| 1352 words

Do you know how to think? Does anyone know how to think? It happens naturally, right? You have thoughts sometimes, in the background. Sometimes you need to decide something which you can easily do after taking a moment to pause and ponder. Other times you might just have a solution come to you after taking some time away from a problem, maybe sleeping on it.

All these cases are examples of thinking, but I think most people have quite a passive relationship with their thoughts. An appropriate metaphor might be a librarian locked away in the basement, sometimes offering up insights or ideas, sometimes taking feedback from whoever is in charge upstairs, but for the most part toiling away alone among their stacks of knowledge. Enough has been said about the subconscious that most people probably have a decent model of theirs, but I find that it doesn't always cooperate.

I think it's common when asking someone a particularly hard question, to get a quick "I don't know" in response. Maybe even an "I have no idea". While I find this instinct to be understandable, I don't like what it suggests. Thinking is a process that takes time - a quick response like that often means that they maybe don't already know what their being asked, but that doesn't mean they've actually thought about it.

I like to teach, and often volunteer to do so. I often ask questions specifically to get people to think about something; to usher in a certain train of thought. I guess that's partially why I find it frustrating when there's an immediate, unthinking response. I'm not expert, but what I've gleaned from working on hard problems myself is that thinking is a process. It takes time. A few minutes at least. It's not fair to claim that you don't know something until you've thought about it, and that process requires at least a few minutes. (To be transparent, I first encounted this idea in a strangely influencial :rationalist Harry Potter Fanfic)

That's another thing I sometimes notice when I ask people to walk me through their thought process, or to think out loud. They find doing so difficult, perhaps because there's not much of a thought process happening before the "I don't know" hits their lips. Essentially, whatever the process of thinking is, I think it's opaque by default. It takes practice introspecting to be able to view your thought process, to peer behind the curtains of your own mind. And I definitely think this is a very valuable skill, not only if you work on hard problem but also to help make your decision making more transparent and predictable.

If I could ban a phrase, so that nobody in the entire world is allowed to utter it, it would be "I don't know". For people who find that phrase quickly leaping to their lips, I think this is a valuable first step to escaping uncertainty's grasp. At least try to verbalize what it is you don't know. Make a list of questions that you with you had the answer to, the more specific the better. All of this, however, is the easy part. Next, you must think.

Like I said, really intentionally thinking is hard. I challenge you to try it, right now. Set a timer for 5 mins, or longer if you dare, and see if you can do nothing but think for that timespan. Stop your hands from straying to social media, keep yourself planted in one spot. Really test yourself - see if you can bear nothing but your unfiltered Self for the time it would take you to write a couple of emails.

I genuinely do think this is quite hard, and not something that comes naturally. That's kind of the idea behind a lot of meditation or mindfulness practice; paying attention to your thoughts, understanding the mechanics of your brain. I feel like some might say that electronics and social media have addled our collective attention spans. They've sucked away our patience like vampires feeding on blood - our attention only makes them stronger. And who knows, maybe they're right. But this is not a permanent process.

Doing things that exercise your patience make you more patient. Paying attention to how you think and where your thoughts come from will help you better understand yourself. Not only will all of this make you better at solving problems, but in my experience they are seriously useful mental abilities.

Sometimes I reach a point in my writing where I'm not entirely sure what to say next. Especially when in the word vomit format, I know I'm supposed to spill my thoughts as they come to me, but I really do prefer it when I'm making some coherent points and I have something to say. I'm getting better at that, but sometimes I'm not really sure where to go next. I don't know what to write.

Hold on, that's a banned phrase. Instead, I question where this train of thought leads. Where could it lead? What natural curiosities compel me? And a question is just a starting point, but they provide a direction. Now if do some thinking - really think, like do nothing else and focus for a period of time and create a peaceful space where I can see my thoughts as I think them - I have new ideas. That usually works; it's not just a practice for intellectual problems for creative ones too.

I'd encourage everyone to be skeptical of inclination to conclude that they simply do not know anything. It is a phrase which ends thing, rather than a phrase which can lead to new possibilities.

:x hpmor quote

Here's the full quote, if you must know

You never called any question impossible, said Harry, until you had taken an actual clock and thought about it for five minutes, by the motion of the minute hand. Not five minutes metaphorically, five minutes by a physical clock.

And furthermore, Harry said, his voice emphatic and his right hand thumping hard on the floor, you did not start out immediately looking for solutions.

Harry then launched into an explanation of a test done by someone named Norman Maier, who was something called an organizational psychologist, and who'd asked two different sets of problem-solving groups to tackle a problem.

The problem, Harry said, had involved three employees doing three jobs. The junior employee wanted to just do the easiest job. The senior employee wanted to rotate between jobs, to avoid boredom. An efficiency expert had recommended giving the junior person the easiest job and the senior person the hardest job, which would be 20% more productive.

One set of problem-solving groups had been given the instruction "Do not propose solutions until the problem has been discussed as thoroughly as possible without suggesting any."

The other set of problem-solving groups had been given no instructions. And those people had done the natural thing, and reacted to the presence of a problem by proposing solutions. And people had gotten attached to those solutions, and started fighting about them, and arguing about the relative importance of freedom versus efficiency and so on.

The first set of problem-solving groups, the ones given instructions to discuss the problem first and then solve it, had been far more likely to hit upon the solution of letting the junior employee keep the easiest job and rotating the other two people between the other two jobs, for what the expert's data said would be a 19% improvement.

Starting out by looking for solutions was taking things entirely out of order. Like starting a meal with dessert, only bad.

(Harry also quoted someone named Robyn Dawes as saying that the harder a problem was, the more likely people were to try to solve it immediately.)