It’s hard to hear yourself think

Some related notes:

Exhortations which help: Get curious; Get bored; Get playful

Partial list of practices meant to produce deliberateness, receptivity

  • Wi-Fi defaults to off in the morning
  • Consistency in My daily routine
  • Reminding myself that The high-order bit for my productivity is whether I complete a deeply-focused morning creative block, recording/tracking whether that happens and the main blockers / helpers
  • Daily meditation
  • Simple, familiar background music
  • Lots of long walks, usually without audiobooks or podcasts
  • My notes (at least the important ones) contain mostly my own words (Literature notes are secondary and separate)
  • Weekly, monthly, quarterly, annual reflection and planning exercises
  • Forest.app running on my phone while I work
  • Twitter, Mail, etc are not installed on my phone
  • Focus.app runs from 7AM to 5PM, blocking Mail, the Twitter timeline, distracting web sites, etc
  • Answer email in batches, usually in the evening or when feeling low-energy
  • Usually accept at most one meeting per day, in a consistent afternoon slot, to protect my big working blocks

Deresiewicz, W. (2010, March 1). Solitude and Leadership. The American Scholar.

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.

Wanting - Luke Burgis

The prolific letter-writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton noticed this was happening to him during his college years at Columbia University. Later in life, he wrote: “The true inner self must be drawn up like a jewel from the bottom of the sea, rescued from confusion, from indistinction, from immersion in the common, the nondescript, the trivial, the sordid, the evanescent.”

Thick desires are like diamonds that have been formed deep beneath the surface, nearer to the core of the Earth. Thick desires are protected from the volatility of changing circumstances in our lives. Thin desires, on the other hand, are highly mimetic, contagious, and often shallow.

Do your own thinking

Beware: it’s too easy to let others’ schema and ideas dominate your own. It’s hard to hear yourself think.

When reading, the default is to let the author do your thinking for you. Per Schopenhauer:

When we read someone else thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. … Accordingly in reading we are for the most part absolved of the work of thinking. … It stems from this that whoever reads very much and almost the whole day, but in between recovers by thoughtless pastime, gradually loses the ability to think on his own – as someone who always rides forgets in the end how to walk. But such is the case of many scholars: they have read themselves stupid. For constant reading immediately taken up again in every free moment is even more mentally paralysing than constant manual labour, since in the latter we can still muse about our own thoughts. But just as a coiled spring finally loses its elasticity through the sustained pressure of a foreign body, so too the mind through the constant force of other people’s thoughts.

That’s bad from an epistemological perspective, but it’s particularly bad for achieving novel insight. How can you think thoughts which have never been thought before if you’re reliant on others’ thinking?

Per Kant:

Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority. Minority is inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another. This minority is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! Dare to be wise!

One key antidote: Write about what you read to internalize texts deeply


References

Kant, I. (1996). An answer to the question: What is enlightenment? In A. Wood (Ed.), & M. J. Gregor (Trans.), Practical philosophy (pp. 11–22). https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511813306.005 (Original work published 1784)

Schopenhauer, A. (2015). On reading and books. In C. Janaway (Ed.), & A. Del Caro (Trans.), Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays (Vol. 2). https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139016889 (Original work published 1851)

On Buckminster Fuller, in The Independent Scholars Handbook - Richard Gross (pp 191-192)

His first and most dramatic step was to stop talking. He decided that he simply would not speak to anyone nor allow anyone to speak to him until he felt that he knew what words he wanted to use and what they meant. Thus, he would be forced really to understand what he was thinking, to think thoughts that were based solely on his experience, and to avoid parroting un-truths learned from others. His silence lasted almost two years. “Out of this intense period of silent thought emerged in embryo most of the great philosophical and mathematical innovations that have made his fame and. moved the world forward a litrle,” concludes Hatch.

Stop Relying on a Source and Have Faith in Your own Thoughts • Zettelkasten Method

I had believed that texts contain information, and that it was my job to make the information accessible.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (via Nielsen, M. A. (2003, September 8). Extreme thinking. Tough Learning, Brisbane, Australia.):

It is easy {in the world to live after the world’s opinion}; it is easy {in solitude to live after our own}; but the great man is he who {in the midst of the crowd} keeps {with perfect sweetness} {the independence of solitude}.

Edwards, P. N. (2005). How to Read a Book.

Don’t wait for the author to hammer you over the head. Instead, from the very beginning, constantly generate hypotheses (“the main point of the book is that…”) and questions (“How does the author know that…?”) about the book.
Making brief notes about these can help. As you read, try to confirm your hypotheses and answer your questions. Once you finish, review these.

