Deliberately making sense

When it comes to connecting the dots between ideas, would you rather be methodical or inspired?

We prize the flashes of genius, the intuitive spark. We idolize inventors who bring together ideas from different fields in a brilliant moment. The tortoise wins in children’s books, but history belongs to hares.

I would rather be methodical, I think. I’d rather get better at taking lots of small steps instead of counting on big leaps. I plan assuming mediocrity, not talent, and then I try to build towards excellence.

Just relax and the ideas will come to you, people sometimes say. Yes, I do some of that, but I’m more interested in conscious, deliberate action. The sparks will come when they want, but in the meantime, why not get better at preparing the groundwork or making progress? I think you can get better at making sense of things, coming up with ideas, seeing gaps. This is a skill you can develop. You’re not limited to waiting for a fickle muse or wishing you’d been born a hare.

The aha! moments of unconscious connection seem to come more readily when you keep more thoughts in your head, because you have more opportunities to connect the dots. I try to keep very little in my head, as I’m both forgetful and distractable. (I suppose this self-image is something I can change, but it has useful consequences, so I keep it.) I write down as much as I can, which frees me up to remember only hooks and summaries that let me look up more information as I need it.

In fact, I often choose slow exploration instead of a whirlwind of insight. I’d rather take notes as I think instead of jumping from one topic to the other, even if observation changes the nature of thoughts. After all, there are plenty of times when I can think but I can’t write, so I can let my mind meander then. When I’m near a computer or notepad, I may as well take advantage of those tools. If I can capture a thought, then I can remember it, and this helps me build up knowledge over time.

Instead of relying on my brain to trigger an aha! moment out of the blue, I usually reflect on a single topic and see what other associations it brings up. I might link to other blog posts or sketches, include book excerpts, or dig through my private notes for more thoughts. Most of these reflections take small steps forward. Others bring together two or more streams of thought.

I’m often limited by my forgetfulness. I may remember a few relevant references, and I search my blog and my notes for more. However, I don’t always cast a wide enough net. There’s a difference between knowing you’ve forgotten something, and not even thinking that you’ve forgotten something. The first is annoying, but the second is a bigger missed opportunity.

The best way around the associative limitations of my brain seems to be other people. I love it when people tell me how something I’ve written reminds them of a book or someone else’s blog post (sometimes one I’d read and forgotten, sometimes completely new to me), or even how it reminds them of another post of mine.

I can’t count on people to suggest the missing links for most things, though. Fortunately, computers are getting better at suggesting associations. Search engines help when you know what you’re looking for. When you don’t, other tools can analyze what you’re working on and suggest items that are similar in content. I often use Amazon’s book recommendations to find other books I should read. I’ve played around with Remembrance Agent before, and have often envied Devonthink’s ability to suggest related notes. Evernote just released a new Context feature that’s supposed to do something similar. I prefer Emacs for writing anyway, and I don’t have something quite like that set up yet.

The more manual approach of keeping a categorical index of my blog posts lets me get a quick overview. When a category grows too large, I usually break it down into smaller groups. I also take advantage of the juxtaposition of posts in my blog archive when I do my monthly and yearly reviews. Taking a step back helps me see the patterns in my thinking.

Other aspects of connecting the dots also lend themselves to deliberate practice, focusing on one sub-skill at a time. For example, when I read a book, I can practise taking a few moments to place it in the context of other books I’ve read about the topic. With which other books does it agree, and where does it diverge? Thinking about this process lets me isolate and get better at one specific aspect at a time, and that helps me improve as a whole.

Another benefit of using explicit processes to help me make sense of things is that other people can try what I’m learning. I care less about idiosyncratic leaps dependent on individual talent and more about improvements that other people can experiment with. For me, it makes less sense to tell someone, “Be more creative!” and more sense to say something like, “Forced associations are a way to enhance your creativity” and share examples. If I think about how I do things–how my processes are similar to others’, and where it diverges–I can describe them to other people, who can pick up ideas and give me feedback.

So that’s why I choose to be a slow thinker, making sense through process rather than intuition. But I’m getting faster at slow thinking, and that’s opening up more possibilities. I grew up speed-reading and touch-typing, which is a good pair of advantages. To that, I’ve added programming, automation, writing, and different types of note-taking. I’m working on getting the hang of outlining, indexing, reviewing, and synthesizing. There’s a lot to learn, but I’m confident that I can keep improving.

I love swapping notes with other people who’ve made similar choices–the slow thinkers, the methodical ones, the ones who have thought about how they do things and how they think about how they do things. I’m not looking for fast fixes or magic solutions, just ideas for little experiments to try.

Hares might make for better stories, but tortoises have more tricks to share.

Possibly related:

Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow feels a little related to this thought too, but it’s not quite the right fit.

Do you have any favourite tricks for slow thinking? Are there any tricks I use that you’d like to learn more about?
  • Terry

    Really like this post. To me it is so Sacha Chua’ish. Two observations: (1) you obviously know yourself and your style of learning; good on you and (2) even flashes of genius are built on deliberative efforts. Lots of it. The eureka moment is in my opinion a matter of timing and not reflective of efforts. Thank you for sharing such insightful and inspiring post.

    • Thanks. Feedback like yours really helps _me_ figure out what’s “Sacha Chua”ish, so that’s great! =) Since you mentioned inspiration, would you consider helping me understand more about it? I’d love it if you could check out and help me learn what inspiration means and how to get better at it. =)