Doing has replaced thinking in our culture — it's all about acting, getting stuff done, hustle. Scratch under the brittle veneer surface and what we have is many busy bodies, maybe the same claiming busyness as an excuse for not being available. Yet when we study the lives of very productive and successful people what we find is that they do less — and think more.
Warren Buffett's reading routine is baked right onto his day. “Read 500 pages like this every day. That's how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.” he makes it a priority because it allows him to think better, do more thinking before making decisions.
Umberto Eco valued the knowledge he could extract from books, even the books he had not read yet as he used them as references. The idea is to create an environment and habit that encourage learning. Bill Gates believes in the power of reading about problems to help understand them and work on solutions.
Reading is a great way to have alone thinking time in conversation with our thoughts. Before we join the crowds, it's useful to figure out what we are thinking — and do the work to form an opinion. What we put in our heads matters in the same ways of what we put in our guts — empty calories and junk lead nowhere we like to go. In fact, they're more in the class of just doing than being thoughtful.
The carpenter, a maker par excellence, knows that you measure twice to cut only once… and even if we're mostly within a services environment, more talk is just noise when it's not the thoughtful kind of talk. Better insights come from better thinking, and practice.
We do need both, but staying with the problem is a winning strategy for new discoveries. Italian Nobel Laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini took three years to solve a problem that on the surface looked like a few months worth of work. Her contribution to neurobiology with her work on the nerve growth factor along with colleague Stanley Cohen won her the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986. The real start date of her inquiry was 1938.
Our brains are marvels of engineering we're only beginning to try to understand. Along with encouraging fragmented thought, the current popular hustling lifestyle that has us believe we want to always be on and busy doing something is giving us fragmented learning. Not enough time to think things through, to learn by thinking. Even Big Data should replace thinking.
The thriving meditation market teaches us we need more space in our lives. Liquor stores paint the same picture differently ― in our haste to ease the pressure, we seek to space out. They're both expressions of the same desire to exist within our lives, to be present to the moments rather than just documenting them for sharing.
In an interview Buffett said, “I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think. That is very uncommon in American business. I read and think. So I do more reading and thinking, and make less impulse decisions, than most people in business. I do it because I like this kind of life.”
It's part of the paradox of our age ― we glorify the individual and his/her abilities and fail to understand how we combine the contributions of many. We can claim our piece of the action by contributing thoughtfully, being present to our work and relationships.
Seneca said, “True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”
We can develop that inner life and presence, witness our experiences, stick with something valuable, learn to stand on the shoulders of giants ― not just by doing something, anything, but by standing there (or sitting, as appropriate.)