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How to be an unsuccessful thinker
failure modes to be aware of
So you want to pursue the intellectual life. You want to be a thinker, a contributor to the Discourse, a person of culture. You have some time on your hands, a brain that is still a ways away from senescence, and a list of rabbit holes to dive into it. And you seek advice from me, a Wise Person who has contributed such revolutionary ideas to the Discourse as "biparasocial relationship".
Before we start, let me admit upfront that I can't give you a surefire strategy for success. Instead, what I’ll give you is a collection of strategies that guarantee failure. My hope is that, being the budding thinker you are, you’ll absorb these cautionary tales and fill in the gaps yourself, to figure out a path that works for you.
How to fail
Reading too much.
One of the first things that I was excited to do when I quit my job was to spend twelve hours a day reading textbooks and papers. Narrator: nope. It turns out that after about two hours of serious reading, your brain starts to become mushy, and the best thing you can do is to set aside the papers, do something else, and pick it back up tomorrow.
People like Paul Graham have pointed out that when it comes to intellectually challenging work, you can only expect a few productive hours per day before quality deteriorates (in his case, five hours). June Huh, the Fields medalist who dropped out of high school, does about three hours of focused work per day. People have varying degrees of stamina, so you can experiment: start with two hours, and if you can hit that consistently, bump it up. Just remember that it's very easy to convince yourself you're still being productive when you've actually spent the past half hour alternating between (A) staring at the same sentence with furrowed eyebrows, and (B) binge-scrolling Twitter every few minutes.
Brain capacity notwithstanding, there is actual risk to reading too much: you can become trapped by the conceptual walls of the day’s dogma, losing the openness of a beginner’s mind. As Kuhn pointed out, the biggest ideas transcend the existing paradigm and create their own lane. From Roger’s Bacon:
most of us also have too much knowledge of our chosen art or discipline and this makes it difficult for us to do the unprecedented, path-breaking work that revolutionizes a field. In the arts, the danger is that everything you make will feel derivative, a pale imitation of yesteryear’s avant garde. In the sciences, an extensive knowledge of the literature will bias you towards conducting incremental gap-filling research instead of the truly innovative research which creates new gaps in the literature.
Richard Hamming, the mathematician from Bell Labs, makes an illustrative anecdote in his famous talk You and your research:
There was a fellow at Bell Labs, a very, very, smart guy. He was always in the library; he read everything. If you wanted references, you went to him and he gave you all kinds of references. But in the middle of forming these theories, I formed a proposition: there would be no effect named after him in the long run. He is now retired from Bell Labs and is an Adjunct Professor. He was very valuable; I'm not questioning that. He wrote some very good Physical Review articles; but there's no effect named after him because he read too much.
Reading too little.
Let's be honest, while there are some people historically who read too much for their own good, you and I are not one of them. Among us internet-addicted folk the problem is reading too little. Specifically: reading too little of substance. Fifty random insightful tweets that you'll promptly forget are less valuable than one coherent, interesting, well-argued paragraph. And one paragraph out of context is less nourishing for the mind than a thought-provoking essay that takes pains to develop its points, that articulates nuances rather than sweeping them under the rug. You need quality input for quality output.
The attitude with which you read is also important. The point of reading is not to have the truth revealed to you—you read to understand the mistakes we've made in the past, to try on various lenses of analysis and figure out what works and doesn't work in each of them. Read the people that other people refer to as revolutionary. Read the people who have been proven wrong and try to understand why we now thing they're wrong. Seek out arguments instead of brute facts. What led us to believe that this set of facts is true: what were the experiments, the competing hypotheses, the decisive results?
Thinking too much.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent. We forget that conscious, intentional thought is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what our brains are doing. There is a vast mental space, an entire vista of sublime beauty, when you finally get the chance to calm the conceptual mind and just experience the world. My best ideas always come to me when I let go of my attachment to figuring it out, when I carve out space for silence, both internally and externally.
So, spend large chunks of your day doing things that are not reading, writing, or thinking. Go for a walk, try a new recipe, dance with your friends. In the background, your mind is still being productive, slowly processing your earlier thoughts from the day and gelling them into that one profound insight that will strike you tomorrow morning.
Thinking too little.
Just kidding, there is literally no one interested in the intellectual life who is guilty of this.
Getting too much feedback.
“Too much feedback” means posting every random idea you have immediately on Twitter. And then you get some likes and validation and hooray, time to move on to the next Thing.
