Chris Maser

Elizabeth Sherrill, Guideposts Roving Editor, summarized in a few words the heart of my following discussion about socially responsible decisions. She wrote:

Promises [decisions] are scary things. To keep them means relinquishing some of our freedom; to break them means losing some of our integrity. Though we have to make them today, promises are all about tomorrow—and the only thing we know for sure about tomorrow is that we don't know anything for sure!

Over the years, my experience has been that making political decisions is an arena in which people know what they need to do on moral grounds (be it the President of the United States, a member of the Congress, a state governor, or someone in an agency), but are often afraid of doing it on political grounds because making a decision, especially if unpopular, brings one face to face with personal accountability, the risk of criticism, and quite possibly, if not probably, the loss of one's job. Most—but not all—political decisions are therefore made largely in personal self-interest, which translates into the safety of one's job. Put differently, such public servants are salving their fears by selling their souls for the apparent outer security of a job, be it the President or a member of an agency.

The appalling lack of moral courage and political will in the United States today points to the fact that most people prefer the devil they know to the devil they don't, which is but saying that the "terrible known" is often more comfortable than the unknown, even if the unknown promises to be better. People thus chart a course by consciously avoiding charting a course, which was precisely the circumstance in the British Parliament in 1935, prior the outbreak of World War II, that caused Winston Churchill to chide parliamentary members, because he saw with clear foreboding the onrushing threat of Nazi Germany:

When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. . . . It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong—these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.

While in Churchill's time, World War II was the critical component affecting human survival; today it is the declining health of the environment. How are the political leaders, the public servants in the world today, any different than the members of parliamentary in Churchill's time? Where today is there an unequivocal voice among local and national politicians in the United States that speaks for the children through such actions as a firm commitment to doing our part within the United Nations and beyond to clean the air and eliminate the production of greenhouse gasses? Where is there an unequivocal voice among local and national leaders that speaks for and openly stands behind protecting the productive capacity of the world's ecosystems—all of them—the sake of every generation?

Without such a singular voice of moral courage and unconditional political commitment to the future in every community in the United States and each nation in the world, we, the adults, are condemning the children—our children and grandchildren—to pay a progressively awful price for our petty psychological immaturities as we bicker amongst ourselves about who will do what rather than accepting the sometimes-bitter pill of our adult responsibilities. Based on the lack of moral fiber and political will, which I so often witness in today's leaders, I wonder how many of them can look themselves straight in the eye in a mirror and say years from now, "I'm glad I made that decision the way I did!" rather than," I wish I had made that decision differently. . . ."

Part of the problem is that we, in every generation, seldom understand that a particular level of consciousness, which causes a problem in the first place, is not the level of consciousness that can fix it; so most people keep doing the same thing over and over (despite the lessons of world history), while each time expecting new and dramatically different results. This is but saying that if one thinks the way one has always thought, one will naturally get the same results one has always gotten.

The above paragraph is in large measure a summation of the way in which Western industrial society navigated the 20th century, a century in deadly grapple between society's immediate materialistic wants and demands and the environment's sustainable capacity to produce that which is desired. Unless we are finally willing to change our thinking, we will surely navigate the 21st century in much the same manner as we did the 20th, but with far deadlier results. Our task for this, if our society is going to continue to exist as we know it, must be for us each to elevate our own level of consciousness above that which caused the environmental problems we face today. And fortunately, we each can elevate our consciousness individually—and thus collectively—because we each can control our thoughts, our motives, our attitudes, and our behavior. Whether we choose to do so is another issue.

That notwithstanding, a decision is no more and no less than the selection of a choice of action from amongst an array of choices of potential actions. We all have choices, and the great paradox is that we must choose. Not to choose, not to decide is simply not an option because not choosing is still a choice, still a conscious decision. Making a decision—any decision—is as easy as the snap of one's fingers. Why, then, are so many people in positions of public service unwilling to commit to a socially responsible decision and keep their commitment?

While making a socially responsible decision is easy, becoming psychologically ready, mature enough (other-centered enough) to make such a decision and be openly accountable for its outcome is often difficult because one must live with the results of one's actions. This poses a myriad of problems for psychologically immature (self-centered) people seeking the impossible—to make their lives risk free by avoiding personal responsibility while retaining a sense of power. "It is easier," as author Marsha Sinetar says," to manipulate, blame or seduce others into labeling us or doing things for us than it is to define ourselves or to do things for ourselves in our own way." In this way, continues Sinetar, "people avoid taking authority and authorship for their own lives."

