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Tinker Toys For the Adult Brain

Village_peopleA few years ago, I was sharing small talk with two female colleagues.  Actually, they were just letting me be present and listen in on their conversation, as the topic bored me (the males in their dating past), and I really couldn't get a word in edgewise even if I'd wanted to.  As they progressed through the talk, I got a glimpse at the boyfriend history of one of them.  She was currently dating an avid Harley biker at the moment (a mild-mannered suit by day).  I found out that he had been preceded by a police officer, military personnel, and a construction worker.

"Wow, all you need is a cowboy and a Native American, and your Village People collection is complete," was my interjection into the conversation.  She blanched, while the other one laughed hysterically at the reference.

After taking the Strengths Finder test, I found out that making connections is one of my major strengths.  I'm able to see patterns and find relationships among seemingly disparate things.  This is probably another reason why I am the way I am.  I tend to see these connections quickly.  This is a critical skill for professionals seeking to "seize the accomplishment."  Patterns are all around us.

Consider the following:

  • A project resource makes excuses for every deliverable that comes due.  There always seems to be a sick child or broken car or dead aunt getting in the way of every project milestone.  You have a critical milestone coming up with this person's name on it.  What is your first thought?
  • At the end of every month, the sales figures for a specific region spike, while they have been static for the other three weeks of the month.  You wonder if people are really buying your product at the end of the month or if the sales force is waiting until the end to report their sales.  Which is it?

One thing about patterns is they need to be observable.  Our brains pick up on things and store them and then retrieve them when they think they are relevant.  Some people connect the dots a lot easier than others.  But patterns remain all around us:  manufacturing activity, sales data, human behavior.  Mike DeWitt has an amazing video on his blog about brain patterns.  It's probably the best 25 minutes of your time you can spend if you want to figure out what's really going on inside somebody's head.

Try this:  look at a row of cubicles in your office.  Other than being gray or beige, what other patterns do you see?  Are they in order from most important to least important?  Are they all inhabited by females?  Does everybody have a plant?  What do these patterns tell you about the people who are in them and their relationship with each other?

Of course, there's always the possibility that there is no pattern whatsoever.  John Hunter points this out succinctly yet powerfully in his post from several months ago.  Finding connections and seeing patterns may just be an illusion.  Ask any publicity expert for a candidate... in the coming months, we'll be seeing numerous ads trying to make us believe there are patterns of behavior (and they'll come from both parties).  Still, if you're not looking for the patterns, it's hard to tell the good ones from the fake ones.

So... what can you do to start observing the patterns in your life?

  1. Slow down.  I know that's hard in our fast paced world, but you won't see what you can't see.
  2. Document.  Sometimes patterns reveal themselves over time.  Keeping track of them helps.
  3. Ask Others.  Patterns sometimes require a team effort to see the big picture.

When you see the patterns start to emerge, pay attention to them.  Ask yourself what they might be telling you.  Are your compensation systems rewarding a certain behavior?  Is a product faulty?  Is a process flawed?  Is there a weak link employee who needs to be coached or removed?

By the way, not all patterns are meant to be communicated publicly.  Case in point, women do NOT like having their dating patterns analyzed.  Just thought I'd share that bit of wisdom.


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They say in mathematics that one is unique, two is coincidence, and three makes a pattern. As a math teacher, I read the patterns of my classroom and also show my students the importance of using patterns. It CAN be dangerous to use inductive reasoning (making a blanket conclusion based on your observations and not on the facts), but patterns are definitely powerful things that should not be ignored.



I never thought I'd be paired up with the Village People in a blog post somewhere besides Spooky Action! Great post, and thanks for the kind words.


Timothy Johnson

Jay - great application. As a math teacher, I'm sure you try to pound this concept into your students heads on a daily basis. Tell the girls that if they get it, they'll be able to analyze their dates more easily.

Mike - I can only imagine what other things you could be paired with. The Village People would be tame. Great video, though. Keep up the awesome work.

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