thinking cap

John Gruber recently posted the following excerpt from a biography of Oracle founder Larry Ellison, in which Ellison recalls an encounter with Bill Gates:

It was around eleven o’clock in the morning, and [Gates and I] were on the phone discussing some technical issue, I don’t remember what it was. Anyway, I didn’t agree with him on some point, and I explained my reasoning. Bill says, “I’ll have to think about that, I’ll call you back.” Then I get this call at four in the afternoon and it’s Bill continuing the conversation with “Yeah, I think you’re right about that, but what about A and B and C?” I said, “Bill, have you been thinking about this for the last five hours?” He said, yes, he had, it was an important issue and he wanted to get it right. Now Bill wanted to continue the discussion and analyze the implications of it all. I was just stunned. He had taken the time and effort to think it all through and had decided I was right and he was wrong. Now, most people hate to admit they’re wrong, but it didn’t bother Bill one bit. All he cared about was what was right, not who was right. That’s what makes Bill very, very dangerous.

What struck me here wasn’t Gates’s humility as much as his persistence. Five hours! Can you think about anything that long? Sure, I might ruminate about various things on a long walk, but to sit down and deliberately consider a single problem for more than a few minutes seems like a feat on par with running an ultramarathon.

I’ve read about intense feats of concentration among the Great Thinkers. Isaac Newton’s Annus Mirabilis comes to mind. What I’m wondering is, how? What goes on in those heads as the minutes and hours tick by? Having lived most of my life staring into screens—having been incubated by the warm glow of a television set, in fact—I can’t imagine sitting in an empty room for an hour, let alone using that time purposefully to think through a single problem. It’s scary to contemplate. (For the scant few seconds I can muster for contemplation, anyway.)

What problem would even be worth this investment of time and energy—climate change? Income inequality? Getting rich with non-fungible tokens? What results might I expect in return for such a colossal cognitive effort? The intriguing part is the promise of greatness implied by these stories. You start to wonder whether some higher level of thought, along with a correspondingly great insight, might be achieved if one can only learn to push beyond rushed deliberation. Could I even use that 11th percent of my brain? If so, I’d be 1 smarter.

It seems like a worthy experiment, anyway. What would happen if I just sat at my desk, computer off, and really thought about what I was going to write in this essay before I wrote the next one. Just imagine: thinking about the next Maven Game with white-hot intensity for an hour. I’m not talking about ruminating here. Really drilling in on it. Somehow. What would happen? I have no idea. I’d have to think about it. In fact, I’d have to consider for at least an hour what an hour’s consideration might accomplish—it would take at least that long, by definition. To take it a step further, what if you spent an hour thinking about what I might think about in that hour spent thinking about what I might think about for an hour? We could get to some Inception-like levels of thought if we coordinated our efforts. We might even break the simulation if we’re not careful.

Deep down, writers like to think of themselves as deep thinkers, or at least as being capable of deep thought under the right circumstances. The beauty of the Digital Age is that we have the perfect excuse to avoid shouldering that cognitive burden. “I’d happily sit and think,” you insist, “but that’s just not how thinking is done anymore. Today, we think actively. You know, with a web browser.” Sure. While you’re browsing the internet, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re actively thinking, even as Mark Zuckerberg algorithmically puppets your synapses.

According to this Wikipedia article, “hyperfocus” is a symptom of ADHD. That means there are people out there who’d rather not think about things as deeply as they do. Relatedly, “perseveration” is defined as an impairment in switching tasks. An impairment! All I’ve ever wanted is to single-task on my work. Now I discover that some people can’t do otherwise, the phonies. They’ve been cheating all this time, taking credit and winning awards for a degree of productivity that they can’t even avoid! (I’m looking at you, Asimov.)

Multiple times a day, I find myself wishing I were the kind of writer who could get “lost” in the work. Even forget to eat lunch—nothing bugs me more than some famous author or scientist or inventor who needed to be reminded to eat. Must be nice! I have no such problem, either remembering to eat or forgetting to write.

Out of necessity, you cobble together a method, an array of mental tricks, productivity tools, habits, and legal stimulants that delivers something like sufficient output. You get by, however painfully. What I’d prefer, however, is a little red “hyperfocus” button. Or Professor X’s mind helmet from the X-Men movies. Or just blinders, like a Central Park carriage horse. The best I can actually do is steeple my hands—until my fingers get tired, anyway.

p.s. My wife points out that Rodin’s Thinker originally represented Dante at the Gates of Hell. Sounds about right.

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