Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Life and printed circuit boards

As a coach, it fascinates me when I see and hear people rationalize.

Rationalization is what happens when we apply what seems like plausible logic to how we think the system works to make what seems like plausible conclusions. Sometimes, we tie ourselves up in those conclusions and here's the thing — they're only as good as the physics they're based on.

(Note to reader: when I use the word 'physics' in this article, I'm cheating a bit. When I say "there's a physics to how things work", I just mean there is an incontrovertible and systematic truth to how it works.)

Life and the printed circuit board

Imagine we had to work out what was wrong with a printed circuit board that didn't work. There's a physics to how printed circuit boards work and it's not that complex. We can learn it and get our heads round it. We also have the privilege of an omniscient viewpoint on the board's workings. That means we can rationalize what's going on in the board reliably and make good conclusions.

Life isn't like that. Getting a job, making sales, being attractive and having great relationships isn't like that. Even if there is a physics to making sales, it's not going to be like the printed circuit board. And we just don't have that privileged, omniscient viewpoint. We only get to see the maze from the inside. The sense we make of how things in life work can end-up being reduced and padded out with confabulations.

Being aware of this leads to a useful question that often comes up in me when I hear rationalizing: is this physics or confabulation?

Working the maze out from the inside

Let's talk perception.

I once went to see Byron Katie at work with a group of friends, some of who were NLP trained, like myself. (I'd even trained one!) During one of the breaks, we started talking about what we saw happening on stage. One person said what they saw was Katie using anchoring and the Meta Model. I remember replying that's probably what I would have seen too, if I'd been watching it with NLP spectacles on. I suggested that for the next session, he take his NLP glasses off and just see what's there. Unsurprisingly, he saw new, different things.

When you see something through the lens of something else, it changes what you see. When you see behaviour through the lens of NLP meta programs, you see towards-ness, away-from-ness, etc. When you see behaviour through the lens of NLP strategies, you see visualization, recalls and constructs, self-talk and kinaesthetic responses. The lenses you choose to see the world through not only change what you see, they change how you think things works.

(On a side note, this is not to say that applying 'lenses' is necessarily bad. Seeing behaviour through some of the lenses NLP offers gives us a useful way of seeing structure in behaviour and modelling it. Seeing things through a lens isn't good or bad, it's just seeing things through a lens.)

The conclusions we make

Since the sense we make of life seems real to us, it's easy for us to confuse it with physics. And from such faulty physics many people have applied plausible logic and come up with such conclusions as:

  • If there is no pain, there is no gain
  • All goals should be S.M.A.R.T.
  • If you fail to plan, you plan to fail
  • To be happy, you need to get what you want
  • To be secure, you need to go to university, get a degree and then get a job

Each of these has probably seemed to work for some people some of the time, but there's no real physics behind them and it turns out they are no more true than that eating your crusts puts hairs on your chest. For every story corroborating these conclusions, there's a story to say the opposite.

That doesn't stop people taking these conclusions and feeding them back into what they think is the physics of how their life works.

So, do we stop it?

It would be tempting to think the lesson of all this is that rationalizing is bad and we should stop trying to make sense of things.

Hey, you are going to try and make sense of the world and find ways through it. Given we all want to feed ourselves, find love and succeed at things we want to do without that omniscient view, we've kinda got no choice. It's going to happen, it's human nature. It's even going to work sometimes, because our maps aren't always that bad. It's just that when we get stuck, or when the system isn't working the way we thought it did, it can be worth becoming more conscious, seeing that have been seeing the world and its workings through lenses and applying the gift of mind and thought to see more clearly.

When conversation becomes alchemy

Let me share an insight I had about what value a conversation can have, even if we assume people are 'whole' as they are and don't need anything. When you and I both look at the world, we don't necessarily see the same thing. When you and I both look at you, we're not necessarily going to see the same things. A conversation where two people explore the different things they see — as well as different ways of seeing — is a conversation that can help us become even more conscious and discover wonderful new thoughts through which we find wonderful new ways.

And the beautiful irony of this article is ...

This article is itself is a rationalization based on my best thinking about how the world works. It makes sense to me, and it might even be based on some 'higher truth' about how our consciousness works. But, still ...

My thanks to Michael Neill and his Coaching From The Inside Out program as an inspiration for this thought.

Wishing you health and happiness,



  1. Interesting thoughts. I have no background in NLP so no attachment to it, but I am a fan of 'Inside-Out thinking' particularly 'owning' your own wisdom (so to speak). So the part of this post I most enjoyed was 'the beautiful irony'...


  2. When I went to university, one of the things I found hardest was applying theory to practice.

    But without theory, the practise became nonsensical. Truthfully, the NLP training I've had is no different.

    Perhaps it becomes a question of being aware of the framework in which you're operating and then continually asking: does this work? If it does, great. If it doesn't, change something.

    I will continue to think on what you've written.

    Thanks for this.

  3. Hi Rosemarie,

    Yes I think that's exactly it — awareness and flexibility.

    Though I mention NLP, this isn't really a commentary on NLP. I just wanted a good example of how you can see things through a lens, so to speak. I also wanted a good example of how it can be useful to do that and also how it can be useful to not do that. See, to use a Michael Neill phrase, I wanted this to be a description not a prescription. (But as he also says, "it's sometimes hard to not see a prescription in the description".)

    Thanks for commenting, I hope it inspires good thought and I hope to see you again really soon!