Writing is one of those endeavors that makes us aware of the difference between ideas and their presentation. Putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) immediately generates two considerations: “What point do I wish to convey?” and “How am I going to convey it?”
These questions pull our minds in different directions – the former towards substance, the latter towards delivery. Finding a pathway of expression that satisfies both is a difficult task indeed.
In today’s society, we seem to have veered towards an overemphasis on display at the expense of quality, where the focus on performance has overtaken an insistence on meaningful content. As our collective attitude shifts, the ability to develop our own ideas is also slowly eroding. This should concern us, given that the capacity to know what we think helps us stay anchored in our beliefs and in our sense of self.
Developing Ideas versus Presenting Ideas
Developing an idea requires us to sit with our thoughts, turn them over in our minds, and examine them from different angles. It is an exercise in taking a raw idea and working it through to arrive at a deeper grasp of the concept at hand. Whether we choose to clarify our thoughts by speaking them out in conversation, writing them down, or opting for quiet contemplation, we are engaged in a process of critical thinking aimed at reaching another level of understanding.
The art of presenting an idea is a different matter altogether. Our attention shifts to the task of gathering our thoughts into discrete phrases that can be conveyed and understood by others. We mull over word choice and tone of delivery, deliberate on how to turn a phrase, and strategize the best way to package our remarks. The concern is no longer solely the idea itself, but how to select words based on the way they will be received.
(I have not missed the irony of formulating this idea while trying to figure out how to put it into words.)
Appearance Over Substance
When ranking the relative importance of ideas and their expression, it should be clear that the way an idea is given over is secondary to the idea itself. Presentation, as important as it may be, is ultimately a conduit for getting a concept from here to there, from inside my head to inside yours. The more critical part of the equation, it would seem, is the value and merit of the concept itself.
Yet we live in a time of “presentation fixation,” when appearance can be viewed as more important than substance. The prevailing myth is that as long as something (or someone) looks or sounds appealing, there must be a message of significance contained within, no matter that upon closer examination we often discover that very little of value was conveyed. We fall prey to the surface-outward orientation that pervades today’s society, an attitude of shallowness that the way things appear is more important than things themselves.
The modern pull of technology only exacerbates this struggle. After glancing at our newsfeed, rarely do we pause to digest what we’ve read before scrolling onward. We toggle between websites and media outlets without giving our minds any time to settle and think about the information we have ingested that is now rolling around in our heads. This is a recipe for remaining perpetually on the surface of things without ever dipping deeper and developing our minds to their fullest.
A Dearth of Wisdom
The added emphasis on our projected image means that, in our personal lives, less attention is being paid to what’s happening behind the screen, to the yet-to-be-developed ideas in our minds. These thoughts are what make us interesting people, with unique and refreshing perspectives to share.
They are also the ideas that eventually turn into wisdom. The Hebrew word for wisdom is chochma, which is made up of two shorter words koach and mah, meaning “power” and “what.” Wisdom develops through the power of asking “what” – looking past the surface of things into what is really going on.
The wise perspective is culled from time spent deepening our understanding of the world via a commitment to seeing beyond our first impression of things. This commitment takes patience and the willingness to consider that there may be more here than meets the eye.
When our priorities are backwards, however, when we suffice with how things seem without much thought about what they actually are, a vacuum of reflection forms in which wisdom cannot grow.
The antidote to surface-level thought is what cognitive researchers refer to as reflective thinking. Reflective thinking involves stepping back from an idea in order to give ourselves time to think about it. As noted author and educator William Dereciewicz explains:
“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.” (Solitude and Leadership, The American Scholar, March 1, 2010)
Reflective thinking is about actively engaging our minds in the process of living. It means that when we hear an idea, we pause to ask ourselves:
- What do I think about this idea? How does it sit with me?
- What questions do I have about this idea? How might I answer those questions?
- How does this concept fit with what I already know about this subject?
- What other experiences in my life can help me understand this idea?
Reflecting upon life as it unfolds is a key part of cognitive and personal development. Parents and educators know this, which is why they try to engage children in such a way that will elicit their thoughts about things. Asking a child how something was for them or what they thought about it not only shows interest; it is also a valuable tool for helping the child develop the ability to reflect upon things, including upon themselves.
Development of Self
Thinking reflectively is an important part of developing a robust sense of self. Having a sense of self manifests in the willingness to share what we think about things. It includes knowing something about who we are and what makes sense to us. As we start to think things through, we find that our opinions no longer feel canned or rehearsed, but rather are a natural outgrowth of what seems to sit well with us. As a result, we find the courage to adopt a non-generic perspective, one that is more than a regurgitation of other people’s ideas.
Establishing a sense of how we see things does not happen all at once. Nor does it mean that our views and ideas must remain fixed once we have them. We are always evolving, always generating new thoughts and perspectives about the world we encounter.
Developing ourselves through reflection merely means that we are willing to hear ourselves think and chew on what we find. When we do, we are laying the foundation for a deeper, wiser, and more substantive way of life.