5 Steps to Thinking Your Way out of a Paper Bag
A thorough manifesto on recovering the lost art of thinking
One of the most human things we creatures do is think. Thinking is what some scientists consider the only difference between man and animal, because in the act of thinking you have autonomy, a critical will. Unfortunately, most of the world is filled with unthinking people who parrot ideas or go around living on false assumptions. Why? Because our post-fall world is ruled by unmeaning and chaos. As you probably know, it is the Christian’s most fundamental mission to fulfill what theologians call the “Cultural Mandate” (Gen 1:28). We are to make order out of chaos. But in my life I’ve realized how hard this is, and how it all begins with the way you are able to critically assess worldviews, assumptions, and cultural norms. Our being good thinkers isn’t even about us; it’s about our usefulness in our mission. Take a trip with me through the five steps to effectively thinking your way out of a paper bag.
1. Observation: open your eyes
Observation is elusive. If only it were as easy as opening your eyes! As artists know, developing a “reader’s eye,” or a “painter’s eye,” or a “photographer’s eye” is something like developing a musician’s ear or a chef’s taste. The fundamental difference between a hack and a professional is not necessarily the technique–it’s the artist’s intuition. That intuition is something incredibly valuable, but only comes from intentional practice. In our current series, we are looking specifically at the thinking mind, the critical, cognitive mind that processes information, finds patterns, isolates outliers, and draws conclusions from the data. Let’s get started.
4 Attributes of Observation
There are several aspects of observation we need to learn, each of which can be seen in contrast to plain-old “seeing.” To illustrate the great difference between “seeing” and “observing,” I give you Mr. Sherlock Holmes, testing Dr. Watson on his observational ability:
[Sherlock:] “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.” “Frequently.”
“Well, some hundreds of times.”
“Then how many are there?”
“How many? I don’t know.”
“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.” (Source)
A. Observation requires objectivity
Most people never make it past this first step because they are unable to free themselves from their personal baggage–their self. We all have presuppositions and assumptions given to us by our upbringing and cultural context. That means we all see the world differently and come away with different interpretations of reality. But, in order to really observe, “You must learn to separate situation from interpretation, yourself from what you’re seeing” (Konnikova, loc 1407). This is why self-knowledge is key to thinking about anything.
We must separate our meaning-impulse from our seeing-impulse. In a great act of willpower over the imagination, we have to creatively get outside ourselves and become objective to the idea itself, objectively assessing it from outside our selves. But once we’ve done that, we can’t leave it there. We have to make it subjective again so that it impacts our practical lives. The application comes after the interpretation, and the interpretation only can happen in the subjective. Since we are finite, we can only come at things from one subjective angle at a time. The honest pursuit of truth demands we transcend our selves by becoming objective, and the honest application of truth demands we align our subjective experience with that objective reality.
If you are familiar with the subject-object problem you’ll know that true objectivity is elusive. Humans are finite, therefore we are absolutely limited to our perspective. No true “objective” experience exists because in order to be objective one would need to be infinite, able to critique every existing element from an outsider’s perspective. If you are a Christian, you should be reading an Infinite Being into that last sentence. But wait, you’d say, God is infinite! Yes, and that is the miracle of divine revelation. We cannot know true objectivity, but we can come to know God through His Word. We can come to see the world as He sees it; we can adopt his worldview (albeit limited and simplified).
B. Observation requires context
The difference between seeing and observing is in the ability to step back and become objective, and in doing so, to see the big picture within which your present topic lives. “Each observation must be integrated into an existing knowledge base” (Konnikova, loc 1077). Context is what gives meaning, and since meaning is the goal of thinking, context is king.
For example, one of the main functions of the Bible itself is to provide context for life, to give meaning to it. “We can see our lives through the grand sweep of Scripture, giving us a context to rightly understand our purpose. Nothing is meaningful without a context. Unless we understand the Biblical framework, we will miss much of what it means to live our lives in Christ” (Whelchel, 251). This context is presented to us in the Bible as a narrative, an over-arching story-line without which life would just be a jumble of random, unimportant events.
In the same way, observations wash right over your eyes–in one ear, out the other–if you have no context for it, no storyline in which it lives. The brain can’t handle randomness; it needs concreteness to anchor into. As we will see later, the act of thinking itself is making connections, and you can’t make connections in a vacuum. This is why a liberal arts education is so valuable. It gives you fluency with life by exposing you to all the disciplines of study. The more you know, the more you can see, and the more you can see the more context you can give to individual concepts.
