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Thinking big in a details world

Are you a big-picture thinker or a details person? Enhancing the mindset you haven’t got can be the key to a richer life, says Hannah Borno

Albert Einstein never wore socks, even to dinner at the White House. He believed shaving was a waste of time, rarely brushed his hair and had a famously messy desk. To Einstein, life’s practical details were an irritant, a waste of time. ‘The only valuable thing is intuition,’ he once said. ‘I have reached an age where if someone tells me to wear socks, I don’t have to.’ Indeed, why look for socks when you could be perfecting the theory of relativity?

Bethan, 36, is no Einstein, but she shares his disregard for everyday minutiae. ‘I find it incredibly boring getting ready for work, and frequently find myself running round the house, half-dressed, looking for my mobile, or end up going out with odd socks,’ she says.

Once she arrives at work, however, she slips easily into her role of creative director at a London advertising agency, devising award-winning campaigns. No one would dream that she’s utterly flummoxed by the process of getting dressed in the morning.

Bethan is a big-picture thinker, also known as a global thinker, an intuiter or a visionary. She has the ability to strategise, analyse trends and take a long-term view, but often finds the little things in life a challenge or too dull to bother with.

‘Big-picture thinkers are likely to be scatty, widely speculative and can be amazingly original in a useful way, but they can also be eccentric,’ says Professor Rowan Bayne, author of 'Psychological Types At Work'.

According to Bayne, about 25 per cent of us are big-picture thinkers. The remaining 75 per cent are more like Bethan’s practical friend Annabel. A local thinker, she’s happy to spend time working on life’s details and can’t understand Bethan’s approach. ‘It’s incredible to me that a grown woman can have all the problems she does with losing things and getting dressed,' she says. 'I couldn’t live like that.’

In the Myers-Briggs personality schema, big-picture thinkers are said to have an ‘intuitive preference’ while details people possess a ‘sensing preference’. ‘One of the defining qualities of intuition is thinking big in a very general way, and the defining quality of the sensing preference is focusing on details,’ says Bayne.

Whether you think globally or locally is unlikely to be reflected in your school reports. ‘These preferences have absolutely nothing to do with levels of intelligence or ability,’ says Robert Sternberg, a psychologist at Tufts University in the US. ‘These are different kinds of intelligence that are equally valuable.’

Throughout time we’ve been blinded by the brilliance of the big-picture visionaries — the artists, opinion formers and inventors of this world — and shamefully neglected the attention to practical detail that their unsung opposites bring to the table. Understanding the difference between the two mindsets reveals that they have a symbiotic relationship — they each enhance the other’s success.

It’s important to appreciate this and work together. Globals shine when it comes to taking risks and inspiring us to do something different. Locals shine as they make things happen. They keep us safe, produce our food, build our houses and make sure our computers, televisions and any other number of daily objects function.

Both preferences have their advantages. ‘In practical daily life, the local thinker is favoured,’ says Sternberg. ‘To succeed in business at many lower or entry-level jobs, you have to demonstrate local skills. However, when people get into the higher levels and they don’t have global thinking (that takes into account trends and the long-term view), they are often not the right person for jobs that require big-picture thinking.’

In fact, when people with a very local world view find themselves in sweeping managerial roles, they may micro-manage, homing in on small tasks that they’re unable to delegate. ‘They tend not to be effective,’ says Sternberg. On the other hand, it’s a shame, he argues, that very global people often don’t progress well in the workplace. Their big-picture skills, which would be valued later on, are overlooked because they couldn’t focus on the details in their entry-level jobs.

‘This is why it’s important to develop your weaker preference,’ says Sternberg. ‘You need a bit of both in life. Globals have to make sure they get the bills paid and know how to call a plumber, and locals need to develop their global thinking as they progress through the workplace.’
But unless we happen to be one of those rare superhumans whose world is as global as it is local — and they do exist — we are always going to need the help of others. ‘There isn’t time for most people to develop into complete all-rounders. Other people can provide the balance for you,’ says Bayne.

How do we cultivate our weaknesses and our strengths? ‘Self-awareness is key,’ says Sternberg. ‘It’s a matter of ensuring we pay attention to both our global and local thinking on a regular basis.’

This holds equally true in relationships. ‘In a relationship, the local element will make sure the washing machine gets fixed or the car has its MOT. They can take care of the sort of stuff that needs a checklist,’ says Sternberg. ‘Globals will ask the questions such as, “Where is our relationship going? Are we as a couple where we thought we would be?”’

Never was this allocation of global versus local duties illustrated more clearly than in Einstein’s letter to his first wife Mileva Mari, when he demanded: ‘You will make sure that my clothes and laundry are kept in good order, that I will receive my three meals regularly in my room, and that my bedroom and study are kept neat.’ They separated soon after.

Once we understand what our strengths are and how essential they are to the fabric of society, we can go about enhancing them. It’s a relief when we realise we don’t have to be a brilliant innovator or that it’s all right to be a bit absent-minded from time to time — and it’s fine to turn to others for help.

Kerry, 42, a global thinker, came to this realisation a year ago. ‘I run a music festival and it’s always chaotic,' she says. 'Although we have great ideas, there are still things left undone on the day, mostly because I never even thought of them. This year I’ve teamed up with John, who is amazing. He’ll come up with a million tiny, yet crucial, points I never thought of. The last festival ran smoothly. It was, finally, as I’d always dreamed it could be.’