Sinetar's words were echoed at a university dinner my wife, Zane, and I attended. During the meal, the head of a department, who sat next to us, looked around to see who might be listening or who might be able to hear and then said in a quiet voice, "The secret of climbing the ladder in university politics is to never make a decision; that way, you can pass the blame when things fail and claim the credit when they work." In their zeal to avoid personal responsibility, such psychologically immature people have invented a number of myths to rationalize why they cannot make a socially responsible decision that would have embodied in it the risk of changing their personal circumstances.

Each myth is supported by a pattern of belief that reinforces the perceived disaster looming in the future. Our negative beliefs are therefore normally far stronger, when it comes to making a socially responsible decision, than our beliefs are in a positive outcome. According to author Caroline Myss, we cling so tenaciously to our negative beliefs because we think of them in the likely present, whereas our positive beliefs we project into an unlikely future. But regardless of what we believe, it is a belief and not a fact.

Myss goes on to say that no myth releases its grip on one's psyche without a fight. If, therefore, one is intent on being a genuine, other-centered public servant, one has no choice but to engage in that battle by developing thought-forms to supplant the negative myths with beliefs in a positive circumstance, of which one is determined to be a creative and responsible part. To become such a person, one must learn to see things as the best they can be and accept them as they are.


Although mythology as a fundamental frame of reference for how to lead one's life is variously construed, it is here meant as an intellectual fabrication used to justify existing in one's fear of change, rather than fully engaging life, which entails a measure of risk. The mythology of abnegating personal responsibility, like a chameleon, assumes a number of guises, of which I will discuss seven.

Myth One—I Can't Change Because I'm Locked In

A common myth of being stuck, which has surfaced over the years, is the notion of being locked into a certain position or circumstance in life, of being out of control, and thus unable to change one's current existence. The truth, however, is that we, each and every one of us, always have a choice, that no one is "locked" into anything, that change is always an option. Therefore, a person of psychological maturity will examine first and foremost the opportunities presented by an impending change, be they personal growth or material gain, and will weigh the associated risk accordingly, whereas a psychologically immature person will focus first and foremost on the perceived risk of loosing what they already have and so decline the opportunity presented, no matter how good or important it is intuitively known to be. Thus, as British philosopher James Allen observed:  "Circumstance does not make the man; it reveals him to himself." Or as author Anaïs Nin wrote: "We don't see things as they are. We see things as we are."

Some years ago, for example, a man, I'll call him "Bob," who worked for a government agency, was sold on a job by a friend in a different state with a different government agency, and Bob took the job only to find out that it was neither ethically planned nor administered. Although Bob could have gone back to work for the agency he left, where he had felt good about what he did, he said that he was "locked in" to his new job despite his better judgment and that, when he allowed himself to think about it, he felt betrayed, miserable, depressed, and dishonest.

When I asked why he did not go back to his original agency, which had gladly offered him his old job, Bob said it was too expensive to move again, that he had just gotten his family settled, that he was just learning the ropes of his new job, which he hoped might get better, but he did not see how it could. Finally, Bob said it was not fair to let his friend down, while steadfastly refusing to acknowledge that his friend had duped him. He had a litany of reasons that sounded good, but when really pressed, it turned out that Bob found it easier to stay, where he knew in his heart he did not belong, rather than risk the potential ridicule of changing his mind and admitting, by going back to his old job, that he had made a terrible mistake.

True, his return would undoubtedly have caused short-term hardships, but it would have earned him his self-respect and the inner peace of feeling good about what he did to earn a living. Instead, Bob prostituted his fundamental beliefs to avoid the short-term pain of taking personal responsibility for what turned out to have been an unwise decision. In so doing, he paid a much higher personal cost over a much longer period of time.

Another spin on this myth is that the "terrible known" is more comfortable than the unknown, even when one can clearly see that it promises to be better. How often I have heard someone say, "I can't change jobs, even though I know I must do something else because I'm no longer fulfilled by my job nor doing it justice, but I only have a few years left until I can retire." The real question is how many years of misery is one willing to accept rather than experiencing personal growth, joy, and fulfillment by risking change.

