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Forests & Trees: How To Train Your Brain To See Both

January 25, 2021

This post was originally published on Medium

I’ve heard that some people see the forest for the trees, and others simply see trees.

The forest seer analogy is used to describe individuals that can see the big picture; those that possess the ability to play the long game. The analogy applauds organizational leaders with a specific vision — Those that see the forest are often celebrated in our culture.

We subconsciously disparage those that see trees.

I’ve spent much of my career attempting to become the kind of person that can see forests. I’ve studied it and attempted to practice it. It’s not easy; it requires patience and emotional constraint.

I’d like to think that I see more forests now than I did several years ago.

However, a commitment to seeing forests has negative side effects. In observing my behavior, and the behavior of others, I’ve found that forest seers often rationalize, or make excuses about little things because they’re too busy focusing on the big picture.

Forest seers, in my opinion, are more likely to make careless mistakes. They’re more likely to shrug off a deadline or not pay enough attention to the little details — the trees — that actually make up the forest.

Much of this is a result of laziness. Not lazy in the traditional sense, but lazy in mindset. It’s lazy for us to ignore the little details. It’s also lazy for us to have concluded that you can either be a forest-seer or a tree-seer, but not both.

What’s more, it’s absurd for us to celebrate forest seers, while not giving enough credit to the tree seers — after all, these are the folks that are really doing the hard work within our organizations.

We can be both. We can develop the ability to consciously switch from forest seer to tree seer. It’s a skill, and it can be learned.

To get there, though, we need to develop the ability to solve problems like a child.

Let’s start with a basic example. In the following image, do you see a rabbit or a duck?

Optical illusion of duck and rabbit in one photo

Great… Now force yourself to see the other. If you first saw a rabbit, consciously make the decision to ignore the rabbit, then carefully scan the details of the image with a fresh set of eyes until you see something else (hint: it’s a duck).

This next one is a little more difficult. Do you see a young woman, looking off in the other direction, or an elderly woman with sad eyes, looking down?

Optical illusion of young woman and elderly woman in one photo

This next one is more challenging yet. However, since you’ve already primed your brain with the first two images — a stretching exercise — you might more quickly see both illusions here:

Optical illusion of elf and birds in one photo

For this one, I won’t give away the answer. Figure it out on your own!

This isn’t just a cute exercise — it’s proof that you can force your brain to consciously toggle between conflicting viewpoints. It’s also proof that it becomes easier with more practice.

You are forcing yourself to think more creatively about the details of the images. This same skill can be applied to toggling between seeing trees and forests.

Practical Application

Our obsession with focusing on the forest has clouded our ability to simply see trees. One by one, the trees die. Eventually, there is no more forest.

AdVenture Media is a service-based company. We provide a service to our clients by developing digital advertising strategies and managing campaign execution. Six years ago, we were, for the most part, tree seers.

When clients would hire us to manage a Google Ads account, we’d exclusively focus on the small details of their account: the keywords, the bids, the slight modifications in the ad copy.

For many reasons, it became apparent that this mindset was, at best, incomplete. Our obsession with the trees of the Google Ads account led us to ignore larger, more important topics.

In one client example, we were prohibited from serving ads on mobile devices because the client’s website was not mobile-friendly. A year later, nothing had changed, despite the fact that the vast majority of potential customers were now using their mobile devices to shop.

If we saw the forest on day one, we would have recognized the massive amount of revenue that we were sacrificing by excluding mobile traffic. The implementation of a mobile-friendly site, or even any small improvements in this area, would have become our top priority.

In an effort to provide more value to our clients, we began placing much more emphasis on the forest. We would help our clients identify and solve the most complex issues that plagued their business.

Does that mean that the individual trees — the keywords, bids, and ad copy within the Google Ads account — are not worth consideration? No, it does not.

Both are important.

As challenging as it may be, then, it is crucial to develop the ability to toggle between forest and trees.

Failing From All Angles

In my book, Join or Die: Digital Advertising in the Age of Automation (available on Amazon), I dedicate a chapter to describing “The P3X Framework,” a model that we use at AdVenture Media to help guide client onboarding and growth. This framework was only put in place over the last year but is a culmination of several years of reworking our approach… And failing. A lot of failing.

Long ago, our client onboarding process started with an initial kickoff call. Two weeks later, we’d follow up with a full strategy call. We’d present our entire strategy, including new campaigns that we were ready to push live.

This was a recipe for disaster. We were often guilty of jumping into an account too early and making drastic changes to the existing campaigns without having dedicated appropriate time to learn the unique nuances of the client’s business.

Looking back, who were we to think we could flesh out a comprehensive advertising strategy after just two weeks of working with a client? No wonder it often failed! The chutzpah!

And so at some point in 2017, we made a declaration that, when we sign a new client, we were not going to make any changes to their account for at least a month. Instead, we’d use that time to conduct market research and gather other data that could be used to make impactful forest-oriented decisions.

This sounds great in theory, and prospective clients loved hearing about this during the sales process. But the reality is that, once clients receive that first invoice from our billing department, they expect some improvements… and they expect them fast.

We realized that we cannot continue to singularly be a forest-seeing agency or a tree-seeing agency. We need to somehow do both at the same time, where we can tackle the immediate issues while also planning for the long term, full-forest impacting projects.

We need to be able to see both the grumpy, scarf-wearing elf, as well as the nesting birds (your answer to the third illustration above).

The required solution is a framework for determining tasks and projects that can and should be implemented immediately (trees), and those that need to be methodically implemented over the long term (forests).

