Sit and think about what you want to say. No computer. No pen and paper.
Because writing requires daily practice, doing it can get boring and predictable. It helps to have a system of hacks to drive the writing habit along the way.
Whether you’re writing a book, a blog post, or in a journal, writing is the most efficient way to purge your thoughts from the darkest and dormant corners of the brain. Writing is like talking to your therapist, a bicep curl that strengthens familiarity with your mind.
“I find that by putting things in writing I can understand them and see them a little more objectively. For words are merely tools and if you use the right ones you can actually put even your life in order.”
Hunter S. Thompson
You don’t have to be a published or aspiring author to write, nor do you have to be a student. Writing is a system for coping with the vicissitudes and celebrations of life.
As David Ogilvy once said, “People who think well, write well.” People who write well think well because it’s hard to clarify thoughts. The writer’s main challenge, therefore, is to find ways to keep on doing it.
Like a Google search, the stuff worth keeping is like finding a needle in a haystack. When we discover something of value, it sticks. We share the knowledge with others, recasting it as our own.
Yet, our minds remain terrible aggregators. Who’s in charge, the thinker or the thought?
It’s impossible to unhear and unsee things — conversations, teacher’s lessons, tweets — without getting sucked into the commercialization of attention. The public sphere promotes mindless chatter, so rationalization sinks to the bottom.
The race to become synchronized with the mainstream prevents the interrogation of ideas. The noisy flood of information buffers thought until finally, the chaos settles to the bottom. And pieces of clarity return, unstuck from the confident idiots.
A lot of people think thinkers can’t be leaders. But that’s exactly what leadership is: thinking. The leader of a group takes what they read and hear internally and externally and originates his/her own thought. They speak for themselves. As former Yale professor and best-selling author William Deresiewicz said in his 2009 speech to West Point cadets:
“If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts.”
It’s lonely at the top because being the boss requires a lot of independent reflection and focus. Leadership also takes courage, as saying what is unpopular or unknown makes other people uncomfortable. People wish for the status quo as much as they seek certainty.
Being a leader precludes following. The problem is that some of the world’s leaders continue to jump through hoops like “excellent sheep” to get to where they are. They go to Ivy League schools and get straight A’s and go on to become CEOs and lawyers where they keep the usual routine going.
“Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along.”
Success, therefore, is that which appeases others more than it leads. Some of the most educated people choose to chase the herd. On the other hand, real leaders embrace complexity. Deresiewicz uses US General David Petraeus as the apotheosis of a great leader.
“What makes him a thinker—and a leader—is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself. And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren’t popular. Even when they don’t please his superiors. Courage: there is physical courage, which you all possess in abundance, and then there is another kind of courage, moral courage, the courage to stand up for what you believe.”
So, how does one think well?
Thinkers concentrate. Thinkers avoid multitasking, distractions, and the tendency to ape the thoughts and opinions of other people. Like philosophers, they search for their originality and tools that will help guide their action.
“Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.”
Leaders require solitude. Isolation requires concentration. Silence means spending time in the canvass of your thoughts and not running away from denial on Facebook and Twitter. “Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality.” Mulling over thoughts, ideas and observations is a single task-driven to achieve honesty with yourself.
“Climbing on that steamboat and spending a few uninterrupted hours hammering it into shape. Or building a house, or cooking a meal, or even writing a college paper, if you really put yourself into it.”
Thinking too, is a social act, not just with anyone but with people you trust. Says Deresiewicz, “One of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person.” Speaking your mind to a friend removes the friction of judgment and helps clarify your thoughts and opinions when they still need pruning.
Thinking is preparation. The more deeply you know about yourself, the easier it will be to react naturally to any situation, from the battlefield to major decisions at work or personal life. Solitude and leadership go hand in hand because when it comes to big decisions “all you really have is yourself.”
A man who does not think for himself does not think at all.