TEDx Poland

Here’s the text of my recent talk at TEDx in Lodz (with one tiny addition I thought of on the plane home).

I’ve been thinking. About thinking.

Specifically, how do everyday environments change how we think?

Some time ago a British company gave its senior managers a sign to hang on their office doors. The signs read:

“Do not disturb, I’m thinking.” Interesting the company didn’t think that junior managers should think, but that’s another story.

I think this situation would be almost impossible today. Firstly, we have become obsessed with open plan offices, so individual offices, along with doors, are mostly gone. Secondly, the supermarket chain now operates a clean desk policy. This means that anything left on a desk after 6.00pm is thrown in the bin. The idea here, presumably, is that a messy desk is the sign of a messy mind. But I am reminded of what Einstein said about this:

“If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what then is an empty desk?”

Anyway, mess can be productive. Leon Heppel was a researcher at the US National Institutes of Health. Mr Heppel’s desk was fantastically messy. So messy in fact that he had the habit of every so often putting a sheet of brown paper over the mess in order to create a second layer of mess. Multi-story mess. Fantastic.

But here’s the good bit. One day Mr Heppel was flipping through some papers on the lower and upper levels of this desk and stumbled upon two letters from two totally unconnected researchers. He suddenly spotted a connection and put one in touch with the other. This connection subsequently led to a Nobel Prize. Had the letters been in a conventional filing system chances are the connection would not have materialised.

The third reason such a sign such would be ridiculous today is that it’s almost impossible not to be disturbed. Most people no longer have secretaries, so calls come straight through unannounced. We have mobile phones. And email, twitter, facebook and a cacophony of other mobile devices that do not respect either time or place.

Does this matter? I think it does. Putting aside the issue of how such interruptions impact human relationships, there’s the concern that they are destroying serious thinking, especially the kind of deep thinking that companies claim is so important nowadays. This is the kind of focussed, deliberate, calm, reflective thinking that’s associated with ‘out of the box’ creative thinking.

A couple of years ago I contacted almost a thousand people of all ages and walks of life and asked them a very simple question:
“Where and when do you do your best thinking?”

Only one person said in the office and they didn’t mean it – they said very early in the morning when there was nobody else around. In other words, when the building wasn’t really functioning as an office at all.

The top 10 responses were:
1. When I’m alone
2. Last thing at night/in bed
3. In the shower
4. First thing in the morning
5. In the car/driving
6. Reading a book/newspaper/magazine
7. In the bath
8. Outside
9. Anywhere
10. Jogging/running
Let me read out a few individual responses:

“Loading the dishwasher, scrubbing the floors, scouring the pans; the polishing, the cleaning.”

“ Over the decades, I think that my best thinking has occurred when I am visiting a foreign country, have my obligations out of the way, and am sitting in a pleasant spot – in a café, near a lake – with a piece of paper in front of me.”

“I do my best thinking in bed – sometimes even when asleep. I wake up having solved a problem.”

“Usually when I am not working, and most often when I am travelling!”

“I sit down (usually at home, in my study, in my grandmothers Welsh oak chair),
with a sharp pencil and a blank notebook and start to draw out the idea, almost graphically.”

“37,000 feet and half way into a gin and tonic”

“In a hot bath”

“I do my best thinking ‘if’ I go to church – away from things and where I am forced to stop working and usually drift off and stop listening.”

“I do my best thinking on a morning run – the crisper the air, the better…I like big sky, open fields and lots of fresh air.”

“I do my best thinking in bed – my dreams are often very close to real life, so sometimes I wake having solved a problem,”

“Not sitting in front of a screen – I tend to find that ideas come to me when I’m sitting on the ferry, in the shower, walking between meetings, listening to the radio…I think it’s something to do with having mild diversions between you and the problem.”

Do these responses have anything in common? I’d say yes. A significant proportion of the activities cited involve a relative degree of solitude and silence.

In an age of multi-tasking, crowd-sourcing and 24/7 media, doing nothing, or what sometimes appears to be nothing, seems to be vastly underrated too.

The way our minds work is that they need time to switch off, rest and relax. We need to go to bed, take a nap or do something that takes our mind off things.

This can mean going for a very long walk, visiting a bookshop for no particular reason, looking out of a window or doing something very mundane or repetitive
– ideally something physical – that uses a different part of the brain. All of these activities allow our minds to drift and dream.

Travel can be useful too, as is any new experience, because new inputs create new outputs. The key, in my view, is volume and diversity are key here.

In my experience, long-haul flights are especially productive, especially if there’s a window to look out of. I think this is because I’m suspended between places.
I have no responsibilities and therefore I have permission to relax. Mind you, I flew with Ryanair yesterday and I can definitely say it didn’t work with them.

Scale seems to be important too. You sometimes need to feel physically small to have a big idea – so being very high up often helps. This might explain why mountains and especially space travel can change our thinking so profoundly. Seeing a distant horizon also appears to project our thinking forward.

I think artists instinctively understand this, which is why basements with strip lighting are possibly not the most productive of spaces if you are contemplating a masterpiece.

And let’s not forget about churches. I mentioned churches to a teacher a while ago saying that I thought they could change how people think. He said no. I was wrong.
They change how people feel and this, in turn, changes how people think. I think that’s an interesting thought.

Personally, with churches, I think it’s something to do with a combination of high ceilings, relative silence and history, although some people might say God is in the details too.

A really good library is another thinking space that’s interesting.

Public libraries are having a hard time at the moment, partly because governments are trying to save money, but also because they are seen as being increasingly irrelevant. After all, who needs a physical library in the age of Google and eBooks? Not anyone between the ages of five and sixty-five it seems.

But this rather misses the point in my view. Physical books are important, but that’s not why good libraries should be preserved. Libraries are important, not because of what they contain, but because of what they don’t.

In a world that’s becoming faster and noisier, libraries are valuable because they are one of the very few spaces we have left where silence is still golden. In short, they are one of the few places where you can literally hear yourself think.

But most libraries don’t seem to get this.

They are trying to modernise themselves. To bring themselves up to date with our new culture of instant digital gratification and universal connection.

But I think this is a big mistake.

In my view, libraries should stop trying to compete with Starbucks. If you allow the use of mobile phones, noisy laptops and coffee machines in libraries what you will end up with is not a library. It’s a Starbucks. They should be doing the very opposite.

So here’s my idea. We need to preserve silent spaces.

For example, we should make a lot of noise about the fact that mobile phones – both our own and those belonging to others – can be disruptive and use should be restrained or restricted in some places.

Similarly, quiet coaches on trains or airplanes should be just that. Parents will unruly children should perhaps be given instant fines.

And perhaps in restaurants dinners should pay extra if they want to talk to someone other than the person – or persons – they are eating with.

But perhaps that’s too easy.

I was watching a documentary about Leonard Cohen a while ago. Bono, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen and The Edge from U2 were asked about Cohen’s music. Bono made a great comment that Leonard’s success stemmed partly from the fact that he was patient. If he couldn’t find what he was looked for he just waited.

I think that’s an interesting insight, but another comment caught really my attention.

One member of U2 commented that if you study the early stages of Christianity it was the widely accepted thought that if you wanted to hear God’s voice you had to go somewhere really quiet. Quite a logical thought if you think about it.

I’m not especially religious, but I think this thought can take us somewhere useful.

How about creating a law that insists that everyone takes a week off every ten years to think. That retreats are set up on top of mountains where all forms of communication – both digital and physical – are banned and where conversation is strictly regulated.

This might not change the world, but it might change a few peoples’ perspectives.

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  1. Pingback: Sometimes I just sits and thinks, and sometimes … « The Thesis Whisperer

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