Wednesday, August 18, 2010

as a man thinketh....,

PaulGraham | You can't directly control where your thoughts drift. If you're controlling them, they're not drifting. But you can control them indirectly, by controlling what situations you let yourself get into. That has been the lesson for me: be careful what you let become critical to you. Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want to think about.

You don't have complete control, of course. An emergency could push other thoughts out of your head. But barring emergencies you have a good deal of indirect control over what becomes the top idea in your mind.

I've found there are two types of thoughts especially worth avoiding—thoughts like the Nile Perch in the way they push out more interesting ideas. One I've already mentioned: thoughts about money. Getting money is almost by definition an attention sink. The other is disputes. These too are engaging in the wrong way: they have the same velcro-like shape as genuinely interesting ideas, but without the substance. So avoid disputes if you want to get real work done. [3]

Even Newton fell into this trap. After publishing his theory of colors in 1672 he found himself distracted by disputes for years, finally concluding that the only solution was to stop publishing:
I see I have made myself a slave to Philosophy, but if I get free of Mr Linus's business I will resolutely bid adew to it eternally, excepting what I do for my privat satisfaction or leave to come out after me. For I see a man must either resolve to put out nothing new or become a slave to defend it. [4]
Linus and his students at Liege were among the more tenacious critics. Newton's biographer Westfall seems to feel he was overreacting:
Recall that at the time he wrote, Newton's "slavery" consisted of five replies to Liege, totalling fourteen printed pages, over the course of a year.
I'm more sympathetic to Newton. The problem was not the 14 pages, but the pain of having this stupid controversy constantly reintroduced as the top idea in a mind that wanted so eagerly to think about other things.

Turning the other cheek turns out to have selfish advantages. Someone who does you an injury hurts you twice: first by the injury itself, and second by taking up your time afterward thinking about it. If you learn to ignore injuries you can at least avoid the second half. I've found I can to some extent avoid thinking about nasty things people have done to me by telling myself: this doesn't deserve space in my head. I'm always delighted to find I've forgotten the details of disputes, because that means I hadn't been thinking about them. My wife thinks I'm more forgiving than she is, but my motives are purely selfish.

I suspect a lot of people aren't sure what's the top idea in their mind at any given time. I'm often mistaken about it. I tend to think it's the idea I'd want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it's easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it's not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something. Fist tap Dale.