Cloud or ground thinking…

Posted by on Feb 4, 2024 in Blog | 1 comment

pink clouds

I’m a big picture person. Perhaps it goes back to my days in the chess team at school, but as any chess player will tell you, you’ve got to play the game forward. You are always asking, “If I do this and they do that, then what. But what if they don’t, and do that instead…” and so it goes on. Before every move you brainstorm in dozens of different directions before you commit and move your queen three spaces to the right. You are constantly looking for new possibilities – both opportunities and threats. And there is nothing worse than the sinking realisation that you overlooked a path open to your opponent.

Trying to be ten steps ahead of the game has many merits, but it also has a downside. You can be so caught up in lofty possibilities that you forget what is happening right now. Even worse, while trying to solve the problems of the world, you might be blissfully unaware that you are creating a fair few in your local setting by simply not noticing the practical struggles facing the people you are living or working with.

I guess this is the difference between cloud and ground thinking. Both are really important and have a place. In an earlier era it was not uncommon to hear someone complain, “they are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly use.” The retort was often, “and you are so earthly minded that you are of no heavenly use.”

It’s a false dualism, isn’t it?

We need to be oriented to the future and caught up in a bigger picture, but also totally in touch with what is going on now.

It works it’s way out in many different ways.

Sometimes we forget the hundreds of little details that need to be worked out on the ground before a big idea can become reality. Many idealists are little more than dreamers because they don’t ensure someone is sweating over the details. Or they might forget to back and adequately support the person working away at those details. Idealists and pragmatists need each other, just as ideas people need details people.

But it can also take a completely different form.

I recollect an incredibly sad conversation I had with a man about the collapse of his family. He chatted about the genuinely noble and sacrificial things he had put in place for them. By working himself to a frazzle he was confident that they would face a financial future free of worry. He was able to fund a raft of things that he had never had during his youth. “But,” he said with real remorse, “it turns out that they wanted me more than my money. They craved my time, not the endless international trips we can now afford. And somewhere in my excessive drive to get more and more for them, I lost them all. My wife, my kids, my friends. I don’t know who I am anymore… But I do know I am very alone.”

I saw another form of this in a conversation that now dates back decades. The person I was chatting to was caught up in serious moral compromise.

“How did it come to this?” I asked.

I knew how idealistic he was. He had done some pretty courageous things in the struggle against apartheid and remained a strong advocate for social justice. He had seen some really ugly things while striving to build a more beautiful world, but had never lost heart. He painted on a large canvas and saw with astonishing clarity the consequences of even mild injustices, and he worked against them with courage. But as he said that day, “when you see everyone else cutting corners, you start to think of a few you can cut yourself. And then you rationalise that you are so important that the usual rules don’t apply to you. And for a while it seemed like they didn’t… and they didn’t… until they did! And then it all came crashing down. One shattered marriage, kids who won’t speak to me, and I’m left wondering how I could have been so stupid.”

Cloud and ground. It’s an import juggle. If you don’t look up and aim for a bigger picture you can easily become parochial, petty and small. Only look at the bigger picture, and your current world can quickly shatter.

All this is simply to say, reach for the stars. Commit to the loftiest of ideals. Build a better world. But don’t forget to clock in to your home base. Chat to your neighbours. Play monopoly with your kids. Treasure your marriage. Remember your mortality. Listen for the whispers of God. Change the world.

As always, nice chatting…

Photo by Luis Quintero on

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One Comment

  1. Hi Brian,
    Sorry for not replying sooner, this sounds lie an extension of the chat we had last Friday!
    Very interesting and some deep thoughts here. Solving the conundrum of this issue will save a lot of people from falling from their aspired jobs.
    I received some guidance & encouragement on this the other day when my wife & I were reading Proverbs 29:14-15
    ‘The best insurance for a leader’s longevity is to demonstrate justice for the poor. 15 Experiencing many corrections and rebukes will make you wise. But if left to your own ways, you’ll bring disgrace to your parents’
    A path I am not sure to many leaders would like. Seems that the higher you climb in church leadership the lower you need to go in humility to keep the balance right. Something very hard to do by yourself.


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