It was 1963. NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida in this country’s final flight of the U.S. Mercury Program. This mission, Faith 7, was also the last chapter of solo space flight by our astronauts. Cooper circled the earth some 22 times, spending 36 hours in orbit. It was the longest space flight to-date. But we’ll remember this mission not for its duration or as the capstone of the Mercury Program. Instead, it lives in our imagination because of Cooper’s courageous and focused actions during the actual flight itself. By the 19thorbit of the flight, automated mechanical and navigational systems inexplicably began to fail. Radio communications to and from NASA’s Mission Control in Houston were lost.
In response, Cooper took independent, manual control of his craft, something never before done in space. He navigated the capsule by his own internal mental calculations. He visually used the earth and the stars for orientation. Without the benefit of normal NASA electronic timing devises, he defaulted to using his own wristwatch. Through these ‘antiquated’ means and his calm, laser-focused thinking, he overcame the high risk of human miscalculation, which would have doomed the flight. What’s more, thanks to his personal clarity of thought and action, Cooper engineered a near-perfect splashdown in the Pacific Ocean—the most accurate landing in the history of the Mercury Program. In this defining moment in space, Cooper found the capacity to methodically block out everything extraneous to his safe return to earth. In the face of situational chaos, distraction, fear, and almost certain death, he successfully achieved a nearly superhuman focus. He called forth a surreal and heroic mental clarity in the midst of the storm. Astronaut Gordon Cooper was focused, to say the least. In truth, he embraced an amazing, life saving case of ‘tunnel vision’.
While lesser ‘creatures’ like us can only dream about achieving what he did, we often have tunnel vision, as well. But it’s usually of a different kind, I’m afraid. Medically speaking, tunnel vision is defined as the loss of our peripheral vision. We experience clarity in seeing what’s straight ahead of us, but suffer from blurring to either side of center. Psychologically speaking, tunnel vision is characterized by one’s rigidity of thought or action. It often results in confusion when dealing with more complex, multi-dimensional, or seemingly overwhelming personal issues or problems. You know, the things that we’ve put on the ‘too hard’ or ‘too big’ piles of life. We can also self-inflict tunnel vision on ourselves, as witnessed by our common tendency to refuse helpful counsel, ideas, or assistance from the outside world. Or our manifested anger when we perceive that someone is distracting us. However we define it, though, tunnel vision is problematic when it’s a chronic part of our emotional and intellectual lives.
The relative positives and negatives of human tunnel vision turn on whether it’s Situational. Tunnel vision is a great thing when it’s only ‘one’ tool of many in our varied and abundantly filled toolbox of life. To be sure, we don’t make our living piloting spacecraft in earth orbit like Gordon Cooper did. But we, too, must periodically call forth our best focus in response to more down-to-earth challenges before us. For example, we need to put on our tunnel vision ‘lenses’ when we’re setting important goals and targets. Doing so permits us to keep on track. It helps us to minimize inevitable distractions. It facilitates our concentration and prioritization. It assists us in better controlling our stress. And it mitigates our inherent human tendencies toward indecision and procrastination.
But we can’t live in the world of tunnel vision every day. We can’t spend every moment there. For when we chronically narrow our human focus, we close off the world around us. We shut out the visual, auditory, intellectual, spiritual, and relational stimuli that make us truly human in our lives. In turn, we physically and emotionally withdraw. Continuous tunnel vision even hurts our decision-making, increases stress, and blinds us to both possibilities and dangers around us. We can’t ever get comfortable and complacent in this spot as whole human beings. So how do we actually move on from chronic, dead-end tunnel vision in life?
Renowned psychologist, writer, author, and teacher Dr. Robert Keegan can help in this regard. He proposed that adult development often follows a winnowing progression process of multiple and distinct developmental stages of transformation. Some of us get trapped right upfront in the ‘Imperial’ Mind stage, dominated by our own rigid and immediate needs, interests, and existent perceptions. In other words, we exist in a state of chronic tunnel vision. According to Keegan, the vast majority of us spend our lives in the ‘Socialized’ Mind stage. It’s a spot in which our primary point of reference centers on people, ideas, beliefs, and worldviews external to us. We live to be validated by others, not by ourselves. Acceptance means conformance. We follow the rules set by others. It’s a different form (and a new level) of tunnel vision, but it’s stifling nonetheless. Keegan posits that a minority of us can move forward from there to a higher level, where we define our lives and our own voices in more differentiated ways (‘Self-Authored’ Mind). A very few of us quest even further in a continuous process of self-change, evolution, and development (‘Self-Transforming’ Mind). Alas, though, most of us remain firmly stuck in the lower levels of the continuum, mired in a tunnel vision-like, stagnated outcome.
