Think how to think

Think how to think

Think how to think

Who first said ‘I know what I want but can I want what I want?’ Nobody – not even Google – seems to know. It is a profound statement, however. Many people say they know what they want but when the price of getting it is pointed out they shy away. Even more profound is the statement ‘I know how to think but can I think how to think?’ Odd – when you think about it – that we don’t address the question of how to think before we start thinking. You wouldn’t drive a car without learning how to do so, would you? OK, perhaps you would, but only at great risk of peril.

The quality of the thoughts you have depends on [a] what your objective is for doing some thinking and [b] how you approach your thinking. Like everything in life there are quite different ways of doing it depending on what you want. If you are clear about your purpose then lineal – straight-line – thinking is relatively easy. Each step must make some contribution to reaching your objective, or must create the conditions in which future steps will do so.

From the start of the human race lineal thinking has been vital. It helped us control fire, associate shelter with comfort, decide that if something inside the body hurts it may be a good idea to cut it out. Lineal thinking sorts our lives into doable compartments and orders the way we treat each other by setting up norms of behaviour. Until the election of Donald Trump the world’s diplomacy had been crafted round a set of rules that made disagreement possible without war.

In a highly creative world, where invention is possible because of big data and major technological advances, the lineal rules don’t work so well. Creativity is itself a denial of rules insisting that there is more to life than order. Hence, chaos. This is the world of ‘shoot first and declare whatever you hit to be the target’. It is bringing ways of life we never dreamt of even ten years ago. Some of them will be uncomfortable, some, dangerous. On balance they will enhance the human brain and help us strive for what we could be, rather then what we assume nature intended us to be.

Much-discussed disruption is a good example of what I am saying. Only with such disruption can we create new versions of civilisation. It is why all civilised people hate President Trump, because of his obnoxious style, but have a sneaking feeling that he is actually achieving something no conventional politician would. Let me be clear. Even as a creative person I think there are limits to disruptive and anti-social behaviour – and I think President Trump’s far exceeds them.

At the other extreme, the country in which I live, Singapore, is known for its obedience and conformity. It has built a magnificent society, second to none elsewhere in the world. Now it is becoming more creative and the clash between the conformist and the disruptive is proving quite a struggle. No parent wants to let go the strings and risk harm. All parents learn that they have no option. When tension on the strings becomes too tight, disaster follows.

And here is an excellent example of thinking how to think. Control of expression that may be essential at one time becomes unduly restrictive at another. When that control is about how you may think is can be especially limiting, even if the control is not, nor has ever been, maintained by force. Pressure is a different matter. Pressure can be internal as well as external. In fact, the pressure we put upon ourselves is usually much tougher than the pressure others put upon us. Such is the basis of most faith conformity.

Thinking how to think therefore starts with a determination to avoid all bias and acknowledgement that past thought is valuable but never binding. It requires a mission to relate things, happenings, events, that appear to have no immediate or logical relationship. It is an understanding that trial and error are legitimate forms of learning. It is a discipline to avoid disciplines that limit.

We do not have to be rude to be imaginative. We do have to have humour. Since all good humour is about relationships, in the sense in which that word is used above, the humour needs to be widespread. Did several hundred highly educated people recently see the relationship between squeezing an olive or pear and how to tax societies of different configurations? Some did, I am sure. But everyone needs to see that if we are to improve income distribution.

Thinking how to think is not rocket science. It requires a certain confidence and an ability to relax into deeper than superficial thought.

Once you can do that, you can think about thinking.

And once you can think about thinking you will think infinitely better.