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On Second Thought... (by Paul W. Smith)

The ThinkerMy first thought is usually one I’ve shamelessly filched from someone else, a tidbit of conventional wisdom that hijacks my brain immediately after a problem presents itself.  I envy people who can respond to the challenge of a difficult decision by saying “Let me sleep on it.”  Some may see this as procrastination in disguise, but I view it as a sign of superior mind control and emotional balance.  It offers the possibility that no short cuts will be taken and serious, thoughtful consideration will be given to the matter.

For folks like me who prefer the Easy Button, Malcolm Gladwell provided a much-needed defense.  In his bestseller Blink, he introduces people in wide ranging professions who can make brilliant decisions nearly instantly.  Why waste time mentally grinding down a problem when the first idea that pops to mind is probably the best?

Unfortunately, Malcolm also notes that most people are hopelessly inept at these snap judgments.  As he explains it, quick thinkers are good at plucking out the few key factors that really matter while the rest of us are semi-paralyzed by the overwhelming number of choices that life presents.  It’s much easier to choose between pizza and Chinese food for dinner than it is to decide “where we should eat?”

The familiar expression “Go with your gut feeling” is another way of acknowledging that no decisions are purely rational, and that the brain will always combine the emotion known as intuition with our deliberations in choosing a path.  Some may blink and some may grind, but juggling the two is, for most ordinary humans, the road most traveled. 

Like most things in life, balance is everything.  Everyone is overwhelmed with texts, emails, phone calls, bosses, kids, parents – all the stuff that we somehow feel validates us as productive human beings.  Busyness has itself become a goal, a badge of honor, conferring special status – if you want something done, give it to a busy person.  How can we be expected to pause and make a choice when there may be some relevant information out there that we have overlooked?

The temptation of the Easy Button is hard to escape – beneficial in the short term but leading to potentially negative long-term outcomes.  Opioids for pain are a timely example, and so is a hot fudge sundae. Thinking itself is a short-term negative, conflicting with the desire to dispatch one problem and get on with the next.  Although thoughtful consideration sounds wonderful, it is also a breeding ground for deceits, an extended jog through the gauntlet of mental biases - anchoring, blind-spot, choice supportive, confirmation, conservatism, information, outcome, zero-risk, pro-innovation and survivorship to name a few - that influence our decisions without our conscious knowledge. 

The thoughtful approach has some good history to recommend it.  Leonardo Da Vinci often travelled with a stack of unfinished paintings and may have taken as long as 12 years to paint the Mona Lisa.   He was also a famous procrastinator who left much more work unfinished than completed.  Irish novelist James Joyce took his time to think about what he was doing, producing only about 100 words a day.  After seven years he had finished Ulysses, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.  Both these geniuses were a few centuries removed from Word and Photoshop.

In the future, there may come a time when our machines will handle all our manual labor, freeing us to think.  Smart homes could eliminate all the little decisions that clutter our mental lives.  Artificial Intelligence might save us, with devices like IBM’s Watson doing the filtering work and presenting us with a more manageable list to ponder. 

Until that day, there are too many choices with little time for thought and far too much stress from worrying about some pertinent information we may be missing.  Without practicing thoughtful consideration, we are quickly losing our very ability to think things through.

That’s something all of us should sleep on.

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Author Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development.

Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.  

Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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