Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Teaching yourself to become a thinker

I finally got around to reading Bill Deresiewicz's fascinating lecture: Solitude and Leadership. It's over two years old now, but it has aged very well, so if you haven't yet seen it, I encourage you to wander over and give it a read.

Although Deresiewicz spends much of the lecture talking about leadership, that wasn't my favorite part of his talk. Rather, I particularly enjoyed his analysis of thinking. He proposes that modern civilization isn't doing enough to develop a culture of thinkers:

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things.

What does Deresiewicz mean by a "thinker"? He gives as an example (he is speaking to a West Point audience in 2009, after all) General David Petraeus:

He has a Ph.D. from Princeton, but what makes him a thinker is not that he has a Ph.D. or that he went to Princeton or even that he taught at West Point. I can assure you from personal experience that there are a lot of highly educated people who don’t know how to think at all.

No, what makes him a thinker—and a leader—is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself. And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren’t popular. Even when they don’t please his superiors. Courage: there is physical courage, which you all possess in abundance, and then there is another kind of courage, moral courage, the courage to stand up for what you believe.

Admiring General Petraeus for his mental and moral courage is fair, but even more interesting to me is Deresiewicz's observation on what (I think) is the more important aspect of being a thinker: creativity and originality:

Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

It's a wonderful observation, and it's so very, very true. Creativity, originality, and inspiration require patience, reflection, and concentration.

It brings to mind a wonderful lesson that my dear friend Neil Goodman taught me over twenty years ago, when I was still just learning to program and I was trying to understand the way that Neil approached a problem.

I was asking him how he knew when he was done with the design phase of his project, and ready to move on to the coding phase. Neil replied with an answer that was very evocative of Deresiewicz's advice to "outlast your impulses". Neil said (as best I remember):

Work on your design. At some point, you will think you are done, and you are ready, but you are not. You have to resist that feeling, and work on your design some more, and you will find more ways to improve it. Ask others to review it; re-read and re-consider it yourself. Again, you will think you are done, and you are ready, but you are not. You must resist, resist, resist! Force yourself to continue iterating on your design, paying attention to every part of it, over and over. Even if you feel that you can't possibly improve it any more, still you must return to it. Only then, will you reach the point when you are ready to write code.

Of course, for the full effect, you have to have Neil himself (in his earnest, impassioned, gentle-giant sort of way) deliver the message, but hopefully the point comes through.

Incidentally (perhaps Deresiewicz didn't get to pick his own title?), I don't think that solitude really captures the idea properly. Or maybe solitude is the right thing in a military context, but in the software engineering field, where I spend all my time, I don't think that solitude is either necessary nor useful for original, creative thinking. You need to get feedback and reactions from others, and you can't do that without communicating, and without listening. But you do need to exercise a number of activities which are certainly related to solitude: contemplation, reflection, consideration, etc. So if I had the chance to re-title his essay, I might suggest that he have a title more like "Leadership and the ability to think for yourself."

But that's quite a bit wordier :)

I've wandered quite a bit far afield, but hopefully I've intrigued you enough with Deresiewicz's essay that you'll wander over and give it a read, and maybe (hopefully) you will find it time well spent.

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