If you’re doing anything the same way this year, as you did last year, you’re in trouble. The trouble might not come from the way you’re doing things, but it’s coming. The only way to avoid it is to maintain a constant awareness of the inevitability and the necessity for change.
Change is inherent in nature—from the tides, to the trees outside your window, to each and every cell in your body—there is nothing within our known universe that remains the same. And there’s not a damn thing you or I can do about it, except, that is, anticipate and embrace it. CounterThink is all about changing the way you think about everything.
CounterThink is a learnable skill and a practical art. But CounterThinking, by its very nature, resists perfect definition and rigid rules of conduct, as does music, painting, or any other art form.
Being accomplished, at any art, takes practice and more practice—years of it. You can start practicing it now, and make it your most valuable asset from here on out. And if you’ll continue to practice, every day of your life, you will soon become a master and win a master’s reward.
I’m sure you give it little thought every time you slip on a new pair of shoes, but somebody, somewhere had to make them.
In the early days, shoes were made strictly by hand. To achieve the proper fit, the customer’s feet had to be duplicated in size and form, by creating a stone or wooden mold called a “last”— from which the shoes were sized and shaped.
I’ve got two pair of custom, handmade Italian shoes that were handcrafted, by an old, Italian shoemaker in Tuscany, using a very similar technique. Although exquisite in their material, fit and construction, each pair took well over a year to make, and cost upwards of three thousand U.S. dollars.
And that’s how it was back in the mid 1880’s and for centuries before… the shoemaking process required a great amount of skill, took a long time to complete, and a pair of shoes cost quite a lot of money.
A CounterThinker, is someone who can look at the very same thing everyone else does, yet see something entirely different. Thousands of people a day can walk past an empty lot, without giving it a second thought—without even seeing it at all. But one will see it, not as a vacant lot, but as a beautifully landscaped park, filled with the laughter of neighborhood kids, a community gathering place, a venue for evening summer concerts, or the site of a new neighborhood clinic or small business that serves the local community. He or she will do something, build something, create something worthwhile for the community, and in the process, become rich.
That’s how it was for Jan Ernst Matzeliger, a young, African-American— born in Dutch Guyana in 1852, son of a white, Dutch, engineer father and a black slave mother.
As a boy, Jan Matzeliger apprenticed in a machine shop. At age 19 he went to sea in a merchant ship. His travels took him at last to Lynn, Massachusetts, where he found work as a shoe-stitching-machine operator at the Harney Brothers Shoe factory. And it was there that he first noticed the problem.
At the time, making shoes was a complicated, laborious process. It went something like this: First you sew the various parts of the shoe top together. Next you shape the leather top over a wooden model of a human foot, called a last. Then you sew the top to the inner sole.
It took great skill to bend, shape, and hold the leather top while you stitched it to the bottom, and there was no machine that could attach the upper part of a shoe to the sole. A craftsman known as a “hand laster” did all this manually. A skilled hand laster took decades to learn his craft and could produce about 50 pairs of shoes in a ten-hour day.
It was a slow and laborious process, but shoes had been made in the same manner for centuries, and no one bothered to question why— until Jan Matzeliger.
Matzeliger knew he could solve the problem. He had an idea for mechanizing the shoemaking process and began working on it immediately. After five grueling years of non-stop effort, scrounging parts, and going without food to buy materials, he finally obtained a patent for his invention in 1883.
Jan Matzeliger’s new machine could produce between 150 to 700 pairs of shoes a day, cutting shoe prices across the nation in half.
When you ask yourself why something is the way it is, you are performing the highest function a human being is capable of—deliberate, creative thought.
As a CounterThinker, when you hop into your car and ask yourself why the steering wheel is round, it’s not necessarily because you want to invent a square one—it’s because you’re practicing your art—the art of creative CounterThinking. You’re deliberately reshaping your mind, and along with it— your thinking. Thinking differently works to expand our creative mind and open our eyes to new possibilities.
Then when you apply CounterThinking to your work, your home and family life, your mind becomes like a scalpel in the hands of a skilled surgeon— probing, dissecting, exploring—cutting through the old ways of thinking and the typical ways of doing things—and exposing the new and better ways that lie just under the surface.
CounterThinking is really a lot of fun. Practiced right it’s like an exhilarating game. It makes for great conversation at the dinner table or on a long drive, and it can really get the creative juices flowing at a boring Monday morning meeting.
Practiced regularly, CounterThinking opens up your creative awareness and will change the way you see and relate to the world around you. In the evening, for instance, you might find yourself asking questions like, “Why am I sitting here like a mesmerized goat, watching people kill mythical zombies on my television screen? Isn’t there something more interesting, more rewarding that I can be doing with at least part of this time? Isn’t there a subject I’d like to know more about? What about a book I’ve been meaning to read, or a podcast I’ve been wanting to listen to?”
One hour a night adds up to a shitload of time. And time is one of those things that we can’t buy any more of, and it’s a good idea to use all that we have the best way we know how.
One single good idea can change your whole life. A great way to harvest good ideas is to sow the seeds of curiosity in your mind, at every opportunity. Everywhere you go, take notice of the things and the people around you. Examine how people are currently getting the job done and, like Jan Ernst Matzeliger, ask yourself— Why?
Keep your eyes and ears open to what people are griping and complaining about. In marketing we refer to these common problems as pain points, and they are breeding grounds for innovation.
When you encounter a common problem, take that problem and hang it on an imaginary hook and walk all the way around it. Examine it from every angle—like an artist or sculptor or surgeon would—poke at it, probe it, twist it and stretch it into new shapes. Turn it inside out and upside down. If something isn’t working as well as it should be—or even if it’s working just fine—try looking at it from it’s opposite side. Can you figure out a better or more profitable way of getting the job done?
Ideas are free for the taking, and CounterThinking is a great idea generator. Make the art of CounterThinking a part of your life and attitude and you’ll find your world filled to the brim with great ideas. And if you keep at it, one of these days you’re going to get an idea that will revolutionize your life and make the world a better place.
In the meantime, just looking for that idea can be a lot of fun.