A Thinking Deficit
Originally published August 2020
“Yes, I admit. I’ve got a thinking problem.”*
The opening lines of a country song. Of course, there’s heartbreak involved, he’s haunted by the memories of a woman and the only way to stop from thinking is to keep on drinking. At least he’s identified the first steps to recovery by admitting there is a problem.
This country needs to admit we have our own thinking problem. Not because we’re doing too much, but because we don’t do enough. Thomas Edison recognized this a century before our lives became about gigabytes and download speeds, when he said, “Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.” We spend hours grazing the internet’s all you can eat buffet. Snacking on memes, gifs, Snaps, and Tik Toks. Gorging on videos, newsfeeds, social posts, replies and comments. Allowing very little time for the information to digest.
The millisecond break between consuming a piece of information then making a knuckle-jerk reaction across a keyboard or screen is not thinking. It’s reacting, responding and retaliating without considering context, perspectives, or facts.
We give the impression we’re exercising our thought processes. But too often the thinking pauses reflected in, “I need to consider that,” “I’ll think about it overnight,” and “Let me mull this over,” are in reality, “I’m busy reading ball scores,” “Maybe by tomorrow you’ll forget,” and “This one’s too hard, it can be a good development experience for someone else to handle.”
Good leaders spend time thinking. James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner have done extensive research on leadership. Through their studies they developed five key leadership practices. Within this model they note that effective leaders take time to reflect on the past, attend to the present, and prospect the future.** To accomplish this leaders need to set aside time to think.
Although Richard Nixon is often remembered for his dark side, his administration re-opened relations with China, entered into détente with Russia and put forth progressive domestic policies, particularly in the area of the environment. As a leader Richard Nixon took time to think. He would spend hours in quiet contemplation, writing out his thoughts on a yellow legal pad, working his way to a decision. Warrant Buffet is reported to spend eighty percent of his day reading and thinking and when Bill Gates was leading Microsoft, he would spend a week in a quiet cabin twice a year to read and think. There aren’t too many people who can spend eighty percent of their day reading and thinking or disconnecting from all contact and responsibilities for a week. But most of us can afford some paper, a pencil or pen, and a few minutes out of the day to think through a problem, noodle the germ of an idea, or simply reflect on the day behind or the day ahead.
The lessons of Dr. Seuss apply as much to adults as they can children. The colorful cartoonist and writer encouraged us to, “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if you only try!”** Imagine the possibilities in our individual lives, families, and work if we just took some time to think. Ignore the emails, instant messages, snaps, or texts. Mute the cable news rants, and the late-night comedy monologues. Wrap your fingers around a pencil instead of a phone.
*Thinkin’ Problem, by David Ball, Allen Shamblin, and Stuart Ziff. Sung by David Ball
**James M Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge, (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2017)
***Dr. Seuss, Oh the Thinks You Can Think, (New York: Random House, 1975)