Adaptive Thinking

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

Talk about creativity. Lately there seems to be a tidal wave of people changing their minds. Some of the same people who compared President Barack Obama to Hitler by way of opposition are now of the opinion that maybe Hitler wasn’t such a bad guy, after all. People who supported a plan to expand health insurance coverage later claim that they never really cared for that plan. Our daily news feed is filled with similar examples.

It may be obvious that these people aren’t changing their minds at all. They’re simply changing public statements in order to avoid changing course ideologically, and maybe to avoid admitting that they were wrong. Refusing to change course in the face of overwhelming evidence or a clearly documented public record is unhealthy for individuals and dangerous to society.

This post isn’t about politics, though. It’s about how, and when, we change our minds. What got me thinking about this was Hugh Howard’s 2016 book Architecture’s Odd Couple: Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson. During much of the time the two architects shared the spotlight, they did not care for each other and said so publicly. Philip Johnson considered Wright something of a relic, calling him the “greatest architect of the 19th century.” Frank Lloyd Wright thought Johnson frivolous. When Johnson and like-minded individuals at the Museum of Modern Art were planning an exhibit on the new modernist International Style of architecture, Wright called them “not a very talented group.”

Black and white photo of Annie Pfeiffer Chapel at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida - designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
Annie Pfeiffer Chapel at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida – designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Over the years, however, both men reconsidered. Johnson came to appreciate Wright’s work, in particular after visiting Wright’s western home and studio, Taliesen West in Arizona, describing it as “the essence of architecture.” Wright’s later-period classic, Fallingwater, seems clearly influenced by the International Style he had previously criticized. Nearing the end of his life, Wright reached out to Philip Johnson and said, “I am getting too old to have any more of these fights and have enemies…”

It’s not uncommon to experience this kind of transformation as we go through life. As a young man, I had no strong feelings about the death penalty. I wasn’t a fan of it, but didn’t oppose it, either. I just accepted it as part of the criminal justice system. There was no one single event that changed my mind (although reading Scott Turow’s writing on the subject didn’t hurt). Over the years, as I became more aware of how the death penalty is inequitably applied in the U.S., and after reading about how many people have been convicted and executed, then posthumously exonerated by new evidence, I came to believe that the death penalty has no place in a just and compassionate society. But it took me a decade or more to reach that point.

Changing your mind isn’t something to do for political or social expediency. On the other hand, we can’t fall back on convenient “flip-flopper” labels just because someone has acknowledged revised thinking or the assessment of new information. We live in a constantly evolving (or sometimes regressing?) world – new data becomes available and circumstances change. If we don’t accommodate these changes in our world view, we go through life with a flawed understanding that is limiting, even harmful, to ourselves and others.

I began with examples from politics because politicians changing their minds tend to get more publicity. Evan Thomas wrote about one example during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in his book Robert Kennedy: His Life. When Attorney General Robert Kennedy learned offensive nuclear weapons were being installed close to American shores, he initially wanted to invade Cuba, writing, “If we go in, we go in hard.” After less than two weeks of intense discussions with advisors of differing viewpoints, Kennedy had changed his mind to favor a blockade combined with negotiations, a “middle ground between immediate air strikes and drawn-out negotiations.” RFK was never afraid to change his mind once emotions subsided and analysis took over. Again, from Thomas’ biography, “RFK often followed a pattern: an initial burst of belligerence and intransigence, followed by a willingness to listen and change.”

Former Congressman Bob Inglis is another politician who practiced adaptive thinking, as this article from The Post and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina) describes. In his early years as a Republican congressman from South Carolina, Inglis was “completely dismissive” of the subject of climate change. After a heart-to-heart conversation with his college-student son and visits to Antarctica and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Inglis gained a better understanding of the realities of climate change. After his tenure in Congress, Inglis founded the Energy and Enterprise Initiative on the basis that “America’s climate policy has to change.”

So a flexibility of opinion and belief is important for us as individuals and collectively. It avoids over-commitment to the wrong path and aligns our behavior with facts and actual events. It can even create a mutual empathy between people of opposing views, according to this 2017 article from The Guardian: “Showing a willingness to listen, evaluate, and alter one’s position where appropriate can have a reciprocal effect… If we treat someone else’s views with due care and attention, perhaps they will do the same with ours.”

Creativity is another area where a willingness to change one’s mind is essential:

The entire reason we create work in a series of drafts – be it a painting, an article, or a novel – is to give us time to revisit that work and change our minds before making it public.

Change can open us up to new methods or new sources of inspiration. Recall how Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater project was influenced by international modernism, despite his claims that he disliked the style. Some consider Fallingwater to be Wright’s signature work and “what many regard as the most memorable house ever constructed in the International Style.” Wright was 67 years old at the time, so it’s never too late to adapt.

Artists who change styles can influence an entire culture. Bob Dylan lost some fans when he went electric beginning with his fourth album and more comprehensively with his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, released in 1965. At the same time, he updated folk music with a rock sound and gave rock music a new maturity. Part of what inspired Dylan to merge these sounds was a 1964 meeting with the Beatles, who were equally influenced by Dylan and took their own songwriting in “a more introspective” direction.

Art can be an effective means of exposing others to new ways of thinking. This article from The Conversation discusses how art has expanded awareness of climate change and sustainability in ways that reciting data cannot by appealing to emotions rather than the intellect.

Photo of Tampa, Florida, skyline with person walking on bridge in foreground
Living on the edge in Tampa, Florida

I had my own experience with a creative “mind-changing” in the early 2010s when I lived in St. Petersburg, Florida. Based on very little exposure, I had a somewhat irrational mindset against the city of Tampa, just across Tampa Bay. I not only thought I would never live there, but had no interest in even visiting the city. Of course, a situation developed where moving to Tampa was the best way to restart my professional life after the 2008 recession. Once there, I not only enjoyed living in Tampa, but the city inspired a reawakening of my lifelong interest in photography. I became one of the early photo-bloggers on the city of Tampa. It also helped me refine a belief I had been forming for several years (also helped along by reading David Owen’s excellent book Green Metropolis), that I’m a city person who is happy walking concrete trails while exploring urban diversity.

It’s hard to adopt a different point of view. It requires looking outside ourselves for different perspectives and facts that are new to us. We may end up in a position of admitting we were wrong in the past, or of agreeing with someone we had previously disagreed with. The “sunk cost fallacy” is another trap – the fact that you’ve already sunk X amount of time, money, or other resource into an undertaking won’t change the inevitable. Sometimes changing horses in midstream is exactly what’s needed. Don’t think in terms of “winning” where someone else has to lose. Think of progress for yourself and others based on a better understanding of the real world.

No matter what your creative endeavor is: Sometimes it’s necessary to change your mind. And that’s something you can always be sure of.

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