Op-Ed: The Answer Within

Ilya Novofastovsky

Ilya Novofastovsky is the founding partner of Novo Law Firm, P.C., a former New York City administrative law judge and community liaison to Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz. This piece was originally written in early October and revised shortly after Superstorm Sandy, but appears apt today after U.S. House Republicans held the Sandy aid package hostage in a partisan showdown.

People often turn to me for answers.

To succeed, beyond knowledge and facts, I – a lawyer – have to connect with clients, judges and jurors. Garry Spence called it reaching the “heart zone.” So, one of the ongoing conversations at my law firm is about human nature and what people find authentic.

Politicians are great at using human nature to come into power. Yet, they seem to be failing us. So, what are serious policy-makers missing from their approach?

Our best and brightest commit spectacular miscalculations. When the Soviet Union collapsed, America sent economists who disregarded corruption and social mistrust. When Iraq fell, America asked its military to build democracy at a point of a gun, oblivious to cultural realities. As our financial system collapsed, the regulators insisted that individuals act rationally and that the human factor can be quantified, grouped, and amassed to a dizzying scale without altering its nature.

The lessons continue, but we still leave the emotional and subconscious realities out of the policy equation. In education policy, there is no mention that learning requires real relationships between teachers and students. As decades of education reform reshuffled money, tests and bureaucratic controls, we keep being disappointed. Policy is disconnected from passion, which we intuitively know is the actual driver of learning.

Intuition and emotion are not included in our models. Technology continues to provide an increasing sense that rules and reason triumph. We are gaining ways of talking about skills, safety and health. Meanwhile, our politics grow distant from virtues of character and wisdom, which sound like relics of a bygone era.

Even parenting is measured by a child’s vocabulary, athletics and artistic skill. Good marks for good schools lead to good jobs, and good appearances. Yet, we know that life is about more than this.

As we navigate this time of crisis, developments in so many spheres of knowledge – including neuroscience, economics, psychology, et cetera – offer new ways to reassess our approach.

Toward this end, I wanted to offer three insights.

First, the unconscious mind wields tremendous power. It processes millions of pieces of information a minute, compared to about 40 pieces that we are consciously aware of.

For example, when we buy furniture we find it hard to make a quick decision because complex visualization is required. But, if we take a break and let the problem marinate, we find a gut response because unconsciously we already figured it out.

The mind plays tricks. When I tell my 6-year-old “do not think of the color red,” the unconscious overrides my clear directions. So, our verbal narrative may not match the real one. Perhaps this is why 19 percent of Americans believe themselves to be in the top one percent of earners.

What is needed is open-mindedness toward reading the biases of your own mind.

Second, emotions are at the center of our thinking. Emotions are integral to cognitive function and action. Emotions drive memory. Emotions help us pick what to value. Reading and educating one’s emotions is central to self-actualization.

Ultimately, meaning comes in moments of transcendence, when the skull line disappears and we are one with our endeavor.

Third, we are social, not rational, animals. A child learns by copying adults, so a key predictor to high school graduation rates is good attachment between a mother and child. A revolutionary fervor of a crowd can spread and so can the valuation of a stock like Facebook.

We must recognize the value and nature of groups, the effectiveness of which is not just determined by the collective IQ, but by their ability to communicate, which is improved by things like face-to-face contact and taking turns in conversation.

As our country looks for a new direction, I hope that humanizing our search will reveal the profound answers that we need.