Zooming in and out | Marshall Shen

Zooming in and out

Zooming in and out

The mind is like a telescope. It can zoom in to an idea for details or zoom out and see a big picture. We unconsciously do these two actions all the time, and our quality of life depends on us to do it well.

Each of us has a natural tendency to zoom in more or zoom out more mentally. Like a default precision on a telescope, we have a default level of details that we seek on a subject. When captivated by an idea, some people like to learn the high level of that idea while others want to dive into minute details.

Knowing our default zooming level is essential. By default, when facing an intriguing idea, I tend to zoom in and study details. My personal preference is to explore an idea from different angles, understand the theory behind it, and continue to make plans based on what I learned. Each style of zooming has its trade-offs. Over time I realize that although my default approach provides me useful information for actions or decision making, it can be very time consuming and distracting from real priorities if I have multiple things in progress. Knowing my default zooming level and its trade-offs, I will also need to adjust the level consciously and even better, form a habit of adjustment to optimize for specific outcomes.

But before I can adjust the zooming level of my mind, I need to understand more about the nature of zooming-in and zooming-out. What is zooming in and zooming out, and when are the best cases to apply them? Our minds work differently, but by seeking a general pattern on zooming in and out, we can further understand ourselves, and I will share my reflection on the two questions.

Zooming in is to point mind on a single path of an idea or action, it’s my default zooming tendency. For example, solving a coding problem requires zooming in because it requires logical reasoning and tracing system logs step by step. Zooming in is useful in any logic-based experience: analyzing data, designing systems, or writing a document, etc. These activities produce outcomes from the rigorous mental organization. To borrow a pop-psych term, we experience “flow” by zooming in and get joy by achieving results.

Zooming out is to step out of our heads and observe a broader environment and ourselves as part of that environment. For example, group reflection like a team retro requires zooming out to empathize with others and see ourselves as a part of a bigger group and zooming out works in any emotion-driven experience: having an emotional conversation, reflecting on a situation, or being present in the moment. Zooming out frees me from details of a particular path. When my mind fixated on an idea and experiences certain emotions, such as stress and anxiety, I consciously redirect my mind to zoom out and try to view what I’m experiencing from a broader scope. I remind myself to see life as a journey and the time I’m going through is just a small chunk of that, and by zooming out, I feel grateful that my life is more fortunate than many and what I stress about at the time is trivial relative to the life fortune that I have.

Our mind is powerful, and the awareness that it can function as a telescope has brought me more ways to self reflect and grow. What is your experience of “zooming in” and “zooming out”?