Myth Two—I Can't Commit Future Leaders to a Course of Action

When I worked as a research scientist in the USDI Bureau of Land Management and later served as an advisor to county government in my home county, I was told by more than one person faced with an uncomfortable decision that he could neither speak for nor commit future leaders to a particular coarse of action, that it was not fair to "lock them in." In this way, they sought to avoid the risk of making a decision that would be unpopular with the people they feared might have the political power to turn them out of office.

Despite one's personal trepidations, some decisions (which in fact act as a "lock and key" to protect the future) must be made in the present moment, such as the legal acts that authorized the national parks and wilderness areas, created the national forests, and currently protect endangered species. If the majority of the people responsible for the passage of these acts had not had the individual courage embodied in psychologically maturity to act for the benefit of all generations, despite fierce opposition, our nation and all its people would indeed be culturally and spiritually poorer today, while a very few individuals would have made substantial amounts of money.

Eighteenth-century British philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke succinctly addressed the problem of the monetary greed of the few at the cultural and spiritual expense of the many when he wrote:

Men [and women] are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. . . . Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men [and women] of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

Burke's statement brings to mind the test every public servant must confront and pass if they are to make socially responsible decisions. Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine aptly described the test, as he delivered the eulogy in 1866 for Senator Foot of Vermont:

When, Mr. President, a man becomes a member of this body he cannot even dream of the ordeal to which he cannot fail to be exposed;

of how much courage he must possess to resist the temptations which daily beset him;

of that sensitive shrinking from undeserved censure which he must learn to control;

of the ever-recurring contest between a natural desire for public approbation and a sense of public duty;

of the load of injustice he must be content to bear, even from those who should be his friends;

the imputations of his motives;

the sneers and sarcasms of ignorance and malice;

all themanifold injuries which partisan or private malignity, disappointed of its objects, may shower upon his unprotected head.

All this, Mr. President, if he would retain his integrity, he must learn to bear unmoved, and walk steadily onward in the path of duty, sustained only by the reflection that time may do him justice, or if not, that after all his individual hopes and aspirations, and even his name among men, should be of little account to him when weighed in the balance against the welfare of a people of whose destiny he is a constituted guardian and defender.

Two years later, his vote to acquit Andrew Johnson brought about the fulfillment of his own prophecy. This is often the price of true social responsibility; unfortunately, few people have the moral courage to pay it because, as James Allen wrote:  "Men [and women] are anxious to improve their circumstances, but are unwilling to improve themselves; they therefore remain bound."

Myth Three—It's Not My Responsibility Because It's Not in My Job Description

It is quite common, I have found, for people afraid to make a decision to rationalize that the letter of the law, the letter of their job description, must be followed at any cost, rather than embrace the heart or intent of either and risk making a conscious choice based on their moral judgment of extenuating circumstances, social responsibility, or the greater good of humanity. And make no mistake, all decisions are based on morality because we humans are subjective creatures; we cannot be otherwise. If you think you are or can be objective, try holding a neutral thought in your mind for one minute.

Myth Four—I Can't Make a Decision Because I Lack Definitive Data.

We will never have enough data, let alone perfect data, which translates into all the data we desire to make an entirely safe decision. But not to make a socially responsible decision is still to make a decision, albeit one that usually proves to be unwise. For those who suffer interminable labor pains while giving birth to a decision, I point out that, in the end, there are but two choices—too soon or too late—because virtually all data are inconclusive. Generally speaking, however, I find that too soon is better then too late.

On the other hand, claims of not having definitive data or enough data to warrant a change has long been used by the timber industry, among others, to justify business as usual. As a research ecologist in forestry, I encountered this argument endlessly from industrialists, even as an expert witness in the court of law. The argument went something like this:  We don't have enough data to prove conclusively that we need to change the way we do business; therefore, we won't change because it would introduce economic uncertainty into our business and cost us too much. If, however, you can prove definitively that change is necessary, we will consider it.

Although the latter statement sounds reasonable, conclusive proof is, of course, impossible if one does not accept scientific data that goes counter to one's desired outcome. This refrain is therefore played like a broken record, regardless of how much data are on hand that demonstrate the ecological necessity of change in order to ensure, as much as possible, a sustainable future for all generations.

But not all people plead ignorance because of a lack of data to avoid making a responsible decision. I once sat next to a contractor on a flight from Alaska to Oregon. Knowing nothing about building a house, I asked him how he did it.

