Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thinking Our Way Along.

One can often find milestones that have guided life. We talk positively about what we are told by our parents, other respected elders, relatives, and friends; even those we dislike helped shape our lives. That scary aunt, who made us very wary of people we knew and strangers alike. All of these people build us up; they help us cope. Whether it's oral nostrums like "Big boys don't cry" or notions such as "Always let the ladies take a bath first; they can't start a day without one. Boys and men can," these teachings stay with us.

Those with whom we work are also significant. When I first started working at the Bank of England in the early 1980s, my first supervisor told me "We did not select you because we thought you had all the answers; but we do expect you to ask the right questions". Several years later, another supervisor, whom I shall call "PK", used the adage "Only connect". That sounded very zen. PK's notion was that you have to see where a particular thread of thinking can touch other issues.

For about 10 years I worked with those notions in my head. When I went to work for the International Monetary Fund, one of the things that I found most difficult was how that institution approached its work. Almost opposite to what I had learned, there was a tendency to act as if one had all the answers; that way when things went badly it was easy to point out that the answers had been wrong. It's a very weird "blame game". It's corollary was that people feared sharing their thinking, holding on (literally) to the idea that "right answers" were some kind of currency. The other aspect I had to live with was an odd resistance to connections. The Fund is a very federal organization, and departments are like fiefdoms (see IMF organization chart; the Bank of England organization chart looks similar, but the thinking underlying how the pieces work together is quite different). Department heads essentially determine how the policies work. Once inside a fiefdom, one tended to be less open to notions that were not of that fiefdom. For that reason, an avoidable duplication of activities abounded because each fiefdom has to have its own "administration" rather than pooling and sharing of information, except in certain specific contexts, and other fiefdoms can even be seen as more foe than friend. Odd way to build an international organization, you would think. But, it's not so uncommon.

I have tried to hold onto the right questions perspective--and believe me, it is hard. Certain people love to ask questions and answer them themselves, thinking that somehow they have discovered something other than their own opinion. Thanks for sharing, I would say. But that is not thinking about issues. Bureaucracies often do this when they only look internally for solutions and only in a crisis go outside for objective advice.

One of my earliest teachers was a well-known philosopher, Bertrand Russell. When I say "teacher" I mean that I read his works extensively, as a teenager, and they shaped many of my views, for example, on matters like pacifism. What I discovered during my life and travels is that how I think about things, while shaped by what I have read, is also shaped by the way those around me encourage me to think.

A book entitled "The geography of thinking" (written in 2002) is a worthwhile read. It notes that people in different cultures are taught to think differently. We gather information, process, rationalise, justify and communicate our ideas in culturally determined ways. Europe is often regarded as having pragmatic, inductive thinking (northern cultures cultures) and rationalist thinking (rest of the continent). Westerners and Asians develop different mental skills and capacities deriving from the nature of written and spoken language, the relative importance of learning by rote or investigation and the social environment. For example, western children are expected to ask questions and test ideas for themselves, while in Asia it is less acceptable to question anyone senior in age or authority, including teachers. Westerners base thinking on reason; Asians base thinking on harmony. Whenever people of different cultures work together, different ways of thinking create barriers to understanding and communication. This applies to many spheres of work. One can see it playing out in a room full of different nationalities discussing issues.

Today, I will think more about how we think.

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