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Guest Post by Rachel Botsman | How to Be a Liminal Thinker

November 21, 2022

This is a guest post by WWSG thought leader Rachel Botsman, originally posted here.

Have you ever had that feeling of just being on the verge of something?

You might feel a little different or disoriented, but if you push through, an exciting idea or new direction lies on the other side. Often, these times of transition are liminal spaces. But too often, we rush through the space in-between.

Autumn, with its falling leaves and fading light, is a liminal space between richness and bleakness. That’s why in this edition we’re looking at the power of liminal thinking.

Have you heard your workplace talk about logical thinking? Or the importance of lateral thinking? But liminal thinking? For most of us, I’m guessing it’s a ‘no’!

Liminal Worlds, Maria Popova

What exactly is ‘liminal thinking?

You may have noticed certain places where you feel different or slightly off – long corridors, reception areas, stairwells, elevator lobbies, airport lounges, or empty hotel corridors at night.

These are all liminal spaces in our physical environment – places of transition where we leave one place and enter another. Often, we must wait, from minutes to hours, in these slightly discomforting in-between zones.

Liminal is a word derived from the Latin for threshold, limen. Liminal spaces are the doorway between ‘what was’ and ‘what’s next’. They are the zone between the familiar and the unknown.

Thresholds in our lives

An ethnographer named Arnold van Gennep first came up with the term ‘liminality’ in his book The Rites of Passage. It was later expanded by the anthropologist Victor Turner in his work aptly called the Betwixt and Between. Both writers pointed out how liminality shows up in transitional times in our lives:

·     When you finish school or university and have no clue what to do next.

·     When you move to a new place, and you don’t know anyone.

·     When you lose a job and don’t have another opportunity lined up.

Why we resist liminal thinking

Liminal thinking is the mental equivalent of these places of in-betweenness. It’s a state of ambiguity or doubt that exists right before a breakthrough into a new way of thinking.

The problem is that just like an empty parking lot or doctor’s waiting room, a liminal space doesn’t always feel great. We can feel confused, frustrated, lost or anxious because things feel like they’re outside of our control.

So, what do we typically do?

·     Focus on what we know and go back to the familiar.

·     Try to rush through the ambiguity to get to the other side.

·     Or when we genuinely have no clue what to do, we look for any kind of certainty or closure.

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Liminal thinking at work

We fight liminal thinking as individuals; it’s like a defensive weapon against the unknown. Entire organizations can have systems, incentives or processes that intentionally or unintentionally shut down liminal thinking. Time or financial pressures, fatigue, outside stresses and uncertainties will all amplify our tendency to need to jump to conclusions and concrete outcomes.

So, why is this such a big issue, right now?

The Great Betwixt Period

When you zoom out, we’re living in one of the greatest liminal periods in history. Many traditions are being dissolved, hierarchies challenged, and institutions eroded. In the words of Victor Turner, we’re in a ‘Betwixt Period’ where the old world is being left behind, but we don’t know what lies beyond the threshold.

In my notebook, every couple of months, I spend a few hours trying to join the dots of significant shifts that fascinate or worry me. Here is what I wrote on October 7th:

·     In-betweenness in how we work: One way of working has ended, but we have yet to truly commit to another.

·     False certainty: Many political leaders create an illusion of knowing, which is far more dangerous than not knowing at all.

·     Disorder: Established systems of power and trust are crashing, but new safety nets and orders have yet to emerge.

In other words, navigating uncertainty is THE most essential skill in the 21st century.

Not IQ, confidence, or even knowledge but our capacity to be comfortable with doubts and the unknown. From our schools to workplaces, we need to expand our capacity to be liminal thinkers.

The Mediated Motion, Olafur Eliasson

Developing your liminal thinking capacity

Here’s what I’ve learned about the process liminality in my own work:

·     Something must end.

·     Then you must wait and wonder (often confusing and frustrating).

·     Then you have to experiment with other choices and directions.

·     Then you have to commit and invest in the route you’ve taken (I mean really commit).

·     And then, finally, you feel the benefits of the discovery.

As the poet William Blake wrote:

“In the universe, there are things that are known and things that are unknown, and in between them, there are doors.”

Liminal thinking is so powerful because it’s the doorway to something new.



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