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Leadership Insights from cloud gazing

About six years ago, my daughter beckoned me to lay down in the grass and look at the clouds with her.

“What do you see?” She excitedly asked me

“Just clouds.” I responded stubbornly as I tried to recall the scientific name for the type of clouds we were gazing upon.

Within a few minutes she had pointed out a dolphin, a train, a turtle and a dog. Seeing the images she found in the clouds inspired me. I got it!

I relaxed, letting myself be less literal and more imaginative. A moment later, I saw an elephant. Then I saw a fire hydrant.

We laid there for a while. Laughing together as we found different images in the clouds, which transformed before our very eyes as the wind swept them away.

One moment there was a dragon, the next it was a blob before turning into a heart. The sky was so dynamic we had to keep watching to notice what was there before it disappeared. And if we saw nothing, we had to trust that in time, the arrangements of the clouds would change and something new would appear for us to find.

The experience stuck with me as a metaphor for problem solving.

Whenever I'm being too literal in my thinking, I get stuck.

I recently faced a problem that I kept looking at from one point of view. No matter how much I tried, I struggled to come up with a viable solution. It wasn't until I stopped trying to force myself to think so narrowly that a workable (and creative) answer appeared.

As long as I’m too literal, problems feel insurmountable. But when I let my imagination wander and go beyond what feels obvious, wondrous new opportunities emerge, including solutions that are better than I ever thought possible before!

Seeing beyond the obvious isn't about trying harder. It's a matter of embracing ease and being less rigid. It's about softening. Being curious and open so insights may emerge.

So many of the challenges leaders need to navigate don't have obvious solutions. The answers aren't going to be visible by doing the same things over and over again. Or forcefully thinking up new ideas. Or maintaining a myopic point of view.

Instead, you must step away. Stop focusing so hard on the problem. And start to be an observer. Simply noticing what's around you with curiosity and intrigue. Allowing yourself to see things differently creates a new, more complete picture like connecting the dots in an activity book.

If you remain stuck, try gazing at the clouds. If at first you don't see anything but cumulus clouds, take a few deep breaths. Relax. Embrace an open mind. Let go of what's literally right in front of you. And allow your imagination to fill in the blanks. In time, you too might see the Pegasus I'm looking at right now.

Routinely doing activities that get you to see and think in more expansive ways builds new neural pathways for creative insights to emerge, enabling you to find the answer you are looking for with greater ease.

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Madelyn Blair
Madelyn Blair
Jun 07, 2023

Did you know there is a word for finding images in the clouds? I gave a talk at the Smithsonian some years ago about this very topic. The word is nephelococcygia. Great word! And great idea to use this function to find new ideas for solving problems!

Ariana Friedlander
Ariana Friedlander
Jun 12, 2023
Replying to

How fun, I didn't know there was a name for finding images in the clouds. Thanks for sharing!

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