There is a special power to isolation.
I don’t mean solitude or the state of being on one’s own, though I recognize the value of both in their own ways. Instead, I mean simply taking an idea, activity, or behavior out of context to better understand it.
My belief in the act of isolating resurfaced recently during a guitar lesson.
I have been working on the same 18th century etude for three months, and I feel it’s worse every day. I don’t like to perform below my own standards, which are often unrealistically high. So, this etude has been causing me real psychic pain, and for my instructor, who plays music because he is genuinely fascinated by it (as opposed to hubristically trying to conquer it, like I do), it’s been a struggle to ease my frustration.
After he told me to isolate the two trouble spots that have kept the piece from coming together while also reminding me that the time and practice invested in sections don’t map linearly to the progression of a technique, I interrupted him. I realized that even though I had been isolating these two sections mentally — or at least thought I had — looking at them in context had created a vicious cycle of performance anxiety and shaming that worked against any kind of forward momentum. I was always thinking about getting to the next measure.
I asked him to transcribe the two small sections onto separate sheets of staff paper and break them down into their simplest steps. I played nine notes for 30 minutes after he left, and when I went to play the whole piece, the performance sounded at least 80% better.
In many ways, the role my guitar instructor plays for me is the primary role I serve as a consultant. I isolate concepts, problems, and opportunities, and I guide others to look at them with me as closely as possible until we reach a state of clarity together.
Yet, I am the first to admit that I like to generate a lot of content. I have a near-pathological need to show my worth by producing tangible work, often discounting the value of guided thinking and ideas.
This drive to prove myself leads me to sometimes ignore how important isolating a root cause is, simply because it’s hard to measure. The outcomes are so much easier to see than what led us to them, and yet, without introducing this process of isolation, it’s nearly impossible to get to the outcomes that feel right.
I saw this in action during a meeting with a budding entrepreneur. As part of our working session, we covered everything from branding to operations and even selection criteria for new community members. In other words, we were getting a lot done. But, something was off. I noticed that despite the incredible headway we were making, she seemed stuck. So, I asked her a question.
How would you describe what you’re building in three sentences or less?
She paused, tried to answer the question, and then shook her head and said she didn’t know. At first, I tried to move forward with our meeting agenda, but I noticed she still seemed to be turning this question over in her mind, more stuck than before I had asked.
My first impulse was to answer the question for her — prove my worth, so to speak — but I resisted. I reminded myself this was her company, not mine.
I stopped the meeting, opened a presentation deck I’d made weeks before on setting a vision, values, and mission, and took her through why culture and community are inextricably linked and necessary to achieve the feelings I knew she cared about fostering — belonging, trust, achievement, and success.
Then, I asked her to stand at the white board and make three columns titled “Why,” “How,” and “What.” For two minutes each, she could only look at one column at a time and write nonstop what she thought the “Why,” “How,” and “What” of her organization were. Specifically, she answered:
Fifteen minutes later, we had those three sentences done, and her outlook dramatically changed.
Every decision that followed came quickly and confidently. By isolating this single element in a complicated web of ideas, responsibilities, stakeholders, and tasks, we started to untangle what had (unbeknownst to us) become an impassable knot. A few hours later, she texted me that she had never had so much clarity before, and by the next day, she had made the most progress in her business that we’d seen in six weeks.
When we isolate something, we remove distraction, sharpen focus, and give ourselves the space and permission to explore possibilities in one narrow avenue. We also make it our job to spend all our energy and thought on just one thing, which gets us to deeper meaning.
Yet, I believe in looking at ideas in context, generating as many of them as possible, and holding seemingly disparate ones in mind at the same time to avoid a fixation which can lead to unhelpful myopia.
To reconcile these ideas, I keep coming back to verses from “Raiment” by W.S. Merwin:
“We hunger/ for what is undoubted yet dubious.”
Taking a big-picture view is valuable and necessary. But breaking the undoubted apart into pieces to explore what remains dubious allows for us to expand our view even further.
When we start with a world of possibilities, root out the roadblocks and impasses, and focus our attention on them, we are harnessing the power of isolation without compromising on imagination.
If we do this well, we unlock even more imagination in the process.