"Well," he said, "before I buy the first nail or board, I build the house a hundred times in my head so that I can see and fix all the potential problems before they arise. As long as the house stands as I built it, I'm the only one who really knows it, regardless of who buys it or how long they live in it."

Although the contractor did not have perfect data, he did the level best he could with the data on hand, and he took responsibility for his work. It was, after all, his identity as a person and an artisan that went into the construction of each house, and his integrity meant more to him than the money he could make by using cheap materials and cutting hidden corners.

Myth Five—It Can't Be True, So I Won't Believe It

When one refuses to accept data, no matter how clearly valid it is, one is steeped in an interesting dichotomy—the need to know and the fear of knowing, which can be thought of as "informed denial." In this instance, a person gathers all the data possible, always hoping it will affirm their point of view, while simultaneously rejecting out of hand any unfavorable data by denying or refusing to believe its scientific validity. To give this notion a human face, I know a man whose refrain to anything that threatens his point of view is, "I'm skeptical." With this statement, he summarily dismissed whatever he finds to be uncomfortable.

Another colleague of mine used a slightly different approach. He simply went through his professional life ignoring whatever he did not want to deal with on the theory that if something was ignored long enough, it would go away, including people.

In addition, I once knew a wildlife biologist who worked for a state department of fish and game. He was perhaps the most extreme example of informed denial. His professional responsibilities included looking out for the welfare of a herd of elk that used parts of two counties as its habitat. Scientists within the same department studied this particular herd of elk across its geographical range, but the biologist would not accept any data as valid from the neighboring county if it posed for him an uncomfortable decision. This is known as the "NIH" factor, which means:  not invented here, thus invalid.

Informed denial is perhaps the most rampant myth when it comes to avoiding the personal risk of making an unpopular but socially responsible decision. I have found this myth in every conceivable bureaucratic closet in every level of government in the United States. If you doubt the accuracy of this statement, read the newspaper with an open mind and a discerning eye or listen to the news with an open mind and a discerning ear.

Myth Six—Yes But, I Have to Face Reality

"What you say is all well and good, but I have to face reality." "It's fine to be idealistic, and it would indeed be nice if things could be that way, but the reality is. . . ." Note how the foregoing statements summarily dismiss the other person's point of view.

Facing reality, as it is put forth to avoid making a socially responsible decision one feels is risky, boils down staying within the limits of someone else's intellectual, political, or economic "bottom line." Reality, however, is what we each make it to be based on the philosophical underpinnings of our individual worldviews. Such views are founded either on the fear of potential loss or on the faith of potential opportunities. Although the choice is ours, the vast majority of people unfortunately elect the former.

Myth Seven—What You Are Asking Can't be done; It's Impossible

"What you're asking is impossible; it can't be done." While I was still working as a scientist for the Bureau of Land Management, I wanted to hire an extremely well-qualified woman as a plant ecologist to help with some work. I carefully went through all the necessary hoops the personnel department put in front of me. After six months, however, the head of personnel told me I could not hire the woman, that it was impossible. When I asked him why, he simply repeated that it was impossible. Finding his answer unacceptable, I went to the State Director and explained the situation.

"Ridiculous!" he exploded.

With that, he picked up the telephone, called the head of personnel, and the woman was hired within fifteen minutes.

As it turned out, the head of personnel had use inappropriate judgment a few weeks earlier and had been reprimanded. So, when my request reached him, he was taking no chances. His problem was that by not acting appropriately this time out of fear of criticism, he once again got himself in trouble.

By suggesting that the required decision is impossible, one is pleading impotence from a position of authority, thereby seeking to avoid personal responsibility. When Napoléon Bonaparte was confronted with such a situation, he said, "You write to me that it's impossible; the word is not French."

So, in the end, what are these myths protecting? They are protecting the fear of self-definition and personal responsibility for one's decisions, and in the process are perpetuating our existence in the maw of our fears.


Although reputed to come in many guises because we fling it outward at such things as change, successes or failure, personal responsibility, criticism, and so on, fear seems to be rooted in one particular facet of our lives—the potential loss of control. Fear has only one garment, which covers all projections, no matter how good they sound. Fear is the expectation of an unwanted outcome cast into an unknown future, wherein we envision ourselves as slaves to an undoubtedly disastrous circumstance. Therefore, fear exists simply for the sake of itself, and is made real only when we empower it with our thoughts, something President Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood, as evidenced by a comment he made to his wife, Eleanor, on their first date.

