Thinking

Inside Bill’s Brain is a documentary series that invites us to see how Bill Gates thinks. Among the more remarkable practices is his long standing “think weeks,” where perplexed by a particular problem, he loads up a bag of books on that topic and takes off to a secluded cabin where he just thinks about that issue. Returning hopefully with a deeper understanding, a plan of action, perhaps even some solutions worthy of exploration.

The idea of a “think week” seems both wise, attractive and absurd in the context of our typically harried lives. Yet during a pandemic, when presumably our weeks have become simplified by the limitations of our circumstances, it would seem possible to at least carve out a “think day” or a ‘think block” of time.

Instead, I for one, have had that time filled with an onslaught of zoom calls, emails, and distractions, many of which are of my own making. 

Much of my life, I have spent more than my fair share of time inside of my own head. It can be a place that brings both inspiration and dread.  Yet the joy that comes with solving a problem, having some sort of self-proclaimed epiphany or original thought is so rewarding.

So why is it then that during this time, I have resisted spending time deep in thought?  External influences account for only so much and don’t explain the desire to rewatch portions of Gladiator for the 10th time or scroll through online news I know will be depressing.

In my own children, I have marveled at their ingenuity and imagination over the last several months. An indication that they perhaps are spending their time more wisely than their father. To see them solve a problem on their own is a great point of pride.

In Azar Nafisi’s wonderfully thoughtful book, The Republic of Imagination, she laments what she describes as an increasing “standardization of thought” in America.   Ironically, she is critical of people like Bill Gates whose push for standardized testing and Common Core, seems to crush the very practice of deep independent thinking and problem solving that he treasures so much personally.

To be alone with one’s thoughts, to give oneself the freedom to think on a given topic, is a gift we deprive ourselves of at our own peril.

In this recent Medium piece, the author recounts that in one organization employees on average spend 3-4 hours each day on email.  Likening it to a slot machine where among the hundreds of lemons of useless missives, we might find one “cherry” of an email – that keeps us coming back to check our email and pull the lever once more. Now imagine, if those employees used that same amount of time each day to simply think. To dive into an issue, consider multiple perspectives, to divine some truth or original idea or solution.

How many cherries would we create vs. waiting for one to pop into our inbox? 

Thinking is not linear.  It is hard to quantify or measure. Yet Nafisi quotes one college professor suggesting that the point of educating people is  “to mess them up.” Meaning to get them out of the conformity of current thinking and to ask hard questions that gets us thinking for ourselves.

It is ironic that the most common expression of our need to think is often a means to delay the very act.

When a child or anyone asks you a question that you’re not prepared to answer, the reflexive response is “I don’t know, let me think about it.”  But do we?

During a time when our physical travels are limited for the public good, now would be the ideal time to journey, not “into Bill’s brain” but into our own — for the very same reason.   

Imagine how much good we could create for our families, for our communities, for others, for our country.  Let us think about that.

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