Blank Canvas Thinking

The Five Cognitive Distortions of People Who Get Stuff Done

Michael Dearing is the former chief engineer for Sun Microsystems and has PhD in computer scientist. He gave a presentation on some “common patterns of automatic thought among those who get a lot of stuff done [and/or] create tons of value” in Silicon Valley.

Here’s my distilled version:

  • Definition: cognitive distortions are strong patterns of automatic thoughts.
  • They are important because they act as filters that ultimately influence thinking, shape interpretation of reality, and become the basis for action.
  • The Big Five
    1. Personal Exceptionalism: “I am special.”
      • Definition: a macro sense that you are in the top of your cohort, your work is snowflake special, or that you are destined to have experiences well outside the bounds of “normal;” not to be confused with arrogance or high self-esteem.
      • Benefit: resilience, stamina, charisma.
      • Deadly risk: assuming macro exceptionalism means micro exceptionalism, brittleness.
    2. Dichotomous Thinking: “X is sh*t. Y is genius.
      • Definition: being extremely judgmental of people, experiences, things; highly opinionated at the extremes; sees black and white, little grey
      • Benefit: achieves excellence frequently
      • Deadly risk: perfectionism
    3. Correct Overgeneralization: “I see two dots and draw the right line.”
      • Definition: making universal judgments from limited observations and being right a lot of the time
      • Benefits: saves time
      • Deadly risk: addiction to instinct and indifference to data
    4. Blank Canvas Thinking: “Painting by numbers isn’t art. And I want to make art.”
      • Definition: sees own life as a blank canvas, not a paint by numbers
      • Benefits: no sense of coloring outside the lines, creates surprises
      • Deadly risk: “Ars gratia artis,” failure to launch, failure to scale
    5. Schumpeterianism1: “I am a creative destruction machine.”
      • Definition: sees creative destruction as natural, necessary, and as their vocation
      • Benefits: fearlessness, tolerance for destruction and pain
      • Deadly risk: heartless ambition, alienation

Are you a person who gets stuff done?

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  1. Named after Joseph Schumpeter