While dancing, Eleanor, who was nervous, stepped on Franklin's foot and apologized profusely, prompting him to ask if she was frightened. When she replied "yes," he told her:  "Fear is an illusion. If you use the same energy to be confident, the most wonderful things happen." Unfortunately, few public servants think the way FDR did and are thus confronted almost daily by fear, especially when facing critical decisions.

The following are some of the guises of fear that people face when confronted with the necessity of making an unpopular, but socially responsible, decision:

  • change is seen as having to confront an uncertain, unknowable future of some scale of real or imagined magnitude with no guarantee of a successful outcome, so one of two things usually happens:  (1) either one bargains with the circumstance by trying to scale down the amount of change necessary and thereby minimize the perceived risk of unknown consequences or (2) one studiously resists change through informed denial of the needed change. In the first case, one tries to cut the best possible deal; in the latter, one steadfastly avoids making any decision if at all possible

  • failure in one's endeavor and the ridicule it may bring, so one hides from the requisite decisions

  • success and the greater visibility and expectations to which it may lead, so a person sabotages their chances of succeeding through the decisions they make

  • criticism, which most people take personally, so risky decisions are left unattended

  • personal responsibility, which is dealt with by a perpetual lack of focus, confusion, and a dissipation of energy through numerous distractions, all of which preclude the absolute necessity of making a risky decision

  • losing one's position of authority, which is seen as personal power and control, so the political wind is constantly tested lest a responsible decision be made in unfavorable times and thus jeopardize one's position

The following, in contrast, are examples that represent projections of fear flung by someone at a person who is willing to make an unpopular, albeit socially responsible, decision:

  • what you are asking for is too expensive; who will pay the bill?

  • you're being too philosophical in your approach to this decision—forgetting, of course, that every concrete idea has its own philosophical foundation

  • what you are asking is unrealistic

  • you're expecting too much too fast

  • you're asking people to go against human nature

  • there isn't enough data to support your position

These are all reasons that sound good, but are not real. If, for instance, each time you ran out a reason why change was impractical or impossible, I was to respond by saying:  "Other than that (which is the reason you just cited), what is stopping you from making a decision?" you would sooner or later run out of false reasons, no matter how plausible they sounded. Then, and only then, would the real reason come out—whatever it is that frightens you.

"Nothing is so much to be feared as fear," wrote Henry David Thoreau. Fear, which is always the anticipation of something unwanted happening, can exist only in the future. Fear is being afraid that something, which happened, might have happened, or could have happened to someone in the past, could happen to you. True, it could, but that does not mean it will.

While there is always the possibility that a negative thing might happen, the probability of its happening is a different issue—something most people do not seem to understand. Conversely, there is always the possibility that a given positive thing will happen, and the probability, in my experience at least, is that it will because I find far more positive things happening each day than negative things. Consider briefly your own life. How many events, which you originally took to be negative, actually turned out to be positive? You may well find, upon review, that the vast majority of your life has been positive. So why not look upon FEAR as an acronym for "false evidence appearing real?"

The problem is that we tend not only to remember the negative things but also to focus on them. There is in this dichotomy a lesson:  we will constantly feel exhausted if we see life as a battle in which we expect the worst and seek solutions through the irrational logic fear. I say this because I have found, in the years I have facilitated the resolution of environmental conflicts, that people agree on about eighty percent of everything and disagree on the remaining twenty percent, but it's the latter on which they focus, to the exclusion of the former, and over which they are willing to destroy one another. When people focus on the areas of agreement, the contested areas are put into perspective and become largely or totally negotiable.

Yitzak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister and warrior, learned this lesson well, and in teaching it to the world, forfeited his life to a young Israeli man who could not see beyond his own fear and hatred. All the years Rabin lead the fight against the Palestinians, Israel was in danger of attack. Then, as Prime Minister, he realized that the only way Israel would ever have national security would be if the Palestinians also had national security. Thus, the one-time warrior became the emissary of peace, a transformation of heart and mind that took the utmost courage. And the peace process initiated by Rabin is still on going to some extent, although had Rabin remained at the helm of Israel, it would long ago have been completed and many lives would have been spared.

