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Weekly Blog #54 - Let your thoughts die instead of you...

The purpose of thinking is to let your thoughts die instead of you.

Are you a quiet thinker or do you formulate and clarify your thoughts while talking? A good chunk of people think while they are talking. That's not a bad thing, even if it sounds stupid. Why? Well, thinking quietly is really, really hard. I had a rough idea about how difficult it is but hadn't actually realized this until I started (or tried to start) meditating. Sitting quietly and letting thoughts pass made me realize how many of them go through my mind at any given moment. And it made me realize that it's even harder to pick the right ones and formulate a proper idea inside of your brain before communicating it to others. But how does that actually work? Here's an attempt to explain it...


The struggles of "thinking"...

Think about "thinking quietly" as an argument inside your mind between two people. For now, let's call them agents (however, they are not related to the agents that Danial Kahneman describes in his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow"). You do this all the time and there are hundreds of agents inside your brain since you have hundreds of different ideas, interests, opinions, etc.. Each perspective that you can develop inside your mind is equal to one agent. That doesn't mean your schizophrenic, it just appears to be a convenient way to describe why we are changing moods, feeling different about different things from one day to another or arguing about things with other people and their "agents".

Usually, when an idea pops up in your mind, there is an agent with a strong position and one with a weak one for evaluating if the idea is good or bad. For example, if you come home after work and you want to go for a workout. The idea is probably a good one but there are two options: the easy one would be to jump onto the idea and change into your workout clothes. The difficult one: sitting down on the couch and contemplating over the idea - how good it would be to go do a workout compared to just relaxing and watching TV. That's when the two agents start arguing. In this case, usually the one bringing forth arguments for staying on the couch is the stronger one - at least from my experience. The verdict: standing up from the couch? Bad idea.

However, proper "thinking" about ideas should be different. You should have two equally strong agents with an equally strong line of arguments. And you should listen to both of them with equal attention. That's the hard part. If you are not willing to put up a fight inside your brain for what the best option is, you will not "think" properly. You will fight unequal fights and possibly not make the best decisions. But thinking this way is mentally and sometimes physically demanding. It can even be painful. Therefore, one usually struggles with having these arguments.

But if we keep giving in to bad ideas the consequences might be severe. Not as severe as the initial quote might suggest, but think about this for a moment: whenever you give in to the easy option, the one that's not been though through well, the one that might even be a mismatch to what your ideals and values are, you let a small part of these ideals and values die. The bad choice takes its place and shapes you into someone you might not want to be. That doesn't sound like something we want to let happen, does it?

Letting bad ideas die...

As a consequence, most of us need a partner to talk to. A partner, that helps us keep the good ideas and let the bad ones die. One that listens and helps us to evaluate the options we have and the struggles we encounter while thinking. One that tells us: "Well, you could do that, but it's actually really stupid." And even though this might sound simple, there's a process to it that comes with a few requirements.

Let me give you an example: in my case, I usually formulate sentences and positions in my mind and communicate them to my wife, having her assess the different positions. While formulating them I try to be impartial and speak out the ideas as they pop up in my mind. The important part is not to manipulate the thoughts before communicating them. Also not a very easy thing to do, but very, very important.

My wife then takes up the representative role of the "general public", since the general public is usually right. Not always, of course, but for most issues that occur and most ideas that are formulated, the general public has a good sense of what's good and what's stupid. My wife usually recognizes quite fast if the idea I have is my own of if I'm just possessed by something that's been put into my mind. Let's remember what's been written on this blog before: a person usually doesn't own the idea, the idea owns the person.

There is a very important prerequisite to this process: the ability to listen. The person you pick for sharing your ideas and "thinking out loud" to has to be able to listen before judging. However, bot is important. First: listening. Then: judging. It doesn't help that - if you have an idea - all the other person does is waiting for you to finish and then tell you about their idea. Or if you feel bad about something they wait 'til you finished ant then tell you that they feel even worse because of something totally unrelated. Good communication partners listen to your thoughts and ideas, they help you celebrate the good ones and support you in working through the bad ones. Otherwise, nothing is gained!

I am, quite frankly, extremely lucky to have a partner that listens well. It's worth finding someone who does that. And in my opinion, this is probably the most difficult part about thinking quietly: listening to yourself, giving each agent a fair shot at what they have to say and weighing in on each opinion properly and thoughtfully. I'm terrible at that. I need to think "loudly". I need someone to listen.

Realizing which way works best for you can be crucial for dealing with the complexity and the amount of thoughts and ideas that crowd our minds. While one important thing is to understand what type of "thinkers" we are, the other, maybe even more important part is to reflect on and be thoughtful about if we are able to listen well.

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