C. Observation requires attention
Life is denied by lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece. — Nadia Boulanger
The movement of the mind from subjective to objective is difficult, even uncomfortable. It requires intentional effort, and since we are lazy, we default to the passive mode, like Dr. Watson. But this is why the world is where it is today. That laziness is Satan’s victory. That laziness is what perpetuates Satan’s greatest victory in life: unmeaning. In order to see the truth we have to make good observations, but in order to do that we have to throw off the heavy, wet blanket of unmeaning and force ourselves to see things with new eyes–a very discomfiting and humiliating task, to be sure.
Getting into the active mode is at the heart of “paying attention.” Attention is a valuable, limited commodity, and there is a reason we call it a “payment”. Multitasking is a lie born of lazy people stuck in the passive mode, telling themselves a story they like to hear, pulling a long-con on themselves, running from the discomfort of slow, deep work into the adrenaline-pumping sensation of doing lots of stuff–marginally well–at the same time. If you think you are good at multitasking, it’s because you’ve never actually done any heavy lifting. Were you to try to solve 24 x 17 and turn left into rush-hour traffic, you’d see what I mean. This simple test showed me how little time I actually spent in deep thought.
Boosting your attention isn’t easy, but it is improvable, just like any other discipline. For example, one way to boost attention is just to have a clear objective (HT). That is why lots of my professors required us to have questions written down before class. That way we were forced to have at least some sort of an agenda for what we were learning. There are tons of exercises and methods of increasing your attention and decreasing your ADD symptoms (Here and Here, for example).
D. Observation requires presence
Presence is the god of our secular culture. It seems more books have been published on presence than anything else in the last few decades (example). So many writers praise the ability to be fully present, fully aware in the moment, and rightly so. Nobody likes a zombie-human who seems either stuck in the past or glass-eyed right now because all he can think about is his future. Focus, attention, and deep work require presence, but if presence is separated from its purpose, it becomes yet another “grasping after the wind,” as Solomon would say.
If we can train ourselves to stay focused in the present, to be more fully available, we will see more, learn more and remember more. Konnikova gives an anecdote of what it would require for Watson to become more like Sherlock: “If Watson… wanted to follow Holmes’s method, he would do well to realize the motivated nature of encoding: we remember more when we are interested and motivated” (Konnikova, loc 547). Presence increases our immersion and availability which in turn increases our motivation to learn (encoding), and our attention-intensity and -span.
The goal of observation is to acquaint yourself with the facts, a process which requires you to be objective, become familiar with the context of thoughts in which your key idea lives, pay out the high cost of attention, and be present in the moment, fully immersing yourself in the “now” of present life.
2. Organization: keep your eyes above water
This business of thinking is just a glimpse of the life of the mind. I don’t know about you but my mind is frequently a jumbled mess. When I first started meditating I realized how very little control I had over my thoughts. Most of us tie up valuable thinking power with pointless information. It turns out the ecstasy that comes from organization isn’t limited to just physical things. Your mind palace can be clean and neat as well; it just takes practice and a viable system for staying above water. Just as our default setting is to be lazy, passive thinkers, so also are we untidy and junked-up.
I’ll save most of this for another series on productivity, but I’ll tie in here the relevant parts. I can’t say enough about David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
I don’t strictly adhere to his exact methodology, but I do implement his core philosophy: capturing loose information, processing it, and acting on it. If you don’t have a process for this, your mind will be ruled by what he calls “open loops.”
“You’ve probably made many more agreements with yourself than you realize, and every single one of them — big or little — is being tracked by a less-than-conscious part of you. These are the “incompletes,” or “open loops,” which I define as anything pulling at your attention that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is. Open loops can include everything from really big to-do items like “End world hunger” to the more modest “Hire new assistant” to the tiniest task such as “Replace electric pencil sharpener” (Allen, loc 345).
These little seemingly insignificant thoughts tether you to an anchor so that even if you do have an inspiring, helpful thought, you can’t really dwell with it or trace it down to make connections. You just have “too much on your mind.” David Allen’s priority in life is just to go around coaching people how to clear their minds in order to make room for important stuff. The way that opens you up into the present is nothing short of magical.
