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This is a chapter from the book The Teenager's Guide to the Real World by Marshall Brain, ISBN 1-9657430-3-9. For more information on the book please click here.

Chapter 22: You Can Create a High-Level Vision

You can create a high-level vision of any space that you occupy. This vision allows you to evaluate yourself as well as those around you. It allows you to analyze and, in many cases, truly understand the problems you face. It allows you to become much more strategic in your thinking. Many people never get to the point where they even realize this fact of life. That deficit limits them throughout their lives. Once you realize that it is possible, you can practice this skill and use it to accomplish things both great and mundane.

Surprisingly, I realized this fact for the first time during a racquetball game. Let me tell you how it happened so you can understand what I am talking about. I am certainly not a stellar racquetball player. However, I do enjoy playing the game. I had played for about a year, and one day I was playing with a good friend of mine. There came a particular shot in this game: In that shot I was suddenly able to watch the ball and think about it. I can distinctly remember the moment because it was as though a new part of my brain popped into existence and started processing events. It was almost like a new me could stand, at a higher level, and think about the game. What this new part of my brain said was, "OK. This is good. Look at how the ball is tracking. Now look at where you are, and notice where Mike is standing. If you move to here, you will able to reach the ball there. That will allow you to place the ball when you hit it right into the far back corner. He will never be able to reach it." During this time the action of the game seemed to slow down, and I could actually see and move and think at the same time. I was in fact able to hit the ball into the back corner, well out of reach of my friend.

From that moment on my game improved dramatically.

What was amazing about this event was the fact that I had never before in my life actually been able to think about the game. Prior to this moment my brain simply tracked the ball and forced my body to hit the ball. I simply reacted. My conscious mind had never been able to participate. There was simply too much to do for my conscious mind to move to a higher level to analyze things. It is just like when you are learning anything newóit demands all of your concentration. Once you get good at something though, you are able to do it subconsciously without thinking. This is what allows you to walk, chew gum and talk to a friend while avoiding traffic as you walk down a busy sidewalk. You are doing the walking and chewing and avoiding subconsciously, and your mind is able to consciously process the conversation.

What this newfound ability in racquetball allowed me to do is to think strategically. Instead of flailing away at the ball in a reactive mode, I could watch the ball and my opponent, think about them and plan my actions. When you watch a skilled tennis star or basketball player do what they do, you are seeing a person who is able to think perhaps at several different levels about what his own body is doing, what his opponentsí bodies are doing, what the ball is doing and what is necessary to win the point or make the basket. These higher-level thinking processes may be conscious or unconscious, and they make the brilliance of star athletes possible. At the same time, people who seem totally clueless about what they are doing and how the world works have never reached the point where they can effectively think about the world and themselves at this higher level. Everything they do is a reaction to immediate input rather than a step in a longer-range plan.

Once I realized that this was possible in racquetball, it became possible to use this skill in a number of other places. For example, when having a conversation with someone a part of you can move to a higher level and watch the conversation, thinking about the goals and objectives of both people who are talking. This skill is incredibly important in critical meetings and conversations, and it gives you a definite advantage over people who cannot work that way.

Is it always possible to work from a high-level view? No. And that is an important fact. It is easy to drop out of a high-level position and back to "reactive mode." Some of the things that can trigger this downward transition include fatigue, anger and newness. At the same time, however, there are things you can do to force yourself up to a higher position. One of the best things you can do is ask yourself a simple question: "What am I trying to accomplish here? What is my goal?"

Letís say that you are talking to a friend and your friend is angry. You have two choices. You can react angrily. That is certainly the easiest thing to do but almost always the least productive. The other thing you can do is say to yourself, "This person is a good friend of mine, and I trust her. But something is obviously angering her. What is my goal? My goal is to do what I can to solve the problem and allow our friendship to grow." Now ask her: "What, exactly, is the problem here? I see that you are angry. What is causing the anger?" Something is causing your friend to be angry. It could be a legitimate problem, it could be a misunderstanding, it could be a lack of communication or it could be a variety of other things. By understanding the true cause of the anger and working to eliminate it, you can prevent a major fight. Sometimes the simple act of listening rather than reacting fiercely is enough to defuse the situation so that you can both work toward a solution.

