Let’s nurture a Qubit mindset

Before the pandemic, we saw a clear trend in evolving away from binary thinking and extending our thinking to the endless possibilities between 1 and 0. Gender identity no longer...

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September 22, 2020

And then came the coronavirus. We suddenly got forced into a new world, where we could not manage our lives, businesses and countries anymore as we did before. We desperately want to return to our old comfort zone, yet we are faced with a new reality. We have to make choices we don’t want. The dichotomy of past versus future, good versus bad, society versus individual choices have become our prime debate. Will we work completely differently? Should we prioritize health over economy? Should we care more about the world or our nation? Should we wear masks or is it our freedom not to? We all became prognosticators generating a plethora of opinions to answer binary questions. But when the questions are set binary, so will be the answers. Did we turn back the clock of progressive thinking or are we just pausing it until we have a covid-19 vaccine?

The truth lies in the middle

As China watcher, I witnessed this year how China debates have turned from open-minded curiosity in 2019 to mostly combative arguing right now. It has never been as binary as now. Did China create the virus or not? Can we trust Huawei or not? Is China imperialistic or not? Most of us have formed a more explicit binary opinion about the country in 2020: a strong sense of condemnation or a steady feeling of admiration. Many condemn the regime to be repressive, businesspeople to be dishonest and Chinese people to be rude; others praise Beijing to be effective, companies to be inspiring and the Chinese to be resilient. Most of us today feel China it is either bad news or wonderful: 0 or 1. Of course, these aren’t normal times. But this zero-sum game thinking paralyzes our societies. To build the trust needed to overcome the differences we may have to move towards a solution that benefits us all. If there was ever any moment in history that we should collaborate together with China to tackle global challenges like environment, healthcare or data security, it’s probably now.

At the same time, our social environment today expects us to have an opinion on all the world’s affairs. The corona crisis forced us all to become experts in domains most of us didn’t even knew existed: from epidemiology to biostatistics. Despite the vast amounts of complex and ambiguous information we capture daily, few of us dare to say that ‘we don’t know’ the answer to these cryptic questions. These honest words would however allow us the time to listen, learn and find novel solutions. Yet we all live in a Trumpism and Covid-19 world where fear is the new normal and truth seems to matter less than the fact that we believe we are right. We are compelled to believe what we hear most often. We lack the time or energy to find, analyze and question all the facts. We form our realities ever more based on a swift decision of what is true or not. We are taking an emotional binary stand on the ‘truth’, which has created the polarized world we live in - a world where the truth is becoming more and more politized or as Lenin once said: a lie told often enough becomes the truth.

The Chinese paradox

Part of the answer to this question lies in how the West thinks more binary, while Chinese think more in terms of harmony. We think more often OR, while Chinese think more often AND. Probably, the roots of this dualistic perspective in Europe comes from the Christian religion where something was either good or bad/evil. And later on, in the 18th century in Europe, the Enlightenment made us focus more on the importance of science and reason. That tradition resulted in a more binary thinking civilization. In science, things are either correct or not. Westerners think more in terms of reason, facts and deduction while Chinese think more in terms of context and induction. The difference is obvious when we look at Western versus Chinese medicine, language, business and communication. It makes Chinese extremely bad at public relations, and distrusted by the West as a result of it. Chinese talk often in circles and riddles as they scan the spectrum of possibilities before a decision has to be made. They can consequently be very comfortable living in a reality that sounds contractionary to outsiders. When looking at China with a Western lens, it makes the country a web of paradoxes we can’t reconcile in our thoughts: A ‘communist’ regime nurturing extreme entrepreneurships; a ‘dictatorship’ that has taken 50% of its population (750 million people) out of poverty; an ‘unfree, repressive’ regime that allows 140 million citizens to travel abroad yearly with no intention ever of staying away. It makes no sense for us, but it does for 1.4 billion Chinese. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that we cannot condemn the darker side of politics and ideologies. But it’s not because someone or something does not fit our own beliefs, values or image, that we cannot learn from it. It’s the same reason why there is a lot to be learned about strategy, innovation, communication and organization from war. War is not ‘healthy’, but it lies at the root of many innovations or social change and we have a lot to learn from how soldiers think and act. Sun Tze even made war a form of ‘art’ inspiring many business leaders today.

