond that which created it. We can begin by questioning the thinking that reduces our world to problems and pitches.

Seeing today’s issues as problems is our biggest problem. We have become the product of such formulaic thinking.

With imagination, we become curious. Issues interest us as challenges that expand our minds, not problems that reduce our thinking. Imagination requires a movement willing to expand our minds beyond what’s possible.

When CNBC asked NBA legend Kobe Bryant about his conversation with serial entrepreneur and first-principles guru Elon Musk, Bryant said:

I buy into Elon… The amount of research, the amount of study he does is unheard of. But he’ll always say the most important thing is imagination. You can learn anything that you want to learn. You can study all these things that you have in a book, but if you don’t have the imagination and then take it to another level, it doesn’t mean anything.

How We Learn Matters

Imagination takes us beyond rational thinking, even beyond knowledge and analysis. When asked whether Steve Jobs was smart, his biographer Walter Isaacson revealed this:

Not conventionally. Instead, he was a genius . . . . His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical . . . sparked by intuition, not analytic rigor. Trained in Zen Buddhism, Mr. Jobs came to value experiential wisdom over empirical analysis . . . . He told me he began to appreciate the power of intuition, in contrast to what he called “Western rational thought,” when he wandered around India after dropping out of college. “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do,” he said. “They use their intuition instead . . . . Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.”

Our notion of learning has slowly beaten out our imagination. Consider the legacy of this last half-century:

— We have diminished the very humanities Jobs wedded with science to generate elegant ecosystems of technological design. Jobs summarized it this way: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough; it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

— We have defunded art and music programs in education that transport us to other-lands.

— We’ve so derided literature and history that connects us to the human condition, that we are left with an empathy deficit: absent moral imagination, we are unable to imagine the concerns of others so different from ourselves.

— We’ve forgotten how to inspire curiosity and cultivate intuition, instead proclaiming rational problem-solving (that emphasizes binary thought) as the epitome of human potential.

— Whether through STEM, business education, or the coding mania, we are all becoming trained in formulaic thinking.

Imagining New Worlds

The former chief scientist at Xerox Corp., John Seely Brown (JSB) understands the dilemma. A visiting scholar at USC, JSB calls himself Chief of Confusion, “helping people ask the right questions.”

In an article with New School professor Heather Chaplin, JSB explores the distinction between creativity and imagination.

I think we’re way too focused on creativity. It’s misguided. We should be focused on imagination. . . The real key is being able to imagine a new world. Once I imagine something new, then answering how to get from here to there involves steps of creativity. So I can be creative in solving today’s problems, but if I can’t imagine something new, then I’m stuck in the current situation. . .

I think what’s happening in STEM education is a tragedy. Art enables us to see the world in different ways. I’m riveted by how Picasso saw the world. . . . Art education, and probably music too, are more important than most things we teach.  Being great at math is not that critical for science, but being great at imagination and curiosity is critical. Yet how are we training tomorrow’s scientists? By boring the hell out of them in formulaic mathematics – and don’t forget I am trained as a theoretical mathematician.

Ironically, we’ve lost a generation of minds to imagine us beyond the moon or navigate global issues with bold ideas. Today, we’ve reduced creativity to 140 characters, apps that remind us to walk, and elevator pitches and pain points to sell unwanted products.

Breaking this cycle requires the courage of curiosity: becoming interested in questions that don’t have immediate answers, testing our imagination beyond our knowledge, and questioning anything that smells like a formula.

The trick is to use formulas and not be used by them, or worse yet, become one.

tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His focus includes ontological inquiry, into the nature of being; Integral theory to include Eastern wisdom and practice with Western learning and business models; and, Zen Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.

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 “In times of change, those who are prepared to learn will inherit the land, while those who think they already know will find themselves wonderfully equipped to face a world that no longer exists.”


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