If you are trying to work with someone to accomplish one of your own goals (see Chapter 23), then by moving to a higher level you can often understand how to create a win/win situation. Ask yourself questions like: "What does this person need? What does this person want? What is important to this person? What would make this person happy?" In answering these questions and aligning them with your own desires, you can often reach a solution that makes both sides happy. You can work at a higher level during the conversation. You can think about the situation privately and try to come up with creative options (see Chapter 24). Draw or write options on a piece of paper and analyze them. For example, say you get a job at a fast food restaurant. While you are on the job you notice the manager has a lot of problems staffing weekend nights. You might come up to a higher level and ask yourself, "How can I help solve this problem?" You might volunteer to work three out of four weekends per month in return for extra pay, then negotiate a wage increase that works for both of you. Or you might suggest to the manager a broader program where all people working the weekend shift get extra pay. Look for creative solutions to the problem from a higher level.

Letís say that you have a problem that is causing you a tremendous amount of dismay at the moment. One way to get a handle on it is to move to a higher level and analyze all of your options, listing the advantages and disadvantages of each. See Chapter 24 for a discussion.

The ability to move to a higher level is something that requires discipline and practice. You have to have the discipline to remind yourself to move upwards, and you have to practice so that it becomes easier each time you do. Try analyzing problems ahead of time or while you are within them from a higher level and you will find that things are much clearer and easier to understand.

Approaching Concepts from a High Level

Many times when you think about a concept, problem or situation, its solution is much clearer if you raise the level of your thinking. Often this approach means thinking generally rather than specifically, or thinking in an extremely large way rather than in a narrow way.

Here is an example. Letís say that you decide that, as a way to make money, you are going to walk along the boardwalk at the beach and collect aluminum cans out of trash receptacles. You do it for awhile and you learn about this aspect of life. You learn which trash receptacles generate more cans, where you can take the cans to be paid, how much you get paid for the cans, and so on. Letís say that you are able to do this and make $10,000 a year if you do it full time.

Now that is fine. However, you might be able to come up to a higher level, see the space in a larger sense and learn something from that raised position. Hereís a progression you might go though in your thinking:

  • Way to think about your life #1: I pick cans out of trash receptacles at the beach.
  • Way to think about your life #2: I sort trash into two categories: aluminum cans and everything else. The aluminum has value, so I sell it to a recycling center.
  • Way to think about your life #3: I provide a sorting and transportation system for post-consumer aluminum waste.
  • Way to think about your life #4: I currently implement one piece of the American recycling infrastructure, a system that allows the country to reuse post-consumer products and packaging for the betterment of both the environment and the worldís scarce resource base. I currently specialize in aluminum, providing both a sorting and transportation capability.
There is a huge difference between version #1 and version #4. Notice how we have been able to move from an extremely low vision to an extremely high vision of the activity. The funny thing is that as we move up the hierarchy there are more and more opportunities to do other things. For example:

  • If you see yourself as a person who sorts trash (version #2), it might be possible to sort the trash into a number of different categories and do all kinds of other things. You could potentially recycle paper, glass and plastic in addition to aluminum. You could do research on the distribution of materials in the trash you sort and publish research papers on it. You might purchase (or encourage the city to purchase) special multi-hole trash cans that let the consumer do the sorting for you (youíve seen these, where there are separate holes for bottles, cans and everything else). Perhaps you could then subcontract with the city to maintain and service these receptacles and make money both through the contract and the value of the recyclable materials. If this lowered the cost of clearing trash from the beach, the city might go for it.
  • If you see yourself as providing both a sorting and a transportation activity with a specialty in aluminum, this might get you into other forms of transportation. For example, you frequently make runs between the beach and the recycling center. Perhaps you could purchase a special aluminum can hauling truck that lets you stop not only at the beach but a number of other facilities along your route. For example, you might stop at bars and convenience stores along the way picking up all their empties and paying them a portion of the recycling revenue. Then you expand the route to include larger portions of the city until you cover the entire city. Then you move on to provide the same service to cities nationwide. You eventually become the countryís largest provider of aluminum recycling services.
  • If you see yourself as one part of the nationís recycling infrastructure, then you might end up eventually creating a company that brokers services between producers of a variety of waste and the different recyclers in a region. You might work with office centers, for example, to concentrate paper waste. You might work with service stations to do bulk recycling of motor oil and tires. You might work with retail stores to recycle cardboard. You will find that there is already competition in some of these specialty niches, so you might partner with or compete with these companies.
Here is another example. Letís say your father asks you to mow the lawn. Here are different levels at which you might think about this activity:

