Blogging as a Thinking Tool

I started blogging with a fuzzy purpose of wanting to express myself, but without a strong desire to have an audience.  The experiment is still in its early phase, but I’m finding that blogging is helping me to clarify and crystallize my thoughts.  All of this confirms my belief that writing is an important form of thinking–a way of thinking through.  In writing I discover what I think (because I don’t know what I think until I see what I say) , clarify my thoughts, and evolve them.  As with conversation.

Each form of writing or writing media has a different effect on the thinking of the writer.  You can blog, tweet, write documents in word processors, participate in online discussions, post answers on Q&A sites, etc.  You can also use various software tools to accomplish specialized thinking tasks like financial anaysis or decision analysis.

Tweets are pre-thoughts, associations, observations, or just very small units of thought, micro-thoughts.  Tweets seem to me like announcements or advertisements for ideas.  Like this tweet by Tim Hurson:

Wonderful, but what does that really  mean?  It’s a thought ad.

Documents.  We can also write documents in the form of articles, essays, or books  All of these are more formal and more organized. 

Blog posts.  The blog post is a happy medium between thought ads and highly organized bodies of thought.  I start with an idea that strikes me as important in some way and I write to clarify and express it.  It is a separate autonomous entity but it is free from the violence of a rigid organizational framework.

Another thing I like about blogging is the interface.  It hard for me to descibe what I like, but let me attempt it.  The blog interface is a stream of recent posts in a 2/1 layout.  This interface places the stream of content front and center.  I write something and then I see how it looks.  I like to look at the formatted text.  Is that narcissistic? 

I like the limitation of the blog post.  All I have to worry about is getting this one thought right.  If I need to say more later, I can update my post or create a new post.  All the other thoughts are put on hold while I work on this one. 
All of this suggests certain requirements for a thinking tool which the blog partly fulfills:  support for creating and editing thought-size texts (hereafter Thoughts), support for searching and browsing Thoughts, organizing Thoughts and even evaluation of Thoughts.

Writing Thoughts.  Blogging provides good support for creating and editing (writing down) Thoughts–autosave, simple editor.  This is slightly less true of word processors because of all the unrelated features which are distractions for simple writing.  Word processors have an additional problem.  They encourage you to create bigger documents rather than lots of small documents.  They’re not good at managing a plethora of Thoughts. Just imagine word processors as an interface for Tweets and every 140 characters, you have to create a new document.  Word processors are optimized for larger units of text.  They are word processors–not thought processors.

Searching Thoughts.  With the exception of Google docs, word processors (Microsoft) don’t have usable search features.

Browsing Thoughts.  Blogs allow you to browse the stream of thoughts sorted by time and as well as by tag.  It would be also nice to browse based on a search vs. simply get a list of search results and then have to click on the like to get the Thought.  Word processors don’t provide any kind of browsing.

Viewing Thoughts.  Blogs allow you to browse your Thoughts in a pretty interface that you set up.  Word processors don’t have anything like this.  The closest thing is “print preview”.

Organizing Thoughts.  Blogs allow you to use tags or categories.  As a thinking tool, this organization scheme is pretty simple.  Google docs also support tagging documents.  Our thoughts serve our goals.  They relate to various contexts and objectives and neither blogs nor word processors support any other organizational schemes.

Collaborating on Thoughts.  Blogs allow multiple author to post and comment on posts.  This of course, is huge.  Word processors don’t support this very well.

Evaluating Thoughts.  Neither blogs nor word processors support the evaluation of thoughts.  Some blogs probably have evaluation features, but I have never seen them used.

Thoughts at some point need to be integrated into larger wholes.  So thoughts should be chunked so that they can be plugged into some organization, organized and re-organized.  One way to do that is through tagging which is a good loose organization.  In this respect word processors are the worst because they encourage you to write a long document where the thoughts are embedded into the structure.

Steve Blank’s Core Ideas

Much has be written about Steve Blank’s customer discovery process.  The following is written more for myself, but it might be helpful to others.  This is what I see as the core to Steve Blank’s customer discovery process as described in his book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany.

The challenge.  Thousands upon thousands start business ventures but only a small fraction succeed.  Startups face high risks and often limited resources.  Therefore, they are not smaller versions of larger companies and they need a very special process which fits the challenge.

The process.  You begin with an inspired vision and ideas about your customer, product, and market.  First, extract and clarify your hypotheses.  Second, turn your guesses into facts through interaction with actual customers (customer discovery process).  Third, when facts prove your guesses wrong or imperfect, pivot by adapting your business model and product to fit the new facts.  It’s an iterative learning process.  The costof not iterating is discovering too late that customers don’t want and/or wont buy your product.

Focus on visionary customers and a minimum feature set.  Focus on selling to a small segment of customers: visionary customers who need what you have, get what your are doing, will buy your products, and spread the good word.   Second, build the minimum features needed to get your visionary customers to buy.

In order to test facts, it is important to get out of the building physically or virtually to interact with customers or get feedback from customers about your hypothesis.  This should be the beginning of a continuous interaction with customers that continues throughout the life of your company.

Once you’ve developed your product having cusomers pay is further important validation.

