Great Minds Think Alike—And We Can Learn to Think Like Them: Wisdom from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
By Amita Shukla
Great minds think differently. They look at the same problems as everyone else but see them through a different lens—and they do so in the same way. Such minds are rare. But when they lead, they shake the world.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. developed such a mind. He had learned to tame his 1D mind, train his 2D mind, and trust his 3D mind.* On this day that honors him, we are contemplating some of his most profound ideas to inspire and guide our own.
One of Dr. King’s most beautiful expositions on mastering the mind is a sermon titled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart” which he first delivered in 1959:
“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think…. Few people have the toughness of mind to judge critically and to discern the true from the false, the fact from the fiction. Our minds are constantly being invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and false facts.”
Taming the 1D Mind
Dr. King goes on to describe the dangers of a soft mind, or capitulating to the weaknesses of the 1D mind.
“Softminded individuals are prone to embrace all kinds of superstitions. Their minds are constantly invaded by irrational fears…. Such fears leave the softmind haggard by day and haunted by night. The softminded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.”
Dr. King cites examples. “We do not need to look far to detect the dangers of soft-mindedness. Dictators, capitalizing on softmindedness, have led men to acts of barbarity and terror that are unthinkable in civilized society. Adolf Hitler realized that softmindedness was so prevalent among his followers that he said, ‘I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.’”
“The tenderminded person reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; in short he prejudges and is prejudiced.” Dr. King ends the section with this powerful premonition. “The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of softmindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce softminded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”
Trusting the 3D Mind
Dr. King then describes the qualities of a tender heart, echoing the principles of learning to trust the 3D mind.
“Toughmindedness without tenderheartedness is cold and detached, leaving one’s life in a perpetual winter devoid of the warmth of spring and the gentle heat of summer…. The hardhearted person never truly loves. He engages in a crass utilitarianism which values other people mainly according to their usefullness [sic] to him…. The hardhearted person lacks the capacity for genuine compassion…. He gives dollars to a worthwhile charity, but he gives not of his spirit…. He depersonalizes life.”
The foundation of a tender heart is love, as Dr. King describes in many of his writings. He concludes by saying that combining a tough mind and a tender heart “avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the softminded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted.”
Training the 2D Mind
In other writings, Dr. King also explains the importance of training the 2D mind, the seat of the almighty ego. One of his most powerful works on this subject is a sermon titled “The Drum Major Instinct” and delivered in 1968:
“There is, deep down within all of us, an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct – a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs a whole gamut of life…. We like to do something good. And you know, we like to be praised for it…. Everybody likes it, as a matter of fact. And somehow this warm glow we feel when we are praised, or when our name is in print, is something of the vitamin A to our ego.”
Dr. King continues to describe the consequences of this instinct. “The presence of the drum major instinct is why so many people are joiners…. it’s really a quest for attention, and recognition, and importance. And they get names that give them that impression…. And we join things, over-join really, that we think we will find that recognition in…. You see people over and over again, with the drum major instinct taking them over. And they just live their lives trying to out do the Joneses.”
Dr. King warns of the dangers of capitulating to the ego of the 2D mind. “There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive…. if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one’s personality to become distorted.” He describes several consequences. “You will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting…. it causes one to engage ultimately in activities that are merely used to get attention…. it leads, to snobbish exclusivism.”
“The drum major instinct can lead to exclusivism in one’s thinking, and can lead one to feel that because he has some training, he’s a little better than that person that doesn’t or because he has some economic security, that he’s a little better than the person who doesn’t have it. And, that’s the uncontrolled perverted use of the drum major instinct.”
Mastering the Mind
Dr. King concludes by beautifully bringing together the power of harnessing the strengths of all three states of mind. “Recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s your new definition of greatness…. It means that everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve…. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
In the end, Dr. King turns to pondering his own eulogy. “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice: say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind…. If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show somebody he’s travelling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.”
Great minds—whether great leaders or innovators—become masters of their mind by conquering its weaknesses and harnessing its strengths. The greatness of the human mind is that we can each change our mind simply by transforming how we think about it. The simple awareness of how the three states of mind drive our thoughts, words, and actions can have a profound impact on us. Practiced moment by moment, such wisdom leads us to think more about how we think and, ultimately, to think differently.
*How Dr. King harnessed the power of his mind is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 13: “Creating Paths” in Enduring Edge.