Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of our core conversation on “Great Connections Lead to Great Ideas.” Yesterday, Danielle LaPorte showed us why it’s important to relentlessly search for the why behind the what. Today, Janet Goldstein explains why thought leaders need conversations with thought partners, brainiacs–and themselves.
I spent this past weekend at Hamilton College in upstate New York where the entire community was celebrating the institution’s 200th anniversary and my husband (class of ’83) and I were celebrating our daughter’s second month of her freshman year.
While liberal arts education is under attack, and many people have a facile disdain for traditional education today (and the wild expense of it), the inspiring setting and occasion reminded me of my own life-changing college experience (at Barnard College in NYC) and the headiness, pleasures, and fears of pursing ideas, reading in many disciplines, and diving into challenging conversations with brilliant professors and fellow students.
In a wonderful talk at the Hamilton convocation, philosophy professor Robert Simon, used the theme of Critical Inquiry to underscore the value of liberal arts education and his own intellectual coming of age. Critical Inquiry, as he presented it, is all about conversation. It’s about testing out one’s work in a safe yet rigorous environment–not to get agreement or approval but to refine and crystallize one’s ideas with the belief that the best ideas can withstand criticism. In other words, in the context of liberal arts education, conversation is essential.
Reflecting on the conversations that I return to over and over and that are essential for the writing life, there are three categories of people I believe we need to talk to more (including ourselves!):
Conversations with Our Inner Voice and Reader
We need to have deep conversations with ourselves. Research has shown that the strongest writers actually spend less time writing and more time thinking before they write than weaker writers. I would propose that the stronger writers, the stronger thinkers, are having conversations with themselves and their readers in their heads.
We can fake it and skim the surface of our thoughts. Or, we can hear how our words and arguments sound and we can take our work seriously. We can dive in, listen intently, and see if they hold water for ourselves and our audience.
Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge wrote:
I think of [writing] very much as a relationship. It has different stages when I’m first putting it down, but it’s a relationship, and it’s a very intimate relationship, which is what’s sort of mysterious and wonderful about it. It’s solitary—obviously we all know that we work alone—and yet there’s this voice. You’re trying to reach another person with this voice.
Conversations with Brainiacs
We need to have conversations with people who know things–really know them–especially things outside our ken. There are everyday thinkers all around us who have deep knowledge about everything from bicycles to baking to banking to biology. I’m not talking about pontificators who have opinions about everything or even dilettantes, but rather people who read, do, teach, remember, cite, synthesize, and share their knowledge.
The biggest challenge we often face isn’t the start of an idea, it’s the discovery of a missing element—what I think of as a missing truth. It’s the missing idea that keeps the whole from making sense. So often, we begin to work on a business idea, a theory, or what I call our core “idea sets” but there’s a gap.
When I was invited to present my first keynote, I had a crisis of faith. I was speaking about how to develop robust ideas that matter and last, rather than relying on me-too material and chasing fads. I was confident about the insights and stories I would be sharing—they were all based on years of experience. But I wondered if the whole talk was based on a faulty promise: Could the audience really be expected to develop the kind of ideas that last and make a difference?
On summer evening before the talk, I shared my ideas with my brainiac philosopher-stepfather while we did dishes together. There I was trying to explain my fear that I was going to encourage something that wasn’t really attainable when I blurted out a mock tagline:
“Are You an Idea Whore or a Concept Slut?”
How could I give an inspiring talk if I was this cynical?
What came next were my stepfather’s riffs on Enlightenment, Existentialism, and even Merleau-Ponty’s and his thoughts on learning. It turns out that Merleau-Ponty believed there was both natural, internal, organic growth and accretion, or the external adding of chosen knowledge. Here was the aha! I had been looking for without knowing it for weeks. The premise rang so true because I’d seen growth through accretion at work over and over again with best-selling authors who experienced a transformation at the end of a writing experience;now they really knew what they believed. And I was finally feeling the truth of what I wanted to share.
Conversations with Trusted Thought Partners
Finally, we all need to have conversations with one or several trusted thought partners.
Steven Johnson, author of the brilliant book Where Good Ideas Come From:The Natural History of Innovation wrote:
Ideas are not single things and they don’t happen in a moment. An idea is a network, a new configuration of information and insight.
Working through the shape, flow, and structure of our ideas is complex, delicate, and essential—and I believe is refined through conversations. Thought partners can be life partners, business partners, skilled editors, fellow writers, trusted siblings and friends, mentors, professors, or a special kind of colleague. A thought partner hears our arguments and brings critical inquiry to what we see and know and how we express it. Thought partners love us and debate us.
As the Hamilton philosophy professor said, the best ideas stand up to scrutiny. They are better, truer, and clearer in that fire of engagement. There is an ROI on thought partnership that can be measured and it’s the secret power behind many of our favorite writers and thinkers. The story of our idea is how it makes meaning and achieves its fullest realization.
As Muriel Rukeyser says:
The universe is made of stories, not atoms.
More about Janet: Janet Goldstein is a publishing and strategy consultant and former editorial executive at three of the largest U.S. publishers. She is the coauthor of It’s Not About the Coffee, a frequent speaker on publishing, leadership, and entrepreneurship, and a fan who’s eager to read Charlie’s book-in-progress.