Housel: How Writing Turns Gut Feelings into Tools

Housel: How Writing Turns Gut Feelings into Tools

Housel: How Writing Turns Gut Feelings into Tools

The new software tools that can produce a reasonable first draft of many essays pose a sort of existential question for students:

Do you care about learning and getting smarter about ideas, even if it takes more work and perhaps even risks some outright failures? Or do you just want to turn in the assignments and get the credits?

Here’s a way to rephrase that question: If your primary skill as a student is asking a software program for answers, what will be your likely value-added in the workforce (or as a friend or romantic partner)? If you use the new programs occasionally as one more source of brainstorming and inspiration, along with ideas that bubble up from classrooms, readings, and discussion groups, and then your primary skill is building on those starting points with your own ideas and presentation skills, what will be your likely value-added in the workforce (or as a friend or romantic partner)?

Venture capitalist Morgan Housel explained on his blog back in 2017 “Why Everyone Should Write” (August 9, 2017). His key insight is that being serious about your writing forces you to spell out your own ideas. Housel writes:

Everyone should write. You know why? Because everyone is full of ideas they’re not aware of.

You don’t talk about these ideas, even in your own head, because you’ve never put them into words. They’re gut feelings. Intuitions. You use them a dozen times a day. But you’d shrug your shoulders if someone asked why. How you react to career risk. Why do you invest the way you do? Why do you like some people and question others? We’re all brimming with opinions on these topics that we may never discuss, even with ourselves. Like phantom intelligence.

Intuition is strong enough to put these ideas into practice. But intuition isn’t a tool; it’s a safety net at best, and is more often the fuel of biased decisions. Turning gut feelings into tools means understanding their origin, limits, and how they interact with other ideas. Which requires turning them into words.

And writing is the best way to do that.

Writing crystallizes ideas in ways thinking on its own will never accomplish.

The reason is simple: It’s hard to focus on a topic in your head for more than a few seconds without getting distracted by another thought, and distractions erase whatever you attempted to think about. But words on paper stick. They aren’t washed away by the agitator in your head who won’t shut up about the tone of an email someone just sent you. You might be able to hold focus just briefly in your head, but a sentence on paper has all the patience in the world, waiting for you to return whenever you’re ready. It’s hard to overemphasize how important this is. Putting ideas on paper is the best way to organize them in one place, and getting everything in one place is essential to understanding ideas as more than the gut reactions they often hide as. …

Sometimes writing is encouraging. You realize you understand a topic better than you thought. The process flushes out all kinds of other ideas you never knew you had hiding upstairs. Now you can apply those insights elsewhere.

Other times it’s painful. Forcing the logic of your thoughts into words can uncover the madness of your ideas. The holes. The flaws. The biases. … Things the mind tends to gloss over the pen tends to highlight. …

A common question people ask professional writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” A common answer is, “From writing.” Writers don’t know exactly what they’ll write about until they start writing, because the process crystallizes the fuzzy ideas we all have floating around. This chicken-and-egg problem is probably why writing is intimidating for some people. They don’t think they can write because – in their head, at this moment – they don’t know what they’d write about. But hardly anyone does.

So, write. A journal. A business manifesto. An investment plan. You don’t have to publish it. It’s the process that matters. You’ll uncover so much you never knew.

I’ve tried to make this point in other posts over the years: for example, see my post “`I Don’t Know So Well What I Think Until I See What I Say,'” (August 29, 2018). The quotation is from Flannery O’Connor, but I also offer versions of the quotation from Andre Gide, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Montaigne. Of course, some students will hear the same advice more clearly if it is delivered by a modern venture capitalist.

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

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