Insight can be mysterious.
It doesn’t have to be. It can be learned, taught, and mastered. Three factors are especially critical in developing keener insight.
But first, some etymology is useful.
Insight Means “To See”
Having insight means having vision. That’s why leaders who anticipate the future, leaders like, say, Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, are called visionary. Tennis great Roger Federer is said to have unparalleled court sense — he sees everything happening in the field of play. On the battlefield, this same quality of insight is known as coup d’œil (“stroke of the eye”). It’s the power to see the big picture — in an instant.
Napoleon described coup d’œil as the “gift of being able to see at a glance the possibilities offered by the terrain.” So highly regarded was this kind of insight that the solider and military theorist Jean-Charles, chevalier de Folard, wrote, “The coup d’œil is a gift of God and cannot be acquired.”
Fortunately, Jean-Charles was wrong. We can acquire insight. Once we understand insight as a process rather than a gift, it becomes less mysterious.
Our capacity for insight is influenced by a three-part process: filtering our information intake, gaining expertise, and developing clarity.
Filtering: Information overload is a huge obstacle to insight. Lost in the trees, we can’t see the forest. Filtering lets us identify key signals among the noise, giving our minds the space to function properly, to think through our most relevant observations and determine their significance. Lack of filtering turns our minds into a website under DDoS attack — too much input. Normal functioning shuts down.
Filtering is also the foundation for such enhanced techniques as speed reading, speed viewing, and speed listening. Many practices of mindfulness and meditation focus on filtering as well and can be more powerful than people realize.
Expertise: Expertise and filtering work together. The better we know our subject matter, the easier it is to filter out irrelevant noise. As we become experts in our field, our minds begin to filter automatically. Fortunately, we don’t need to be world experts for filtering to work. The process builds with everything we learn.
Clarity: It’s common knowledge: We spend too much time with our biases and beliefs, reactive emotions, hopes, fears, daydreams, and memories. We don’t actually see the world as it is. Again, practices of mindfulness and self-awareness are crucial to freeing us from our own illusions. Mapping our reactive habits and emotional patterns, along with unflinching feedback from our peers, is invaluable.
Insight Is Ageless
The wisdom-loving ancient Greeks understood all this. To them, insight was an aspect of philosophy known as inductive reasoning, or induction. Induction is a bedrock of how our minds work — how we form larger understandings from an observation of specific details. Returning to etymology, Aristotle called induction epagoge in Greek (“leading toward”).
Toward what? Toward the big picture.
Toward Coup d’Oeil, Court Sense, and Vision
The insight process is simple: We observe our situation (physically or mentally), we filter out the noise, and then our minds make connections and realizations.
Each of us has experienced this. When we gaze over a landscape, look at a map, or survey whatever our particular “battlefield” happens to be, we “see things,” we make discoveries. We catch glimpses of the big picture.
When we bring consciousness to bear on our thought process, we optimize the natural functions of the mind. Filtering and expertise select the right details for our minds to work on, while clarity makes sure we’re seeing what’s actually there.
Consider these words from the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz 200 years ago: “Only if the mind works in this comprehensive fashion can it achieve the freedom it needs to dominate events and not be dominated by them.”
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
Flame Abstract courtesy of Peter van Driel from the Noun Project