Don’t think harder—think better.
Last fall a client I was working with shared a New York Times op-ed with me: “How to Think Outside of Your Brain.” As a ghostwriter and writing coach, I’m always on the lookout for tools that can lead to better writing—because in my opinion, better writing comes from better thinking, plain and simple. Not only that, but many of the people I work with are taking on complex social, spiritual, and political issues—they’re trying to answer the big questions of life. So whatever thinking tools I can give them (and use myself) in that pursuit of untangling the complexities of the world around us, I put to the test.
The adventure of finding the best expression of the genius buried in our experiences and insights can be a blast, but it is not without it’s challenges.
Of the four Annie Murphy Paul mentions, the one that stood out to me was “detachment gain.” (The other three—tools, embodied cognition, and the power of team thinking—are worth exploring as well.) If we can take our thoughts or understanding of something and somehow represent it in three-dimensional—or even two-dimensional—space, it allows us to visualize what we know in mind-expanding new ways. Entire concepts, systems, or patterns can be represented so that we can see their relationships to one another, and any gaps or misconceptions we might have glossed over. It’s a powerful way, as Ms. Paul puts it, of using the brain as “less workhorse, more orchestra conductor.”
As a rule, I find insightful book ideas come to us like big balls of bubblegum that are incredibly difficult to make sense of. Our brains seem to understand things in ways that are often difficult to explain in the linear format demanded when one writes a book.
The first step is then sorting and identifying, which is best done outside our heads. Some like to start with outlining, but I like making “buckets” for ideas that can then be organized into smaller buckets as you separate the “bubblegum” ideas and identify their “color” and “flavor” or whatever categories make most sense to you. Great tools for this are index cards (yeah, just like in high school English composition), sticky notes on a wall or closet door, or whatever you feel inspired to try out. There are also great electronic tools such as Scrivener, Mural.co, Evernote, or OneNote—anything that gives you a way to record your thoughts and research, easily find particular points again, and manipulate them into a new representation. I find I go back and forth between tactile tools and electronic tools that I can share with my clients. It’s a process that entails a degree of staring at a wall or computer screen looking for better ways to organize the thoughts represented before me.
Getting Some Distance from Our Ideas
But there’s also another way that getting thoughts outside of our heads gives us perspective: it is the ability to separate our thoughts from being ideas we came up with to seeing them from the perspective of someone hearing them for the first time.
It’s very similar to how former Harvard psychology professor Robert Kegan describes the process of mentally and emotionally maturing or developing from one phase of life and adulthood to the next. I feel like books go through similar “levels of consciousness.” For Kegan, maturing as human beings is a process of being able to differentiate what is subjective and being able to objectively evaluate it as if it were not our own. He calls this going from subject to object.
For an infant, the entire world is “subject” in that it only matters how the world relates to the child. Everything is personal—the whole world is “me.” As we know, the love and care given a child under five years old is very formational to how they perceive themselves in the decades to come. The world around them only matters in how it relates to them and in a very real sense, is part of who they are.
As a child begins to be able to identify others in the word as separate individuals, the child matures and (hopefully) learns to appreciate nuances and respect differences. In this next phase, a sense of “you” and “me” develops.
In the next stages, a sorting of values and beliefs takes place as identity forms in adolescence, and then where that identity fits in society is formed as we leave home and strike out to make our mark on the world. (Kegan calls this the first phase of adult development, or more specifically, “the socialized mind.”) This is the “us” and “them” level of consciousness. It is tribal. It is created through a very black and white process of accepting or rejecting beliefs, attitudes, perspectives, worldviews, values, and the like—either “yeah, that’s me,” or “no, that’s not me,” or “yes, these are my people” or “no, I’m not with them.”
Loosening Our Grip on “Either/Or”
We choose to identify as one religion or another, as conservative or liberal, as capitalist or socialist, belonging to this subculture rather than that one. We sort in either/or dichotomies. That which does not help form an affirming sense of self and belonging is generally tossed aside as incompatible with who we are—and often the rest of the system that goes along with it. That which is part of “who I am” and “who my tribe is” is embraced with fierce protectiveness.
Unfortunately, identity formation is not really a conscious process. It’s something our minds do on their own to improve our chances of survival in an otherwise overwhelmingly complex world. To question the choices our subconscious makes can be painful—disagreements can feel like challenges to our value as a human being. We tend to try to solve disagreements of this nature with sheer force, or at least a lot of shouting.
This is not a bad thing, despite its limitations and obvious drawbacks. It is actually the first necessary step in dealing with complexity: categorizing, grouping, and evaluating between alternatives. It’s our brain working to create understanding. It is an essential first step, but also far from the end of the process. You might think of it as creating a first draft of the way you perceive how life works—or should work.
