How to Have a Thought – Love Your Work, Episode 234

June 25 2020 – 07:30am

how to have a thought

Maya Angelou was right, “People will forget what you said…but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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Because I don’t remember what this woman said to me, but I do remember how I felt: Attacked.

My heart was racing. I had two options: Lash out and defend my position, or excuse myself from the conversation.

My brain hastily searched for the best way out: Slip into the kitchen to get another drink? Go to the bathroom? Awkwardly appeal to my need to mingle?

But then I realized something: I felt attacked, but she wasn’t attacking me. She wasn’t even disagreeing with me. She had merely asked a question.

Don’t be other people. Be a thinking person.

Only now, years later, do I understand why I felt so threatened. I had met a thinking person.

Oscar Wilde said it well,

Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. -Oscar Wilde

Forgive the quotation, but it accurately describes who I was. I was someone else. Whatever I had said to that woman at that cocktail party, it wasn’t a thought. It was someone else’s opinion.

And I was encountering someone who was not someone else. She was herself. She was someone who didn’t speak in pre-programmed sound bites. Someone who didn’t merely parrot the latest news headline or social media meme. Someone who listened to what you said, asked questions about it, and expected a response. Someone who, in good faith, assumed I, too, was a thinking person.


Since that day, I have endeavored to become a thinking person. I’ll never truly master thinking. If I thought I could master thinking, that wouldn’t be very thinking-person-like of me.

But once in awhile, I do have a genuine thought. Some people agree with me. Because I’ve tried to become a thinking person, I was proud when an Amazon reviewer of my latest book called me “a very original thinker,” and when best-selling author Jeff Goins called me “an underrated thinker.” (Though it would be nice to be an appropriately-rated thinker.)

So, I humbly submit to you the way I think about thinking. How to have a thought.

There are four keys to having an original thought:

  1. Read widely (not the same shit as everyone else)
  2. Stop having opinions (stop defending your “beliefs”)
  3. Stop wanting to be liked (start being intellectually honest)
  4. Write regularly (explore what you really think)

In sum, assume nothing, question everything.

How to have an original thought:
–Read widely (not the same shit as everyone)
–Stop having opinions (stop defending your "beliefs")
–Stop wanting to be liked (start being intellectually honest)
–Write regularly (explore what you really think)

Assume nothing. Question everything.

— ? ????? ?????? (@kadavy) January 16, 2020

Now, a little more about each of these points.

1. Read widely (not the same shit as everyone else)

Haruki Marakami said,

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. -Haruki Marakami

The same way you are what you eat, you also are what you read. This is a little counterintuitive, because, in trying to become a thinking person, we’re trying not to have all of our thoughts be mere re-hashings of something we’ve read.

Don’t think of reading as a way to put thoughts into your brain. Think of reading as a way of trying on someone else’s brain for a little while.

This is why a book is such a bargain: Someone spends their whole life thinking. They write all of that down. Now for ten bucks you get a lifetime worth of thinking, sewn into a costume you can try on for a few hours.

Charles Scribner, Jr. said, “Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind; it forces you to stretch your own.” With a book, you can try on someone else’s thoughts, and see how they feel. You can question those thoughts, and compare them to your own thoughts.

Sometimes a book completely reorganizes the way you process the world. Other times, you just get one or two good ideas.

But to have original thoughts, you can’t be reading the same thing everyone else is reading. This is tough, because we’re all fishing from the same stream. The stream of information that rushes by each day in the news and in our social media feeds.

Every week, thousands of new books are published. A few dozen will be hot. Most of those books won’t have a lasting impact on culture.

And they shouldn’t. Most of the books mainstream publishers are publishing are crap. They’re blog posts with 250 pages of filler. They don’t have new ideas in them. Even when the book is written by someone who has done original research, you’re better off reading one or two of their twenty-page academic papers than you are reading their 250-page book.

