Even iIf you don’t know the name Malcolm P. McLean, you’re likely still reaping the fruits of his labour.
McLean was a truck driver who was responsible for revolutionising the shipping industry — the one that transports your clothes and your gadgets to the stores where you shop. His story is the subject of the first instalment in The New York Times’ new video series, “The Art of Better,” and it illustrates how outsiders can often see solutions where supposed experts can’t.
In the video, author and New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg recounts the events that led to the revolution, starting on the day before Thanksgiving in 1937.
McLean was sitting in his truck, behind a bunch of other trucks whose contents were being unloaded, and he figured out that it would take a whopping nine hours for all those trucks to be fully unloaded.
It occurred to McLean that this process would go a lot faster if the workers in front of him removed the whole trailer from the back of the truck, as opposed to unloading each and every box from the trailer and loading it onto the boat. He said as much to one of the farmers.
McLean’s suggestion was met with laughter. Two decades later he turned his idea into reality, designing shipping containers that detached from trucks and could be stacked on top of one another in the hull of a ship, according to “In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders of the Twentieth Century.”
The resulting process was a lot speedier and cheaper.
The takeaway here is that a pair of fresh eyes can be more perceptive than an expert’s. Your own familiarity with a topic can obscure your ability to see simple answers right in front of you.
The question is: How can you cultivate an outside perspective, so that you’re able to see those simple answers even when you are an expert?
Enter “beginner’s mind,” a concept from Zen Buddhism that describes constantly seeing the world anew, as if you didn’t know anything about it. Steve Jobs brought it to his work at Apple; Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff has said he tries to adopt this mindset as well.
One way to develop a beginner’s mind is through mindfulness. In his book “One Second Ahead,” Rasmus Hougaard says mindfulness training can help counteract “cognitive rigidity,” which happens when we automatically recall what we’ve seen before to explain what we’re seeing right now.
You don’t necessarily have to meditate for an hour — one simple strategy Hougaard recommends is thinking about situations in your life you typically see negatively and trying to apply a beginner’s mind to them. Maybe that’s your boss’ negative feedback, or maybe it’s an inefficient company-wide process.
In his book “Smarter Faster Better,” Duhigg wrote about a concept similar to beginner’s mind: the ability to see old ideas in new ways. In one chapter, he wrote about the creative process behind the Disney hit “Frozen.” Specifically, the Disney team combined a core element of their movies — princesses — with something relatively unexplored — relationships between sisters.
Bottom line: The key to productivity may be taking a step back and considering that maybe the old way of doing things isn’t the best way.
As Duhigg concludes in the video, “The secret is to listen to unexpected sources of information — like an unknown trucker — and to teach ourselves to question what everyone else already knows is true.”
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