Why thinking is a bad idea, if you want to get somewhere good

maths

I’m currently deep in the depth of mathematical research into the equations behind genetic fractals. I’m also ever looking for the next thing to do. Regular work bores me quickly and right now my work is as regular as it gets and I can do it with my brain in sleep mode. The only redeeming hope is that the work is temporary and I have no idea what comes next. That feels like staring at the horizon and wonder which ship will come over it and whence it hails and where it heads. With me on board.

My current research is about curves, squiggly lines if you prefer. In particular it is about how you draw such lines. There are different ways to look at drawing lines and curves. You can say to yourself, let’s draw a circle or a straight line and go ahead and do it. This is like having a plan: I’m going to draw a line from one point to another.

We do that a lot in life. We are someplace that we want to get away from. We think hard and come to the conclusion that the grass is definitely greener somewhere else and we come up with a clever plan to get to that meadow of plenty and bliss.

It rarely works or if it does, we certainly didn’t follow a straight line.

But my current research isn’t about planning lines and circles. It is about being somewhere on a page with a pencil and to say, let’s move a little in such and such direction. Then when we get there we say: how about we move a little into this other direction. After a while we will be somewhere else and there will be some line on the paper. If we choose our direction and forward movement carefully we may end up somewhere interesting. Or we maybe all over the place and not get anywhere.

I don’t know about you, but my life is very much like that. Sometimes I find myself in a great place and sometimes I’m just nowhere.


This morning, when I lifted my head from the mess of formulas and shapes that I’m scuba diving in, it occurred to me that there is an important message in this way of drawing lines, i.e. how we move around our lives.

Wherever we are we can always move a little in some direction and if we get the direction right then we’ll end up in a great situation.

But what is the direction? Easy, just spend days and days surfing the internet and read blogs. Take notes, meditate, talk to friends or get a life coach. Not.

Don’t do this! Whatever you do, do not do the above.

Why? Because my theory of curves says that the only way to get somewhere is to move a little in some direction. The operative word is ‘move’. Thinking, meditating, planning and talking may help you find a direction but you will get nowhere. Acting, moving, executing will do that for you. Even if it is random.

You see, movement without direction gets you places. Direction without movement gets you nowhere. Look at the picture below. When we have a plan but we don’t act then because we can’t see beyond our experience horizon, we can’t see where the good places are. On the other hand, if we take action without a plan, although we can’t see the good places beyond our horizon, at some point we will spot them when we get close enough.

actionplan

For people like me, whose brain never ever stops thinking, this is so non-intuitive: don’t think, just do. Thinking will get you nowhere; action will get you somewhere.


So much for the maths, infallible as the argument is. My experience is that good things are always beyond the horizon. You can’t see them until you go over the horizon and have a good look. Once you see them, it easy, just steam right at them. So indeed, erring in life, love or business is not just OK: it is the only way.

These days I measure success by the degree of erring that I have accomplished. Deep thought  days without action are bad days. Random actions without coherent direction are great days.

Having said this, it is time to stop writing – which is a bit like thinking – and get moving. Mindless mayhem, here I come.

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7 thoughts on “Why thinking is a bad idea, if you want to get somewhere good

    1. Smart move. Chaos is structure that is structured that is structured to the point where simple humans consider it a mess. Fact is, it is the most profound map to life, the universe and well, everything

  1. I’ve often thought about things like this, and consider it an example of “analysis” vs. “simulation”. We can try to determine answers from first principles, or we can try to run the scenario and see where we lead. The former is preferable when it works, but the latter is often necessary not only for the feedback it provides, but also because it can show us things we didn’t account for. That’s the thing with any kind of “analysis”, we can only take into account what we think we’ll encounter.

    1. Good observation, there isn’t one size fits all. For myself random experience is what is needed right now but there have been many times when analysis was definitely preferable. Neither did I propose that one doesn’t the other. When erring ‘randomly’, nothing stops us from analyzing what we see and act on that. And that is what tends to give the best results.

  2. Again, I can only say I fully agree 🙂 This reminds a lot of what Nassim Taleb (of Black Swan and Antifragility fame) has written about ‘Optionality’, ‘Planning Fallacy’, and ‘Antifragile Tinkering’.

    This post should be recommended reading for those consultants who advise very small business to write grand business plans or for those who believe that you should find the one and only ‘passion’ you have to follow.
    Looking back, I think our lives and careers are determined by randomness and chance, but you can do a lot to invite good luck by keeping as many options open as possible, and by taking small steps (‘tinkering’) that allow you to test the landscape of options without risking too much. I have always had the same image of the hyperspace in mind, plus my random walk on it – just as you depicted it!!

    1. The company I currently consult with also like seeing endless business plans when all they need is to simply try things out and adjust as they go along or fail fast. The reason the don’t is that it is easier to hide behind process and paper than it is to make yes-no decisions. Even at a tremendous cost.

      I agree that my life and career have been a string of unplanned but mostly fortunate events. Although the opportunities have been random, the fact that I picked the better options made the difference. Interestingly, the least interesting periods have been those when I didn’t expose myself to randomness.

      I should read Nassim Taleb – I might learn something. Thanks for the reference!

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