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Some thoughts on Original Thinkers

I believe any concept that only applies to the famous, to people deemed special through being prominent is fatally flawed. If your pool of talent only includes the well known then it is hopelessly limited. As Paul Valery’s Monsieur Teste remarked: the genius who is known is always less than some unknown genius who has not wasted half his effort on becoming known.

But it’s hard to rid oneself of celebrity-focused-rosetinted-spectacles. I’ve even experienced it myself. The day after you are on national radio even people who know you well listen to your (sometimes half-baked) comments with rapt attention. A few weeks later and they treat you just like before…

Original thinking isn’t found that often in books, in academics and, as mentioned, certainly not among famous celebrities. But it isn’t likely to be found in the mad, outcasts and dossers either.

It can be defined as ‘thinking for yourself’ rather than being ‘thought through’.

People are ‘thought through’ most often when they are to busy or distracted to be able to ponder something for themselves. Such people are rarely alone and so lose the ability to do some thinking which they then may share with others. The ‘thought through’ just react to whatever is said at the moment they hear it. They can be witty and amusing and over time and build up a repertoire of ripostes that have ‘worked’ but this is different from original thinking. Original thinking comes from a different place.

People are also ‘thought through’ when they build up a platform of ‘the unthinkable’. These act like filters on what they can and cannot think. As you get older ‘the unthinkable’ either gets bigger or smaller. You either learn to have a distance on everything so that more and more is ‘thinkable’ or you don’t. This is connected to empathy, shares some of its characteristics but is different.

Of course you have to have some kind of platform. Before you can try and think ‘new thoughts’ you need to accept that such thoughts are possible. It helps to have a set of ‘mental moves’ or a world view that combined with accurate observation  generates original thought.

In fact accurate observation alone, deep looking, is the greatest source of original thinking there is.

But for all of the above you need to be able to detach from that which you are observing as well as detach from the person who is observing. Many can do the first, don a lab coat and cut up rats. But far fewer can do the second, which is to detach from being ‘them’ or ‘their job’ and become a floating ‘observing self’ who records the act of recording. Takes a step back from the ego involved in the act of watching.

This is why ordinary people (a small number I agree), odd though it may sound, are more likely than famous scientists to be original thinkers. Ordinary folk have less to lose, less on the line, less likely to be vain about being smart and scientific and famous for their work. I mean in the sense of being original in whatever they are interested, not in being original scientists. 

But the majority of ordinary people can also be too distracted, not interested enough and lack the time and space to engage in really looking at something.

So the original thinkers tend to be slight outsider types, slight loners, slight oddballs- but those who haven’t built a replacement big ego based on being a misunderstood genius. ‘In the world but not of the world’ to use a description applied to Sufis, seekers after truth in the mystical Islamic tradition. They may be very gregarious but also have the desire and ability to be very comfortable with their own company.

OK, so much for the theory- which I think may only be useful when read with some examples in mind. The obvious one comes from medicine. I have had the misfortune to have spent time in hospital for various operations. When it came to insight about how to make me feel better (and therefore speed recovery) nurses were better than doctors and orderlies were better than nurses. That is an extraordinary statement when you think about it: that the lowest person knows more than the highest. And of course they couldn’t have performed the operation (though probably they could prescribe the drugs) and I am not saying they could diagnose the illness either. What I’m saying is that their position guaranteed a certain humility, a smaller platform of the ‘unthinkable’ and lots of opportunity for observation, which, in not a few of the orderlies or even cleaners I met resulted in insights denied the nurses and doctors, insights that helped me to heal.

If anyone responds to the above by reacting ‘so we’ll have an orderly look at your brain scan next’ then it should be obvious we have located their platform, the place of their ‘unthinkable thoughts’. For almost every doctor I know it is unthinkable to assume others might know more useful things than they do about healing. I have several doctor friends and several lawyer friends- in the sphere of their work, doctors are almost always more arrogant. They have to be. A lawyer fights cases against another lawyer and arrogance, ie identifying himself with his work can be exploited by a less arrogant lawyer. When someone’s self image involves looking smart and being the best then you can use that to distract and derail them. But a doctor has to look the part all the time – otherwise patients might not believe in him or her. The placebo effect is known to work better when the authority figure giving it is more believable and trustable. But this ‘act’ of knowing everything is very likely to infect how the doctor thinks about medicine. Bizarrely, only a practised con-man or a disillusioned doctor (met some of them) is able to think objectively about various approaches to medical care. One GP (disillusioned type) told me it had taken him YEARS to actually believe, really believe, what the patient told him. He said that for all the lip service paid to interrogating patients doctors are really discounting what is said and simply looking for things that chime in with their training. That’s why it is so easy for people looking to get sick notes from doctors (a benefits cheat told me) because they simply look up the symptoms on wikipedia and then make sure they are embedded in their ‘story’.

