It all starts in Cork, Ireland. Yes, even the Internet

5 minute read

[NOTE: This is the opening of my new book Digital Sales Transformation in a Customer First World]

It was a day in July, in the middle of summer, and it was raining. Not just light rain, but that kind that bounces off the roof of your car doing its best impression of a Buddy Rich jazz drum solo, staccato one minute and almost harmonious the next. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I was in Cork in Ireland, sitting in my car outside the Boole Library in my alma mater University College Cork (UCC). It rains a lot in Ireland, but that’s why the country is so beautiful, and the people so imaginative. When it’s raining all the time you need to be creative.

Now, a few decades after I graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering, it was my daughter’s turn to start her university life. As she was registering with the college I was performing my duly appointed role as chauffeur. As I sat in my car I reminisced about the things I had learned during my time in UCC. I enjoyed college a lot (I mean really enjoyed it) so I might not have been the world’s most dedicated student of engineering. As I reflected on that time, it came to me that more than anything else, I discovered how to think and was taught how to solve problems. These skills have served me well. Thinking matters.

George Boole, he of the eponymous library, is famous not for spending time in Cork, Ireland – in 1849 he was appointed as the first professor of mathematics in UCC – but for the creation of Boolean Logic; you know all those ones and zeros that are the foundation of digital computing.[1] (It all started in Cork, so just to annoy my Dublin friends I claim that the Internet was invented in Cork.)

Once the rain stopped, and the sun started to shine – it shines most days between the rain showers – I got out of my car to explore the Boole Library, and came across this quotation:

No general method for the solution of questions can be established which does not recognize the universal laws of thought.
George Boole: The Laws of Thought (1854)

With the evolution of language in the 160 years since, this sentence may now seem a little cumbersome or convoluted. But the key message that I took away from it was that thinking matters if you are to solve any problem.

Seems obvious, right?

But I worry about it. I am concerned that critical thinking skills are diminishing now that Google seems to provide all of the answers and appears to many people to be the ‘solution of questions.’ In too many situations we race headlong into quick answers to slow, deliberate questions. In sales, as in many other business professions, this is dangerous.

As I was driving home, Buddy Rich once more invoking the rain gods to drum on my roof, I asked my daughter what she thought about this.

Her response: “Don‘t you help people think for a living? Isn’t that, like, what you do?” prompted me to write this book.

She’s right of course. All great sellers are strategic thinkers first, adopting the maxim of ‘measure twice and cut once’ before they meet with a customer or embark on a sales pursuit. Now, with the rapidly changing dynamics in the market, it seems a worthwhile endeavor to help all knowledge workers – with a particular emphasis on salespeople – to amplify their critical thinking skills.

In 1934, T.S. Eliot, the poet and playwright wrote:

Where is the life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Eliot was in many ways presaging the Internet Age, the reality shared by Gen-Xers, Millennials and the upcoming Thumb Generation:[2] too much information – but too little insight. Millennials who are becoming an increasingly important force in the workplace are characterized by some as tech-savvy and proficient in applying technology to everyday problems efficiently.

But I wonder if the habits learned in an environment where the answer to everything is just a Google search away have in any way reduced their critical faculties, removed the need to develop ideas from first principles, or through that journey to nourish their own perspective. If that is the case with Millennials and indeed with an increasingly large proportion of Gen-Xers – the term ‘Millennials’ is representative much more of a mindset than an age group – then we need to be careful that this trend does not continue with the Thumb Generation.

We want our future sales leaders to leverage the wisdom of others. As they do, they will see the horizon more clearly if they stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before them. We want them to respect the value of lessons learned and to build on those lessons, and to stretch their minds, to extend those models, but we need them to seek insight, to learn the skills of primary research, to be inquisitive, curious and questioning.

We need to help them to think.

[1] Because of Boole all information can be represented as a series of ones or zeros. In computer language a ‘bit’ stores a value of one or zero. String eight bits together and you get a byte, a thousand bytes is a kilobyte, and so on to megabytes, gigabytes and so on, all the way up to exabytes and zetabytes – lots and lots of data, representing the world’s information in a series of ones and zeros.

[2] Thumb Generation: This is a phrase that I came up with about three years ago watching my children and their friends exhibiting amazing dexterity with their thumbs as they texted and scrolled on their phones. I define this generation as those born between 1998 and 2010.

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