  • My dad is making me mow the front yard.
  • I am in charge of taking care of our yard. In the summer I mow, in the fall I rake and in the winter I shovel snow.
  • I am the familyís yard-care specialist, providing a variety of services depending on the season.
  • I am a yard-care specialist and my parents are one of my clients. I give them a special rate in return for the things they provide me, such as room and board. I service the needs of six other clients in the neighborhood at my standard rate.
  • I am the owner of one office of a nation-wide consortium of yard-care specialists. My parents are one of my clients, and I have six other clients in my region. Several of my friends are also members of the consortium, and each of us have our own regions. We pool money together to advertise, buy shared specialty equipment and so on.
  • I am the president of a firm specializing in yard care. I have a number of employees in a number of branch offices, and I have also allied with other lawn-care firms to form a consortium. In our industry I believe it is important thatÖ
You can see here that the highest-level vision eventually takes you to the point where you have multiple clients, multiple partners and multiple employees. All of this from mowing your front yard!

Here is a final example that shows how your high-level vision can branch and thereby control your actions. Letís say there is a big dance Friday. Here is one set of levels:

  • I am going to ask Suzy to the dance.
  • I want to find out if I like Suzy and Suzy likes me.
  • I am trying to find a person to marry by going out with different people.
Compare that to:

  • I am going to ask Suzy to the dance.
  • Suzy is an incredibly beautiful woman, and I want to spend time with her.
  • I want to marry Suzy.
In the first case you are driving toward the general goal of marriage. In the second case you are trying to marry a specific person. The vision that you carry has a big effect on the way you approach this date. In the first case, if Suzy says "No" you can call someone else. In the second case if Suzy says "No" you might not go.

Consciously asking yourself the question "What is my goal?" can help you come up to a higher level. Once you ask the question, you can begin to understand your own motives as well as your options (see Chapter 24).

The level of your vision controls the opportunities available to you. By moving to a higher level you can see more. You may not initially be able to do anything at your higher level of vision because you lack resources, but it gives you a way to set goals and priorities.

Speaking at a High Level

Related to the act of thinking at a high level is the act of speaking at a high level. Speaking at a high level allows you to present your ideas and goals in a way that shows you have a plan.

Here is an example. Letís say you walk up to a teenage bag boy in a grocery store and you ask, "How do you like your job?" In response you hear:

I hate this job. Any monkey can do it, but my parents forced me to get a job this summer.

Compare that to the following:

I am learning a lot from this job. My goal is to eventually work in a retail environment, and I like the grocery business. Food has a certain fundamental connection to life that is lacking in other retail channels. My goal is to understand each position in a grocery store so that I can become a manager. Right now I am a bag boy. Next I will do stocking so I can learn about inventory and item movement in the store. Then I will try cashiering. Once I have experienced all of the jobs, I will be much better equipped for a management role.

Note that in the first response the teenager clearly does not care one bit for the job. In the second response the teenager clearly is enjoying the job, seeing it as a learning process and positioning it as one step in a set of steps leading to a much higher goal. The second teenager has clearly risen above his current situation and placed it within a larger context. As an employer, who would you rather be talking to and promoting? Itís not a hard choice. The person with the high-level vision always wins.

Let me give you another example. Say you walk into an office and sit down next to a data entry clerk at a computer. The clerk is a teenager and you ask, "What do you do here?" The teenager replies with the following:

I take these crappy little cards that come in the mail and type the data off them. It is boring as hell.

