Because life is so often incomprehensible, books one can’t quite understand can seem truer and deeper than those one can.
Alain de Botton
Executive summaries over reports – 140 characters over email – texts and facebook posts over letters, these are all examples of the shortening of attention and time spent engaged with one idea. The modern working person does not have the time to spend thinking about an issue or problem for more than a few minutes. Their attention is spread across multiple mediums – computer, phone, face to face – they are busy all the time. In fact, a check of progress is to ask someone – are you busy? A positive response is good, a negative is met with raised eyebrows as if the absence of busyness somehow implies wrongness or failure.
This obsession with being busy, having interesting status updates and quick witted ripostes on social media is counterpoised with rising complexity and the need for leaders to engage with the deeper levels of problems rather than the surface presentation. Many of us skim along the top of things – linking together ideas at a surface level, regardless of their past usage or lineage. It is rare to come across someone who takes the time to think through an issue, we are rewarded for our ability to react quickly and make decisions on the run. When these decisions turn out to be less than optimal, we make more to fill the gap or try to re-direct the ship. We certainly don’t spend time looking at our assumptions, understanding history and identifying the deeper dynamics at work.
The quote from Alain de Botton speaks to this dynamic – the books I can’t quite understand can seem truer and more real than those I can. It might be that the person whose view is incomprehensible has attained some level of insight that I lack, or perhaps they are just not able to clearly articulate their ideas. Often grappling with difficult, complex ideas rewards the learner with insights and new thinking capacities. But does access to easy knowledge through search engines and crowd sourcing get in the way of our ability to really sit and think? The ability to contemplate our collective navel is one which was historically only available to those at the top of the societal hierarchy. Most of the rest of human society was focussed on the everyday survival tasks of maintaining food and shelter. With the accessing of fossil fuels and our equivalent of 100 slaves per person (in Western countries – see Homer-Dixon) we should be experiencing a cognitive surplus on a massive scale, in fact many of us are using our ‘free’ time to lose ourselves in reality TV, consumer culture and on-line activities. Some are using this time to re-skill for the future via online learning or domestic skilling up. There are others who are building communities and engaging in building new futures.
How many of us are thinking?
I’d like to suggest that a worthwhile thing to do each day, along with eating well and exercise, is to think. It really doesn’t matter what you think, or whether it right or wrong or nothing much at all, but the discipline that comes with figuring something out is worth pursuing. Some of us are reporting that we do have more time to ponder, and the benefits of meditation, mindfulness and time out to think are well regarded in leadership training and literature.
Every day, I ask myself what I figured out. Some days it may be something as simple as where the ants in the kitchen were coming from, on another I may have had an insight into a problem that has been nagging me. Every so often, I have a flash of what appears to be insight into a new way of perceiving or understanding something and this often comes after I have read someone else’s thinking on an issue. I have many books that are half read, I pick them up as they appeal, read them and put them down unfinished. It has become more of a habit than I would like.
To try to counter this, I have started reading to the end. I still watch TV and movies, but I also make time to think and try to stop myself being busy just for the sake of it. I don’t do ‘make work’, I stopped this when the kids were born. My house isn’t spotless and I block out time for thinking in my diary. I read the whole magazine, not just a couple of articles. I read the whole book, not just the middle or end bits. I find this is less of an issue with fiction, as I tend to get carried away into new worlds, with non-fiction I am working to engage with the depth rather than the shallows.
I am trying to honour the 100 slaves and utilise the gift of time I have access to while it still exists.