Brain Science behind Flow

The Fox and the Hummingbird

So the best boss ever award goes to you for getting me this book. There's a specific part in it that talks about the Fox and the Hummingbird. And I know that this particularly resonated with you. So I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about it.

Sure. So the book is Dan Roam, Blah, Blah, Blah. And it's really about Visual Thinking. And we at Flow are core proponents of Visual Thinking. When you think about how our education system has worked, it's really focused on English, on language. We get 12 or 13 years of language classes. And how many years of Art do we get? Pretty much by the time you're done with second grade, your Art is history, and maybe you have to sign up for an elective to get a little bit of Art. But Art gives you a very different way of seeing the world. And this phrase, building mental models of the world: that's what we're about. Helping an audience understand complexity, and be able to make decisions based on that new understanding.

The analogy in the book is about the fox and the hummingbird. So the fox is like our language training. A fox goes through the forest, with intention, going from tree to tree. It's thinking about this sequence, thinking through the world by analyzing it, step by step in sequence. And that's great. I mean, that is, in a way, that's the essence of storytelling, right? That's language.

But the hummingbird is going to build a view of this forest in a totally different way. It's going to just glance, and it's going to see everything it needs to see. And then it will go ahead and start to zoom in on each flower it cares about, right? And that, but that initial view, that his whole holistic Visual Thinking that, in my opinion, has really gotten lost in our education systems and the way we communicate and do business.


So how do this fox and hummingbird relate to Flow?


It's hard to just talk about it. So let me show you. This is one of the parts of our product called the Story Creator. And if you've been around Flow a little bit, you will have seen this life expectancy Flow, which is just a really great story. So let me use this as an example.

So say, I want to start out with this big picture. There's this really interesting thing going on, look at all these dots, and they're arranged in some sort of shape, it's kind of flat. And that goes up. Well, that is that first hummingbird glance, just get that big picture.

But pretty quick, maybe you want to go ahead and start to drill in, to start to think about it like a fox. You want to do want both. So the first thing I might do here is just focus on the first 100 years. So I've flattened out the view. And you can see that life was pretty flat.  Life expectancy was kind of stuck here around 34 or 35 years old for a lot of the world.  A couple of countries start to take off a little bit earlier: Denmark and Sweden. But that's your basic structure.

And then you can view the second half. I'm actually let's go ahead and call that a step. And now let's take a look at the second half of that. Look, it's just taken off throughout all the countries of the world. Maybe even bring out the depth axis. So we can see just the second half of our 200-year cycle here. I'll just call that a step. And go ahead and show the whole thing again. Now we've got this sense of the big picture. In a way. It's humanity's greatest success: this increase in life expectancy.

But then we also want to explore all the stories within it. So we can go in highlight the Rwandan genocide. In fact, I can even show just the country of Rwanda through time. And we can see what happened in 1994 with a huge drop in life expectancy. Maybe we'll call that a step.

Then go back and show all the countries and reset the time and maybe take a look at another view.

Let's take a look at this huge chasm that went across all the countries of the world back here in 1918. That was the Spanish flu. Pretty interesting. It affects every country.

So what have we done here, we've just created a series of steps that show both the big picture and stories within it. That's the marrying of the fox and the hummingbird.

I actually just created a Flow with these steps:

  • Start with the big picture.
  • Go ahead and focus in on that first 100 years.
  • Now we're going to focus in on the second 100 years and rip it out across all the countries
  • Then we can zoom in and start to look at some of humanity's greatest failures like Rwanda
  • And the next step, which was the Spanish flu
  • And come back out to get the big picture again

Then have a conversation and explore more with our audience.


According to the Hummingbird

"If you’ve ever had a chance to be around a hummingbird, you realize they don’t go from point A to B to C as our clever fox did. A hummingbird is, in effect, in all of those positions at the same time, which to me is like our mind’s eye.... It wants to see the whole picture all at once because it doesn’t have the verbal ability to slow down."

-Dan Roam, Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don't Work

We've tried to figure out a way to build a tool with a set of ideas encoded in the software: ideas about how Visual Thinking works. How you can see the big picture and the details, how you can end up walking away with a really meaningful mental model? In this case of life expectancy, that's the way we can solve some of humanity's greatest problems.

And we do have a few problems that we better get fixed. Whether it's at a government level, like the UN, or a big enterprise, or small enterprise, or maybe you just want to figure out how to better communicate to your PTA to help your local audience understand some aspect of budgets better.

If we can help your audience walk away with these clean mental models, that is a mission and that's how we're trying to change the world. And we hope that you'll take it and start to change the world too.