The framework is based on the following methodology: If I were to be dropped into a random Google Ads account and noticed a single tree that was starting to emit a bit of smoke, it should receive my immediate attention. I don’t need to be a conservation expert to know that this one tree could ignite a fire that destroys the entire forest.

We should start, then, by noting the needs of the forest and identifying what will be done and when. Then we can turn our attention to the individual trees.

For us, this turned into our P3X Framework, but this same methodology can be applied to any business seeking to see both forests and trees.

How to train yourself to do both at the same time

Think like a kid.

In a recent episode of the “How To Hide A Dead Body” podcast, Isaac Rudansky and I discussed how creativity can be unlocked by picking up new hobbies and skills. When we learn something new — how to juggle, perhaps — we develop new neural pathways throughout our brains, enabling more creative thinking.

Unfortunately, adults are biologically wired to think less-creatively. Our brains look for heuristic shortcuts that require less cognitive effort or energy. This is an evolutionary survival instinct, but one side effect is that we become binary thinkers that either see trees or see forests… and rarely both. Sounds like laziness to me!

Children, though, have not yet developed these lazy heuristic shortcuts. To prove this, we look to Karl Duncker’s famous cognitive psychology experiment: The Candle Problem.

Duncker would present his test subjects with three supplies: a candle, matches, and a box of thumbtacks, and ask them to find a way to attach a lit candle to the wall.

Subjects would first attempt to simply tack the candle to the wall. They would fail.

Clever subjects would then light a match and attempt to melt the side of the candle, creating a sticky adhesive that could be fixed to the wall. They would also fail.

Many would throw their hands up and conclude that the task was impossible.

However, when Duncker changed the way in which the supplies were presented, the test subjects were far more likely to find a successful solution. Instead of presenting the supplies as a candle, matches, and a box of thumbtacks, he’d present them as a candle, matches, a pile of thumbtacks, and an empty thumbtack box.

The supplies are the same, but what was originally presented as three was now presented as four.

Test subjects would quickly realize that the solution to The Candle Problem was to tack the empty box to the wall, creating a small shelf in which the candle could be placed. Easy-peasy.

This 1945 study proved that humans (adults, really) struggle to creatively think of using an object for anything other than the object’s originally intended function.

Surely, this box of thumbtacks was placed here to simply hold the thumbtacks, and cannot be used for anything else! Incorrect.

More than 50 years later, an additional study concluded that one cohort was actually quite good at solving The Candle Problem: Five-year-olds!

When presented with the original list of supplies (with the thumbtacks inside the box), five-year-olds were much more likely to solve the problem than their adult counterparts. Why? Because they have not yet developed the lazy heuristic shortcuts that plague our ability to creatively solve problems.

To an adult, a small tree branch lying on the side of the road is simply a stick; maybe it’s firewood. To a child, it’s a fascinating toy that can be used to hike up Mt. Everest, sword-fight with pirates, or build a fort.

We should all spend more time thinking and acting like kids.

Children are in a constant state of learning. Every task they attempt to complete is brand new, and they lack the ability to carry learnings from one activity to the next — for better or worse. This is the opposite of laziness.

A separate study conducted at New York University’s Infant Action Lab observed that toddlers, experienced at crawling, would proceed with caution when approaching a declining slope.

However, toddlers that had recently learned to walk would not be as cautious. Instead of slowing down and adjusting to the new terrain, they would plunge forward and often fall (into the hands of the observer, thankfully).

This same toddler, if crawling, would have known that the declining slope presented a risk. Therefore, they did not carry the learnings from their previous experiences (crawling) to their new skill (walking).

Adults do the opposite.

We can now understand the benefits of these survivalist shortcuts; it certainly works in our favor that, after being burned by a hot stove, we realize that other hot substances will result in pain and discomfort. Health-risks aside, these heuristics work often against our ability to creatively solve problems as an adult.

We adults can unlock these superpowers if we simply commit to a constant state of learning.

A recent article from The Wall Street Journal discussed the value of embracing beginnership:

Becoming a beginner is one of the most life-enhancing things you can do.

A good starting point is to take up juggling. The innocuous little act of throwing balls into the air has been found, in a number of neuroscience studies, to alter the brain. This “activation-dependent structural plasticity,” as it’s called, pops up in as little as seven days. Juggling changes not only gray matter, the brain’s processing centers, but also white matter, the networked connections that bind it all together. “Learning a new skill requires the neural tissue to function in a new way,” says Tobias Schmidt-Wilcke, a neuroscientist (and juggler) at Germany’s University of Bochum.

After that initial burst of activity, the brain settles down. By the time you can do the skill without much thinking — when it becomes automatic — gray matter density declines. So you try a new juggling trick, and the process begins again. Interestingly, the changes in brain density happen for older people just as much as for younger people.

Creativity is a skill, not a character trait; it can therefore be learned.

My personal commitment to seeing forests, or rather, my commitment to learning to see forests, has been invaluable. If you choose to follow this path, I urge you to never lose sight of the trees. Don’t get lazy.

If your goal, then, is to develop the ability to see both forests and trees — the holy grail — you need to first embrace beginnership in many areas of your life.

Learn to juggle, or play chess, or practice a new dance routine, or cook a new recipe. As simple as it sounds, these are the secrets to unlocking a deeper sense of creative problem-solving.

Once you embrace your inner, problem-solving child, it will be easier for you to consciously toggle between different vantage points. You’ll be able to see ducks and rabbits, young ladies and old ladies, elves and birds, and most importantly, forests and trees.

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