Great Thoughts

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Jan 2007

“He thought it was a job where he could just think great thoughts, but it didn’t turn out that way.”

It was a snippet of conversation that caught my attention, overheard among the side conversations in a conference room. Someone was telling someone else why a mutual friend had unexpectedly resigned from a high-level government position.

Ah, I thought, that is wisdom for the ages. Who amongst us wouldn’t want a job where we could just sit and think great thoughts?

In a flight of fancy I imagined the advertisement for the job. “Ability to think great thoughts is essential. The successful candidate must have an established record of thinking great thoughts, and an ability and willingness to devote long hours of concentrated thinking of these great thoughts.”

I’m afraid that the reality is that no such job exists. Yet perhaps all of us harbor the small expectation that the job we are about to take will encourage such philosophical thinking about important issues, unlike whatever our last job was. It is an expectation that is almost never realized.

In my experience the people with the most need for great thoughts – industry executives and government leaders – have no time for thinking at all. Most of them go out early in the morning with a small index card containing their schedule for that day. Appointments and meetings are divided into fifteen-minute intervals without any break whatsoever. Their keepers hustle them from one appointment to another, watching the clock nervously while their boss chats easily, conveying the practiced impression of having all the time in the world for the present supplicant.

On the other hand, mid-level managers have a scattering of blank spaces in their schedules. Too many such blanks, of course, are bad for job security. I have known a number of managers who drew lines through these blanks or filled their own name in the spaces, indicating these were times reserved for the thinking of great thoughts. It is a time when the door is shut, the computer is fired up, and the manager sits in front of a blank editor screen awaiting the arrival of a great thought. Unfortunately, I believe that this practice falls under the generalized rule of the watched pot that never boils. After a few non-visits of great thoughts, the manager finds other pretenses for unscheduled intervals.

A little further down the management chain there is often a belief that the thinking of great thoughts is not allowed; that this is something reserved exclusively for upper management. This is truly unfortunate, inasmuch as these are often the people with the freshest ideas and the time, energy, and intellect to pursue them. Moreover, the upper management, whom they believe is spending their time thinking great thoughts, is doing nothing of the kind.

For most of us, even with the best of intentions about getting earth-shattering ideas, the minutia of life bubble to the top of our consciousness, crowding out any incipient great thoughts. When we have no great things to worry about, the small ones rise up and keep us awake at night.

I once heard a story about Einstein that is probably apocryphal, but I like the message it conveys. Supposedly Einstein was confronted by a student who said that he kept a pencil and paper by his bed in case an idea surfaced while he was sleeping. “Do you do that?” he asked Einstein. “Alas,” replied Einstein, “I seldom get ideas.”

But great ideas do happen, as have occurred in many of the innovations and achievements we celebrate as engineers -- they just don’t get scheduled or come about because of a job requirement. Most often these ideas come at unexpected moments when thinking about something else or nothing at all. Perhaps while taking a shower in the morning a background process is grinding away in our brain, and a connection is made while we ostensibly think of nothing but pouring shampoo.

There is a theory of creativity that holds that it is most often the product of the unexpected intersection of two previously unconnected thoughts. If you are thinking very hard about one such thought, perhaps you are suppressing the orthogonal thoughts. On the other hand, if your mind is a perfect blank… but perhaps I go too far.

If you will excuse me now, I have reserved this time for the thinking of great thoughts.

Robert Lucky