Nature vs. Nurture in Integrative Thinking

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.  One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.

-F. Scott Fitzgerald

Is the capacity for integrative thinking a gift reserved for a small minority or can it be consciously and intentionally developed?  The Fitzgerald quote above suggests that integrative thinking is a naturally occurring capability limited to those born with “a first-rate intelligence.”

Human beings are distinguished from nearly every other creature by a physical feature: the opposable thumb. Thanks to the tension that we can create by opposing the thumb and fingers, we can do marvelous things—write, thread a needle, guide a catheter through an artery. Although evolution provided human beings with this potential advantage, it would have gone to waste if our species had not exercised it in ever more sophisticated ways. When we engage in something like writing, we train the muscles involved and the brain that controls them. Without exploring the possibilities of opposition, we wouldn’t have developed either its physical properties or the cognition that accompanies and animates it.

Analogously, we were born with opposable minds, which allow us to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive, almost dialectic tension. We can use that tension to think our way toward new, superior ideas. Were we able to hold only one thought or idea in our heads at a time, we wouldn’t have access to the insights that the opposable mind can produce.

Unfortunately, because people don’t exercise this capability much, great integrative thinkers are fairly rare. Why is this potentially powerful but generally latent tool used so infrequently and to less than full advantage? Because putting it to work makes us anxious. Most of us avoid complexity and ambiguity and seek out the comfort of simplicity and clarity. To cope with the dizzying complexity of the world around us, we simplify where we can. We crave the certainty of choosing between well-defined alternatives and the closure that comes when a decision has been made.

For those reasons, we often don’t know what to do with fundamentally opposing and seemingly incommensurable models. Our first impulse is usually to determine which of the two models is “right” and, by the process of elimination, which is “wrong.” We may even take sides and try to prove that our chosen model is better than the other one. But in rejecting one model out of hand, we miss out on all the value that we could have realized by considering the opposing two at the same time and finding in the tension clues to a superior model. By forcing a choice between the two, we disengage the opposable mind before it can seek a creative resolution.

We often don’t know what to do with fundamentally opposing models. Our first impulse is usually to determine which is “right” and, by the process of elimination, which is “wrong.”


This nearly universal personal trait is writ large in most organizations. When a colleague admonishes us to “quit complicating the issue,” it’s not just an impatient reminder to get on with the damn job—it’s also a plea to keep the complexity at a comfortable level.

Source: The Opposable Mind. Roger Martin.

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