On this blog I’ve posted a few reflections on how I think, and a few musings on how I should think. But I haven’t really explained how I’m learning to think. This is because I’ve been trying and tweaking my plan. My original curriculum sucked. It sucks a bit less now. But it’s getting better, and it’s gone through significant changes. I expect it to go through many more. Now is a good time to share it.
My original plan to learn how to think was to read a bunch of texts and take notes on them. Over winter break I started doing this by capturing the arguments from a book called “de Bono’s Thinking Course.” Very quickly, however, I realized there was at least one massive flaw in my plan. Namely, just reading about different thinking techniques didn’t guarantee that I would apply them or apply them well. Also, you can imagine that some techniques are much much more useful than others – I didn’t build into my plan any way of evaluating what I read.
My first plan, therefore, rested on two incorrect assumptions: (1) that all thinking techniques I encountered were equally worth adopting and (2) that just knowing about the techniques meant that I would use them and use them effectively. In my second plan, I tried accounting for these things.
My second plan was very similar to my first, with two notable editions. The first was that I would separate my curriculum into two distinct phases, that I would switch between, the first phase being collecting useful thinking techniques and the second phase being choosing the most useful and practicing them. This accounted for the two problems I ran into when I tested my first plan.
Of course, I ran into problems here, too. How was I going to check whether or not I’d actually gotten better at thinking? Was it when i noticed myself using new techniques that I’d learned? Maybe… but what if I was just using them arbitrarily, and they’re weren’t actually causing me to think better, just differently? That’s not what I was aiming for. Oh no.
Between plan #2 and plan #3 I had a great late-night conversation with my friends at Leverage, who pointed out a critical flaw in my plan. Thinking is a meta level skill. You have to apply it to something concrete, to an object level skill. Or else you won’t have adequate feedback mechanisms telling you whether you’re actually getting better.
They proposed that I choose a concrete skill (defined here as “a skill that will cause noticeable changes in the outside world”), suggesting things like storytelling or programming or learning an instrument. In each of these skills it’s obvious whether there’s been improvement: you can detect the fluency of your stories, you can see the usability of your code, you can hear the quality of your music.
The object level skill I chose was persuasion. If I got better at persuasion, I would know just by answering a simple question: could I more reliably get people to do what I wanted? The idea here was that if I was getting better at thinking about how to learn persuasion (yes yes, it’s very meta), then I would notice rapid gains in my persuasion ability that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.
So I thought about how to learn persuasion. First I addressed my underlying objections to learning persuasion. I realized that there were a number of valid reasons why I felt blocked from trying to persuade people of things. For example, I was worried that people wouldn’t like me if I asked them to do things for me (which is not necessarily true). I articulated my concerns and addressed them and moved on.
Then I ran into another problem: there wasn’t anything I wanted to persuade people to do that they wouldn’t easily do. Or so I thought. When I reflected on this a little bit more, I realized that there were in fact “unreasonable” things that I wanted others to do, but since I didn’t believe I could persuade them to do it, I’d convinced myself that I didn’t care. To solve this, I made a list of “unreasonable” things that I could ask others to do. Some of them were pretty funny (e.g. get someone to take off all of their clothes with you in public). Others were heartfelt (e.g. convince someone that they’re good at something that they actually are good at, but won’t take credit for). None of them were completed.
Why wasn’t I doing what I’d said I’d do? Well, there were even more flaws in my plan. First, I didn’t know how long each of the persuasion challenges on my list of unreasonable things was going to take. So, I didn’t plan for them and they didn’t happen.
More importantly, the persuasion challenges didn’t feel important to me. I didn’t believe that if I did them, I would actually be any better at persuading people to do things. I thought I would just get better at being more socially daring. This is important, and something that I’d like to get better at, but not exactly what I was aiming for.
I realized that the thing I really wanted was to persuade by means of understanding people better. I wanted to have a better grasp on who people were – from their essence to their specific idiosyncrasies to their ultimate goals. (I have lots of room to improve in this dimension.) If I understood people better, then I would be more aware of how to change their behavior. This is what I wanted.
So, this brings me to my current plan. After about a week of deliberation, I decided to narrow my efforts for learning persuasion to a single task: modeling people. Now, I am building the habit of spending an hour each day writing out what I know about someone I care about, someone who I regularly interact with. I’m trying to develop a systematic way of thinking through what I know about people I know. The feedback mechanism here is simple: once I have an explicit model of someone, I can check it by asking them questions and trying to anticipate their behavior.
I know that plan #4 isn’t perfect. Nor will be plan #5 or even plan #100. But it’s getting better! Now I’m at a place where I have three important things. I have:
(1) A meta level skill that I want to get better at – thinking.
(2) A concrete skill that I’m applying it to – persuasion.
(3) A habit that I can learn persuasion with – spending 1 hour a day writing out my understanding of someone.
Let’s see how this goes.