The Golden Key: Eight Critical Mind Habits

Each of these mind habits is just that.  They are habits.  Not merely attitudes, but ways of operating that become habitual with use.  When you think of habits, perhaps you think first of bad habits like smoking or excessive drinking which become addictive.  It takes lots of hard work to become free of addictive bad habits.  It also takes work to cultivate good habits, ways of being that produce the results you want to see in yourself and the world.  But it is possible.  And lots of people make it a way of life to practice positive habits, to get good at being compassionate, thoughtful, kind, and truly fair.  Here are eight mental habits we as Global Renaissance people need to cultivate.  The first four have similarities – they say the same thing in four different ways.   The others build on the first four.


1.  Take a creative rather than a reactive stance toward life.

People who take a creative rather than a reactive stance imagine results they want to see and then work toward creating those results.   It is not that they are divorced from reality.  No, they take it into account.  The reality of what is present usually conflicts with the positive results we envision.  That conflict produces tension.  This tension can move us forward or pull us down depending on what we do with it.  The reality of countries who harbor terrorists is that they are dangerous, often remote and rugged, not easily accessible.  But that did not stop a single mountain climber, Greg Mortenson, from offering to set up a school in a tiny Pakistani hamlet.  Did he know what to do?  No, but together with villagers, they figured it out. 


2.  Convert grief into vision.

In a  column called “Innovators”, the Washington Post featured BBC wildlife film producer Rebecca Hosking, who on a sunny beach on Midway Atoll was mortified  at the sight of thousands of dead albatrosses rotting in the tropical sun.  In their split-open bellies were the items that had killed them:  cigarette lighters, pens, toys, pill bottles, knives and forks, golf balls and toothbrushes.  After filming the atrocious site, she returned home to her tiny village of Modbury, England, gathered 37 merchants at the local art gallery, showed her film, and then proposed action:  Modbury should ban plastic bags.

Beforehand, she had asked the local butcher to test a newly ordered batch of BioBags, fully biodegradable (as plastic is not!) and made of cornstarch.  At the meeting when it was time to vote, heads turned to the butcher who raised his hand.  Everyone followed.

On May 1, 2007 Modbury became Europe’s first plastic-bag free town.

Developments in Modbury are chronicled on the town’s website maintained by Hosking.  Soon nine other British towns banned plastic bags.  The idea spread. 

The sight of the albatrosses will probably always be with Hosking.  The depth of her reaction pushed her to get creative and think of a way to prevent such deaths from happening again.

We all feel despair sometimes about where the world is going.  Newspapers and television seem to specialize in communicating bad news.  Examples: the worst economic crisis since the depression; the Congo in chaos; young people killed by gang violence.  Despair means you care so much that you feel really sad.  Certain happenings strike a deep emotional chord and you grieve.  This is appropriate.  But it’s possible to get stuck there and feel powerless to do anything.

We have another choice.  Turn grief and its cousins, complaint, apathy, and cynicism into dreams, ideas, action, and possibility.  This is the grand tradition of “the prophetic imagination”.  In his book by that title, Walter Brueggeman defines the prophet as one who deeply ponders his or her grief, imagines an alternative vision – how it could be better, and then embodies  that alternative in some tangible way.  This is the way of Isaiah, Jesus, Gandhi, and Mandela.  The world now needs us to make it our way.  A vision is a picture of how things would be if they were going well.

You don’t have to be a visionary to imagine a vision.

Take what you don’t like.  Then imagine what you would prefer.

This is the road  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took.  Racial slurs slung at his children on the playground were emblematic of decades of racial oppression in this country.  Staying there in grief would have reaped bitterness in King.  Rather, he churned anguish into vision which he  expressed so eloquently in his “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

The woods, plants, trees, flowers, and sky were precious to my mother.  Litter appalled her.  In a fit of inspiration she constructed a humorous sign complete with skull and crossbones and the words: “DON’T LITTER!!!”  This rode beside her on the front seat of the car.  Shocked when a driver ahead would toss something out the window, she would zoom by, beep, then  hold up her sign and smile.  She was a prophet!


3.  Keep your vision enticing.

Athletes know the importance of this.  Marilyn King, two-time Olympian in the grueling pentathlon, was incapacitated by an automobile accident while preparing for her third Olympic team.  She writes, “Unable to train physically, I trained mentally, watching films of the world-record holders in all five of my events.  I would then stand on the tracks for hours, envisioning each of my performances.  Placing second at the 1980 Olympic trials using only mental training was a pivotal moment.”  Her discovery:

When we are guided by a juicy vision that we passionately care about,

and back that up with action,

we are capable of extraordinary performance.

Envisioning a passionately-held goal gives us “access to a high level of energy and creativity” to bring it about.


4.  Begin with the end in mind.

This memorable sentence from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People alerts us to the first step in any effective action plan:

Get a clear picture of where you want to go.

This helps differentiate the steps that will take you there from those that won’t.

Business consultant Marvin Weisbord sat through yet another boring strategic planning meeting.  Folk got completely bogged down with the mound of problems in the way of their desired future.  There’s got to be another way of doing this, he thought.  Then he advised something different:

  •       Focus on the preferred future first.   Get into it.
  •       Use right and left sides of the brain to describe the vision as if it has already happened in, say, 2013, five years from now.
  •       Depict the vision in a fun way.   Create a news release announcing its completion, or a song, or a television interview. 