“There is magic in being in the present in your life. I’m always amazed at the power of clear observation simply about what’s going on, what’s true. Finding out the exact details of your personal finances, clarifying the historical data about the company you’re buying, or getting the facts about who really said what to whom in an interpersonal conflict can be constructive, if not downright healing” (Allen, loc 3238).
This system leaves you with two priorities: staying clear and staying open. This allows for thoughts to come in, unimpeded by the stuff, the open loops, of daily life. But the other aspect of organization comes once you’ve set aside time to think, after you have had the thoughts. This is the organization of thoughts themselves into a coherent, logical, holistic system–a web of thought. This is the conceptual basis for all your decisions, judgments, and truth claims. It is, in essence, your worldview, and if it’s a mess, you’re a mess, and you show it by the way you live in your inconsistencies and contradictions.
About keeping your worldview integrated, see the next section. But there are two methods I think are helpful to see the process of post-observation organization of thought: mind-mapping and outlining. Both of these are disciplines that help you make sense of ideas–get them out of your head and onto paper, then find an emergent structure which exists logically, but which you are just now discovering. Your goal in using tools and methods like these is to find relationships between ideas–subordination, coordination, etc.
3. Collation: close your eyes and get comfortable
Now that you have thrown off passive “seeing” for observation, have organized your brain and ideas into a clear structure, it’s time to look at the process of actually making meaning (“making sense”) of what you read, see, and think. Collation is simply an “assembly of written information into a standard order” (Wikipedia). This step is closely related to the last one, but much more in depth. Again, I’ve split it up into steps:
A. See ideas in your mind’s eye
The first step to really organizing your ideas is to actually see them. Far too many people think that thinking is an abstract event, and the post-Enlightenment confidence of the Scientific Age leads us to think that ideas and thinking are necessarily nebulous. When we read books, we are osmotically learning by magic, or at the very least we are caught up in the formless, bodiless world of ideas. This undermines our ability to really make solid connections.
As I said in my post on Sherlock’s mind palace, our thoughts take real form in our minds, almost like furniture. We use our imagination to see them in our mind’s eye, and we see them as “mental furniture.” The imagination is the truth-sensing organ, so you have to take every opportunity to engage it in order to really learn. The imagination shatters contradictions. If someone believes two contradictory things to be true, they are probably using their logic, not their imagination. It is not integrated into their mind’s eye’s view of the world.
Three metaphors jump out to help us here: stories, mental models, and LEGOs. The power of stories is in their ability to engage the imagination, transporting your whole being into the events. Fiction rocks you, even though you know it isn’t “true” or “real.” Its magic is in its ability to construct reality in your imagination and impact you as if it were true. (This is why I hate the modern American question which hears a great story and immediately asks, “Yes, but is it true?” To ask that question isn’t a sin, and neither is it unimportant, but it reveals a fundamental lack of understanding the power of imagination in the real world. For more, see J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Tales” [PDF]). You see the events in your mind as if you were seeing them with your eyes–and, in a great story, your emotions, psyche, and empathy can’t tell the difference.
Stories are long and immersive, but when dealing with individual ideas, the metaphor of a mental model helps us handle atomistic thoughts which can so easily fall prey to the zombi-fication of abstraction we Americans are so good at. Mental models, loosely defined, can be any form or structure you give to an idea and its related parts.
Mental models also talk to each other like LEGO blocks. Maria Popova uses this idea to describe the creative endeavor: namely, artists borrow ideas from each other in little blocks and build onto each other in new, fresh, original creative efforts. These blocks she calls LEGOs. Read the full article: “Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity.” You build one up by slowly, diligently exploring its shape in your mind’s eye, identifying its context, its range of meaning and importance–and in the effort you isolate it from all the ideas surrounding it. Now you have a block, an individual piece, a LEGO, separate from the others.
B. Think clearly and precisely: Draw fine lines
The key to creating clean, distinct LEGOs is in your discipline, talent, and training. The way to train yourself to draw clean lines, to form distinct mental models in your mind, to make difficult separations between seemingly conjoined concepts is often totally overlooked. This is what some refer to as intellectual horsepower. Smarts aren’t about how much you know, it’s about how capable you are of knowing.
