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Understanding and Using Strategic Thinking

If I understand that the mind has three functions—thinking, feeling, and wanting—and that these functions are interdependent—by implication, I realize that any change in one of them is going to produce a parallel shift in the other two. It follows, then, that if I change my thinking, there should be some shift at the level of feeling and desire. For example, if I think you are insulting me, I will feel some resentment and a desire to respond to that insult.

By the same token, if I feel some emotion (say, sadness), my thinking will be influenced. It follows, then, that if I experience an irrational negative emotion or an irrational desire, I should, in principle, be able to identify the irrational thinking that is creating that feeling and desire.

Once I discover irrational thinking, I should be able to modify that thinking by more reasonable thinking. Finding the thinking to be irrational, I should be able to construct a more reasonable substitute. I can then work to replace the irrational with the rational thinking. As the new, reasonable thinking takes root, I should experience some shift in my emotions and desires. More reasonable emotions and desires should emerge from more reasonable thinking.

Now to a specific case. Suppose you are in competition for a promotion with a colleague that you do not like. Suppose also that this colleague is given the promotion and he is now supervising you and criticizing your work. Your interpretation of him and the situation will naturally lead to feelings of resentment on your part and a desire to see your colleague fail. Given your thinking and resultant feelings, it will be very hard for you to be "objective" about events. Part of your negative thinking and feelings may be subconscious and, in any case, you will lack the motivation to be fair.

Much human thinking is subconsciously suppressed. Through active work, however, you can bring it to the surface of your conscious mind. You can do this by first recognizing that underlying every irrational feeling is based in an irrational thought process. By figuring out exactly what feeling you are experiencing, you can begin to trace the feeling to the thinking that is leading to it. Hence, as in the case above, you should be able to spell out the probable unconscious thoughts that are fueling your irrational jealousy of, and anger toward, your colleague.

You will usually find that suppressed thoughts are highly egocentric and infantile. These covert thoughts are what often cause negative emotions. If you can determine the irrational thinking that is driving your emotions and behavior, you have a better chance of changing the emotions and behavior by working on the unreasonable thinking that is causing them.

Whenever you feel your irrational jealousy emerging, you deliberately think through the egocentric logic of jealousy. You do it again and again until you find productive, rational feelings and desires emerging. Since many of the most powerful thoughts, feelings, and desires, though, are unconscious and primitive, we should not expect ourselves to be able to completely displace all irrationality. Yet, by making our irrational thoughts explicit, we can better attack them with reason and good sense. We can be better persons with healthier emotions and desires if we learn how to undermine, and thereby diminish, our irrational emotions and desires.

Now let's look at how we proceeded from understanding to strategy and from strategy to improvement in the example above:

The understanding

The human mind has three interrelated functions: thinking, feeling, and desiring, or wanting. These functions are interrelated and interdependent.

The strategy

Whenever you find yourself having what may be irrational emotions or desires, figure out the thinking that probably is generating those emotions and desires. Then develop rational thinking with which to replace the irrational thinking you are using in the situation. Finally, whenever you feel the irrational negative emotions, rehearse the rational thinking, using this format:

  1. Explicitly state what the feelings and desires are.

  2. Figure out the irrational thinking leading to them.

  3. Figure out how to transform the irrational thinking into rational thinking—thinking that makes sense in context.

  4. Whenever you feel the negative emotion, repeat to yourself the rational thoughts you decided you needed to replace the irrational thoughts, until you feel the rational emotions that accompany reasonable thinking.

In this chapter and the next, we briefly review some key concepts, principles, and theories discussed thus far in the book, followed by examples of strategic thinking based on the examples. The aim is illustration, not comprehensiveness.

We hope you will develop ideas of your own for improvement. There are no formulas for a simple and painless life. Like you, we are working on the problem of targeting and removing our defective thinking. Like you, we are working to become more rational and fair-minded persons. We must recognize the challenge that this development represents.

As with all forms of personal development, development of thinking means transforming deeply ingrained habits. It can happen only when we take responsibility for our own growth as rational persons. Learning to think strategically must become a lifelong habit. It must replace the habit most of us have of thinking impulsively, of allowing our thinking to gravitate toward its own, typically unconscious, egocentric agenda.

Are you willing to make self-reflection a lifelong habit? Are you willing to become a strategic thinker? Are you willing to unearth the irrational thoughts, feelings, and desires that lurk in the dark corners of your mind? Are you willing to develop a compassionate mind? If so, you should find these two chapters on strategic thinking useful.

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