“Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.
I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing”
The mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein, has a category of individual he defines as a “high agency person”. As Eric would elaborate on Tim Ferriss’ podcast:
“When you’re told that something is impossible, is that the end of the conversation, or does that start a second dialogue in your mind, how to get around whoever it is that’s just told you that you can’t do something? So, how am I going to get past this bouncer who told me that I can’t come into this nightclub? How am I going to start a business when my credit is terrible and I have no experience?”
It was Steve Jobs who once said that, “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”
Once you learn this, he said, you’ll never be the same again.
People have spoken of Jobs’ “reality distortion field” and this is really what it was. He believed more in his own agency – his own power to change and affect things – than he did in conventional wisdom or other people”s opinions.
But this idea of agency is a controversial one today. Most of discourse is marked with shibboleths that reveal our doubts about agency. We speak of privileges and systemic biases. We talk of our problems as if they are intractable, overwhelming and malevolently created. Even on the extreme right, there is an obsession with biological differences between sexes and races, about whether one gender or another is naturally better at this or that. Again, these are simply averages that have nothing to do with individuals. Our focus on it all, from either side, is a way of subtly erasing agency. We emphasise where we are disempowered rather than opportunities for empowerment.
The line from Hannibal when he was told that crossing the Alps was impossible: Aut inveniam viam aut faciam. I shall either find a way or make one.
This is what high agency individuals do. This is how they respond to bad odds, to big doubts, or frustrating situations.
“In my office, on a wall converted to a massive whiteboard, I’ve written “Learn, Build, Share, Repeat” in large letters. I think of this as both a mission and as an operating manual.
“Learn” means always keep pushing to understand what you don’t already know, because as Isaac Asimov wrote, past glories are poor feeding. The moment you feel like you’ve won, or that you’ve got it all figured out, you are dead.
“Build” is a forcing function. Words like “write,” “create,” or “teach” work here as well. If you force yourself to transform what you’ve learned into something that is your own, then you’ve really learned. You’ve also made something that can serve others.
“Share” means connection. Sharing openly and transparently creates a feedback loop which accelerates learning and improves whatever it is you are building. It also creates a community of like-minded people with similar values and curiosities.
“Repeat” emphasizes that this is a game which is never complete. This isn’t about accomplishments, goals, or endpoints. It is a romance with the process itself.