- June 28, 2020
Question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This is a famous old philosophical thought experiment that I loved the first time I heard it because of the many peel-able layers it hid beneath its simplistic formulation. Mainly questions regarding observation and perception that encourage thinking beyond the surface.
I was reminded of the question this week when stories started streaming through of increased coronavirus cases. Of course, that has perked up worry of a second wave which the news media has often predicted. The recent spurt of successive one-day records of coronavirus cases in Kenya especially jolted my mother to call me up in a refreshed COVID panic to remind me to wear my mask. Mothers, right?
Anyway, the eventual arrival of a second wave is beginning to sound more and more like a logical conclusion that should be heeded by consensus. But wait, is it really? Or are there peel-able layers hidden beneath the new numbers?
Plato said that thinking is the talking of the soul with itself. Thinking is the core of our being. Unfortunately, today’s world seems to have seriously overrun any opportunity we might have to grind our mental gears. An unintended consequence of this age of information overload. Thinking time and depth of thinking itself is becoming less and less. Why should we when we get everything we need to know on-demand. Most knowledge now comes to us pre-analyzed, filtered, and curated by the news media, Wikipedia and twitter commentators with authoritative blue checkmarks. It’s the information version of ready-to-drink Quencher juice. And if you’re honest, you probably take a gulp from that big cup as much as I do.
In his 2018 essay, Deep Thinking In The Age of Distraction, Thomas Oppong says that the most common barrier to deep thinking is distractions. And distractions simply crowd our minds with inferior thoughts. Noting that modern life is overstimulated, technology-driven, and information-saturated, he goes on to make the point that our insatiable need to tune into information at the expense making time to think is costing us.
For instance, if we are getting more coronavirus cases, is it because we’re entering a frightening second wave? Well, that would be a logical conclusion when considering only the daily confirmed cases tally that the news leads with. Venture to think a layer deeper though, and you throw a spanner in the works of that line of logic. Could it be that we’re getting ten times more confirmed cases a day in June compared to March due to the fact that we now have ten times more capacity to test and process now compared to a couple of months back? Deeper thinking suggests that that is a more logical conclusion than a second wave.
We all think, but not all of us think deeply, which is thinking beyond what your mind defaults to, Oppong argues in his essay. The most successful and innovative people schedule time for deep thinking. Warren Buffett notes that he spends 80 per cent of his career just thinking. Clearly it works wonders.
I’m reminded also of a great childhood memory that showed me first-hand the marvels of deeper thinking. The thing about growing up with a younger sibling for a playmate is that you win, A LOT. In my case, it was a sister two years younger. I out-dashed her, I outjumped her, and I out skipped her. I dominated her in couch WWF wrestling, dustbin basketball and just about any other silly zero-sum game we conjured up (I mostly conjured them up, to be fair).
But the thing you learn also is that you need to let them win sometimes, otherwise things are bound to get pitiful. Plus, it’s smart to keep them motivated to want to play again tomorrow. It was the same when I taught her poker and set her up for the occasional easy win. Then one sweltering Mombasa afternoon, something odd happened; for the first time, she hesitated to take the carrot I dangled.
Visibly racking her brains, she gave me a curious look. Then she stared at the deck of cards sprawled in front of us, motioned as if to drop her winning card to secure the token win, before doing a double-take. She kept the game going. I was completely thrown off. It was almost as if the scales had fallen off her eyes. My jig was up. She went on to win the game fair and square. The first of many to come.
Deep thinking is necessary if we’re going to refuse the easy conclusions dangled in front of us every day. The deeper thinker you are, the more rigorous your thinking is. And the more you exercise and challenge your mind, the deeper your understanding can be. I’ve been consciously training my mind lately to unshackle itself from distractions, even if for only 20 minutes a day, just to pause for thought. It’s been a tough but worthy undertaking. I encourage you to join me, then maybe, we’ll save ourselves unnecessary fear and anxiety especially during these very uncertain times, and also refuse to settle only for token wins in our own personal lives.
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