In this context, Buddhism offers an important insight:  fear cannot exist in the present moment, in the here and how, despite the fact that it is ordained in the nature of life that we never know from one moment to the next how things will turn out. This being the case, one can choose to see the future either as positive or negative because both are a potential part of any future. You can, therefore, choose a possibility mindset and live virtually free of fear, as instructed in an old Chinese proverb:  Fear knocked at the door; faith opened it, and there was no one there.

Consider the observation of Helen B. Juniper of Claremont, California. As she jogged around the warm-up track, carefully avoiding mud puddles and soft places, she began to notice the different imprints people's sneakers left in the mud. Where, she suddenly wondered, were her prints? Stopping, she pressed the sole of one shoe into the damp soil, made a mental note of her sole's pattern, and began looking for it on the track. It was, however, difficult for her to find any sign of her passing because she avoided all the soft places, which caused her to realize just how easy it is to avoid the uncertain spots in life, and thereby leave little impression in one's passing —like making a socially responsible but unpopular decision. Now, she says, she is more willing in her life to go into challenging territory, where fear may still reside, and let her prints stand out in bold relief "to encourage those who follow," as did Yitzak Rabin.


Most of us, in the process of growing up, became trained in the habit of negative, limited thinking, albeit often unconsciously, by parents, teachers, peers, and our societal framework. How frequently are we told why something is not possible, why we can't do what we have dreamed of, or why we won't succeed? The old television series, "Mission Impossible," which Napoléon would assure us in not a French program, cast each episode in the unlikely realm of the impossible, yet the whole point of the show was to accomplish that which on the surface appeared highly improbable. Their task was to prove it possible!

With so many years of ingrained and habituated negative, self-reinforcing feedback loops, no wonder many of us can throw out, quicker than you can snap your fingers, a litany of why something we are afraid to do won't work. When the world turns around such a negative central axis, is it any wonder that so much of life has been contaminated with this perspective. The worst-case scenario becomes the arena one's life, one's comfort zone, as it were. A possibility, opportunity mentality actually becomes the unfamiliar country of discomfort, where one is loath to set foot, let alone sojourn.

Just to balance the equation in a more holistic perspective, it is heart warming to acknowledge that there are individuals who look on the bright side, the best-case scenario. What can we do? Why will this work? What are the successes here? These individuals constitute role models worthy of our emulation. They are the explorers, the trailblazers, the pathfinders of potential possibilities and opportunities who habitually see the growth or gain, even when it entails suffering and pain.

Stop for a moment and allow yourself to feel the territory—positive or negative—wherein you most often think, speak, and act. What is your perspective generally like?

Try an experiment to see if you can really get a grasp of how pervasive your overall attitude affects your thoughts, your choices, your growth (or the lack thereof), and your life in both small and large ways. Consider an issue you may currently be grappling with. It can be something with your spouse or partner, your child, your job, whether to take some kind of course, or even as mundane as deciding whether to paint the exterior of your house and what color(s) to choose.

When you have chosen the issue, allow your thoughts free reign as much as you can. Let them be spontaneous and uncensored. Then take a sheet of paper and begin to record your stream of thoughts—without inner editorial advice.

Once you simply give yourself permission to feel the way you do, you will see the pattern of your thinking. Did you, for example, run out a stream of all the reasons why whatever it is won't work, why it's a stupid idea, why it's too difficult, why it's too expensive, concern about what others will think of you, and so on? Were you able to detect how this negative gush of why it won't work sabotaged every potentially positive action or outcome, even that of feeling good about yourself? As you flushed out all the apparent reasons why whatever it is wouldn't work, did you notice that your thoughts began to change as the negatives dissipated?

In an atmosphere of acceptance, you may notice that you actually begin considering the reasons why whatever it is could work, why the idea or direction is both reasonable and possible. Yes, maybe I can do this or that. Maybe it is a plausible idea or plan that I didn't see because my fear and its gang of grisly accomplices were casting their shadows into my light.

You may recall the children's story of the little train with its fear and it's dialogue as it approached its test of, "oh that hill looks daunting and impossible to climb," to, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can," as the train kept on going up the hill. As it crested the peak of achievement, it's positive, reaffirming refrain became, "I knew I could, I knew I could, I knew I could."

