Big Picture vs Detail Oriented Thinking

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Big picture vs detail oriented thinking is usually portrayed as a dichotomy. It is one or the other, and even when the need for both is acknowledged, the two are still considered separate forces. Here is a section of an article that is one of the first google search results:

Typical of the Big Picture Thinker

  • You can quickly see patterns in complex problems.
  • You like to come up with new ideas and new projects.
  • You have a low tolerance for busywork, tedious errands, and filling out forms.
  • You are great at outlining what needs to be done, but filling in the details can feel exhausting.
  • You may have been described as right-brained.
  • When you have taken the Myers-Briggs assessment, you were an N.

Typical of the Details Thinker

  • You think about things in great detail and sometimes miss the big picture.
  • While you are certainly smart, others may joke that you lack common sense.
  • You would prefer to edit or tweak a plan than to come up with it from scratch.
  • Highlighting study notes doesn’t work for you, because you end up highlighting everything.
  • You may have a tendency to over-think things.
  • You have excellent attention to detail.
  • You may have been described as left-brained.
  • When you have taken the Myers-Briggs assessment, you were an S.

While this may be a good indicator of which type of thinking is more dominant, it doesn’t look at the two in combination. For me, big picture and detail thinking are very intertwined.

I’ve always considered myself a big picture thinker, and I even have the N on the Myers-Briggs test. In addition, I consider some of the worst arguments to be the ones where something is taken out of context. Generally I don’t try to bog myself down with details, but often the two types of thinking aren’t mutually exclusive; sometimes the application of big picture thinking requires an enormous attention to detail. Whether a large-scale plan succeeds often depends on the tiny details.

In chess, the big picture vs the details is analogous to strategy vs tactics. Strategy provides you with overall guidance: should I attack the kingside or the queenside, should I seek to trade a bishop for a knight? Tactics govern how such plans actually take place: if I attack the kingside this way, then my opponent will play this counter, then I will play this move, etc. I try to keep a balance of strategy and tactics, as having one without the other can lead to disaster.

I guess an analogy would be that to get somewhere, you need a map and a car. Having a map without the transportation is useless, and having a car but no idea how to get to your destination is futile. Though if you had to pick only one, I guess having the car is a better idea.

Big Picture Thinking Requires Details, and Vice Versa

The big picture vs detail oriented thinking comes up a lot in political/economic/social debates. Often it’s the knowledge of many related facts that leads to a more accurate big picture understanding. To take a not super-controversial topic, consider the funding and effectiveness of NASA. We know that it has declined significantly since landing on the moon. And we know that landing a human on Mars should be done soon, and we could argue that if only NASA had more funding, we could be much further in space exploration.

Of course, the previous is a pretty naive representation of the NASA situation. During the 1960s, we were at the height of the space race in the Cold War, and NASA was considered not only as an institution for scientific research, but also an institution for national security. Landing on the moon was inspirational not just as a feat of humanity, but also as a feat of us beating them. In addition, as many inventions come from military purpose, there are obvious military implications of having satellites in orbit around the earth, but there are much fewer in having any on Mars. And the economic investment would take much longer to return. You could keep piling on more relevant details to get a better picture.

The point is, to get a good high-level understanding of something requires extensive knowledge of the details surrounding it.

On the other hand, making sense of small details often relies on seeing the big picture. Every bit and fragment of the news makes more sense the more you understand current trends. Events that seem unrelated may very well be correlated, but the correlation may only be visible from bird’s eye view.

For example, LGBT rights and the abortion/women’s rights may seem unrelated, but there is a common denominator: religion. Resistance against LGBT rights and abortion are both connected to religious beliefs in the same way, and even the arguments for resisting either movement come almost solely from religious arguments. This is why on this blog I discuss religion a lot but rarely LGBT rights or abortion—dealing with the root cause is more imperative than dealing with the symptoms.

In all, both big picture and detail oriented thinking are important, and one needs both of them to have a deeper understanding. Without the big picture or the details, one has a limited grasp of the situation.

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