Every year I read Dave Eggers’s ‘Best American Nonrequired Reading.’ It’s a collection of essays, articles, speeches and comics with no thematic similarities other than that they’re all awesome.
The 2011 edition includes a speech by William Deresiewicz (whoever that is) to The United States Military Academy at West Point called ‘Solitude and Leadership’. For some reason, this passage made me feel simultaneously guilty and inspired:
A study by a team of researchers at Stanford came out a couple of months ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked.
The answer, they discovered—and this is by no means what they expected—is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there.
In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: The more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself. […]
Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. […]
I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all of the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea.
By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, the defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.
I really struggle with this. I have the attention span of a fruit fly, and whenever I’m in a situation where stimulus isn’t readily available—waiting in line, riding the bus—I usually create my own by reading a book or listening to a podcast. It’s vanishingly rare for me to just sit there and think.
I had an unpleasant airport experience the other day in which I basically waited around for about five hours without knowing whether I would be leaving Argentina or would have to stay another day. If I wasn’t reading this essay collection, Deresiewicz’s among them, I would have been round-and-round fixating on my immediate surroundings—Am I going to get a flight? Will my luggage be there when I arrive? Should I change my currency now, or should I wait until a departure time is announced? Blah Blah Blah. Without stimulus, my brain skips analysis and goes straight to anxiety.
It’s in those types of situations that I find I need new ideas and stories the most. Absorbing new information prevents me from pointlessly fixating on my immediate surroundings. It’s become kind of a compulsion: The bus is an hour late? Where’s my earbuds?!
What Deresiewicz is saying is that information isn’t osmosis. You can’t just absorb ideas and forget about them until the next flight delay. Information has to be summarized, analysed and discussed to have any effect.
In that excerpt, I edited out a sentence where Deresiewicz says ‘You simply cannot [think for yourself] in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod’.
While its probably true that constant interruption of any kind is bad for concentration, I disagree with the implication that social media and the internet are keeping us from deeply engaging with new ideas.
Personally, when I put down my book or pop out by earbuds, I don’t begin a systematic analysis of the information I’ve just absorbed. I just fixate on my immediate surroundings and start gazing ahead in my day until I find something to be anxious about — What am I going to have for dinner? Will it rain while I’m biking home? Etc.
The only way I can concentrate on an idea is to reconfigure it for a conversation, an e-mail or, yes, a fucking Tweet.
Summarizing an idea for a specific target audience (a whip-smart friend, a simpleton co-worker, an anonymous blog commenter) is how a lot of us discover what and how we think. If you needed to sum up John Rawls’s ‘Theory of Justice’ in 140 characters, you’d have to think pretty hard about it. If you wanted to tell all your Facebook friends why you liked reading Moby Dick and they would too, you’d have to have a reasonably good grasp of it.
I agree with Deresiewicz that concentration, and the deliberate solitude that implies, is an important characteristic in a leader. But technology doesn’t prevent us from concentrating. It forces us to.