You Can Mix Business and Pleasure

Business grvitates toward the language and rhetoric of pain (“pain points”, problems, etct) but there are so many businesses–legal and illegal–that are primarily in the business of pleasure and entertainment.  After all, pleasure AND pain are the twin motivating forces in human life and are deeply intertwined.  Sometimes we pursue pleasure as an end in itself.  Sometimes we pursue pleasure to escape the arious physical and psychological pains in our life.

The youtube reference above makes the point.   The gladiator Maximus (Russell Crowe) after his bloody victory yells out to the crowd, “Are you not entertained!?”  The purpose of these Roman spectacles was to appease and distract poor hungry Romans from a painful life.

Dispite the motivations, we crave pleasure and business should make it a twin principle. Even when a business is a addressing a real need (pain), pleause should not be far behind.  I guru will occasionally come along and hammer this point.  I think of Tom Peters in this connection.

So who says you can’t mix business and pleasure?

Googling is web-storming; brainstorming is brain-searching

Today marks the nth day I have been doing web research on a pretty specialized academic topic that I believe might have social benefits.  ‘Til today, my searches have mostly yielded little results.  The academic research I’ve been looking for seemed to have dried up in the last few years, leaving me puzzled as to why.  Until today.  Finally, I got some results that seemed to indicated otherwise.

In this way, googling (or “binging”) is like brainstorming.  The creativity experts say that the magic of brainstorming doesn’t happen until you’ve put in enough time and made a long list of things you’ve found in your brain.  All the obvious stuff is listed first and all the good stuff is in the bottom third of a long list.  That seems to describe web search which is an  analog of “brain-searching.”  Search begins with obvious keywords and sometimes an unwillingness to go beyond the first couple pages of results.  (This is the equivalent of searching for your lost keys underneath the street light.)  Then you get an unexpected result which leads to more results through surfing the initial result and keywords derived from that result.   It ends with non-obvious keywords and word combinations that are discovered by certain things along the way.

Moral of the story: if you’re searching for something important stagger the search over many days or even weeks.  On a deeper level, searching is essential to good thinking, so…you ought to google your brain.

Freud on Decision Making

When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves. In the important decisions of personal life, we should be governed, I think, by the deep inner needs of our nature.

The 3B’s of Creativity: Bed, Bath, and Bus

Wittgenstein said (according to Roger Schank) that the key to thinking is the three B’s: bed, bath, and bus.  In other words, we think when we’re unfocused, un-concentrated, or even semi-conscious.

Let’s unpack this idea.  First, its often in these states that we conceive of fresh and creative ideas.  Second, semi-consciousness is most beneficial after a period of intense thinnking.  You must get out of your bed  before you get into it.

Matthew E. May takes up the theme of thinking as not-thinking in In Pursuit of Elegance.  The thesis of Elegance is that humans create better, more elegant products–houses, painting, music, books, computer algorithms, even traffic controls–when they “stop doing,”–when they subtract and limit rather than continue to add, add, add.  May quotes writer and business consultant Jim Collins:

A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally important, what is not. It is the discipline to discard what does not fit — to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort — that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company or, most important of all, a life. (blog)

In the last chapter of the book, May makes a final riff on “not doing”– as “not thinking.”  When we stop thinking after a period of intense thinking, we can experience Eureka!  He cites several examples.

Archimedes discovered volume displacement during a BATH.

Einstein thought of general relativity in a day DREAM.

Television.  The idea of projecting moving images line-by-line came to Philo Farnsworth when he was PLOWING a field and gazing out over the rows of corn.  He subsequently invented the first television.

Quantum mechanics.  Richard Feynman was watching someone throw a plate in the air and its wobbly motion  sparked a Nobel Prize-winning idea.

Kary Mullis was DRIVING along a California highway when he gained insight into the chemistry behind the polymerase chain reaction.

Harry Potter.  J.K Rawling was traveling on a TRAIN from Manchester to London when the character of Harry Potter came to her.

Shell Oil engineer Jaap Van Balegooijen’s idea for a snake oil drill came to him while watching his son turn his bendy straw upside down to get sip up the last of his malt drink.

There’s a pattern in these examples.  First, the insights happened when the creators were doing something other than thinking.  Presumably something relaxing, in other words, the three B’s.  Most of the above cases involve either bed, bath, or bus.

In some of the cases, there is a metaphoric relationship between the non-thinking activity and the idea:  bath and water displacement, a drinking straw and an oil drill, wobbling plates and electron orbits.  Does this suggest one should physically experience situations that are metaphorically similar to the domain in which one wants to achieve breakthrough?

Relaxation is not without prior intense effort.  When the inventor is relaxing, part of the brain is still working on the problem and projecting onto whatever is being experienced.  So what should be the content of the relaxation experience?

Even something random will do.  In his Notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci writes:

I cannot forbear to mention among these precepts a new device for study which, although it may seem but trivial and almost ludicrous, is nevertheless extremely useful in arousing the mind to various inventions. And this is, when you look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones, if you have to devise some scene, you may discover a resemblance to various landscapes, beautified with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement; or again you may see battles and figures in action; or strange faces and costumes, and an endless variety of objects, which you could reduce to complete and well drawn forms. And these appear on such walls confusedly, like the sound of bells in whose jangle you may find any name or word you choose to imagine.

To the inventor, the world is a spotted wall upon which he projects his breakthrough.