Medicine is an emotive subject and very dependent on context. A lighter area for discussing original thinking is outdoor gear manufacture. Most big firms employ ‘design professionals’ to invent and improve their raingear and hiking gear. Yet all innovations, not some, ALL, come from small independent operators or companies. The rucksacks that dominate the shelves of the big camping stores are filled with useless extra bits, are not even that comfortable and always weigh too much. The raingear- always influenced by ‘cool’ climbing and high mountaineering ideas, is always too short and never waterproof enough to withstand HOURS in pouring rain.

One idea made by a small company was a rain coat that had a bulge in the back that covered your rucksack. This solved two problems. The place where you rucksack straps bite in and create an internal sweat spot (and external leak spot)- that is removed. And a wet rucksack- even if the contents are dry- is still a bugger to have in a small tent. Now the downside of the bulge-coat is that it looks weird if you don’t have a rucksack on. But who cares? Not an original thinker.

I once discovered a kind of diesel motorbike that could do 200 miles to the gallon. But it looked kind of rural and chuggy. It wasn’t that fast. It was perfect for desert exploration but a motorcyclist friend had the honesty to admit he preferred riding a bike that ‘looked cool’. But his bike meant we’d need back up, couldn’t visit as many sites in the desert. For him it wasn’t about reality it was about what people thought, what he thought. In this area the ‘unthinkable’ for him was a crap looking bike even if it did the job.

Strangely enough it was the same friend who gave me the idea for making an extending bike handlebar so that one could wheel a bike with a super heavy load and also not get hit when the peddles went round. He found the idea by remembering a picture of Vietnamese people wheeling bikes loaded with grain. A bamboo pole poking from one end of the handlebars extended out and allowed the walker to keep the bike upright.

So you can be an original thinker in one area but not in another. The object though should be to increase the number of areas where original thinking can take place. This means a certain robustness must attach to the original thinker. I have just read a book about a man who spent years living in the woods in North America living off what he could steal from unoccupied summer cabins. Though some of his insights are original- the strain of fearing capture seemed to paralyse areas of this thinking so much so that he didn’t have the space or time to develop his original thoughts. Paradoxically, though he had acres of time, it was colonised by fear of detection.

This can happen to the mad and the homeless- the sheer pressure of day to day life leaves no mental ‘space’ for thinking, observing, being detached.


Where are original thinkers to be found?

Anywhere people are observing, suspending judgement and comparing using a minimal platform.


The minimal platform

What is meant by the minimal platform is the minimum amount of beliefs/assumptions/ the unthinkable that you need to operate at high efficiency in the world. Sherlock Holmes famously doesn’t know (at least in the early books) that the earth goes round the sun- he doesn’t need to in order to be a great detective. But later Conan Doyle corrects this and makes Holmes a polymath- he realises that it is the vast spread of Holmes knowledge that makes him an effective sleuth.

So what is the minimum? And why does it matter? And am I suggesting self-enforced ignorance as in the case of the early Holmes?

I am not. I see a minimal platform as a very overt acknowledgment that science is a relative form of truth, the best we may have for now, but accepting that ‘now’ is always changing. Therefore one is focused far less on defending theories than looking for holes in them. Which of course is real science anyway. The idea of ‘defending’ Darwinian evolution ‘against’ intelligent design seems as absurd dichotomy to me. One should look instead for evidence that learned characteristics can be inherited- as indeed the vast burgeoning field of epigenetics is teaching us. As it is also showing that the cell rather than the gene is the fruitful place of investigation. This digression is meant to show how backward it is when non-scientists cling to some already outdated theory usually as a form of certainty in a changing world. But science’s main use is as a tool of discovery, not a bulwark for anxious uncertain people seeking metaphysical reassurance.

A final thought on original thinking is a reflection on how discoveries are often made by accident or by amateurs- and then scientific professionals effectively mine that area. In archaeology rumours from locals reach enthusiastic amateur explorers. Their works are read by academics who conduct a thorough study. In paleontology it is a similar situation. 28 of the last 30 T-Rex skeletons have been found by amateurs. One was even discovered by a dog…

My current method to enable more original thought is a return to the earlier point about being overwhelmed by celebrities. One must be aware and outmanoevre this ‘prestige’ effect. Someone tried to convince me the other day that Wall-E the movie was ‘genius’. But compared to Picasso’s handle-bar-and-saddle bull sculpture, Bunuel’s Belle de Jour or the hardly known Steve Micalef’s play ‘The Battle of Salamis’, Wall-E is rather conventional cartoon sci-fi. But Hollywood has all the prestige of money and publicity and this blinds us. The Prestige effect blinds us to the value of our own thoughts (and I’m aware that Picasso also has massive prestige too). It also makes us think that original thinking is somehow ‘inside us’. It isn’t. The main way to be an original thinker is simply to look carefully. If you really look at things with an open and transparent sense of self you’ll be original.


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