The Top Idea in Your Mind

Almost everybody has had the experience of struggling with a hard problem, then doing something else and suddenly having the answer come into your mind almost of its own accord.  You were thinking about the problem on some level without being aware of it.

Paul Graham

Paul Graham, a writer, entrepreneur and designer of programming languages, has an interesting essay about this on his web site.  At any given time, he writes, there is a “top idea in your mind.”  The problem is that you don’t necessarily determine what it is.

You can’t directly control where your thoughts drift. If you’re controlling them, they’re not drifting. But you can control them indirectly, by controlling what situations you let yourself get into. That has been the lesson for me: be careful what you let become critical to you. Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want to think about.

You don’t have complete control, of course. An emergency could push other thoughts out of your head. But barring emergencies you have a good deal of indirect control over what becomes the top idea in your mind.

I’ve found there are two types of thoughts especially worth avoiding—thoughts like the Nile Perch in the way they push out more interesting ideas. One [is] … thoughts about money. Getting money is almost by definition an attention sink. The other is disputes. These too are engaging in the wrong way: they have the same Velcro-like shape as genuinely interesting ideas, but without the substance. So avoid disputes if you want to get real work done. …

This is true of me.  Sometimes I find it hard to concentrate on the things I need to think about.  And sometimes thoughts come into my mind about arguments and grievances over extremely trivial things, very often from years and decades ago.  I will rerun some conversation in my mind where I got the worst of it, and imagine humiliating the other person.  If I did not make a conscious effort to free myself from these thoughts, I would literally go crazy.

As Paul Graham wrote:

Turning the other cheek turns out to have selfish advantages. Someone who does you an injury hurts you twice: first by the injury itself, and second by taking up your time afterward thinking about it. If you learn to ignore injuries you can at least avoid the second half. I’ve found I can to some extent avoid thinking about nasty things people have done to me by telling myself: this doesn’t deserve space in my head. I’m always delighted to find I’ve forgotten the details of disputes, because that means I hadn’t been thinking about them. My wife thinks I’m more forgiving than she is, but my motives are purely selfish.

I suspect a lot of people aren’t sure what’s the top idea in their mind at any given time. I’m often mistaken about it. I tend to think it’s the idea I’d want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it’s easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it’s not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something.

via The Top Idea in Your Mind.

Paul Graham has another interesting essay on his home page about “The Acceleration of Addictiveness.”  Noting that hard liquor, cigarettes, heroin and crack cocaine are all more highly-concentrated forms of less addictive predecessors, he argued that they are an extreme case of a universal trend.  Everything – especially our mass media – are designed to be more intense, more simulating and more inclined to make you want to come back for more.  He wrote:

As far as I know there’s no word for something we like too much. The closest is the colloquial sense of “addictive.” That usage has become increasingly common during my lifetime. And it’s clear why: there are an increasing number of things we need it for. At the extreme end of the spectrum are crack and meth. Food has been transformed by a combination of factory farming and innovations in food processing into something with way more immediate bang for the buck, and you can see the results in any town in America. Checkers and solitaire have been replaced by World of Warcraft and FarmVille. TV has become much more engaging, and even so it can’t compete with Facebook.

The world is more addictive than it was 40 years ago. And unless the forms of technological progress that produced these things are subject to different laws than technological progress in general, the world will get more addictive in the next 40 years than it did in the last 40.

The next 40 years will bring us some wonderful things. I don’t mean to imply they’re all to be avoided. Alcohol is a dangerous drug, but I’d rather live in a world with wine than one without. Most people can coexist with alcohol; but you have to be careful. More things we like will mean more things we have to be careful about.

My own experience bears this out.  I love books, but I know more and more people who are simply unable to sit down with a thick book and read it the whole way through.  When I worked on the Democrat and Chronicle, some of us reporters had a lunchtime book discussion group.  When we tackled Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, there were some among us who were literally unable to make themselves read it.  I emphasize that these were highly intelligent people.  It is just that they needed something that Nathaniel Hawthorne could not provide.

Friends of mine who are college teachers tell me how frustrated they are with students who can’t leave off text messaging long enough to listen to a lecture.  I suspect that for many of them, it really is “can’t” rather than “won’t”.  The social media give feedback and reinforcement in a way that books and lectures can’t.

Graham wrote that societies eventually develop resistance to addictions.  The decline of cigarette smoking is a good example of this.  Authoritarian religion provides one way to cope with addiction.  If you can’t “just say no” on your own, God and the church may empower you to do so.  Graham is not a fundamentalist, but he said each of us is going to have to find our own way to cope with addictiveness.

Most people I know have problems with Internet addiction. We’re all trying to figure out our own customs for getting free of it. That’s why I don’t have an iPhone, for example; the last thing I want is for the Internet to follow me out into the world.  My latest trick is taking long hikes. I used to think running was a better form of exercise than hiking because it took less time. Now the slowness of hiking seems an advantage, because the longer I spend on the trail, the longer I have to think without interruption.

via The Acceleration of Addictiveness.

Click on Paul Graham for his home page.  Both essays are well worth reading in full.

I linked to his “top idea” essay through Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light web site.

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