Starting Something Again After A While

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Tuesday, 8.04pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Good, better, best. Never let it rest. ‘Til your good is better and your better is best. – St. Jerome

I haven’t written for nine days and that’s quite a long stretch to go without putting out a post. When I do that – stop for a while – I’m never quite sure what it’s going to take to get started again. What will it look like, will I still be able to write, have the ideas gone away, never to reappear?

The good news is that you can always get started even if you question everything you do. I still wonder what this blog is for, why do I spend time on it? I don’t write long pieces that are designed for a search engine and the short pieces I do write are streams of consciousness that follow trails of thought. Today, for example, I looked at other people’s work and wondered about mine – what made it different, how could I do it better, and was there value in it?

The reason I’m asking such questions is because I’m designing a programme of research that looks at the “art of thinking” – the way in which we use tools to help us make sense of things, solve problems, learn new things and innovate. In a world where machines seem to do everything where is the space for human thinking and creativity?

One of the things that I do, as you can see from the blog, is draw simple pictures to explore ideas. We can all draw but we’re afraid to draw bad stuff, make the kinds of lines we made as children. That’s not “serious” work and we don’t do that kind of stuff any more.

Can you learn to draw again? Yes, you can, but you have to put in the time to practice. And that starts with simple things like doing drills. When you use a drawing tablet, for example, it takes some time to train your brain to connect what your hands are doing with what your eyes are seeing. With a pencil on paper feedback is immediate – you apply pressure and see a mark appear under the point. With digital tools you move your hand in one place and a mark is made on the screen. Your brain needs to be trained to connect the two events – the pressure of your fingers on the page and the sight of the pixels being stained on the screen. It can take a few months to get comfortable doing this, doing drills like in the picture above.

Is it reasonable to expect that people should try and gain such a skill? No. What people need are keyboard skills, the ability to create spreadsheets and documents. The ability to work in an office. That’s what’s needed. Except – if you can draw your ideas then you will create better spreadsheets and better documents. You don’t need to do that digitally but if you’re able to create an influence diagram that identifies what you’re trying to understand and then models all the factors that influence the outcome you’ll create a better spreadsheet model. Being able to draw an idea is going to help you structure a better document. John McPhee, the New Yorker writer, always starts his writing with a diagram in mind. Developing the skills to show your thinking visually makes the products of your thinking better.

Or that’s my theory anyway.

The challenge is that it’s hard to prove. Any kind of structured thinking is better than random decision making, isn’t it? Does it matter that you draw things down or is it enough just to make a list. Is there a “right” way to do things or is what matters “your way?” The answer should be that you need to do what works for you. So should we worry about testing effectiveness or should we collect ways of doing things and let people decide for themselves?

I don’t know the answer – hence the research programme.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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