If you want to have a thought, you can’t read the same shit as everyone else. I love the story of Tyler Cowen, who I interviewed on episode 155. He talks about how he drove all over New England going to used book stores. Used book stores are great, because that’s where you can get stuff that isn’t even available on Kindle. And cheap, too.

When I graduated college, and recognized that I was still clueless, I did something similar to Tyler. The Omaha Public Library frequently had these used book sales. I’d come out of there with tote bags packed fat with books that were two dollars, one dollar, sometimes twenty-five cents.

My policy was basically: If I had heard of it, I bought it. I suppose at some point in my education I was supposed to read Plato and John Stuart Mill, Jane Austen or J.D. Salinger. But somehow, I hadn’t.

You might think that if I heard of it, that contradicts this idea that I should be reading something different from everyone else. But honestly, few people have read the classics. They’re too busy reading whatever new book is being shoved in their face.

Besides, you’ve gotta start somewhere. Starting with classics, you can start digging into what books are in the bibliographies of the books that really move you. That’s where you come across the really weird gems.

If you’re going to break free of The Matrix, you can’t be taking in the same source code as everyone else. Key number one to having a thought is to read widely.

2. Stop having opinions (stop defending your “beliefs”)

There truly are few things in this world that any of us know enough about to have an opinion. That doesn’t stop people, though.

Mostly, we have opinions based upon emotions, not facts. Yes, we may have enough information to feel 70% confident about an opinion, but after that, it’s all ego.

Someone else has a different opinion. We don’t want to be proven wrong. So, we defend our 70% certainty as if it were 100% certainty. Then, we all end up in echo chambers where we’re parroting sound bites to one another and nodding our heads, or we’re talking shit about the people in the other echo chamber. It’s all so we can feel good.

This is why many conversations these days are like using Photoshop without realizing you have “snap to grid” turned on. When snap to grid is turned on, you try to draw something in one place, but the grid forces it to show up in another place.

With most people you talk to, you say one thing, and they immediately interpret what you said as meaning some other thing. Some other thing that’s only remotely related to what you actually said.

You’re not talking to a thinking person. You’re talking to someone filtering everything through their inaccurate opinion. The inaccurate opinion that’s actually someone else’s opinion.

Most people get their opinions from the news. This is unfortunate, because Phillip Tetlock has proven that the pundits who show up on the news the most, are also the pundits who are terrible at predicting the future.

Here’s why having opinions prevents you from having original thoughts: The stronger you hold onto an opinion, the harder it will be for you to change your mind if you see new information. It’s a threat to your ego. It’s called “motivated reasoning” and Annie Duke talks about it on episode 197.

Opinions are like impressionist paintings. They’re fun and may even look beautiful from far away, but up close, you can see opinions are never an accurate representation of reality.

It can be fun to hold an opinion and argue the position of that opinion, but you ultimately have to accept that your opinion is not fact. The alternative is to think of your opinions in terms of percentages. As in, I’m 95% certain global warming is caused by humans. Tyler Cowan talks more about using percentages for your opinions on episode 155.

3. Stop wanting to be liked (and start being intellectually honest).

Many conversations, in fact much of day-to-day interactions, are just people using their feelings as filters for selecting which pre-packaged sound bites they’re going to repeat.

It’s all driven by identity. If somebody identifies as a conservative — whether consciously or unconsciously — what they hear is going to be filtered by that identity, what they feel will be dictated by that filter, and how they respond will be dictated by a combination of that feeling and the collection of scripts available for them within that tribe.

And it’s no different for a liberal or a libertarian or an anarchist.

This identity effect could also be called “tribalism.” It’s human nature to feel like we want to belong to a tribe.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, long ago, being cast from the tribe was the worst thing that could happen to you. You would have no resources and no social contact. You’d be left to fend for yourself, and you’d end up getting strangled by a giant anaconda.

So, staying in-line with the tribe was an advantage. If you were ostracized, you weren’t going to survive.

Fortunately, we no longer live in tribes. We live in a global civilization. You have to do a lot more than speak out of turn to truly be left to fend for yourself.

