Writing Is Thinking
Merriam Webster defines thinking as, “the action of using one's mind to produce thoughts.” Of course, when we think of the process of thinking, we typically associate it with a higher level of reasoning and cognition. This latter understanding of the process excludes most ephemeral thoughts and mere day- dreaming. This type of thinking is what sets the achievers of the world apart from the crowd and is therefore uncommon.
The Masses Approach to Thinking
Billions of people go through their life without much concern about the process of thinking. They believe it’s automatic and therefore it’s taken for granted. They spent their entire lives mostly reacting to their environment without regard to that goldmine they have between their ears. From time to time, to be sure, they engage in real thinking. A crisis forces them to use their thinking apparatus and they fire up the engines to solve the given problem. Their lack of practice makes the machinery rusty, dull and inefficient. But the mind is such a marvelous and unending reservoir of potential, that tapping just a small part of it is usually all that’s required to get them out of their current predicament. After using their mind for the first time in months, perhaps years, the process of thinking will likely leave the person exhausted and unwilling to engage in this laborious process, until another emergency or crisis compels them again. Thinking is hard!
The Vital Few
Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian engineer, sociologist, philosopher, and economist, born in the 19th century, coined the term: "the vital few and the trivial many." This term was used to describe the enormous disparity between actions and results, between inputs and outputs, and between people. The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule or principle, postulates that 20% of the people produce 80% of the results, while 80% of the people produce only 20% of the results. This disparity is not exact and in some cases the disparity might be closer to one hundred to one. The small minority who produces the vast majority of the results and or outputs is known as the vital few, while the majority are known as the trivial many. It’s important to note that we’re only talking about measurable results, and in most cases economic outputs. Everyone has, to be sure, some intrinsic immeasurable value and human dignity. We’re merely discussing outputs that can be measured. Let’s continue.
Who are these vital few and what makes them so vital? There are many attributes that these highly functioning successful people have. Many of them have been gifted with innate talents, others have been fortunate enough to grow up in the right nourishing environment. It may appear difficult to find a common denominator for success since there are so many roads that lead to it, until we scratch the surface a bit and find that, invariably, the one trait all these people have is the ability to think well.
The Process of Thinking
But what exactly is thinking? The type of thinking that we’re discussing here is the kind that requires identifying the right problem to solve, looking at the problem from different angles, reasoning possible solutions, and finally eliminating solutions one by one until the best solution remains alone as a shiny light in a dark harbor.
For most people, this process requires writing. The mind can only hold one thought at a time. When you’re figuring things out in your head you have hundreds of moving parts which make it near impossible to think properly. When all these pieces are put on paper, we can see the whole picture and begin to see how the pieces interact.
Moreover, we think in words. The brain uses neurons to process words as whole units, we therefore can produce hundreds of orderly images with just a few paragraphs of words. This is important, because these images are randomly passing through our thought patterns at lighting speed. Writing creates a structure for those images to be useful.
A Napkin Starts the Process
According to Geoffrey James from Inc. Magazine, “analytical thinking is the process of remembering words and putting their meanings into context. This process is not simply accessing a mental dictionary. Every time you use words, you re-create their meaning." It is therefore by writing that we begin to create our world. For example, entrepreneurs will often have a vague idea floating through their mind. They may be sitting in a café and decide to put the idea on the back of a napkin, perhaps jotting a few words down or numbers, drawing a simple rudimentary diagram, and looking at it, for the first time, as a real actionable possibility. It’s almost as if the idea that was just a few moments ago distracting the entrepreneur has come to life, and indeed it has. The entrepreneur now might sit down and send an email to a friend exploring the idea a bit more, and thus giving it yet more life. By the time a business plan gets written this is already a full-fledged business. Yes, it still has no revenue, profits or customers, but it has form, enthusiasm and purpose which is often all that’s required to get started.
What do You Think?
Joan Didion, an American journalist and writer, once said, “I don't know what I think until I write it down.” It’s hard to argue with that sentiment. Most people who have ideas worth listening to, have formed those ideas or opinions based on their writings. If they haven’t, chances are great that they’re half-baked, poorly thought-through, and therefore of little value. Reading helps to understand what other people think, writing clarifies what you think. Both are important, but the latter is rarely done, unfortunately.
Meetings at Amazon
While most companies use PowerPoint presentations to conduct meetings, Amazon uses four-page memos. Jeff Bezos understands the power of writing and is fanatical about productivity. A bad meeting doesn’t just waste the time of the presenter, it wastes the time of everyone involved. This is how Bezos explains the rationale for those memo meetings, “the reason writing a ‘good’ four-page memo is harder than ‘writing’ a 20-page PowerPoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what.” If you read Amazon’s first shareholder letter from 1997, it reads like a blueprint. Jeff Bezos is clearly a believer that writing is thinking.
So, You Have a Problem
We all have problems to solve, challenges to overcome and goals to conquer. A good exercise is to take out a sheet of paper or launch your word processor and write a short essay on how to solve the problem or how to achieve the goal. By going through the process of structuring the essay, you will be able to identify the problem clearly and come up with the necessary solutions. Even if your essay is not a masterpiece, you will feel an instant relieve knowing you have taken, what appears in your mind as a monster of a problem and reduced it to its real size. As Linguist Walter Ong said, writing allows you to “concretize abstract ideas.”
If solving problems and achieving goals is not enough, know that behavioral scientists, who have studied the data on happiness, have concluded that writing about your life can increase your level of happiness more than any other activity. Tara Parker-pope, in an article published on the New York Times, titled How to Be Happy, writes, "We all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it right. By writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of our personal well-being."
We are all creators of our life story, writing it down makes us conscious creators. When we write we engage in the highest form of thinking.