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Stealth Passion and the Power of Peripheral Thinking

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Written by: Mark Thompson 

When you take timeout to shift your attention from the stressful stuff to something uplifting and apparently unrelated–particularly if it’s one of your passions–your state of mind improves. Enduringly successful people find they get many great insights when they’re playing at something else–or somehow not wrestling with problems directly. Don’t shortchange the subtle power that comes from purposefully changing the subject of your attention in the middle of the week.

It’s like peripheral vision, enabling you to see more angles on an idea or new dimensions of an issue when you’re not looking directly at it. This may seem nonintuitive or odd, yet we all have these experiences–ideas that show up in the shower, or while we’re pushing a child on the swing, playing a favorite game, or daydreaming during a long drive. As long as there is a connection to your portfolio of passions rather than just a focus on obligation or an attempted escape in wishful thinking, you can take advantage of what we call in our book, Success Built To Last, peripheral thinking. Peripheral thinking has a potential to connect you with a higher authority. Many people have a creative breakthroughs (a.k.a. Aha! moments) in prayer, or meditation, or even basketball.

“I love the game,” said lanky, athletic-looking Richard Kovacevich, who has taken this principle to heart in his life and work. He said he has always been at his best when he applied what he learned on the basketball court to his many jobs such as formerly serving as president, chairman, and CEO of Wells Fargo & Company. Kovacevich was one of the most respected leaders in business at one of the most successful financial services companies in the world and has been sought after and served in several advisory roles including the Federal Reserves Federal Advisory Council.

“I’ve made every mistake there is in life as a manger,” he said. “I was an engineer by background, although I got an MBA, but I have an MS in engineering. And as an engineer, I thought, just sit in a room with my slide rule and just run your linear program and the answer would pop out. Then just send the answer to the troops telling them what to do and it would get done. Well, in my first real job, I did all that and nothing happened,” he said. He tried that a few times, “And they nodded and said ‘Yes,’ and it still didn’t happen. And then I said, ‘Well gee, this is not working too well, is it?’ And so you learn. And what you really find out is it’s all about people. Although I was this geek, this engineer, I also spent four hours every day of my life for 21 years playing sports. You learn very quickly playing sports that it’s all about (the) team. It’s the best five players that win the basketball game, not the five best players. I learned more on the field of sports than I did in my calculus class. And you start applying those types of experiences, combined with business knowledge and you say, ‘Wow, this is what it’s all about.'”

Another potential payoff from experimenting with peripheral thinking is that it might unlock a passion that is your secret talent or even a new specialty you’ve been unable or unwilling to reveal until a collection of passions all came colliding together–giving you a peek at what you’d rather be doing when the world isn’t watching an not requiring you to pay bills. If at first you don’t pressure yourself to take them too seriously–but do them anyway–a portfolio of passions may give you a unique opportunity to look honestly at things that you care about without your harshest critic–yourself–judging or dismissing what matters to you.

It’s common knowledge that it requires focus to achieve a specific objective. But blind pursuit of just one thing is like searching for El Dorado. When you exclude all other things except a single focus for your life, there is a danger that you might find it impossible to locate the real treasure. Single-mindedness forces you to sideline passions that, with further development, could come together as your genius or eventually become your organization’s core greatness.

We are not suggesting that you abandon all plans, scatter your efforts to the four winds, and become a wandering philosopher. It’s just that being creative in your passions has a place in your life and work, with benefits that can’t be forced or predicted. Peripheral thinking has the potential to catalyze a chemical reaction waiting within you–a set of passions that could move the world we share in the direction of goodness. Honor that part of yourself. Carve out a little time each week, on the job or after work, to experiment in some way with one of your other passions.

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