Thinking about thinking

I’ve got an after-dinner speech coming up at a Cambridge college, but the audience are Chinese and my 20-minute talk has to be translated. This means that after I say something I pause whilst it is repeated in Mandarin. This means I actually have 10 minutes to explain what I think is going to happen to the world over the next 50 years. Anyway, the funny thing is that I’ve spent the best part of a week trying to write 2 pages, all to no effect. But this morning I started at 8.30am, drank 2 coffees and 2 cups of tea (Yorkshire blend) and managed to do it in 35 minutes.

Why might this be so?

The reason, I think, is that one of the biggest problems with solving problems is that people give up too soon. We think about things, we think some more, and then quit – because nothing appears to be happening or because the process is frustrating.

Idea or solution generation tends to proceed through three clear stages. The first stage is education, the second stage is incubation and the final stage is illumination. The first stage is deeply demanding. You need to think, a lot. You need to be become conscious of the issues and become sensitive to the broader context. In short you need to become receptive and focus your attention on the problem at hand. Personally I believe that relaxation (a sense of mental calm and physical quiet) is essential during this stage, although I am aware that other people would disagree with me on this.

The second stage is then deeply unnerving, largely because it doesn’t obviously exist or because we cannot directly control it. However, to think that nothing is happening would be a giant mistake. It’s just that all of the work occurs in your unconscious so it appears as though nothing is going on. Eventually something will pop into your head, usually unannounced, and at this point the flow of ideas can often turn into a flood, when all of the individual elements start coming together.

Or it could just be the caffeine.

Thinking about 2014 in 1914

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I’m doing a public talk at the Museum of London later this month and have come across two rather good quotes, one about London and one about the broader context of politics.

“There are two great railways stations, one for the north and one for the south. The great roads out of London are 120 feet wide, with two divisions, one for slow-moving and the other for fast-moving traffic; and there will be a huge belt of green fields surrounding London.”
Aston Webb, talking about London in 2014 from the perspective of 1914 and showing that you can sometimes be roughly right.

“It is as certain as anything in politics can be, that the frontiers of our modern national states are finally drawn.”
The journalist H.N. Brailsford getting it horribly wrong in 1914.

Language Inflation

This is going in the new book. I popped into a pet superstore today to buy copious amounts of dog food. Patiently waiting in line at the checkout, a customer rushed up to the desk and said, in an excited tone, that there was a “health and safety incident” in the store. I was expecting some trivial thing, such as a wet floor or broken glass (i.e. no big deal), but it was much better than that.

Being a curious sort, I momentarily stepped out of line and followed the excited customer and the bored sales assistant into the small animals aisle. “Look, there is a piece of paper on the floor.” (it was about 20cm square). “My wife knows someone that slipped on a bit of paper in Tesco and broke an arm.” (I’m not making this up).

I’m sorry? You think this is a health and safety “incident”? Have you thought of actually being alert and walking around it? Or perhaps you could be responsible and just pick the bit of paper up. (I didn’t actually say that. But I wish I had – but if I had there would have been an incident).