The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

Not all ideas arrive in the shower

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Not all ideas arrive in the shower

That expert action is effortless is a seductive idea, but is there nonetheless some truth to it? Ideas occasionally do seem to come up when you least expect it, such as when you are in the shower: without any noticeable effort, you figure out the answer and rush out of the bathroom to jot it down before you forget, leaving a dripping trail of water behind you. Such things happen. So I need to say something about how they fit into my account of effortful expertise.

First off, not all ideas are like this; experts occasionally get out of the shower. And when they do, thinking may involve quite a bit of effort. Of course, some stay in the shower, as it were, longer than others, by engaging in activities that promote a similarly relaxed state of mind and body. The peripatetic philosophers were probably on to something when they engaged in philosophy during long strolls. The mathematician Russell Miller told me that he takes cross-country train trips for the sole purpose of working. And the physicist Freeman Dyson talks of a “Eureka experience” coming to him while on a Greyhound bus from California on his way to Princeton: in the middle of Kansas, “suddenly the whole picture [of a solution to a problem with quantum electrodynamics] became clear” (quoted in Csikzentmihalyi 1996: p. 42). Both on the train and on the trail, hard work also occurs: one struggles away as the scenery flies by. Yet it seems that it is when you look out the window, when you see the trees, rivers, or endless plains, that the idea comes to you – pop – just like that. What is going on in such cases?

One thing that may be going on is that with relatively few distractions, one can really think in the shower! It is not as if washing up takes much attention. Indeed, given that wireless networks have permeated every cranny of our waking lives, including train and bus travel, the shower might be the last bastion of undistracted thought. Yet perhaps on a less extreme just-do-it account that specifically denigrates conscious thinking, this is just what is needed for an idea to pop into your head, for the fully formed idea arises, on this picture, only after the unconscious mind has been churning away. And what could be more conducive to unconscious churning than warm water?

The phenomenon of an idea coming to you after prolonged unconscious cerebration is significantly different from the phenomenon of chess intuition that I referred to as “zeroing in.” Such chess intuition is immediate: the Grandmaster looks at the board and immediately zeros in on a few possible moves; whereas it takes time in the shower, and the idea may not arise until the second crème rinse. If this is the correct description of what goes on in that steamy sanctuary, it does not support the radical just-do-it position, which holds that optimal expert action is entirely nonmental, for unconscious churning is mental churning nonetheless. However, I wonder if even such times should be described as involving exclusively unconscious thought. Could it be that such cases are better described as involving conscious, yet calm thought? Or could it be that such times in the shower are best described as a times during which peripheral conscious thought is shining? The best way to see a faint distant object is via peripheral vision; peripheral thought might be the best way to penetrate faint ideas. And aren’t most of the ideas we encounter in philosophy faint?163

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