Thoughts. We all have them, most of the time at least. Monks and spiritual leaders train themselves to shut their thoughts up, and get into a state of not-thinking. A state Carlos Castaneda referred to as “Stop the World”. Yet, this is not what we are aiming for today. What has recently caught my interest is the process of thought that leads to innovation and progress. Caught somewhere between daydreaming and number crunching, so to speak, we find the pendulum of progress, swinging politely in the background of our culture.
As far as I can tell, innovation and progress come in at all different angles. Similar to the role of mutation in evolution, thoughts have popped up from seemingly nowhere, and yet their impact can be widely seen today. The easiest example would be Albert Einstein, and his unique way of conceptualizing light and its properties in thought experiments. These initially loose analogies led to an understanding of the physical world that broke the mould of the time.
So, what is the first step then in progress: Daydream! That’s right, I said it! Daydreaming in and by itself will lead you nowhere though. However, as a first step it can give you access to analogies or mental images that allow you to see your initial problem in a different, new light. If you pick the right analogy, you can even utilize already available knowledge to solve a new problem.
What then is the next step. Well, we already have an indication, don’t we!? From daydreaming, or loose thinking, we then have to start pegging down the edges of our thought model. We actually, slowly at first and then at an accelerating rate, clearly define concepts, necessary formulas, etc. In a way, we have to start, what we in university affectionately called, number crunching or strict thinking.
The concept of mental flexibility and adaptability have received considerable attention in recent times. It is important to be flexible (anyone else find this sentence a slight contradiction in itself?!). I believe that, more important than being flexible, is the ability to change between “daydreamer” and “number cruncher”. The ability to question current wisdom, to start imagining different ways, and then to really formulate the new way.
Of course, we all know that each and every personality is different. There are enough personality tests on the market to pigeonhole pretty much anyone. This pigeonholing then takes of the dynamic of: “Well, I am like this, so don’t try to change that”. It becomes a defensive shield to cover short comings. Quite frankly, I don’t care whether your Myers Briggs Type Indicator says you are oriented towards the big picture, and bad at details. Once you know that, you should activate your mind and find a way to be good at the details….!
Looking at scientific progress, we can see that sometimes the daydreamer and the number cruncher are years, even centuries apart. Mathematics is a field where this is especially visible: Look at Fermat’s dream of a proof, and the number crunching of an English Mathematician (or was he American?) to prove the dream.
Once again, I find the challenge to do both a lot more interesting than to just specialize in one. We already specialize enough in what we learn, now we have to start specializing in ways of thinking…