The Fingers of Your Mind

One of my favorite big German words is Fingerspitzengefühl, "finger-tips feeling." It denotes an instinctive skill at navigating ambiguous, uncertain, rapidly evolving tactical situations through a continuous, deep engagement. It's what you have when you have a "feel for a situation." It is perhaps the most important of the four elements of the Blitzkrieg model of warfare, which is increasingly popular (and frequently rediscovered) in business, as a way to practice "disruption". Finger-tips feeling is definitely the least appreciated aspect of what it takes to disrupt.

The important thing about finger-tips feeling is not talent, training or prowess (those are necessary, but far from sufficient), but emotional self-regulation: the ability to stay engaged in a situation through both pleasant and distressing turns. It is the action counterpart of following the truth wherever it leads. Engagement is tactile metaphor: your attention is engaged so long as you are able to keep the fingers of your mind intertwingled in the situation. You disengage when your mind pulls back fearfully. Whether you choose to call this ability stoicism, grit, sisu, or mindfulness, it is what distinguishes deep real-world competence from the confining identity traps of job descriptions and "professionalism". At the level of groups, it is the difference between between groups that win and groups that quit: something no "employee engagement" tests seem to capture.

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Fingers of your mind weaving through pleasant thought spaces and avoiding distressing ones.

1/ Those of us who like to learn new skills typically enjoy the experience because you can get immersed and lost in certain kinds of skills.

2/ Whether you're practicing the violin, coding, or shooting hoops, for a while, you can escape the rest of the universe and enter a state of flow.

3/ By contrast, practicing other skills, such as doing taxes or dealing with irate customers, can be distressing, awkward, and get in the way of escaping to a flow state.

4/ Unfortunately, it's this very ability to enter, and get addicted to, a state of flow, that makes basic escapist-flow skills increasingly useless in a world being eaten by software.

5/ High-flow domains are almost by definition the easy-to-automate ones due to their closed nature, which call for only very limited, predictable kinds of re-orientation.

6/ When you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail, and you can and should be replaced by a robot. Robots make for highly engaged employees, no buffets needed.

7/ A driverless car can be in driving flow better than your distractible mind. AI artists can now draw Rembrandt-style paintings. High-end coffee machines beat baristas.

8/ Messy, open-world competence otoh, involves both distress-causing skills and flow-like, eustress-causing ("good stress") skills. It requires frequent, open-ended reorientation.

9/ Prowess is a set of flow-biased skills rooted in unconscious habits adapted to closed, eustress domains with limited reorientation needs.

10/ People with identities deeply invested in prowess of some sort -- whether it is wielding a sledgehammer like John Henry or programming in Lisp -- have fragile minds.

11/ They tend to leave distressing situations and seek out environments that approximate their prowess "home turf." This is not playing to your strengths, but to your emotional limits.

12/ Rather than going where there is critical work to be done, and dealing with the distressing emotions of doing whatever needs to be done, they retreat to comfort.

13/ This is a battle waged in your mind. Your mind resists going towards distressing thoughts and ideas, and gravitates towards pleasant ones.

14/ When the situation shifts and causes distress, the fingers of your mind disengage first. Your body tries to follow.

15/ As Philip K. Dick once said, "reality is that which doesn't go away once you stop believing in it." But often, you can leave, and do, and it's a rational exit.

16/ But sometimes, you cannot really leave because you'd be running away from your own mind rather than a situation. Your mind will stay with you, demons unexorcised.

17/ And sometimes you can only check out. You cannot or should not leave. Can you choose to remain checked-in in such cases?

18/ To stay checked-in is to experience distressing emotions, and thoughts you'd rather not think, which spark more distressing emotions.

19/ This is not the same as depression, where your mind stays trapped in dark thoughts, whatever the environment does.

20/ This is your mind's reaction to distressing stimuli and environments, and what traps you is actually your ability to retreat to prowess or simply check out.

21/ In prowess domains, we talk of 4 stages of learning: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, unconscious competence. Shu-ha-ri as the martial artists say.

22/ Finger-tip skill is a fifth stage: what you might call meta-competence. Recognizing and managing the gap between what you're adapted to and prepared for, and what the situation demands.

