Nov 17

The big picture

“In order to properly understand the big picture, everyone should fear becoming mentally clouded and obsessed with one small section of truth.” – Xunzi, ancient Chinese philosopher



Does this quote resonate with you? As scientists, we are trained to hone in on “one small section of truth”, and to win grants these days we certainly have to obsess over it. But this obsession comes with a price – forgetting about the big picture. For every bit of data, every research finding, there’s a larger story…a story about climate change, or drug discovery, or how nature does something amazingly cool. In the lab, the field, or at our computers, we compulsively pour over the minute details, that small bit of truth Xunzi mentions. When we talk to non-scientists, we need to step back, leave out bits of that small section of truth (no matter how true those minutiae might be), and address the big picture. Honestly, this is just as important when we talk to scientists as well – keeping the big picture in mind grounds our work in the larger truth we all seek to understand.

This idea, that the small details aren’t always important, came alive for me tonight at our weekly Salmon Speakers Toastmasters meeting. Megan Slaker, our Toastmaster for the day (and local Washington State University Vancouver graduate student), introduced “unwritten” as the theme for tonight’s meeting. She challenged us to not write anything down during the meeting-no notes for the speaker, no notes for the Table Topics master (the person who asks questions to start the impromptu speaking segment), no notes for the timer or the Ah counter. Sounds like an imprecise meeting, right?

At the end of the meeting, members reported feeling more connected – they were busy listening and responding, rather than writing things down and relying on notes. We discovered that the big picture – that connection mattered more than the exact words we used, how long we talked, and if we used filler words. Yes, time matters, and our audience remembers if we drone on and on, but they don’t remember if we ended 30 seconds early. Similarly, fluidity matters, and our audience will remember if our speaking was so riddled with ums and uhs that it got distracting, but they won’t remember if we interjected an occasional misplaced “um”.

This exercise is important for us as scientists…in our speaking, and in our grants and papers. Yes, science depends critically on the details, and in the lab precision is key, but in a talk, it’s the connection that matters most. Let’s drop the small section of truth, leave our detailed notes at home, and focus on the big picture.

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