Ideas take different shapes when you are thinking about them, talking about them, and writing about them. These shapes, and their transformations, are a useful tool.
This came to my attention at a counselling session. I've been doing this on and off for the last couple of years. In December, on my way out of the door, I remarked off-handedly that I always leave the sessions feeling lighter and more resolved.
The counsellor asked what I thought was behind that.
I paused. I considered what we'd just been talking about. How those things had been going around in my head for ages. How speaking these things out loud had made those same, familiar thoughts feel somehow different.
My answer to the counsellor was this. Taking things I am thinking about and saying them out loud transforms my thoughts from seeming real into somehow being real. And when thoughts are real I end up having a different relationship to them. This transformation from thinking to talking helps me see things differently. It's helpful.
Talking makes ideas more real
I was shocked at the simplicity of this realisation. What is going on here?
Although things in my head often feel linear, logical, coherent and true, in reality I'm not convinced they are at all. When I say them out loud - forcing them into a linear format where they mean one thing and not another - the coherence often evaporates. I spot gaps and inconsistencies as soon as I start talking.
My ears come into play too because I hear myself talking. The words that were rattling around inside my brain are now in the air as sound waves. My ears can’t help but hear these sound waves as human speech, and I think I perceive human speech differently to how I perceive thoughts in my head. If you've ever struggled with a crossword clue in your head, only to have the answer materialise as soon as you speak the clue out loud, you know this feeling. This difference in perception makes me aware of the contradictions and absurdities in what I am saying.
Talking out loud - even without the counsellor saying anything in return - allows me to reflect on my thoughts in a different way than when they're in my head. This reflection allows me to resolve thoughts have been looping around for hours, days or weeks.
That's where the lightness comes from. The resolution of stuck thoughts.
Writing makes ideas more useful
So talking my thoughts out loud lets me resolve my thinking about into something more concrete. But there's another step that pushes this process even further for me.
Writing is to talking as talking is to thinking.
Yes, talking is more linear and more concrete than thinking. But writing is even more linear and concrete than that. Writing has a beginning, a middle and an end. Sentence after sentence. Page after page.
Talking allows others to critique my ideas, in the moment, as I utter the words. Writing is not just about those others or that moment. Writing is available to more people in more locations. Writing can travel into the future in a way that talking can't.
I said that talking lets me spot contradictions and absurdities in my thoughts. Writing forces me go beyond this and confront the technical and logical gaps in the things I’m saying. Anyone who writes knows that it’s much less forgiving than talking.
And talking isn’t just about the words I use. I can use body language, try being charismatic, or simply wave my hands around a bit. These things aren't as misleading as the tricks my brain uses to make me think my thoughts are coherent. But writing removes these physical props entirely. My thoughts are laid bare. Self-supporting. Which means being more truthful and more accurate than when I talk.
Writing is hard. It’s hard to capture ideas that seem coherent in my head. It’s hard to write explanations that I have no trouble explaining when I talk to you. It's another level of discipline and clarity entirely.
Thinking, talking and writing all matter
None of this is to say that any one of thinking, talking or writing is better or worse than any other. They are simply different modes for working through ideas. What happens when you switch between modes is useful and worthy of attention.
For example, I use these different modes to filter out good ideas from bad ones. The first time I talk about an idea out loud is a bold (and necessary) step in questioning whether the idea has merit. Later, trying to commit that idea to writing is an even bolder step in understanding whether the idea is strong enough to live on its own.
It’s not just about words...
If you’re a designer you’ll have noticed this is a radical, reductive simplification of what's going on. That’s the thing about writing. Sometimes you need to open with an incomplete idea to lead to a bigger one.
I’m discussing talking and writing because that's my dominant mode of doing things. I’m a words person at heart. If you’re a visual thinker you’ll be doing this same process by going from thinking to sketching to designing. If you’re a maker type you’ll be going from thinking to prototyping to building.
In fact even that’s a simplification. We all flip between all of these modes - thinking, talking, sketching, prototyping, designing, building - as we go.