23/ This means accepting that your mind will need to go into both distressing and flow regimes as required by the situation, and accepting whatever emotions result.

24/ Perhaps the most important emotion to manage is that of feeling powerless. This causes acute distress and strong retreat-to-prowess urges.

25/ But you're rarely entirely powerless. You can usually cobble together some meaningful, if clumsy, response to a situation with the skills you have.

26/ On the frontier, where there are no experts, and everybody is a beginner, this is often the only possible response. Unexplored nature is the ultimate asymmetrically superior adversary.

27/ This means accepting that your behaviors may range from fumbling beginner to unconscious-competence prowess. The world does not map to your skill boundaries. Especially at the frontier.

28/ This means giving up your attachment to feeling in a state of beautiful flow, or seeking to be in that state for as many of your working hours as you can.

29/ Finger-tip feeling is sometimes experienced as clumsy groping, sometimes as skilled probing. Sometimes as awkward actions, sometimes as flowing ones.

30/ The associated mind state is of course, a turbulent mix ranging from extreme exhilaration to extreme distress. Masterful expert mind to scared beginner mind.

31/ As you get better at this, your mind's no-go zones shrink. You can wander from your darkest shadows, fighting your most deeply buried demons, to brightly lit parts of your self.

32/ The more you do this, the easier it gets. You can go into an increasing range of situations knowing your mind can handle any resulting emotions or feelings of powerlessness.

33/ Many think being mindful in daily life is a kind of relaxing equanimity, of the sort you might feel while folding fresh laundry. No. That's just relaxation.

34/ Others think it's about fetishizing darkness, constantly going to dark places in the world, and excavating more internal demons to battle. No. That's masochism.

35/ Lived mindfulness means not shrinking away from anything the world throws at you, pleasant or distressing. Staying engaged. Mind-fingers intertwingled in the world.

36/ This is a slow, lifelong process of working on yourself while you work on the world, not during annual meditation retreats. The two are not separate parts of your life.

37/ Finger-tip skill is the lived practice -- or praxis -- of the idea of mindfulness. Lived beyond the boundaries of any particular zone of cherished prowess.

38/ The other elements in the Blitzkrieg model -- Einheit (trust), Auftragstaktik (clear mutual agreements), and Schwerpunkt (strategic intent), rest on a foundation of Fingerspitzengefühl (finger-tip skill).

39/ These apply at the level of groups. In my consulting work, I find that most clients really like this 4-element model. You can read more about it in Chet Richards' _Certain to Win. _

40/ But curiously, I find that while most executives are eager to work on the the first three areas, they mostly want to avoid the fourth.

41/ In part, of course, this is because this is the area of specialized domain knowledge, where outsiders can help the least.

42/ And when there is no competence-domain gap in a group or organization, it is safe to focus on the other three. The organization has competence-business-model fit.

43/ But people also avoid this area in part because the collective dark demons lurk here, in the areas where you can only feel your way around in the dark with the fingers of your mind.

44/ It is the area that is most stressful for leaders to work on, where it is hardest to produce lasting change, and impossible to produce quick-fix changes.

45/ It isn't just because new habits and skills can take time to acquire. That's a prowess development problem. Send people to training, or hire already trained people.

46/ Nor is it sufficient to merely drive up a "sense of urgency" or for a CEO to shift from "peacetime" to "wartime" mode.  That's just whipping up dramatic tension.

47/ The hard part is leveling up the emotional temperament of individuals and organizations, increasing the systemic capacity to manage greater levels of emotional stress.

48/ As an individual or as a leader, you must do this if you want to take on bigger challenges than you're used to. Win your own mind before winning the territory.

49/ The world is full of people and groups terrified of wandering beyond situations they are confident about handling. Those who make overcoming that terror a habit have an advantage.

50/ When a group of such people, with better-than-the-rest levels of emotional self-regulation, band together, they can form an unstoppable force. That's what it takes for groups and organizations to break smart.

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Check out the 20 Breaking Smart Season 1 essays for the deeper context behind this newsletter. If you're interested in bringing the Season 1 workshop to your organization, get in touch. You can follow me on Twitter @vgr

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