When we read words as ‘unfree’, ‘repressive’, ‘communist’, or ‘dictatorship’ we are unconsciously hit with emotions that translate into animosity towards China.

While each of us tries to separate truth from fiction, these terms form a de facto universal image in our minds that distance 1 and 0 from each other: good from bad. As we advocate more diversity, inclusivity and spacious mindsets, we first have to let go of the emotional narratives to open our minds to a world of color. That does however not mean we should not stick to our values, just the opposite. We only need to acknowledge that between the image of 0 and 1, there is a plentitude of realities. This is very difficult as more possibilities means more voices to be heard and slower decisions to be taken. Take Huawei or Tik Tok for example. Both companies have been scrutinized more on security by the West than anyone else. As a result, they have built the most secure products and services in the industry. And yet we trust them less than others, as we’d rather be safe than sorry. Are these the only two options? Can we find a way to learn from them on how to improve our own security? That would be non-binary thinking. Another such paradox is that a closed society like China is a lot more open to a multilateral diverse world than an open society like Trump’s America. Maybe this is not about open or closed, but about revolving doors and cyclical trends? We have to learn to embrace a world that can be both right and wrong, safe and unsafe, true and untrue. We have to think more AND instead of OR.

The Projection frame of mind

I firmly believe that the Chinese have a cultural advantage towards the West when it comes to dealing with uncertainty as we have seen during the pandemic. Engraved by Taoism and Confucianism, China’s societal system is based on achieving harmony by combining the urge and ambition to excel individually AND the need to be recognized for the contribution you make to society. The Chinese consumer expert Tom Doctoroffcalls this the internal conflict between ‘projection’ and ‘protection’ of the Chinese. The field of tension that exists between social conformity and an expression of powerful individualism somehow energizes a billion Chinese. This may seem highly contradictory in the West, but in China these two motivations that aren’t mutually exclusive. The Chinese concept of ‘projection’ AND ‘protection’ is also of great importance in the business world.

If you want to do business with Chinese, you will need to try and understand how your prospective partner views your relationship. The mistake that nearly all Westerners make, businesspeople and policy makers alike, is to approach the Chinese too defensively, partly because they do not really trust them and partly from a desire to ‘protect’ our knowledge, intellectual property or investment. When this happens, the relation is not in ‘harmony’ and the Chinese are automatically pushed into a ‘protection’ frame of mind, so that the chances of successful collaboration are very slim. My advice to Western managers and politicians is to approach Chinese negotiations with a much more positive ‘projection’ attitude. Talk about the future, about your common dreams, about what you can build together, about the money you will be earning together. In this way, it is much more likely that you will win the approval and support of the Chinese decision maker. Once you have the top-level alignment, you can let your accountants and lawyers loose on the more ‘protectionist’-minded middle managers of the Chinese company, who in a professional context inhabit a very different environment from their boss. In this sense, the Chinese sometimes seem to be ‘qubit people’, who adjust their frame of mind to the manner in which they are assessed or approached.

The Qubit mindset

If we are to prosper post-corona, we will need to embrace a different state of mind. We should evolve from our current more binary thinking comfort-zone to an uneasy turbulent qubit mindset. This is the mindset many start-up founders and eccentric people like Elon Musk or Jack Ma have in common: a clear long-term vision, but how to get there can be different today from tomorrow. The possibilities are endless, and every day we need to redefine our future and question our realities. Imagine your mind as a quantum computer not limited to two unique states, but a mind that can store information in ‘quantum bits’ or ‘qubits’ in the form of 0 AND 1. Every new day, we have to verify the state of the bits (or truths) to verify whether the state is 0 or 1. Think of it as your morning shower time ritual, where still half asleep you suddenly have an eureka moment or can solve a problem that stressed you out the evening before. Instead of thinking more, maybe we need to dream more to allow the space to disconnect our normal binary thought and try to connect the dots differently. Until we know for sure, we should keep all options open, think in terms of projection over protection, get rid of all these emotional labels, stand by our moral code and trust our skillset. Let’s nurture a Qubit mindset to succeed in a world of ambiguity.

Pascal Coppens
Pascal Coppens
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September 22, 2020