Monday, July 19, 2010

Thoughts about thinking

Challenging work assignments, family matters, and home maintenance projects have kept me very busy lately. Hence, the significant drop-off in blog posts over the past couple of months. I'm hoping to correct that soon.

Not surprisingly, I've been thinking a lot about leisure time - in particular its benefits for creative thinking. My reflections are guided by two lectures on the topic.

The first is a GoogleTechTalk by Dr. David M. Levy, No Time to Think. In the talk, Dr. Levy asserts that deep contemplation not only promotes creativity but also provides a sense of calmness and satisfaction. He further argues that deep thinking cannot be forced directly - instead we must make ourselves available to it by seeking out silence, and sanctuary. Dr Levy observes that this requirement for sanctuary conflicts with modern social pressures to multi-task, remain in constant communication, and solve issues through repetitive searches of existing information.

The second is a lecture, Solitude and Leadership, by William Deresiewicz at West Point in 2009. The talk is deeply insightful and worth reading in its entirety but, for this post, can be fairly summarized by the following three points:

  1. Original thinking is a core attribute of leadership.
  2. Formulating original thoughts requires long periods of concentration and distance from the thoughts of others.
  3. Quiet solitude is necessary to do both.

Like Dr. Levy, Mr. Deresiewicz laments social pressures to multi-task, remain in constant communication, and rely on existing information to solve problems. To quote,

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. 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.


Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else.

Thinking originally about difficult problems is an activity that I deeply enjoy and find satisfying. Like Dr. Levy and Mr. Deresiewicz, I reached similar conclusions about distracting activities years ago and have since guarded my time and attention vigorously. I've often been teased for my resistance to social media. At times I've felt self-conscious about this choice, even deficient or outdated. These talks give me renewed confidence in my choices.

The challenge, as indicated at the outset of this post, is finding the time to think. A hard task given the pace of modern society and the high-tech industry in particular.