You won’t be cut out of the meat share from the latest hunt — you can order Seamless to your house. You won’t be shunned out of finding a partner — you can connect to millions through the internet. You won’t even miss the next play by the fireside — you can stream the best actors in the world on Netflix.

But that old wiring is still there. It’s still human nature to want to be accepted, and to want to be liked. But wanting to be liked gets in the way of having thoughts.

Think about how I felt when that woman at the party asked me a question. My limbic system took over, and my heart started to race. Deep down, I was worried I had said the wrong thing. Deep down, I was worried I would be left to fend for myself.

As Tyler Cowen — there he is again — said on episode 155, “Develop a thick skin.” Don’t worry about upsetting people with your actual thoughts and questions.

This is easier said than done. It’s especially hard in real-time conversation. And really — fine, have the polite conversation at the party, or at work, avoid the conflict and have a better night or keep your job.

But to start having thoughts, you can train yourself in how you react to things people say on the internet. If something upsets you, you can step away and examine that feeling. Meditate on it. Start to develop your own mental model for processing what people say. Train yourself to separate your emotional reaction from your thought process.

Remember, just because someone gets upset with you, that does not automatically mean that you did something wrong.

People have different conceptions of reality, and sometimes those differing conceptions simply collide. Like, you could tell me, “hey, I like your glasses,” and maybe I’m offended because I hate my glasses, because other kids made fun of my glasses in sixth grade. Nonsense. Feelings are not facts.

Dr. Aziz Gazipura talks about this more on episode 219.

If you stop wanting to be liked, you’ll also be less apt to the “motivated reasoning” that makes us eager to defend our opinions.

4. Write regularly (explore what you really think)

I used to treat words as if they were liquid gold. If I bothered to go through the work of writing some words, those words were rare and precious, and they had to be salvaged.

This was an impossible standard to meet. It set up a Catch-22. The words that I wrote had to be great. But it was hard to write great words, because I didn’t get much practice writing, because I thought every word I wrote had to be great.

Now, I think of writing differently. It’s not liquid gold. It’s the water in a river that’s constantly flowing by. I’m always writing, and I treat my writing with the attitude of: There’s always more where that came from.

Meanwhile, as that river is flowing by, it’s carving through the landscape. Think about it: The Grand Canyon didn’t form overnight. The Colorado River has been there, carving it for millions of years.

Not everything I write ends up in some final product, such as a book or a podcast episode, or even a tweet. It’s only after I’ve written something enough times to organize my thoughts that it usually makes it into some final product.

Like a river flowing though a canyon, don’t write to have a place to store your words, write to carve out a place for your thoughts to flow.

Don’t always write because you plan to publish. You just add an extra layer of censorship onto your writing. This is a sure way to never truly get to what you really think, and to never truly have a thought.

My favorite writing ritual is my morning habit with my AlphaSmart, my crappy little portable word processor. I grab it while I’m still in bed, and type at least one-hundred words, with my eyes closed.

Sometimes it’s just simple word play. Other times, it’s anything I want to write about. Sometimes it’s my “shadow journal” like Dr. Aziz Gazipura talked about. The place where I write about anything that comes to mind, with no judgements.

And when I’m done, I delete it all. Again, it’s not about storing the words that you write, it’s about carving out a space for your true thoughts to flow.

Go forth & have thoughts

So, there you have it. How to have a thought. Again, those keys are:

  1. Read widely (not the same shit as everyone else)
  2. Stop having opinions (stop defending your “beliefs”)
  3. Stop wanting to be liked (start being intellectually honest)
  4. Write regularly (explore what you really think)

Then again, don’t take my word for it. Find your own road to having a thought.

Image: Siblings, Paul Klee

Thanks for sharing my work!

On Twitter, thank you to @nextlevel_mind.

On Instagram, thank you to @itsjoeranda.

Thank you also to the Spark Joy podcast for having me on the show.

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