When you have an idea, before you dump it onto the world, there is value in cultivating it, massaging it, rewriting it again and again. You want to figure out where you’re bullshitting yourself. Do this in silence, and then bring it to others and get their thoughts. You especially want to get thoughts from people who think deeply and are discerning; people who will be honest with you about whether your hot take actually makes any sense, or just rolls nicely off the tongue.
Once you have that feedback, it's time to go back into silence and work. Then repeat.
Getting too little feedback.
Perfectionism is poison. You can't be a thinker in a vacuum. I get it, there is comfort in never actually putting your thoughts out there: you get to avoid the sting of defensiveness when someone points out how you might be wrong, or worse, the embarrassment that no one cares enough to say anything. Just a few more edits, a bit more research, until your prime has passed and all you have to show for it is a heap of drafts.
Sharing your ideas on the internet is painful at first, but with enough feedback cycles your brain starts to realize that this is not so unsafe after all. You start to shed some of your insecurities and believe, hey, maybe I’m good at this. Which brings me to the next failure mode:
Being too humble.
“Who am I to solve this problem, when so many people smarter than me have tried and failed in the past?”
Yes, many people have tried and failed. But someday, someone tries and succeeds! This happened with man-made flight, with reusable rockets, with every math proof ever. And the people who succeeded had a healthy smidge of arrogance: a belief, perhaps irrational, that while they were not guaranteed to succeed, they had a fair shot.
David Deutsch’s idea of universal explainers is a helpful frame here. If a concept can be understood by one person, it can be understood by any other person with sufficient time and memory. There are some problems with this view, namely that “sufficient time and memory” sidesteps some real-world considerations, but the spirit is correct. If you assume you have the capacity to understand some theory you're grappling with, or some question you want to answer, you will be relentless in your attempts to understand it. Assume it's possible for you to understand and see what happens. You will either figure it out or you will die trying.
Being too arrogant.
“I am going to try to solve this problem from scratch, ignoring the fact that literally thousands of people have tried to solve it before me.” This is less common, but I do see Discourse on the internet that makes me think, “sir have you not read even a single book among the hundreds that have already been written on this topic, some of which have basically solved the problem you're describing?”
A specific form of arrogance is: only reading things that have been published in the past few years. Our memory, individually and collectively, is just not that great; there is much wisdom from past generations that we’ve forgotten. I’m not saying you have to spend years reading the entire canon of Eastern and Western philosophy, just that sometimes we forget how many basic things about life and self-help have been figured out in prior decades, centuries, and millenia.
An example that hits for me: a lot of people underestimate just how much the Buddha understood about human psychology. It's taken thousands of years for Western philosophy and science to catch up, and most people still don't realize it. Buddhism certainly doesn't have everything right, but its teachings around tanha, dukkha, and emptiness are genuinely magnificent articulations of the basic structure of conscious experience that I have yet to see described better by any other school of thought.
Arrogance says: there is nothing more I need to read, I don’t need to go to the primary sources or prior literature. I've figured it out, or I have all the required tools to figure it out. But you have never figured it out, there is always more to read, there is always something important to question in your existing worldview.
Only talking to people the same age as you.
People older and younger than you have a lot to teach you.
Why younger people? They come to the world with a freshness and naivety that you’ve likely lost in the beatdowns that life has served you. They encourage you to question your hard-held beliefs, to notice the grooves that have formed from your repeating thought patterns, the conceptual latticework you’ve rehashed again and again to the point of entrenchment.
Why older people? Because people who have been around longer have experienced more and they have read more. This means they have had more opportunities to try on different frames of looking at the world. Not just superficially thinking about a frame for the span of a TikTok video, I mean really living in a given worldview or philosophy, for years if not decades.
When you talk to someone older, they are more likely to have experienced the cycle of getting into a book/idea/author/worldview, being completely enamored by it, totally convinced that this was the answer to everything, and then subsequently realizing over the course of months and years that they were duped, if not intentionally by the author then unintentionally by themselves. This helps you avoid spending as many years making the same mistakes that they did.
Everything in moderation
I hope I’ve done something useful here for you, which is not just to recycle the abstract cliché that moderation is good, but to give you a specific picture of what failures of moderation look like, in order to help you notice when you’re in them. Read, but not too much. Think, but not too much. Get feedback, but not too much.
Are you ready to jump in?
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like How to think well and understand things.