Too Close to be Recognised!

Coming up this spring is a series of four masterclasses on thinking, organising and collaborating facilitated by Adrian West and Sophie Brown from Company of Mind. We asked them to tell us a little bit about the background to these masterclasses and their motivation for developing them:

Image of the head of a man trying to see the fly sat on the tip of his nose

Too close to be recognised,
Too deep to grasp
Too easy to believe
Too amazing to be understood intellectually

So here’s a question. What could you have put more effort into at school, which if you had, would be making the biggest difference for you today?

Maybe academic subjects, though you likely worked quite hard at those. But what less obvious capacities? Creative writing – articulating yourself more clearly and compellingly? Drama and Acting? Team sports? Would it have helped if you’d become a more confident speaker? Or got more practice in social situations with people? Become more ‘organised’ and able to focus? (or whatever you think that seems right for you). People who appear good at those things who you might admire, likely learnt them almost accidentally during earlier years. It’s a mistake to think you can’t build such capacities, and are ‘fixed’ as ‘who you are’ – though it takes time. Ok, well that’s the past

Back from the future

But what if you look back 5 or 10 years from now. What might you think you could really have been learning and developing now, which will help you most in that future? To be honest, it’s not usually academic skills people will cite when they look back, important foundation though those are. It’s easy to focus on technical abilities – they’re easier to talk about and nail down. But the other stuff that in truth can make the biggest difference to your future, is almost too vague and nebulous to talk about, too obvious yet hard to actually do anything about – too close to be recognised.

How can you get some answers to that, and in a world of marketing and mis-information, with an uncertain unpredictable future? How can you know what actually works? I suppose you could ask people who are 5-10 years further down the line and see what they say. That would be interesting, especially if you could get them to take the question seriously, rather than give you some flippant reply


For us the story is slightly different, spending a decade or two running a research group at Manchester University, in professional environments, and teams in a start-up company. In hindsight, academic learning was a crucial foundation, but we realised it had not equipped us to deal with the next level of challenges which plagued us, and seemed to make the biggest difference above technical skill.

These next-level issues were all the usual things that are so vague and nebulous: people, conflicts, communication, organising, planning, seeing the future, and how to do “thinking”, especially together. You could say we rely on having “high quality people” to address them, which is a very real thing that sets people apart when they have similar qualifications, though it’s vague and nebulous too. And it implies these ‘qualities’ cannot be learnt or developed as capabilities, like saying some people can read and others can’t, without appreciating that we can learn the alphabet. How valuable would it be if we were much better at such ‘vague’ things? It seems to be where the biggest gains are to be made. How to know what works and what doesn’t is a key question.

The four-fold root of sufficient reason

When Schopenhauer set out to understand ‘life’, wisely he first asked “What would be a sufficient reason to believe any answer?”. That was the title of his doctoral thesis. We don’t have so big a quest, but in the end we spent more time on these capacities, than the other work we were doing, and were able to test what works by using it to help people in other companies or universities.  If we distil the central elements, there are four main areas. Two relate to how we ‘think’, one on ‘coping’ with all the information and tasks that have to be managed, and one on what we can do about ‘people’. Here’s a little more on each of those:

Thinking (1 &  2)

Strangely, we don’t get taught how to think (as evidence, listen to any discussion about politics). Yet surely how our minds think, and how to do ‘thinking’ is fundamental to us. If it isn’t taught then most other people don’t know it and there are likely huge gains to be made by studying this ourselves. There are two aspects.

One is the broad topic of thinking as a practical skill: understanding how thinking works, and finding what is effective at making a difference in practice.

Second, the specific focus on the task of “problem solving and decision making” which as the most common need deserves particular attention. There’s almost too much advice out there (too easy to believe) – but what is worth learning? and how do we develop actual capability in practice?

Organising ourselves (3)

It doesn’t matter what else we do, if we are overwhelmed by all the things calling on our attention, then progress is almost impossible – the clever ideas we have are of no value and get lost in a pile of scraps of paper. Again, easy to say ‘get organised’ but then what? Why doesn’t it usually work, and what can we actually do to change how we work? Like the artificial thing of learning the alphabet it may take some initial effort, but brings benefits almost too useful to be able to describe.

People (4)

Everyone can seem nice when there’s nothing at stake, or goals are a long way off – the ‘selfie’ world. But when we have to work together over time (or work with ourselves), the problems with ‘people’ likely dominate. It’s little to do with reason which is hard to believe and one factor in misunderstanding. What can we learn that’s useful to know about ‘people’ which provides tools that we can reach for in difficult situations? Ultimately it’s how to make life smoother and more enjoyable for all concerned.

Those principal four work together. We need to organise ourselves to make progress but we need to make good decisions about what to do. If those decisions and activities involve people, as they will, then we need to understand that world to be able to think effectively about it.

So that’s the background to the four separate events we’ll run at the University in May and June. If that’s of interest to you, we’ll look forward to seeing you. Or if you have questions, feel free to get in touch.

Dr. Adrian West & Sophie Brown, Company of Mind, contact

Register now for the first two workshops in this series:
Practical Thinking for Researchers Thursday 16th May 9:15 – 16:30
Working with Difficult People Tuesday 28 May 9:15 – 16:30