10 January 2017 - 11:00 am

All kinds of minds, and enterprise.

Painting of person sitting, with thought bubble containing a butterfly.

Image credit: Loving Earth

It’s some time (read: a couple of years) since I last wrote a USE blog post. It’s not because I’m lazy. I’ve just had rather a lot to do.

The work of the USE Academy has got busier and busier, and away from my busy full-time job, I’m busy too. I have two small children (one who’s just started school; the other just over a year old), and very little mental or physical downtime. And there’s this thing I have a lot of problems with, called executive dysfunction.

This means I have real difficulty with planning, prioritising, or even just getting started on anything. And there’s reason for that. I’m not lazy; my brain just works a little differently from the norm.

You see, I’m autistic.

Say what?

This is not something I’ve mentioned on this site before, because until I received an official diagnosis in July this year (at the ripe old age of 36), it was not something I was explicitly aware of. But it explains an awful lot.

To many people, I don’t seem “obviously” autistic (but hey, we’re as diverse as any other group of human beings. We’re not all Sheldon Cooper or Rain Man). I do a lot of teaching delivery. I communicate verbally rather a lot. I’m fairly outspoken. I’m pretty active when it comes to networking at conferences and other work events. I have a lot of one-on-one meetings with people. I appear to make eye contact (I’m actually either lip reading, to help me process someone’s speech, or looking at the bridge of their nose. But mostly that won’t be obvious).

But all of this takes a hell of a lot of mental processing (I can empathise, but I can’t easily “read” people when they’re there in front of me, so I’m constantly having to consciously evaluate and analyse every interaction with others). It means I’m often knackered, and frequently operating way outside of my comfort zone.

I deliver a fair number of teaching sessions on group dynamics and enterprising team work, and as part of teaching on the Making Ideas Happen module I’m often encouraging students to “get outside the building” and outside of their comfort zone. Believe me, the irony of doing so, as someone with a neurotype that is stereotypically awkward in social situations, is not lost on me. In getting students to go out and do several iterations of customer interviews with random strangers on the street, I’m actively trying to persuade a bunch of people to do – as an assessed part of their degree programme – something that I, personally, find absolutely bloody terrifying.

Which could come across as a little ridiculous if I didn’t actually understand the benefits of doing so. If you’re one of the students I teach this kind of stuff to, trust me: I feel your pain (just as much as I want you to model, and understand, the pain of your customer!), but damn it, in this instance I know what I’m doing, and I know what’s good for you.  Lean startup, Baby.

‘Too many tabs’

My neurotype has its frustrations. I’m an overthinker, and an overprocessor. I notice, and analyse, vastly more individual pieces of data and information than someone with a “neurotypical” brain. I can’t filter out the unimportant stuff, which means I often struggle to concentrate. It can feel like permanently having too many tabs open. All this extra information makes it difficult for me to switch tasks, deal with anything unexpected, avoid biting off the head of anyone who interrupts me when I’m deeply engrossed in a piece of work, or even get to sleep at night. Frankly, there are often times when I want to tell my motormouth brain to shut the hell up.

But my neurotype also has its strengths. I can spot detail that others can’t see. I can make wild and interesting links between seemingly unconnected theories, ideas, or concepts. I’m great at in-depth, highly-focused research, and producing impeccably structured, well-evidenced, high quality written work. And in the right situations, with the right thinking time and preparation, I can communicate very effectively indeed.

(Just don’t put me on the spot too much, and keep the small talk to a minimum, thankyouplease).

So why on earth am I rambling on about all of this? Well, it comes back to group dynamics, creativity, and being enterprising. In Making Ideas Happen, beyond the fact we’re keen to get you working with people who are interested in solving the same problem as you, we also like to “engineer” your project teams to be as diverse as possible.

Because diversity is good.

‘All kinds of minds’

Everyone has different experiences and personal circumstances. Everyone has different personalities. And everyone has different thinking styles, learning styles, and working styles. And one of the benefits of working with people who see and think differently from how you do, is getting a new perspective on a problem or an idea, or even discovering new problems that are worth solving.

This is crucial in entrepreneurship, or any situation that requires being enterprising (that’ll be, er, life, then).

Getting new perspectives on a problem or idea is such a useful thing that we teach lateral thinking techniques (taking indirect or creative approaches to solving problems) to help you do this in a structured manner. Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats actually asks a group of people to systematically take different perspectives, one at a time, by wearing different “hats”. This can be great for either resolving conflict, re-energising a stagnant discussion, or encouraging healthy debate when a group would otherwise be too scared to face up to it. Everyone is forced to think through each different perspective in turn. And in a way, different people are more likely, in life, to wear different “hats”, because that’s how their brains work.

The great Dr Temple Grandin (she follows my personal Twitter account, dontchaknow) argues that “The world needs all kinds of minds“. She’s talking in the main about the different types of autistic mind. But it goes wider than that. Neurotypical people have lots to offer. And so, too, do those of us who are autistic, or who have dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, or a whole host of other neurological variations.

We each have our individual skills and strengths, and our own individual perspectives on the world around us, its problems, and how we might begin to solve those problems.

By bringing all these different strengths and perspectives together, we can be even more enterprising, and even more awesome.

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  • About the author

    Anna Nibbs

    Howdy! I'm Anna, an Enterprise Education Developer, HEA Fellow, member of the National Enterprise Education Award-winning USE Academy team, and the first point-of-contact for academics in the Faculties of Arts & Humanities and Medicine, Dentistry & Health. I also teach on USE's "Making Ideas Happen" module. I'm passionate about learning and teaching, and empowering lecturers - and students - to be as enterprising as they can possibly be. Outside of work, I like to exercise, write, grow fruit and veg, drink tea and spend time with my children reading books, doing crafts and exploring. If you're an academic and you want to know more about embedding enterprise into your curriculum, visit our Enterprise Education website at: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/enterprise-education