The Power of Context to Put Content to Work
The idea for this post about the power of context to put content to work was triggered by my podcast interview with John Vespasian, author of seven books (see episode 12 at http://scienceofsuccess.libsyn.com/podcast), combined with something I had read about in Team Genius: The New Science of High Performing Organizations (by Rich Karlgaard and Michal S. Malone and published in 2015 by HarperCollins). Specifically, John Vespasian’s books provide recommendations for thriving in work and in life based on insights from famous figures in history. This approach reminded me of the concept of “The Distant Idol” presented in the book Team Genius. In Team Genius, the authors present twelve different types of two-member teams based on their journalistic experience reporting on Silicon Valley start-ups. One type is called “The Distant Idol.” In this type, one member of the pair is living while the other member is long dead or not accessible to the living member. The authors discuss the benefits and concerns of this type of two-person team. The primary concern has to do with the potential problems created from taking content out of context. Taking content out of context can occur when the information available about the distant idol is limited. Therefore, separating content from context can be problematic.
On the other hand, combining content and context can be powerful. For example, virtual reality is one way to combine content and context. Virtual reality can be used to make an existing experience feel brand new. For example, Six Flags recently opened up The New Revolution at Dare Devil Dive in which roller coaster riders where virtual reality headsets to experience the roller coaster in a different context (see http://www.spingo.com/blog/post). How about going on a tour of a national park that you have never been to (or other destination like the lakes of New Zealand or the volcanoes of Hawaii) while doing the elliptical for exercise with your favorite motivational music playing in the background? I think I would do a better job exercising on a regular basis if this sort of product was available (hint, hint).
This post defines what context is, discusses why context is important, and provides examples of the power of context.
Context is defined relative to content. From Merriam-Webster: the words that are used with a certain word or phrase and that help to explain its meaning. Also from Merriam-Webster: the situation in which something happens: the group of conditions that exist where and when something happens (see http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/context). In the former case, the content is a word or a phrase, while in the latter case, the content is a happening. The Dictionary also provides two definitions, one focused on a word or phrase as the content and one focused on an event or situation as the content (see http://www.dictionary.com/browse/context). In writing, context is a tool used to convey the intended meaning for content, the words and passages. In life and work, context is the set of conditions surrounding content, a happening. However, no relationship is specified between context and content in the case of life and work happenings. Therefore, let’s explore this type of context further.
In writing, context is a tool used to convey the intended meaning for content, the words and passages. However, no relationship is specified between context and content in the case of life and work happenings.
Let’s discuss why context is important to work and life happenings. I suspect that no relationship is specified between context and content in the case of work and life happenings because the relationship is complex. You have probably had the experience when something you said, taken out of context, got you in trouble with someone or with a group of people. I remember trying to comfort my toddler son when his uncle received an upsetting phone call from work which led to the shouting of a few obscenities before he left the room to go cool off. I tried to explain to my upset son that his uncle only acted mean because of the phone call and not because of his favorite nephew. Sure enough, the next time this uncle did something that upset my young son he blurted out “mommy says you’re mean!” Our behavior also can be context-dependent. I recently watched a stakeholder engagement exercise in which the different ways that people can behave were described in terms of several different role perspectives. For example, one role perspective was a curmudgeon who expresses doubt and negativity that is typically not helpful, another one is reactionary who clings to the current way resisting any change, and a third was an iconoclast who is a big thinker who likes to break the rules. The point of the exercise was to help channel the unhelpful energy from these different perspectives into helpful energy. For example, elicit healthy and helpful skepticism from the people behaving like curmudgeons and so on. Depending on the content and the context, I can easily see myself displaying aspects of these different role perspectives. My behavior, and that of others, depends on the content and context of the situation.
Finally, let’s explore examples of the power of context in work and life happenings. I came up with three ways that context is powerful. Below I provide an example of each of these three ways.
First, applying something from one context to another can be a powerful source of creativity and innovation. A classic example of this is the invention behind Post-It notes. In this case, the situation of using an adhesive to mend objects was applied to the topic of communication. The Post-It story began in 1968 with the invention of an adhesive by Spencer Silver (see http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/04/tech/post-it-note-history/). At the time, the company, 3M, was looking to develop stronger and tougher adhesives while Spencer had developed a weaker adhesive that could be removed from a surface without causing damage. Spencer thought the invention held great promise if the right application could be found and eventually became known as “Mr. Persistent” as he didn’t give up on the quest for finding the right application. It took 12 years, but finally Art Fry came along with the idea to use the adhesive in a sticky bookmark that could hold its place in his choir book and be removed without damaging the pages. Art also started using the sticky bookmarks with his colleagues at work and is quoted as saying: “I thought what we have here isn’t just a bookmark, it’s a whole new way to communicate.” Today 3M sells over 50 billion Post-It notes a year.
Applying something from one context to another can be a powerful source of creativity and innovation.
Second, context adds a new dimension to insight and critical thinking about content. For example, a well-known way to practice critical thinking is the Socratic method of questioning. Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder have written The Art of Socratic Questioning (see https://www.criticalthinking.org/ for an excerpt) in which they identify 8 categories of questions that are helpful in the art of Socratic questioning as follows (pages 5 to 7): questioning goals and purposes; questioning information, data and experience; questioning inferences and conclusions; questioning concepts and ideas; questioning assumptions; questioning implications and consequences; questioning viewpoint and perspectives; and questioning the question. Socrates saw the purpose of questioning as the pursuit of truth through sound reasoning. It is noteworthy that several of these categories are about context. Most notably, questioning viewpoints and perspectives and questioning assumptions are about context.
Context adds a new dimension to insight and critical thinking about content.
Third, context can help establish clarity when you compare something new to something familiar. A powerful tool to do this is the analogy. An analogy is defined as follows (see http://literarydevices.net/analogy/): An analogy is a comparison in which an idea or a thing is compared to another thing that is quite different from it. It aims at explaining that idea or thing by comparing it to something that is familiar.
Context can help establish clarity when you compare something new to something familiar.
Glen Long describes how analogies are a powerful writing tool because they improve comprehension, change perspective, and add interest (see https://smartblogger.com/analogy/). Glen also observes that learning is hard work and that analogies can help learning in three ways. One way is to make learning easier by making the abstract more concrete. A second way it to make learning more engaging by adding an emotional element, And a third way is to make learning more fun by using a sense of humor. One of my favorite examples from Glen Long is as follows: Publishing content over the holiday is like teaching a toddler to swim during a hurricane. Glen even provides a simple three-step process to help find the right analogy.
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