Why the First Draft Isn’t Enough
A problem arises, however, when we stop there, which Kegan believes more than half of us do. I feel that’s where a lot of books fail as well, especially nonfiction and memoir—they never really evolve much beyond their initial understanding. We’re too ready to put down our pens after all the hard work, which is understandable because finishing a first draft is a lot of work. However, in truth, it is only the beginning of understanding. Finishing a first draft is the first time we actually get a glimpse of what we wanted to write about in the first place.
Further maturity happens as elements of our subjective first draft can be separated out and evaluated without threat to the identity that wrote it. This means we can look at elements of our own beliefs and worldview and see strengths and weaknesses in them without demanding an all or nothing acceptance or rejection. What was subject (integrally “me”) becomes object (a belief, opinion, value, etc. that “me” chooses to have). If someone disagrees with it, it is not an attack on “me,” but the challenge of an idea. We can either choose to defend it, or we can step into a discourse about it where we are open to other perspectives. We have room to see the pluses and minuses of an idea without needing to accept or reject it. We suspend the need to evaluate in order to make room for deepening our understanding. Identity, tribe, and principles are allowed to stand on their own without one always defining the other. Kegan calls this second stage of adulthood the “self-authoring mind.”
Standing Out from the Crowd
As we mature into this, a person can look at their worldview next to the worldview of other “tribes,” see good and bad in each, and choose what works for them individually, all the while still objectively holding onto their own worldview. No longer is it the tribe I belong to that defines “me,” but choices of individual perspectives within and beyond those tenets of faith (so to speak). This separation and affirmation allow a person to replace some of their “either/or” thinking with a lot of “both/and.”
A person can recognize the best of two or more systems of interpreting the world and further self-actualize or “self-author.” This makes room for greater wisdom and cooperation. It can also show up as a midlife crisis where we again question everything we believed earlier, just as we questioned what was instilled in us as we grew up. Some feel this is a time to regress and try to recapture the thrill of young adulthood, but we should instead be willing to evolve beyond the former toward something more genuine, individual, and significant.
Without getting into the social implications of this (which I’m sure have already crossed your mind), drafts of a book gain greatly from this kind of “detachment.” You’ve probably heard of it as “getting distance” from your writing. First drafts have a lot of “me” in them—and a lot of emotional attachment. But when “my” ideas emerge and begin to stand on their own, they separate from being “me” and “my” experiences to becoming their own story. It is an Athena born out of the mind of Zeus phenomenon. We give birth to something that becomes its own wonder. What is on the page goes from subject (my great idea; my life) to object (something released into the world that stands on its own). This allows the author to see how well their message resonates with others without the reader needing to know the “me” behind the story.
Above and Beyond
Kegan’s third stage of adult development is called “the self-transforming mind.” (For a book, I like to think of it as “self-transcending.”) Kegan felt that only a very small majority of us reach this level of consciousness in life, maybe even less than one in a hundred.
For books, it is even less frequent—you need only count the numbers of books that reach a bestsellers’ list in a year compared to the number of books published during that same time, and then take a small fraction of those who actually go on to become perennial bestsellers. It’s a small group indeed that reach the level of How to Win Friends and Influence People, Think and Grow Rich, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Start with Why, The Happiness Project, or whatever classic you’ve read that has touched your life in an important way.
Through the process of helping authors complete more than eighty manuscripts (whether as an editor, coach, or ghostwriter), I have repeatedly experienced the gain for leaders who have been able to get their thoughts outside of their heads and into another more objective representation (of which writing is just one of many). The ability to record thoughts, group them into systems (or metaphors) of their own, and place them within other systems on a whiteboard, as sticky notes, a drawing or diagram—or in some other format that can be regrouped, revised, restructured, reworked, etc.—outside the confines of one’s mind can be powerful.
What the World Needs Now
There is little question that the world has yet to really become what it can be—or even what it should be. I’m not talking about some kind of Utopia, but rather a world where we focus on the right priorities and are equipped to spend the energies needed working together to address them.
To do anything near that, we need more transcendent ideas—ideas that can change lives and even nations—and such ideas often first appear as a book. There are authors out there striving to make the connections between the ideas needed to create abundance and freedom for others. I’ve met many of them, and even had the privilege of working with several. If you’re such a person looking to make a positive impact on the world, hopefully getting some distance from the thoughts in your head can amplify those efforts. I have certainly seen this process help authors, both in getting their books written and taking their original concepts to new levels.