You too can reach the top of the hill by making the frightening decision with which you are confronted, but unlike the little train confined to its prelaid tracks, you have the option of thinking outside of box wherein you find yourself, which is but saying that your imagination lays the tracks for your reality to follow. Thinking outside the box is a gift of Zen, and is called having a "beginner's mind."


It's likely that most of us have seen a beginner easily win a game they have never before played and have someone say, rather disparagingly, that it was just beginner's luck. It was not beginner's luck, but rather the open-ended thinking of a beginner's mind that was on display.

A beginner at anything is unfettered by the mental limitations imposed by someone else's rules and thus can see what the answers might be because they do not know what the limitations should be according to conventional wisdom. Those who think of themselves as experts, on the other hand, are bounded by the rules that govern being an expert—the one who knows the "correct" answer, yet is too often blind to what other answers might be. The beginner, on the other hand, is free to explore and discover, while the expert grows rigid in a self-created prison.

Two women and a man on three different occasions are excellent examples of the beginner's mind. I have often used a simple, fun exercise, which requires nothing more than six, wooden toothpicks, to help people understand that their imaginations are as bounded as their blind acceptance of social convention and as free as their willingness to reach beyond such convention in seeking their soul's creative eye—their willingness to think outside socially constructed box of acceptable outcomes.

The instructions are simple:  sit at the table and make four equilateral triangles out of the six toothpicks, but without crossing one over another. Rarely does a person succeed because to accomplish this feat on the single dimension of a table's flat surface seems impossible, which their minds quickly tell them, even as they struggle not to accept it. They think it must be possible because they were told to do it, but they can't figure out how, and eventually give up. There are, however, at least three ways to solve this problem.

The way I had learned was to make one triangle on the table's flat surface and then stand the other three upright within the one, thus encompassing more than a single dimension. The second and third ways both entail breaking the toothpicks and arrange them appropriately on the table's surface.

This first time I saw the problem solved by breaking a toothpick was at a workshop I was conducting to help wildlife biologists look beyond professional convention for answers to their management problems. During the workshop, one of the biologists came to me and said that his wife, who had accompanied him to the meeting, was interested in what was being discussed, and asked if she could join group.

With the lady sitting at the table, I gave my usual instructions, and then simply watched what happened. While the men arranged and rearranged their toothpicks to no avail, she put hers on the table and sat looking at them. Suddenly, a tiny smile crept over her face. Picking up a toothpick, she laid it down at an angle. Then she deftly broke the second in two, laying each half across from the other on each side of the middle of the first toothpick. Finally, she arranged the remaining four in a square to close the exposed sides. Although not perfect because she had not removed a piece of the broken toothpick to account for the width of the first one, which she had laid on the table, she had four triangles!

Over the years, I have continued giving my original instructions, wondering if anyone else would break a toothpick. Finally, after more than two decades, a sixth-grade teacher looked at her toothpicks for about thirty seconds, then looked up and asked:

"Can I break the toothpicks?"

"Yes," I answered and then asked, "How did you figure that out so fast?"

"Well," she said, "any time I'm given limits, the first thing I do is check them to see if there's an alternative."

What a marvelous answer! How fortunate her students! They had a rare teacher, one with a beginner's mind who regularly checks the mental box she is given to see if there is a way to get outside for a new and different view.

The third way to solve the problem came from a district ranger in the U.S. Forest Service. I gave him six toothpicks and the usual instructions. Seated at his kitchen table, he laid the toothpicks on the table's top, looked at them for a few seconds, while his young son watched, and then broke each toothpick in two.

The boy turned to me with a questioning voice and said:

"He broke them."

"He didn't tell me I couldn't," replied his father, as he made four equilateral triangles on the tabletop, with one piece left over.

What does this exercise have to do with making a decision? First, it demonstrates that most socialized individuals become stuck within socially imposed limitations to their imaginations. Second, it shows that it's a rare individual who refuses to accept the intellectual box society attempts so hard to put around their mind and thereby simply remains open to the possibilities—a beginner's mind.

The beginners mind in turn allows each person's inner genius to unfold. There are eight basic ways in which one can think outside the socially restrictive box, ways of thinking that one can adapt to making decisions:

  1. Examine each problem from every conceivable angle, i.e. question everything, which means abandoning the first approach that comes to mind because it likely stems from past experience. This necessitates re-conceptualizing the problem, which not only can solve the immediate problem but also will identify a new one. In this case, you might, for example, think of the three people who found ways to make four equilateral triangles by breaking the toothpicks.