Write about what you read to internalize texts deeply

If you want to deeply internalize something you’re reading, the best way I know is to write about it:

For deep understanding, it’s not enough to just highlight or write marginalia in books: there isn’t much pressure to synthesize, connect, or to get to the heart of things. And they don’t add up to anything over time as you read more. Instead, write Evergreen notes as you read.

But of course, it doesn’t always make sense to read in this way: much of the time you’re not really trying to internalize the text deeply, and text may not be worthy of that much attention: The best way to read is highly contextual.

Also, it’s worth noting: The most effective readers and thinkers I know don’t take notes when reading. Speaking at least for myself, experience has suggested that I need more support to effectively engage with what I’m reading.

Method

Our broad approach is an alternating cycle:

  1. Collect passages that seem interesting and thoughts that emerge while reading: How to collect observations while reading
  2. Process clusters of those passages and thoughts into lasting notes:How to process reading annotations into evergreen notes

References

Luhmann, N. (1992). Communicating with Slip Boxes. In A. Kieserling (Ed.), & M. Kuehn (Trans.), Universität als Milieu: Kleine Schriften (pp. 53–61). Retrieved from http://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes

It is impossible to think without writing; at least it is impossible in any sophisticated or networked (anschlußfähig) fashion.

Levy, N. (2013). Neuroethics and the Extended Mind. In J. Illes & B. J. Sahakian (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics (pp. 285–294). Oxford University Press.

Notes on paper, or on a computer screen … do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavour easier, they make it possible.

Writing forces sharper understanding

Writing is a great way to put pressure on your thinking: it’s hard to summarize something you don’t sharply understand. By trying to explain an idea, you’ll naturally try multiple framings, flesh out its edges, and see new connections. This is part of why Evergreen note-writing helps insight accumulate and why you should Write about what you read to internalize texts deeply.

The additional step of making associations and integrating that writing with prior notes (i.e. to create Evergreen notes, particularly since Evergreen notes should be concept-oriented) makes this effect even more powerful because you have to understand how a given idea relates to other ideas. And when you’re comparing the new ideas to the old, you can see what’s not being said in the new work.

This practice is a rough kind of metacognitive support: Metacognitive supports as cognitive scaffolding.

This observation appears to be true even for non-prose writing: Many eminent thinkers need a writing surface to think


References

Kant, I. (1996). An answer to the question: What is enlightenment? In A. Wood (Ed.), & M. J. Gregor (Trans.), Practical philosophy (pp. 11–22). https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511813306.005 (Original work published 1784)

Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority. Minority is inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another. This minority is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! Dare to be wise!

Don DeLillo, on why he became a writer (via Michael Nielsen):

I have an idea but I’m not sure I believe it. Maybe I wanted to learn how to think. Writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don’t know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them. Maybe I wanted to find more rigorous ways of thinking. We’re talking now about the earliest writing I did and about the power of language to counteract the wallow of late adolescence, to define things, define muddled experience in economical ways. Let’s not forget that writing is convenient. It requires the simplest tools. A young writer sees that with words and sentences on a piece of paper that costs less than a penny he can place himself more clearly in the world. Words on a page, that’s all it takes to help him separate himself from the forces around him, streets and people and pressures and feelings. He learns to think about these things, to ride his own sentences into new perceptions. How much of this did I feel at the time? Maybe just an inkling, an instinct. Writing was mainly an unnameable urge, an urge partly propelled by the writers I was reading at the time.

Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

If we try to fool ourselves here and write down incomprehensible words, we will detect it in the next step when we try to turn our literature notes into permanent notes and try to connect them with others.

Writing notes and sorting them into the slip-box is nothing other than an attempt to understand the wider meaning of something. The slip-box forces us to ask numerous elaborating questions: What does it mean? How does it connect to … ? What is the difference between … ? What is it similar to?

Experienced academic readers usually read a text with questions in mind and try to relate it to other possible approaches, while inexperienced readers tend to adopt the question of a text and the frames of the argument and take it as a given. What good readers can do is spot the limitations of a particular approach and see what is not mentioned in the text.

Writing notes and sorting them into the slip-box is nothing other than an attempt to understand the wider meaning of something. The slip-box forces us to ask numerous elaborating questions: What does it mean? How does it connect to … ? What is the difference between … ? What is it similar to?

Barbara Tuchmann, quoted in The Independent Scholars Handbook - Richard Gross:

“I do all my own research,” she said, “though reviewers have speculated that I must have a band of hirelings. I like to be led by a footnote onto something I never thought of. I rarely photocopy research materials be- cause, for me, note-taking is learning, distilling. That’s the whole essence of the business, In taking notes, you have to discard what you don’t need. If you photocopy it, you haven’t chewed it.”