Is it possible for a book to make you smarter? Most of us recognize that books can teach you something new, give you information about anything and everything. But the part of you that thinks is in you, isn’t it? Can a book change the way your mind works?
Seems highly unlikely.
Ever think about how you approach a problem that needs to be solved, or are project that needs to be created out of whole cloth? Most of us don’t have a system, or a process for thinking. Thinking is just like walking or running: we know how to do it. When we learn it as a child, we just keep doing it, automatically. When we get to pre-school, we’re supposed to start learning how to recognize letters. A little later we might get to take music lessons, or learn some other skill. And the more we work at it, the better we get.
But what about that part of us we use to solve complex problems? By the time we get through college, most of our work has been to learn, to develop some decent writing skills, and become expert at something.
Then we get into the ‘real’ world. Maybe we’re like President Obama and we wanted to be community organizers. We try to help tenants get better treatment from their landlords. We get the tenants organized, we set up a meeting with the landlords, and instead of being a productive meeting, people lose their tempers, the meeting goes into meltdown mode, and although we intended well, we’ve achieved the unintended consequence of making a bad situation worse.
Here’s the problem. Most of us can only think about one or two or maybe three things at the same time. If I give you five math problems to solve at once in your head, and if each of those solutions changes every ten seconds and affects the inputs of the other problems, you’re going to have a hard time keeping all that afloat in your head. Complex problems in the real world are like that. The tenants are all individuals, with their own needs, attitudes, problems and histories. The landlord has a number of issues — making a profit, maintaining the property, keeping a safe environment, paying his mortgage, payroll, and other bills. The community around the landlord tenant relationship is also complex — crime is going up or coming down, the police are helpful or not, the schools are helpful or not, the city is helpfully involved or not. Each of these constituencies is complex. Blend them all together and the problem will be way too difficult for even the smartest person to manage just by having a feeling about how it should go.
A brilliant thinker will need to consider any problem from at least eleven different perspectives, beginning with an understanding of what we see, precisely, of making our own distinctions about each of the people and forces we are dealing with. We will need to understand ourselves, our strengths, weaknesses, blindspots, so that we can understand how we are going to be most effective. Then we will need to take the third view — implications — and ask ourselves what is the meaning of the problem we’re trying to solve and what kind of success we’re trying to achieve. We really need to ask, if we’re successful, can our model be used elsewhere? And we will continue through the eleven steps until we get to the last one, which is advocacy. Now that we’ve really thought this challenge through, how can we be most persuasive to all the participants so our solution can make friends and bring everyone together?
So can we get smarter? I think so. If we use a system of thinking that works for us time and again, eventually we will internalize it. We will be the same person, but we will be different. We will truly be able to think brilliantly, to solve complex problems, and to be creative whenever we need to be.