One such discipline is set forward by Richard Feynman, the widely acclaimed professor of Physics. You can see his method laid our clearly here. His method, in brief, is to teach yourself the concepts you want to know. That process, when adopted in daily life, becomes a system of checks and balances to reveal to you the holes in your knowledge.
“Feynman is one of the few who rarely took his knowledge base for granted, who always remembered the building blocks, the elements that lay underneath each question and each principle. And that is precisely what Holmes means when he tells us that we must begin with the basics, with such mundane problems that they might seem beneath our notice” (Konnikova, loc 237).
Feynman sees that 1. knowledge builds; 2. knowledge is in a hierarchy; 3. We must not jump over gaps. Those gaps can be willful omissions, but often they are unwitting logical fallacies and hasty generalizations. Here we need a more intricate method of weighing our thoughts, something like Charlie Munger’s method of arguing against himself. If he can’t argue against his own opinions better than anyone else, he doesn’t feel worthy to hold them.
Another technique is simply the desire to get right at the core of things, right at the center of what we mean when we use a certain word or phrase. It is common knowledge that we only think in as many ways as we have language to deal with it, but as George Orwell pointed out in his extremely poignant essay “Politics and the English Language,” we use the passive tense, euphemisms, and empty jargon so much we give our thinking minds over to brain-rot, allowing them to atrophy to just the size needed to get by in life. Brain rot is funny. And in an emoticon-ridden culture, we really don’t much of our minds at all.
The issue here is that we throw off our dullness and train ourselves to be precise and clear. Our default setting is to sit in the sand and draw on a paper sack with a crayon, oblivious to the drafting table, .05mm pencil, and precise instruments which stand right beside us. Made for clarity we settle for muddled confusion. And it’s hard work, no doubt, but it is worth the effort.
C. Make connections
Given that we can actually visualize our topic and define it precisely and clearly, we can finally get to the good stuff: discovery. This is where the exhilarating serendipity takes over, where what was once separate concepts become intimately related and begin feeding off each other. Where the LEGOs come together to build whole structures of thought–tight systems of bullet-proof relationships. Because truth is an interconnected web, everything in life is connected somehow, we just don’t always see it.
It is the goal of thinking to make connections, as philosopher William James said, “The connecting is the thinking.” As Mortimer Adler said, reading is thinking. Therefore, an example of this type of connective thought is in the way we read. We should be making connections and finding valid cross-references everywhere, not just for our pleasure, but with the intent of seeing the full picture (one LEGO at a time).
This is why John Dewey referred to the act of thinking as forming long trains of thought.
“Reflection involves not simply a sequence of ideas, but a consequence — a consecutive ordering in such a way that each determines the next as its proper outcome, while each in turn leans back on its predecessors. The successive portions of the reflective thought grow out of one another and support one another; they do not come and go in a medley. Each phase is a step from something to something — technically speaking, it is a term of thought. Each term leaves a deposit which is utilized in the next term. The stream or flow becomes a train, chain, or thread” (Source).
Thinking is done in the mind’s eye, in the imagination, but it is given form by writing, outlining, and putting that train of thought onto paper. Too many writers write with nothing to say while the real art of writing is recording on paper what you honestly see in your mind’s eye. That’s why being a great writer is about being a great imaginer and thinker. So, go close your eyes and start thinking, and if you find you have nothing to think about, read. Imagine. Then grab a pen and a piece of paper, a napkin, anything, and get to thinking.
4. Mastery: don’t stop ‘til the fat lady sings
Once you’ve observed, organized, and collated, you’ll think the battle is over. It’s easy (and seductive) to just do steps 1–3 and repeat. But to be truly intelligent, to have real intellectual integrity, you will need to achieve mastery of the subject, otherwise you will just parrot others’ ideas. You know how it goes. The intellectual of true mastery is generally more humble, or at least genuine, while the faker is the one who gets defensive anytime anything he says is challenged. Why? Because he holds an opinion that isn’t his own. He’s defenseless and scared to death of being found out.
Mastery isn’t something we generally talk about, mostly because people don’t usually have excellence as their goal. In our 140-character limited world, mastery is totally foreign to all of us–except the musicians or athletes among us who know how long it takes to be excellent, to be a master! Tony Robbins gives a great defense of mastery:
If you belong to a generation raised on blogs and tweets, my guess is that you’re saying: “Why don’t you just put these 7 Steps — and, for that matter, the whole book! — in one paragraph for me, or even an infographic?” I could do that. But knowing information is not the same as owning it and following through. Information without execution is poverty. Remember: we’re drowning in information, but we’re starving for wisdom. So I want to prepare your mind for each of the steps that are coming” (Robbins, loc 915).
