One Thing & Another

Delray Beach, FL

Notes From My Journal: 10 Commandments of Independent Thinking

I’m a big fan of Bertrand Russell. For a man with impeccable academic credentials, he was able to think independently and write coherently about many of life’s most common and commonly perplexing questions.

For example: Why is it that most people go through life thoughtlessly? And by that, I mean: Why is it that most people don’t actually think?

I’m not talking about “thinking” about how to solve problems or achieve goals. Nor am I talking about figuring out what’s wrong with everyone and everything else.

I’m talking about trying to actually figure out why things are the way they are. And questioning whether something that is generally believed is actually true. I would even include the act of thinking about any subject in a consistently logical matter.

This has nothing to do with education. Most of the people I know with law degrees, medical degrees, and master’s degrees rarely evince an original thought.

And it certainly has nothing to do with success.  You can become enormously rich and powerful without thinking. In fact, it’s difficult to become rich and powerful if you are a thinker.

As for natural smarts, I would say that there is some correlation between raw intelligence and thinking. But the connection is merely one of potential, not of fact.

Of course Socrates had figured out the thinking challenge two thousand years before Bertrand Russell. But Russell had the advantage of speaking about it to us in modern parlance using modern references.

Thinking – the sort of thinking we’re talking about here – comes from a genuine interest in discovering truths, a willingness to face one’s intellectual and emotional limitations and a scrupulous adherence to logic.

It is the process of looking for genuine answers and not settling for convenient explanations.

I’ll be talking more about Russell’s thoughts about how to think well. For today, I’d like to offer some of his thoughts on how to think independently:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  1. Do not think it worthwhile to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  1. Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.
  1. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  1. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found. 
  1. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you. 
  1. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric. 
  1. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  1. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it. 
  1. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.


Today’s Word: bravado (noun)

Bravado (bruh-VAH-doh)  is a display of daring and/or a brilliant performance. As used by René Ricard, an influential art critic in Andy Warhol’s circle : “I want my soldiers – I mean artists – to be young and strong, with tireless energy performing impossible feats of cunning and bravado.”


Fun Fact

The swastika was originally a symbol of peace and honor and is still used by Buddhists today


From My “Work-in-Progress” Basket

Head vs. Gut: When Intuition Beats Rationality in Making Business Decisions

A good while ago, I read an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “When to Trust Your Gut.”

This is a subject I’ve spent some time thinking about. And my feeling has always been that, when it comes to business, experience-based, emotionally felt (i.e., gut) decisions are not nearly 100% reliable. But they are much more likely to produce positive results than the rational conjectures one might arrive at from speaking to a major business consulting firm or an MBA from an Ivy League school.

According to the author, Alden M. Hayashi (who was senior editor of HBR when the article was published), my feeling about gut versus brain decision-making is right. Sort of.

It depends, he argues, on where you are on the corporate ladder.

For middle managers, he says, instinct is important. But business decisions at that level should be based much more on facts, figures, and established protocols. Middle managers who shoot from the hip, he says, often make costly mistakes. Those who sharpen their pencils and follow the rules keep the bottom line black. But as one climbs the corporate ladder, many of the decisions become more complicated. They involve not only quantifiable issues like sales and profits and growth projections but also qualitative issues such as who among five candidates is best suited for a particular task. On top of that, there is the whole world of unintended consequences – a fact of life that social scientists have begun to seriously study only recently.

Add to all the aforesaid, moral issues – such as how a particular decision might affect groups of people (employees, vendors, customers) – and what you end up with are decisions that are as complicated as those in a game of chess.

This is why so much has been published by business writers about the importance of going with the gut.

Of course, gut-based thinking (if you want to call it thinking) does not take place in the gut at all, but in the brain. Social scientists call it “emotional intelligence.” Here’s a rough explanation of how it works:

The subconscious mind is always processing and storing information that the conscious mind may not be aware of. In particular, it has an amazing capacity for recognizing, remembering, and “cross-indexing” patterns in everything you observe. (Much greater than the ability to recall facts.) As a result, the more experience you have, the more emotional intelligence you have.

In chess, for example, grandmasters are able to recognize and recall about 50,000 major patterns in the way the pieces can be arranged on the board. This makes it possible for them to make instantaneous decisions as the game progresses.

The same process is at work in business.

The brain is constantly noticing patterns in every situation you take part in and every challenge you face. Then, when you need it, your conscious mind picks up on something that your subconscious mind has stored and “tagged,” and you have an “Aha!” moment – a sense of knowing exactly what to do.

You don’t actually know exactly what to do. What happens is that the part of your brain that is the seat of emotional intelligence sends a strong message to another part, the part that observes and analyzes your thoughts. It says – no, it shouts – Do this!

But emotional intelligence is not infallible… for one very good reason. The emotional brain records patterns, but the patterns are based on impressions. And sometimes those impressions are false.

If, say, you’ve been fired from three jobs in a row and you believed each time that the firing was based on your looks, your emotional brain is going to record that pattern. The firings could have been because you showed up an hour late every day. But if you didn’t record that as an impression, your emotional intelligence will be giving you bad advice.

So what’s the solution? Give each part of your brain its due.

Trust that the emotional brain is very good at noticing patterns. And accept that if you do have a strong gut instinct, it’s because you are in a situation that is similar in some ways to others you’ve been in before.

But also know that however strongly your gut is shouting at you, it may be wrong. Call in your rational brain (perhaps with the help of a rational, disinterested party) and look at the situation from two perspectives: What if my gut is right? What if my gut is wrong?

If you do that, something new and useful might happen. You might come up with not just one decision but two: a Plan A and a Plan B.


Recommended Reading

Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry

By David Orr

2011, 215 pages

Beautiful & Pointless is a pleasure to read for poets and lovers of poetry, but it’s also a good read for anyone interested in language and thought.

 The New York Times calls it a “passionate, nimble little book.” It is that. David Orr is the poetry columnist for the paper’s Book Review. He knows his business.

The first chapter is an essay exploring what we mean when we say that a poem is personal. In this and other chapters, he shows that he is very good at deconstructing conventions of thought and uncovering contradictions and subtleties. He supports his points with excerpts from modern poetry, usually persuasively.

There’s something here for everyone – whether you’re new to poetry or a longtime aficionado.