Thinking Straight

My father often says “I can’t think straight.” For a long time, I dismissed it (rolled my eyes), having no idea what he actually meant. The first time I got a hint, I was walking into an unknown building in an unfamiliar city to present my startup to strangers for their investment. As I’m standing on a corner in Midtown in New York City, 10 minutes before my presentation, I received a call from my son’s school. It was the principal’s office; I knew because I had the number saved in my phone. “I’m calling about your son,” the principal began, “He’s having a rough day. Someone needs to come pick him up now.” 

My mind racing to a solution. My husband was unavailable and I was out of town on business. I was eight hours from home; he was in town but away from his phone, in meetings. My husband’s father was our back-up plan in these situations. I called him, coordinated an early pickup, then went on with my meeting. 

Here’s what else you need to know: I’m the Black mother of a Black son. And any time the school calls me, I miss a few breaths worrying if he’s okay, or if he’s done something that has been misunderstood and will follow him for the rest of his life. When I got that call, I was tired; I was disheveled; I’d become anxious (though also still excited) regarding my ability to think clearly enough to present to HearstLab for their investment in my new company, TimeStudy. 

In that moment, I understood exactly what my father meant by “I can’t think straight.” There are so many things that get in the way of our thinking in the linear, rational, problem-solving way we think we’re supposed to think: busyness (too much to do), noise (literal noise, but also distractions), environmental noise (clutter), baggage (unresolved issues, regrets) and all of the unexpected events that life may offer.

And for a black woman, engineer, entrepreneur, mom, advisor, mentor etc., I can assure you, there are lots of these distractions, all the time. Here’s how I use my training as an engineer and expert in systems thinking to organize my life, so I can not just manage, but thrive amidst all of this noise and confusion, some of which includes navigating pervasive inequity and pain:

“We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.”
― Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Given that many things are outside of your control, how do you ensure that you’re able to ‘think straight’ when it’s important to do so?

  • Expect variability and plan for it. Create systems for addressing the unexpected so that you are better prepared to address it when (not IF) it occurs. 
  • Learn to (re)direct your focus to things that are within your control. In this example, two things were in my control: identifying a reliable support system at home (backup childcare options) and being prepared at work (leaving on time, being prepared to present my company). Everything else is variable; I can’t control what’s happening at school. I can’t control the traffic. I can’t control the weather. Having a previously identified support system at home and being completely prepared to deliver the pitch, allowed me to recover more quickly and transition from addressing an unexpected event to handling business as usual. 

Shit happens. Support systems matter: at work and at home. The work is identifying what’s important, then identifying your support systems for navigating the unexpected (variability), in advance.

And, oh by the way, HearstLabs invested in us. Twice. 

Kishau Rogers

Kishau Rogers is the editor and founder of the bigThinking project. bigThinking is a resource and collaborative innovation center which promotes the principles of systems thinking. Our mission is to empower the next generation of innovators to think bigger, to think better, and to create solutions that make a significant impact in the areas that matter. Kishau Rogers is an award-winning entrepreneur with a deep background in Computer Science, over twenty-five years of experience in the technology industry, and more than 15 years of entrepreneurial leadership. She currently serves as the Founder & CEO of Time Study, Inc., a high-growth startup offering solutions for using machine learning, advanced natural language processing, and data science to automatically tell a story of how enterprise employees spend their time.


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