Introduction to Better Thinking

I’m not quite sure how to start this out, because it’s a bit different than what I normally do on here.

If anyone’s still reading the blog after all the fits and starts, you know what it is I do here even if you’re not able to really put your finger on it. SBYB has been a repository for things that I’m thinking about and I feel the need to just throw it out onto the page, stream-of-consciousness style. Even back when I was intentionally trying to garner an audience, it seemed like a lot of what I was doing was thinking of a topic, and kind of free-associating my way through it. Research and methodical-ness (probably not a word) didn’t enter into it a whole lot. And once I stopped intentionally trying to garner an audience (because it felt forced and not true to myself, in case you were curious as to the motivation of why I stopped), it became even less structured. It was quotes and commentary and more of the monkey mind stuff that runs from place to place without a whole lot of resolution.

Well, those stream-of-consciousness ramblings may soon have some company on this piece of internet real estate. I’ve got something rattling around in my head that I really want to get down in a methodical, intentional manner that will require quite a bit of reading and research. Not for you, dear reader, but for me. I need to work through this stuff with the idea that I’m ordering my thoughts; not just for posterity (although that’s always been one motivation for writing this blog), but for personal edification and learning purposes.

Folks, this post is a long one. I’ll try to make it brief, but I want to make sure I capture my thought process here and explain why I decided to pursue the objective I’m pursuing. You’ve been warned; I won’t blame you if you drop off.

A couple of months ago, I came across something saved in my Dropbox that I had forgotten I had. Way back, shrouded in the mists of 2010, I purchased a book entitled StrengthsFinder 2.0, written by Tom Rath. It’s something of a companion book to Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham. In any case, the StrengthsFinder book comes with a code that allows the owner to take an online strengths assessment to determine what it is that you do best. Everyone that takes the assessment receives a report that claims to provide them with five “themes” that the test-taker should focus on in the context of their daily life. It’s meant to be geared toward one’s career, but honestly, if it’s something you’re really good at, wouldn’t you want to know it and use it in other contexts than just your job?

I took the assessment, got my report, and promptly filed it away and didn’t really think too much about it (this is a meta-joke, if you understand anything about these themes and the one that showed up at the top of my list). But, a few months ago I was really trying to think about what I might like to do to earn some side income and I stumbled across it while looking for something else in my Dropbox. It was very interesting to me, as it seemed serendipitous at the time that I would find a report telling me what I’m good at when I was looking for something to do that I could charge people for! What better to do than to work to my strengths, right?

My five themes are as follows:

  • Input
  • Intellection
  • Learner
  • Maximizer
  • Context

I assume these don’t mean much to you (they didn’t mean a lot to me until I read through the report again) until I explain. The first, Input, has the following description: “People who are especially talented in the Input theme have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.” Remember where I said that sentence back a few paragraphs was the joke? I love getting information like a packrat, as though solely collecting and storing it would do anything for me. Maybe it’s not “ha-ha” funny…

In any case, Input DEFINITELY is a theme that holds true in my life. I love collecting information, I love having journals, my Evernote overflows with random PDF white papers and case studies I got during my MBA courses in 2007 that I’ve never looked at again. It’s a weird digital security blanket/external brain. I’ve never really understood why I do it, and I’m not sure I understand why even now. I just know that I do it, and it’s apparently something that other people do, as well.

Intellection, aside from not really being a word, means that I’m introspective and enjoy intellectual discussion. In other words, probably a philosophy major in college.

Learners have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. The process of learning, rather than the outcome, is what’s exciting. Feels like this one theme combines aspects of the previous two.

Maximizer: “People who are especially talented in the Maximizer theme focus on strengths as a way to stimulate personal and group excellence. They seek to transform something strong into something superb.” That’s kind of interesting. It’s different than focusing on one’s weaknesses to get better, I suppose. Rather, I enjoy trying to improve what I’m already good at. And, due to the aforementioned traits, I’m good at (or at least very interested in) learning and improving myself.

Finally, the Context theme notes that I love to understand the history behind an issue as a means to understanding the current situation. I love history and enjoy reading about it, so this makes sense to me, as well.

So, after reading this report, I determined that it sounds like I should have been a college professor, probably in history. There’s probably not a whole lot of demand for freelance academics (if you know of something that fits that bill, though, do let me know). I was kinda bummed out because I still didn’t know what I was supposed to do to on the side to make some money, but this report kinda stuck with me.

Later on, I was looking through Evernote at articles that I’d saved away for “later reference”. I found this one entitled Make Room For Your Passions, Even If They Can’t Be Your Job. I’ve always thought it would be nice to do something that I really love for a salary, but I’ve never been in that situation. I’ve always thought of my job as a way to fund the rest of my life, rather than it being a huge source of fulfillment for me or what have you. So, this lead me to think even more about the StrengthsFinder themes and how I could incorporate them into my life even if I wasn’t getting paid to do it. Maybe I could develop some kind of hobby that incorporated everything I was thinking about?

So, I started thinking about what it means to learn, to be knowledgeable, to be wise, etc. I decided what I really wanted to learn was how to think better. That’s obviously not a very precise phrase, but it kind of encompassed what I was looking for. I wanted to know how I could best accumulate and assimilate knowledge that I gleaned from study, and synthesize that to make disparate connections between fields of knowledge. That’s what real thinking is, anyway. It’s not parroting back what someone else thinks about this or that, it’s about taking in all the objective information on a subject and making an intelligent decision about what you believe in light of that.

This leads to the difference between knowledge and wisdom. I feel like the difference between the two can be kind of nebulous, and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. After a lot of thinking and google searching, I think the difference is subtle, but important. Wisdom comes from knowledge. Knowledge is objective. It’s the way things are. Wisdom is applied knowledge, if you will. Wisdom is what you’re guided to do in light of the knowledge you possess. So obtaining knowledge is an intermediate step along the road to the ultimate goal of wisdom.

Once I’d codified this thought process, I ended up finding Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street Blog and this blog post: How To Think. Crazy, right? Anyway, as I’ve read more and more of his stuff, I’m convinced he’s kind of a genius and we’d get along very well. I’m not sure how much he’d get from this lopsided relationship, but I think I’d learn a lot.

In How To Think, Parrish links to another post that he wrote entitled Mental Models. Mental Models are fundamental building blocks of knowledge that one can use to build a house of wisdom. Parrish supplies a quote from Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s long-time business partner, which says:

“I believe in the discipline of mastering the best that other people have ever figured out. I don’t believe in just sitting down and trying to dream it all up yourself. Nobody’s that smart.”

These models are fundamental understandings, gleaned from a multidisciplinary environment, that one can use and apply to circumstances with which one comes in contact. Munger’s point (and by extension, Parrish’s) is that, if you understand the basics in a few key realms of knowledge, you’ll be better able to assimilate new knowledge that you acquire (oftentimes from different fields). Once you have that knowledge, you’ll be better able to apply it in your life and become wise.

So, here we are. We’re up to the present. This list of mental models that Parrish has spelled out on his blog are a great starting point for a life spent learning how to think. What I plan on doing is stealing his list and working my way through it, attempting to get a grasp on each of them through research and sharing that info here. After all, the best way to learn something is to teach it. If you want to come along, that’d be really cool and I’d love to work through this with you. I’m really looking forward to it.

First Thing, Every Morning

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and I have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own — not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him.

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Marcus is saying to prepare yourself for the ugliness of situations and people you meet every day by reminding yourself that YOU just as often act and are perceived this way by others. So cut them some slack, Jason.