You ask the teenager next to him the same question and get the following response:

I am a data entry specialist. My job is to accurately transcribe the data from cards mailed in by our clients. This data is used to create a customer database that we use for advertising and sales purposes. Our direct marketing effort, for example, makes extensive use of the data I enter.

Note here the second teenagerís clear presentation of not only what she does but how her role fits into the departmentís overall function in the company. She sees herself at a much higher level. If you are a manager looking to promote someone, you will obviously promote the second teenager.

I once worked with a person who, when asked his position, said, "I help hold the carpet down." After working with him, the high-level description of his position changed to this:

I am currently a software developer on a project team, and I am training to become a project leader. My specialties include GUI design using MFC and entity modeling. My goal right now is to learn the management skills required to be successful in a project lead role.

The point here is simple: If you describe yourself as a bag boy who hates what he is doing or as a flunky whose main attribute is his weight, then that is exactly what people are going to think about you. If you describe yourself at a higher level, then they will think that instead. It is a fact of life that people who speak at a high level always win. Also, by bringing your description of yourself up a level, you often gain a much clearer understanding of what you are doing, why you are doing it and what you hope to accomplish in the future.

Another place to apply high-level concepts is in your verbal interactions with other people. For example, letís say that you donít like the way your boyfriend is treating you. One end of the response spectrum might be, "I HATE YOU!!! DONíT DO THAT!!!!" The other end of the spectrum is, "I am a bit concerned about the way you are treating me at the moment. Would you mind if we discussed it?" There are all sorts of levels in between. Notice how the first response almost certainly invites an angry reply and an ensuing argument, while the second response is completely flat and invites discussion.

Letís say that you believe that you and your friend have agreed to meet at the mall at 3:00. However, your friend arrives a half-hour late. One response is, "WHY THE HELL WERENíT YOU HERE AT 3:00??!!" At the other end of the spectrum is, "It is possible there has been a miscommunication. I was under the impression we were meeting at 3:00 today." Note how the second response makes no assumption of guilt on either partyís part and allows open discussion of the situation.

Letís say that your parents have made a decision that causes you to miss the big dance Friday. One response is "YOU ARE BOTH STUPID IDIOTS!!! I HATE YOU!!!!" An alternative is, "Would it be possible for us to analyze this situation at a higher level to understand the fundamental issues?" Imagine how differently your parents will react to these two modes of conversation. In the first case they will either roll their eyes or scream back at you. In the second case you might be able to have a discussion.

Perhaps a friend comes up to you screaming at the top of her lungs, obviously upset about something. One way to handle it is to scream back. A better response might be, "I am wondering if we might be able to calmly discuss the cause of your anger. Tell me what you are feeling."

Adults use these techniques all the time to help diffuse situations or avoid angering people when offering constructive criticism. One word for this activity is diplomacy. It sometimes seems like a lot of work, but it is almost always worth the effort. It is a fact of life that if you say certain things in certain ways it is guaranteed that no one will listen, while if you say exactly the same thing using different words people will hear you. For example, replace "Are you an idiot?! You canít do that!!!" with "I wonder if there might be any value in considering some alternatives?" and you will get a totally different reaction from your audience. Watch how successful adults talk to each other, or how they talk to you, and you will notice this. Successful adults learn that certain modes of communication shut people down or infuriate them. Other modes allow people to discuss things rationally rather than escalating to anger and confrontation all the time.

Speaking at a high level allows you to show that you have an understanding of how the world works and how people work within that world. High-level speech can open a lot of doors and help you understand what is going on around you. Start practicing, and within several months you will notice the difference it makes. See also the chapter on anger, because you must control anger in order to work at a high level.

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This is a chapter from the book The Teenager's Guide to the Real World, ISBN 1-9657430-3-9, published by BYG Publishing, Inc. For more information on ordering a copy of the book, click here.

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Keywords: teenagers, teenager, teen age, teenage, teens, teen, adolescents, adolescent, parents, parent