Summary: Liminal Thinking by Dave Gray
Summary: Liminal Thinking by Dave Gray

Summary: Liminal Thinking by Dave Gray

Have you ever had moments like this in your life, when you suddenly saw things in a new and different way? A new way of seeing the world and yourself opens the door to change and growth. This is the practice of liminal thinking – a way of thinking to find and create new doorways to possibilities.


Principle #1 Believes are models.

A king calls for the blindmen and an elephant to bring to his palace. He asks the men “Can you tell me what’s sort of thing is an elephant?” One man who felt the elephant’s head says it’s like a large pot. Another says it’s a rope. Another feels an ear says it’s like a hand fan. Another says it’s a wall. Another says it’s a pillar, a pipe and so on.. Each describes a different part of the elephant based on his personal experience.

The point is we’re all blind. Just as one pair of hands cannot touch everything in the world and one pair of eyes cannot see everything, one mind is simply just too small to know everything there is to know. We all can grasp some fragments of reality but none of us have a grasp on reality as a whole.

As Buddha says, we all should see his teachings as a finger pointing to the moon. The finger is helpful if we want to see the moon, but we shouldn’t mistake the finger for the moon.

It’s the same with beliefs. They’re like fingers pointing to the moon, which is the reality. Do not mistake the belief for reality.

Principle #2 Beliefs are created.

If you look at MRI machine scans, the brain processes when you’re dreaming and when you’re awake are almost identical. Only a practiced neuroscientist can tell the difference.

You can focus on only one thing at a time. Imagine if three people are talking to you at once, you can’t possible follow all aspects of the conversation. There’s only so much your mind can attend at a time.

So, your experiences which are already a subset of all possible experiences, are further limited by the things that you pay attention to.

Think of your attention as a needle on a record player. It’s merely a tiny fraction of what you’re experiencing in any given moment.

Based on things that you pay attention; you will form theories and make judgments.

These four things (your experiences, attention, theories and judgments) for a foundation that reduces the unknowable to a kind of a map or mode that’s simple enough to understand or use in daily life.

We all need this simplified reality in order to function. Simplicity or auto-pilot mode isn’t all bad. Think about it. If you experience everything as if they’re completely new, you would be like a baby, unable to do anything. But this pyramid of belief also reduces reality from infinite complexity to a small set of theories on which you construct your beliefs.

Principle #3 Beliefs create a shared world.

Learning loops are co-created by people and can reinforce good habits and bad habits alike. It’s important to remember ‘the way its is’ is something we’ve created together and if we can create it, we can change it.

Principle #4 Beliefs create blind spots.

There’re opportunities all around us every day that we are unable to see because our limiting beliefs blind us to real possibilities.

Principle #5 Beliefs defend themselves.

Without knowing we collectively create a bubble of belief that reinforces and protects our existing beliefs by denying alternatives within the realm of possibility.

But these shared maps are in a sense useful because they allow us to do things together. They’re also efficient and save us from asking questions all the time. However over time, these maps begin to get out of sync with the reality of what’s reality going on.

“I was working on a project at Nokia when the iPhone was first announced. I asked a senior executive in the company whether he’s worried about Apple getting into phone business. The executive replied no. They weren’t worried. He added Apple is just going to increase the smartphone market and Nokia is a better choice” said the author. I don’t think I have to tell you what happened next.

This is self-sealing logic at work. New information from outside the bubble is discounted because it conflicts with the shared beliefs inside. There’re two ways that people make sense of new ideas:

  1. Is it internally congruent? Does it support or align with my beliefs?
  2. Is it externally valid? Can I test it? Does it work?

The truth is people rarely test ideas for external validity when they don’t have internal congruence.

Principle #6 Beliefs are tied to identity.

Questioning your governing beliefs can lead to profound change. Change your governing belief and you can change many others based on it. Simple right? Not so much. The governing beliefs are so fundamental to the group that they usually sit out of sight and never get discussed.

You probably might have heard your CEO saying, ‘we are all equal here”. But you know it’s not. He gets the perks you don’t, he sits in the corner office and you don’t. Everyone knows but nobody brings it up.

Without changing yourself, there’s no way you can change your governing beliefs. It starts from the inside out. Don’t be resigned to the fact that you’re just another helpless victim of fixed identity.


So now you know how our belief systems work and how they’re baked into us over time. Let’s see what we can do about it.

Practice #1 Assume you are not objective.

If let’ say one of the blindmen decided to move in a circle around the elephant and felt what others were feeling, he would have been operating in a liminal way, challenging his own assumptions and beliefs.

Practice #2 Empty your cup.

Emptying your cup means letting go of your existing knowledge, theories and judgements. Practicing empty cup means listening to someone without letting your existing beliefs get in the way.

Practice #3 Create safe space.

Think about emotional needs of people in SCARF model – Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness. Yes, it sounds easy in theory and difficult in practice. But if you apply it properly, you will learn to understand why people act in the ways they do.

Practice #4 Triangulate and regulate.

Look at situations form as many viewpoints as possible. Consider the possibility that seemingly different or contradictory beliefs may be valid.

Practice #5 Ask questions and connect the dots.

Practice #6 Disrupt routines.

Practice #7 Act as if in the here and now.

Act as if a belief is true and see what happens next. If you find something that works, do more of it.

Practice #8 Make sense with stories.

Facts and figures alone aren’t enough. Reason doesn’t get people to act. Emotion does. A good story can help connect our brains in a phenomenon known as neuron coupling.

Practice #9 Evolve yourself.

No matter how elaborate or perfect your belief system may seem, it’s vulnerable to steady pace of change over time. The world turns, things change and beliefs that once served you well will no longer be valid.