Twyla Tharp, a professional dancer and choreographer in NYC also draws on the concept of mastery (in her case, in the context of dance and creativity):
“What is your idea of mastery? Having the experience to know what you want to do, the vision to see how to do it, the courage to work with what you’re given, and the skill to execute that first impulse — all so you can take bigger chances” (Tharp, loc 839).
One more quote, to give you concrete context for this idea of mastery, from John Gardner, fiction author and professor of creative writing:
“However he may get it, mastery — not a full mental catalogue of the rules — must be the writer’s goal. He must get the art of fiction, in all its complexity — the whole tradition and all its technical options — down through the wrinkles and tricky wiring of his brain into his blood. Not that he needs to learn literature first and writing later: The two processes are inseparable” (Gardner, loc 249).
So you see that mastery is a strange, undefinable fluency. It’s a complete conquering of the material. My definition of intellectual mastery is: mastery is the dead-end fulfillment that comes once you realize you’ve tapped all the LEGOs that apply to your current study, that any other LEGOs are irrelevant, and that at any moment you could riff on any one of those LEGOs and their unique position in the system because the entire system of thought is open to you like a secondary world. The concise version: mastery is the “acquisition of consummate skill and technique” so that you are proficient.
“The golfer Davis Love III was taught by his father to think of practice as a huge circle, like a clock. You work on a skill until you master it, and then you move on to the next one. When you’ve mastered that, you move on to the next, and the next, and the next, and eventually you’ll come full circle to the task that you began with, which will now need remedial work because of all the time you’ve spent on other things. If you do this, you approach a state of mastery, which is the acquisition of consummate skill and technique” (Tharp, loc 2383).
Some consider mastery to be a product of sheer time-on-task (specifically, 10,000 hours). Others, a product not quantitative but qualitative. Mastery is achieved by practice, but intentional practice, that is clear. More methods abound, but those two are the core principles. The short: You have to want it, and you have to invest lots of time in it.
5. Accessibility: actually use what you worked for
I know you’re probably thinking, What could possibly be left after mastery? Good heavens. What a long-winded blog post! Lastly, and quickly, you have to keep the garden. You have to keep the weeds out. The job is unfortunately not done, even after mastery, simply because of the law of you-forget-everything, also known as entropy.
The main idea here is in developing a system of review, something like the newly acclaimed “spaced repetition” technique. If you discipline yourself to review your notes, skills, and techniques at regular intervals (incorporating the Feynman technique, or something like it), then you will stay sharp and on edge.
Why am I so passionate about this? Earlier I wrote that our default setting is to sit in the sand and draw on a paper sack with a crayon, oblivious to the drafting table right beside us. Made for clarity we settle for muddled confusion. And it’s hard work, no doubt, but it is worth the effort. Why is it worth the effort? More on that next time, but as a teaser, consider the following:
• We are called to know God: eternal life itself is knowing God (John 17:3), but we can only know what we think, study, and master.
• We have an obligation to train others in discipleship, but how can we do that if we are brain-dead (Heb 5:11–14)?
• We are to worship God with both heart and mind (Deut 6:4–5), but how can an empty mind worship an infinite God?
• We are called to be “in the world,” discerning the world, but discernment requires wisdom which only comes from the application of intelligence in real life (sounds like mastery, huh?)
• On the grounds of points 1, 2, 3, and 4, it is no stretch to say that we have a moral obligation to be intelligent.
While I understand we don’t live in a perfect world, the wonderful fact is we are pretty close. Consider the freedom, resources, time (if we’d manage it well!) we have in this country, at this time in history–because of the grace of God. I’ve been compelled further on as I’ve studied history, realizing how our American opulence has cut us off from the story in which this call for intelligence fits. The point: if this sounds far-fetched and idealistic to you, examine your narrative. I bet if you’re honest, you’ll find more American, consumerist, entertainment-based norms than you’d realize. But even to make that call you need objectivity, observation, intellectual honesty, and an organization of thought, just to get started. How ironic, right?
How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
MONEY: Master the Game: 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom by Tony Robbins
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner
The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp