A Year of Magical Thinking
“The brain doesn’t distinguish between an experience that is intensely imagined and an experience that is real.”
You know that moment in a film when the hero finally hears the last click before he cracks open the safe? It felt a little like that when I heard neurosurgeon and New York Times bestselling author James Doty say these words. In an interview with Krista Tippet for On Being, Doty told listeners that neurological tests prove that when you think about moving a muscle, the related part of your brain cortex is stimulated and the muscle actually start to respond as if you are moving it. “What people really don’t appreciate,” Doty said “is the power of their intention to change everything.”
It was as if, for the first time in my life, I really understood the inherent power of thinking.
Looking back, I can see that until my early forties I was far too busy doing to think! I had a successful career in international marketing. But I had never taken the time to think about whether I was doing what I wanted; about what I wanted from the forthcoming year or decade; about whether I wanted to marry or have children; about where I wanted to live in the world. Oh, I certainly spent time thinking about the brand I was championing or the team I was helping to build. But that was what one might call “operational thinking”. I took no time to reflect and think deeply; to contemplate new and different possibilities or potentialities. Each time my bosses proposed a new challenge, often in another part of the world, I said yes, almost on autopilot.
On reflection I probably didn’t know how to do the sort of thinking required. Despite my supposedly good education, no-one had ever taught me to think deeply – to reflect. I didn’t perceive the lack so I didn’t know that I needed to learn it, or seek out someone who could help me. More than anything I needed to carve out time from the busy “business of doing” to think.
Time to Think
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two of the richest people in the world place having time to think high on their list of priorities. Bill Gates told the Wall Street Journal of his twice-yearly Think Weeks. Warren Buffet is quoted in Time as saying, “I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think.”
In recent years, I still don’t find enough time to think, but I do much better! Here are a couple of the things that I have found helped me:
- Keeping a journal. Millions have read Julia Cameron’s wonderful book The Artist’s Way. One of the tools Cameron recommends is what she calls Morning Pages: “three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning.” Writing these pages helps to clear my head and gives me much more clarity about what I want from the day. I lapse sometimes – and as with all good habits, when I return to it I wonder why I ever stopped.
- Every two weeks I make a thinking date with myself. I block four hours from early in the morning and go to my favorite thinking place, The Fumbally cafe in Dublin, where I can sit in a comfy armchair, eat wonderful homemade granola, and think. Sometimes I know in advance what I want to think about, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I bring a laptop and books that might help, sometimes I just ‘freewheel’. I may be thinking about myself, a client’s issue, or the world. Whatever I am thinking about, though, I have never come away from this time without inspiration. I always feel more hopeful about myself and the world around me.
One of the greatest gifts I ever gave to myself was training as an executive coach: not because I work a lot as a coach (I don’t), but because over the months of in-depth training I discovered the benefits of what management expert Nancy Kline calls “transformative listening”. As Kline puts it, “In the quiet presence of attention, respect, and ease, important things can happen for the thinker. Fresh ideas can emerge; confusion can dissipate; painful feelings can subside; creativity can explode.”
A thinking-partner isn’t trying to solve our problems or give us advice. Rather, they are there as a support for us, as we access the wisdom we have, even if we don’t yet realize it. To be there as a quiet support as we think through an issue and come up with solutions for ourselves.
As Henry Ford observed, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” This is why we can all benefit from having thinking-partners and in turn being thinking-partners to others.
Don’t confuse mental activity with real thinking!
We have 70,000 thoughts a day, according to research at the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging in the University of Southern California. Our minds engage in this frantic activity all the time. As anyone who has tried mindfulness will attest, it is very difficult to stop this train of thoughts. Let’s never confuse this with real thinking. If you are in any doubt, just apply Plato’s definition: “Thinking is the talking of the soul with itself.”
Wishing You a Year of Magical Thinking
My wish for myself, for my readers, for everyone I know and love, and also for our world- leaders, is that this will be a year of Magical Thinking: that we will take the time to think deeply and create the lives and the world we aspire to and have the potential to create.
My thanks to Joan Didion, author of the marvellous The Year of Magical Thinking, for the inspiration for this blog’s title.