Friday, October 21, 2011

Abstract

I'm always wondering why people make things so hard. By people I mean, well pretty much everyone but me and even I do it some of the time.

I know people who make things not hard, but they tend only to do it occasionally or within certain situations. So, I'm not counting them.

Anyway, I think about it, umm..., a lot.

Iris will tell you that my most prominent listening fault is wanting to "fix" someone's problem (or for that matter, them). Once I've heard enough to get the lay of the land I move into fix-it mode. I've got better over time, but still, my attention slowly divides in two. One side continues to listen, the other starts thinking, "Why wouldn't you just..." or "Hey, how about..."

That continues for a bit. Then the solution side splits, the new division wondering, "How hard could this be to figure out? He's got to have noticed that he repeated the last statement five times, right? Maybe he doesn't want to figure it out? Hey, there's a pattern emerging here! Do you see it?"

It's the third division that maintains my attention long after the conversation has ended. I mean, how long can you think about someone talking about the same problems over and over? And who wants to spend any time on something he's already figured out? So that leaves the question, "Why hasn't she figured it out?"

I know there's the obvious: because she doesn't want to figure it out. Many of us have spent lots of time helping ourselves and others get past the denial of that fact and onto the reasons we avoid figuring out what plagues us. However, it's occurred to me lately that it may simply be a matter of never having learned to think.

In this case, I'm going to qualify thinking as the process by which we translate observed phenomena into abstract generalizations, and vice versa. The and is important, i.e., it's not or.

Let's create a shorthand for each process. We'll call the first part, abstracting observed phenomena into patterns and rules, discovery. We'll call the second part, taking patterns and rules and using them effectively, application.

To be sure, most of us are denied discovery through the process of formal education almost all of which focuses on teaching the generalizations (the rules, theories, guidelines) and then learning through their application. This is how multiplication works, now you do it. Here's the recipe, now you bake a cake. The pluperfect is a combination of past tense with perfect tense used to distinguish two events in the past, one being described in the other, now go write some sentences using the pluperfect.

There aren't many instances in school where you get to truly discover (even science experiments are conducted by following recipes), so it's no wonder you're not a very good thinker.

Of course, there are some people who take offense when told they're not very good thinkers, specially when they hold advanced degrees. Believe me, I have a lot of experience with this. Nonetheless, I can't say that I've encountered many world-class thinkers and I've hung out in organizations that ostensibly house them.

The good news is that everyone of us is capable of world-class thinking. In fact if you're able to speak or understand language you've already done it. As infants we start piecing together theories and abstractions from observed phenomena. The volume of discovery that finally yields the application "da da" is vast. We build on our discoveries and new observed phenomena until we have enough speech to ask questions, the most prominent of which become "why?" and "how?"

It's at these points that our teachers (parents, caretakers, educators) either help us continue the process of discovery and application ("how do you think it works?") or flip into the more traditional mode ("this is how it works, now you try it?") Nonetheless, each of us is capable of amazing feats of thought.

The trick is getting back to basics, to the activities that came so naturally as children but perhaps less so now.

How?

The first step is to allow yourself to be curious, to wonder how and why things do what they do, and to ask questions.

The second step is to play, to take things apart and figure them out, to start drawing pictures on a pad of paper without instruction, to fiddle around on the piano, to not worry about getting it right or taking too long, to make something that you like, to play.

The third step is to process, to think about all you've done while playing, to catalog what you've learned, to ask new questions, to fuel your curiosity.

The fourth step is to apply, to take what you've figured out and try it, to build on what you've learned.

And so the cycle goes.

You wouldn't be offended if someone walked up to you and said, "I gotta tell you, you wouldn't be very good at climbing Everest."

You'd think, "Well of course not, I never even thought about it, let alone trained for it."

Happy thinking,
Teflon

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