I find Keegan’s theory fascinating, informative, and very helpful. He is highly and deservedly respected in the field. But with great regard for his expertise and at the admitted risk of over-simplifying his theory, I wonder if his progression-approach to adult development partially misses the point in one important way relative to our tunnel vision. To the extent that Keegan sees our journey as a generally linear path (even taking into account our tendencies to backtrack in response to daunting new challenges or setbacks), he appears to convey the notion that we all should strive to achieve some hoped-for, incrementally improving, and one-directional actualization in our lives. Point taken, I suppose. But the problem here is that we don’t actually live our lives on some relatively neat and tidy continuum of bad-to-good or worse-to-better. One size doesn’t fit all for every circumstance. And this has very real implications for the tunnel vision existent in each of us.
I believe that tunnel vision is best managed when we develop our capacity to move more fluidly and flexibly within our adult developmental continuum in situation-dependent ways. It’s best achieved when we regularly push the boundaries of our own comfort zones to facilitate our ability to successfully ‘play’ in all spaces more fluidly, depending on circumstances. To illustrate my point, let’s return to Gordon Cooper’s Mercury space flight in 1963. Had the normal systems of his space capsule not broken down, his optimal modus operandi would have been to act in concert with Keegan’s lower-ranked ‘Socialized’ Mind mode during the entirety of his training and flight. Cooper’s job was to dutifully follow the externally driven flight plan, instructions, and guidance of Mission Control in Houston. In normal situations, the safety of his very mission depended on this.
But when things went utterly ‘sideways’ on board, Cooper acted in a tightly focused capacity in order to solve a specific, time-sensitive, and potentially deadly situation in space. He successfully adopted the posture of Keegan’s supposedly lowest level ‘Imperial’ Mind in the moment. Cooper acted in quite narrow ways to meet his immediate needs, interests, and perceptions. In adult development terms, Cooper’s historic space journey was on the bottom rung of actualization. In fact, his development actually regressed in flight (in line with Keegan’s theory). Nonetheless, through this astronaut’s ability to purposefully and narrowly ‘tunnel’ his own vision in these life-threatening circumstances, he achieved something extraordinary, spectacular, and transformational.
With this in mind, how do we exist in more porous, flexible, and practical ways in our own development? For starters, we can expand our peripheral field of vision by continuously widening our own perspectives and horizons in life. Then we can curiously and honestly question what we think we actually see around us. Is it truly what ‘is’ or is it what we simply ‘wish’ it to be? Further, we can courageously expose our minds to the very things that challenge our current worldviews and opinions– instead of simply reinforcing what we already know, believe, or think. We can push ourselves to examine things more deeply. To resist the temptation to stop at the simple, superficial, or easily described symptoms of things. And to more actively search for the sometimes obscure, but always more meaningful, root causes underneath.
When we’ve ‘mastered’ that, we can begin seeing things more fully in their own contexts instead of our already pre-programmed assumptions, biases, and perceptions. We can also physically ‘dislocate’ ourselves to new environments when we’re faced with issues, challenges, or problems. Things can look quite different if we evaluate them in a park or near a stream somewhere… versus doing so as we walk aside a busy, noisy, and crowded street. Change up your location and think more expansively. Lastly, you can monitor your own reactions to difficult issues for deeper clues as to why you’re handling them as you are. What are your real, but unspoken or even unconscious, needs, fears, hopes, or ‘stories’ around the challenges before you? Doing all these things, and actually practicing them with conviction, can go a long way to expanding your horizons in life. Further, they’ll help to keep your harmful tunnel vision tendencies in-check.
But that’s only part of the equation. For we can’t throw out our innate capacity for less expansive tunnel vision. We must not discard this purportedly lower-rung level of ‘being’ to the trash heap of failed human development. Instead, we should hold onto it dearly in our respective toolkits of life. We should work earnestly and purposefully to develop targeted tunnel vision skills along the way. We must do this because these wholly underappreciated capabilities will surely come in handy at some point. Our situational focus, our ability to narrow our field of vision, and our facile use of a laser mindset will work to our benefit. Meeting our goals in life will demand our application of finely tuned tunnel vision at times. Our ability to more fully block out distractions, competing agendas, or other ‘priorities’ will periodically, but vociferously, call for our use of our tunnel vision skills in this regard. And our very wellbeing might actually depend on it someday.
But don’t just listen to me here. If you had asked astronaut Gordon Cooper about this years and years ago, I bet he would have agreed. He would have wholeheartedly endorsed the use of tunnel vision. When it’s wisely and judiciously applied. At just the right moment. And in just the right amount. Because sometimes, ‘less’ is actually ‘more’ in space and in life. Now that’s highly developed 20/20 Vision. No exam needed.