Wednesday, September 3, 2014

On thinking long thoughts

"It's not enough to fail. You have to come to feel your failure, to live through it, to turn it over in your hand, like a stone with strange markings."--James Fenton

The other night, this blog experienced its 100,000th page view.

I'm not sure how reliable that number is, but this isn't a bad time to step back and take a few moments to reflect just a little bit.

I started this blog in January of 2009. My book, Resource Strategies of Wild Plants, was about to be released and I thought it would be good to have a space to explore ideas.

In time, the blog is more of a scratch pad for me. It forces me to slow down a bit and coalesce my thoughts just a little bit.

Since the start, I've put together over 250 posts in that time. Each one a different thought. That's not that many.

How long is a thought though?

Thoughts seem like they should be short.

140 characters is a standard these days.

An abstract to a paper might be considered an extended thought. Those are about 250 words.

A blog post might be a bit shorter or longer. Sometimes 50. Sometimes 500.

A typical NYT editorial is about 750 words.

The body of a scientific paper can be 1500 words in a condensed journal. 15,000 words in a longer review.

A book? Mine was about 100,000 words.

All of these are thoughts to one degree or another. But they differ in the time it takes to assemble and connect the ideas contained within them.

Short thoughts are quick to think. It takes a few seconds to have a short thought.

Long thoughts take longer.

When I was writing the book, I kept track of word count each day. It takes a long time to get to 100,000 words.

But it takes more than just a large accumulation of time.

Stitching short thoughts into long thoughts is hard.

Time has to be free of distractions. You have to find quiet time to begin to take short thoughts and stitch them together into something longer.

It also requires the dialectic. Sometimes internal. Sometimes external. Argument is essential. It pulls threads into cloth. Turn ideas over. Examine them from all directions. Poke and prod as you go. Find the weak points. Practice connecting them to other ideas.

To produce long thoughts you also have to take in thoughts slowly. Read books. Tweets, blogs, emails, abstracts, even papers all have their place. But books are the longest thoughts we have. Reading a book will slow you down.

Taking a long walk with a person and conversing on the same topic for a mile will do that, too.

You might guess that I'm not convinced that shortening the thought process is uniformly beneficial. Short thoughts can be absorbed quickly, but they do not necessarily constitute knowledge.

Science can progress rapidly, but many of us are working on the same questions we were working on 20 years ago. Science moves slowly, too.

How do you reliably push things ahead?

Think long thoughts.

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