  2. Make thoughts visible by developing the visual and spatial ability to display information in new ways—a picture is worth a thousand words. Some people us flow diagrams. I once knew an architect who built a freestanding model out of balsam wood when he came across a conceptual problem the solution for which he could not find on paper. The model also served to translate the concept from the one-dimensional blueprint into a multidimensional image for the contractor.

  3. Be productive. Dean Keith Simonton, of the University of California at Davis, found, for instance, that most respected scientists produced more "bad" works than their lesser known peers. By the same token, Babe Ruth, the baseball player, had to accept more strikes in a single season than anyone else in order to hit more home runs in a single season than anyone else.

  4. The beginner's mind, like the playful child it is, constantly combines and recombines ideas, images, and thoughts. In other words, by like a child and entertain the probability that anything is possible. Although the concepts of energy, mass, and the speed of light were not invented by Albert Einstein, he combined them in a novel way and thus discovered a previously unknown relationship. You do not, therefore, necessarily have to discard the conventional box; you can re-envision it, and thus redefine its characteristics and/or its relationship to a given problem.

  5. The facility of connecting heretofore-unconnected relationships allows you to see things others miss. When, for example, Samuel Morse was trying to figure out how produce a telegraphic signal strong enough to transmit from coast to coast, he observed teams of horses being exchanged at a relay station, where the tired horses were replaced by rested ones. From this observation, Morse deduced that a traveling signal of a given strength could cover the distance from coast to coast with the aid of periodic boosts of power along the way. What Morse discovered when he constructed the relay boosters for his telegraph signal was that we only possess the power of an insight when we give it expression through action.

  6. According to physicist David Bohm, you can think differently, i.e., outside the conventional box, if you can tolerate ambivalence between two incompatible subjects, to which Niels Bohr, another physicist, added that if you can hold opposites together in your mine, you will suspend your normal process of thinking and allow an intelligence beyond rational thought to create a new form. By way of example, consider that Bohr's ability to imagine light as both a particle and a wave led to his conception of the principle of complementarity. Thus it is that creativity comes from paradox; when, as author Caroline W. Casey says, "We aspire to be disciplined wild people who are radical traditionalists."

  7. Thinking metaphorically, which is drawing analogies between abstract principles and concrete everyday occurrences, allows you to perceive resemblances between two separate areas of existence. Alexander Graham Bell compared the concrete, everyday occurrence of how the inner ear works with the abstract notion of a stout piece of membrane as it moved steel—and, in the process, conceptualized the telephone.

  8. "Whenever we attempt to do something and fail," says Michael Michalko, "we end up doing something else," which is the first principle of the creative accident. The second principle is recognizing the "accident" as a creative opportunity, asking ourselves what we have done, and answering our question in a novel, unexpected way, which, according to Michalko, "is the essential creative act." This creative act is not luck, but rather where opportunity and a prepared, beginners mind intersect outside of the conventional box, which Michalko calls "creative insight of the highest order."*

Here, perhaps, the most important lesson is to drop everything one is doing when something of interest rears its head and pursue it with singular focus. Many, or even most, intelligent people fail to make significant leaps of creativity because, having failed to engage their imaginations and think outside of their mental boxes, they have either accepted society's collective limitations of perception and/or are fixated on their own preconceived notions and plans. But not so the person with a beginner's mind; they not only recognize an interesting opportunity but also pursue it relentlessly to fruition. Such people are the hope of the future in service to the public.

In my opinion, it behooves us all to find the moral courage and political will to unequivocally accept our adult responsibilities, those entrusted to us by our constituents (ultimately, the children), and to make our decisions for the benefit of those we serve, present and future, because a decision—any decision—is but the first step in the chain of cause and effect. In turn, each effect is the cause of another effect, ad infinitum. The compounding effects set into motion by our decision—yours and mine—constitute all the other steps through time, the ones born of our individual and collective choices. May we therefore decide wisely because our decisions create the circumstances that become the consequences we bequeath all the world's children unto everlasting.

I am grateful to my wife, Zane, who helped to improve this paper, especially the section titled "The 'Why It Won't Work' Emptying Exercise."

*The preceding eight ways of thinking are based on:  Michael Michalko. 1998. The Art of Genius. Utne Reader, July-August:73-76.

©chris maser 2008. All rights reserved.

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