If this sounds corny, it was.  But as people let their hair down and allowed their imaginations to go wild, their spirits rose, energy soared, ideas flew, people had a super time, and what seemed an impossible dream suddenly looked possible.  Calling this technique FutureSearch, Weisbord now facilitates the process with town councils, college boards, government departments, and business staffs around the country and overseas.  What if we ran a FutureSearch for the United States?  What if we ran one for the world?


5.  Plan backwards.

Weisbord’s FutureSearch sessions don’t end simply with exciting future dreams.  The next step is backwards planning.  Using a chart dividing the five year action period into annual segments – 2012, 2010, 2009, 2008, Weisbord gets participants to answer this question first:  In the year 2012, just before the vision was actually realized, what happened? Then in 2011 what happened to achieve the 2012 results?  To join in this type of imaginative thinking, one of Weisbord’s key strategies is:  Get everyone in the room – the CEO, the janitor, a middle manager, a secretary, and outside stakeholders.  Putting people together who normally don’t interact energizes the groups.  Backwards planning helps you take imaginative leaps into the future.

Picture a FutureSearch for the world attended by doers from the grass roots and the pinnacles of power.  Rebecca Hosking and Greg Mortenson are seated beside the Dalai Lama.  Helen Sirleaf Johnson chats at dinner with a Chinese student studying at Cambridge.  What would such a group dream up?  What would their backwards plan look like?


6.  Turn obstacles into “How Can We? Questions”

“If you don’t step on someone’s toes, chances are you aren’t moving,” our youth minister, Wally Gibbs, used to tell us.  Any action bumps into hurdles along the way.  The surest way to jump over an obstacle is do a mental flip.   Turn a “I can’t do this” or “This won’t work” thought into a “How can I (or we)?” question.  How can I find the money to go to college?  How can we create a comprehensive energy policy?  How can we build a culture of peace in this crime-ridden section of Washington DC?  Thomas Edison’s lab partners complained that they had tried 1000 ways to invent the light bulb and none had worked.  Edison’s reply: “Good, now we know a thousand ways not to do it; let’s find a way to get this done.”  This was his version of a “How can we?” question.

Not only do obstacles block progress, unwanted circumstances sometimes occur when we take action.   Creativity expert Robert Fritz’s response:  Use unwanted circumstances to shape a new version of the vision that takes into account the cold hard facts of reality.


7.  Find common ground and consensus underneath conflict.

Because we are all different, conflict will almost always be present when we move forward.  Will it bog us down?  Or will we listen to diverse opinion and patiently knit together a consensus way to go?

If I could mastermind one action to help us create the world we really want, I would mandate that the art of consensus building be taught in all schools around the world from kindergarten right on through college.  Consensus means truly valuing the ideas and perspectives of people who differ from us and then figuring out a solution that springs from common values and meets everyone’s core needs.  Like an art form, it needs to be learned and practiced.  If we all took this on, it could transform the world.  In school in my day, we learned Roberts Rules of Order: how to offer a motion, take a vote, and the majority wins.  That’s the democratic way.  But today’s times call for a much different skill – the ability to craft win/win solutions.  That is consensus.

When the tension between Iran and the United States was at its highest, I asked a key South African anti-apartheid activist what he would do if he could run U. S. foreign policy.  His response:  “Offer first to talk with Iranians about common concerns.  Work together with them on these.  When success is achieved together, then move to the more controversial issues that divide us.”  This seems like common sense to me.  Such a policy assumes a reservoir of good will that can be strengthened through friendly conversations and is in marked contrast to our insistence that talks must focus first on Iran’s nuclear intentions.


8.  Cultivate soul richness for the road ahead.

When our friend Barry sends an email, he adds a quote underneath his name.  Today it is the words of David Spangler:

To reject fear and to respond with inspiration, strength, hope, and imagination … the work remains in essence what it has always been; to love, to connect, to serve, to care, and to stand for and create wholeness in every way we can.

To do that on a consistent basis requires strength of soul.  How to build up that strength?  How to feed our souls?  Read the best books, learn about heroes who fire your imagination, share ideas that seem most promising.   Great souls keep company with great souls.  Hang out with the Dalai Lama, Pete Seeger, Dorothy Day.

Right after the election of Barack Obama as president, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, professor at Chicago Theological Seminary wrote these words:

The world watched this election.  While we here in Chicago were dancing in Grant Park, people on every continent danced with us.   They celebrated with us because the reality of our democracy belongs not only to us, but also to the world.   And when we seemed to lose our democratic ideals, the world despaired.

Nations, like individuals, have spirits; they even have souls.  I do not believe that the soul is an ineffable something…. I believe that both for individuals and nations, the soul is your ability to have transcendent ideals and make your actions match your expressed values.

When we march down the road of making our actions match our ideals more closely, we’re on our way to creating the world we really want.




These eight mind habits are crucial for bringing in the Global Renaissance.  Less than a full quiver leaves us weak in the face of obstacles that arise.  Their implications for global policy are enormous.

It is one thing to say our international goal is to avert the worst effects of global warming.  Isn’t that aiming way too low?  Don’t we really want to restore the earth to full health?  Isn’t that the end we want to keep in mind?  It’s one thing to set a goal to reduce crime in the inner city.  It’s quite another to build cultures of peace in ghetto wastelands.  President Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon captured our imagination and galvanized action.  What is its modern equivalent today?

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