Getting uncomfortable to get smarter

In late 2016, inspired by my mentor, Itamar Goldminz, I began to (re)realize the importance of exercising my mind in different ways. My mentor is someone who avidly and consistently reads, pulling in new ideas, and finding ways to integrate them into his thinking. Originally, I started reading all of the blogs, articles, and books he sent my way because I felt like I needed to be able to keep up. After all, he was my new boss who I carefully selected after interviewing dozens of candidates for the role. Upon meeting and interviewing him, I knew he was the one. (Note: of all the candidates, I spoke with, he was the only who asked me about me and what I wanted out of my career and where I most wanted to grow.) He was the person from whom I wanted to learn.

I have spent my life intuiting my way through the world, feeling my way through situations and relationships. Since graduate school, I hadn’t really exercised my mind nor allowed my intellect to lead me, so spending time with Itamar got me thinking that this was my chance to strengthen my intellect. I knew I needed to become more balanced in my problem solving approach to truly be effective. Leaning on my intuition had only gotten me so far, and I needed to be able to exercise my rational and critical thinking in order to bring people along for the journey.

Initially, reading and processing everything he sent my way was really uncomfortable as I was out of practice. The discomfort of cognitive load is a very real thing. I couldn’t retain what I was reading and couldn’t see the connections between the topics that we were discussing in our 1:1s and the articles he sent me. Itamar was patient and non-judgmental. We revisited ideas again and again even though my brain felt like it was coated in teflon. What went in would slide right back out: ideas totally unabsorbed. But I knew I had to keep at it, and Itamar helped to create a judgment free zone where it was safe for me to exercise my flabby and out-of-shape my mind. I read and read and read until it didn’t feel like work to me. I read while I was doing cardio at the gym, more than once dropping sheets of paper everywhere while other gym goers looked on disapprovingly. I listened to podcasts while I walked my dogs, made dinner, and completed other chores around the house. And soon, I revisited articles and podcasts that I had previously consumed and began to absorb the ideas see the connective tissue between the ideas and my reality. My mind started feeling more agile, less sloth-like (or less monkey-like depending on my emotional state), and more deliberate. This has helped me to become better at identifying the real problems, identifying possible experiments, risks, and ultimately making better decisions.

The next step in my path towards improving my intellectual agility is to begin writing: something that is deeply scary for me. I am uncomfortable with being controversial and fear being attacked for my thoughts, but getting my ideas out of my head and in front of people is important in my continued development as a person. Writing forces me to be rigorous in my thinking. I would like to go from having partially formed thoughts in my head to being able to describe to others what I’m thinking about, why I’m thinking about it, why I think it may be important for others to consider, and what my outstanding questions are.

As a first step, I’m going share some of the most thought provoking books and podcasts that I consumed in 2017 and include short explanations as to what they got me thinking about.

Books

  • Season of the Witch by David Talbot. San Francisco is constantly changing and evolving. If you try to pin down the city’s identity, you will inevitably be disappointed.
  • Covering by Kenji Yoshino. Kenji’s description of what it’s like to cover or veil different aspects of one’s personhood to downplay how one is different from others felt really familiar to me. It got me thinking about the many times in my life when I’ve felt forced to conform and about how much of that is internalized. So much so that I don’t even realize when it’s happening.
  • Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. This book was interesting from the perspective of childhood trauma. J.D. Vance is from small town Ohio and grew up impoverished. I grew up in upstate NY with my immigrant parents who were firmly middle class. Yet, some of the childhood trauma that he describes felt very familiar to me making me think more about our similarities than our differences.
  • Reset by Ellen Pao. My skin crawled while reading her accounts of discrimination and injustice throughout her career, not solely because of her experience but because she was openly talking about it and naming names. There was a part of me that just wanted her to STOP talking about it. The way that I was raised led me to believe that talking about one’s misfortune is shameful and should instead be hidden away. Eating bitterness. And yet, as I’ve gotten older and had way more life experiences and seen systems of oppression first hand, I appreciate the courageous people like Ellen who are so discerning and are willing to make waves and to shine a light on the ugly reality of systematic injustice. This book made me examine my own discomfort around diversity and inclusion initiatives, my discomfort about being seen and about taking up space in the world.
  • Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes. This book think about my fears and how they hold me back. This book also made me incredibly home sick for Christina Yang. This is the best scene, and it makes me cry every time I watch it.
Have tissues ready

Podcasts

  • Hidden Brain’s You 2.0: Embrace the Chaos episode. So often, we are looking for perfection, tidiness, orderliness. I definitely do. But so often, even when we follow a process, chaos emerges. I loved the examples of chaos leading to profound performances, works of art, etc. This episode was a great reminder for me not to shy away from the mess of life and not to shut down when things aren’t going my way.
  • Waking Up’s Episode 73 — Forbidden Knowledge with Charles Murray. This episode got me thinking about my own stance on free speech. I’m deeply uncomfortable with violence and the use of violence (both verbal and physical) to shut down ideas that differ from our own. I don’t have fully formed thoughts here except that we all probably should take some deep breaths and ask ourselves what we’re so threatened by and why we take others’ views so personally.
  • Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. Every.single.episode. The HP books, on their own, are super rich, and reading them as sacred texts, as a way to understand the world around us and a way of understanding ourselves better, make for an even richer experience. I love reading each chapter through a specific theme — justice, forgiveness, play — to name a few. The practices that the hosts engage in every week — lectio divina, havruta, floralegium — appeal to my divinity school background and remind me to look for opportunities to make meaning in every day moments of my life. Also, at the end of every episode, the hosts offer up blessings to a character from the chapter, and that practice reminds me to practice gratitude.

Have you had an experience like this? Of being a little slovenly in your thinking to developing some level of intellectual fitness? If so, tell me about your path.

Thanks for reading!