The world is infinitely complex.
It only grows more complex as media outlets multiply and vie for our attention. Each outlet wants you to believe their myth — to want what they say is worth having, to fear what they say is scary, to spend money on what they say is valuable.
One of the most powerful sections in Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens is his discussion of humanity’s most distinguishing feature. Humans, he writes, are the only creatures on Earth who create myths. Myths start as stories and grow into institutions — corporations, governments, societies.
The more people who believe in a myth, the truer it becomes.
Thus, every myth has the potential to become true, if enough people believe it. The more passively you accept myths as true — that you need to buy certain products, to act a certain way, to befriend a certain type of person — the more you put your destiny in someone else’s hands, someone who probably doesn’t have your best interests in mind.
In life, and especially in entrepreneurship, separating fact from fiction is essential to survival. The art of understanding reality, of being able to sort the world into “real” and “unreal,” is called sensemaking.
Why sensemaking matters
Throughout human history, the ones who have made the most sense of the world have survived. In our species’ earliest days, we were hunted by all kinds of predators: bears, sabertooth tigers, snakes, even Komodo dragons. The humans who could identify predators and respond accordingly (i.e., running away or fighting and winning) lived to pass on their genes.
The earliest humans engaged in a very literal “sensemaking” process. They reacted to sensory inputs—sights, sounds, smells, textures — in the way they thought was right.
Though we still use all five senses today, modern sensemaking has grown more abstract. Before founding a company, entrepreneurs make sense of the cultural moment. They identify common problems, list the existing solutions, dream up better solutions, then create and distribute those new solutions efficiently. Each step of this process — analysis, creativity, execution — depends on sensemaking.
On a personal level, sensemaking can give you a happier, more satisfying life. It helps you identify that golden overlap between what you love, what you’re good at, what you can make money doing, and what the world needs. True sensemaking will also give you a clear idea of your strengths and weaknesses—what to lean on, and how to improve.
From the African savannah to the modern C-suite, the sensemaking process has stayed essentially the same: understand the situation, find the most suitable solution, and execute.
It all starts with self-awareness, mindfulness, and a growth mindset
Just like our species’ earliest days in Africa, the fundamental tools of sensemaking are our five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. That may sound overly simple, but if you practice mindfulness, you’d be amazed at how much real, usable information your five senses give you. Psychologists suggest that gut feelings — sensory data points — actually can distinguish between good and bad decisions.
Mindfulness is the practice of getting in touch with your present circumstances. Not judging them, not acting on them, but simply becoming more aware of what’s going on around you and within you. By practicing mindfulness, you develop a filter for your awareness, separating signal from noise. This clarity is the foundation of all good decision-making.
Then, filter the contents of that foundational awareness through a growth mindset. “Growth mindset,” a Carol Dweck coinage, is a mental approach based on the premise that you control your own destiny — as opposed to a “fixed mindset,” where you’re at the mercy of your surroundings. Where a fixed mindset sees a room full of locked doors, a growth mindset sees both door and key, enabling quicker learning, more optionality, and a better chance at fulfilling your maximum potential.
As an entrepreneur, growth mindfulness will make you a better resource for your customers. In addition to your senses, you’ll use inputs like metrics, projections, and consumer data. The more self-aware you are, the more easily you can distinguish effective solutions from makeshift solutions, the more you’ll take ownership of the outcome, and the happier you’ll make your customers.
Further reading on sensemaking
- Daniel Schmachtenberger. Schmachtenberger attacks sensemaking in terms of human civilization. Much of his content revolves around the central question: How do we keep this species going without destroying ourselves and/or our surroundings?
- Sam Harris. Harris is many things: neuroscientist, philosopher, and host of one of the excellent podcast “Making Sense.” Like Schmachtenberger, “Making Sense” tackles huge subjects: sleep, the pandemic, pleasure, time, consciousness, self.
- Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow. In this landmark book, Kahneman distinguishes between two systems of thought: one quick and emotional, the other slow and logical. He identifies many common errors in human judgment and suggests methods for making better sense of the world around us.
Sensemaking lies at the root of all conscious activity. There’s nothing it doesn’t touch. To turn yourself into an expert sensemaker, start with mindfulness. Clarifying your internal condition will help you clarify the external world. A clean portrait of each is the foundation of good, common sense.