What I'm really discussing here are the stages of things going from being in your head (where they seem to make sense but are inaccessible to anyone), to emerging into the world (where they can escape your mind’s trickery and be exposed to critique), to being permanently in the world (where they are laid bare for others to make use of).
It’s just that I’m telling that story through my own lens of thinking, talking and writing.
...but it's definitely about balance
Thinking, talking and writing are all important. But given that we all have limited time available, how do you balance the three of them?
I can’t say what’s right for you. But I can talk what works (and doesn't work) for me.
A big part of thinking is making sure that I have plenty of diverse inputs. I read books, listen to podcasts, interact with other people and get exposed to a huge variety of ideas at work. I’m a curious person and I'm naturally drawn to this part. I love it.
But I've learned, the hard way, that having lots of raw material is not enough. I need to have the time and space and inclination and willpower to do the thinking. When I was working long hours in a high-pressure job my thinking suffered. I burned out. I wasn’t thinking much about either my professional life or my personal life. That's why these days I work my hours and I work a four day week. This is less money but more time away from pressure to think about things. It helps with thinking a lot.
I’ve realised there is something else that's important. I need my mind to be capable of being peaceful and focused. I need to escape those thought loops that consume it all too easily. I found, to my utter surprise, that 10 minutes of meditation each morning works for me. This was after accidentally reading the beautifully-illustrated Quiet the Mind in a bookshop while escaping an unexpected storm in Fishguard.
OK, I say talking, but in the wider sense this is about bringing my ideas into the world for first critique. I am slowly getting better at doing this but it's been a long road.
At work, everyone knows I’m someone who talks ideas into existence. I endlessly try out new thoughts on people, as much as to see what it feels to say it out loud as to get their feedback (both matter to me). I spend time sketching things for people as a way to bring ideas into a place where we can both look at them. I don't prototype much any more, which is a shame.
In my personal life I have two things that help.
I write 750 words every morning of whatever is on my mind. This is loosely based on Morning Pages (although I don't do longhand writing!). Although it's technically writing, it's more akin to talking because it puts things I’m thinking into a place where I can reflect on them. It's a conversation with myself. You would not believe how many stuck thought loops I have resolved by simply putting them onto a page as a stream-of-consciousness. It’s like magic.
I also go to counselling these days. Or talking therapy. A lot of the benefit for me is simply verbalising things to someone else and then looking at them together. Turning a chaotic invisible thought process into a linear string of sentences. Again, you wouldn't believe how much clearer things become during this process.
The thing I'm not paying enough attention to is writing. Or, more widely, putting things I know permanently into the world. I’m not good enough either at work or at home.
At work, I know more about how to do my job than I am able to transmit to the wider community of people that I work with. People who would benefit from me being able to write things down properly. My team get the benefit because we work together and I can talk about things. But that's where it ends. So much knowledge transfer in organisations breaks down at the point where tacit knowledge held by teams through talking isn’t captured in a way that can scale to other teams or future situations. This is my challenge over the next year. It’s in my objectives. Hold me to it if you see me.
At home I kind of feel the same. All this stuff - the meditation, the 750 words, the counselling - is changing my understanding of what it is to be human. To live in the world. But I never write this down, which means no one else can read it. This is a shame given how much I’ve learned from others who have written about their lives.
Feeling lighter is a feeling worth chasing
Like I said at the top, my counsellor asked me about this whole feeling lighter thing.
I told her that going from thinking about things to talking about things made me feel lighter. And I speculated that this might extend further into writing about things.
And she said, good, why don't you try writing about some of the things you are learning about yourself and the world?
So that's what this post is. Even though it's difficult. Even though it makes me feel exposed. Even though I’m basically terrified to tell you these things about myself. Even though there's a little voice telling me that all of this is banal and obvious stuff.
I’m intrigued to see whether this writing will make me feel lighter. And whether or not sharing these things about myself is useful or helpful for you.
Let me know what you think on @myddelton.