When Smart Ideas Won’t Make You Sound Smart

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If you want to connect to people, say what you think, rather than repeating what you read.

This is something I’m working on, because it’s tempting to read something that sounds smart, then say it yourself, hoping you’ll sound smart, too. That’s much less work than actually thinking of something smart to say.

But the other day, I was talking with a friend. I made an off-the-cuff remark about not writing personal experiences because it’s scary. I hadn’t actually thought it through, but it was a meme I’d read a lot, and it sounded smart. I don’t recall what she said, but it was direct and insightful, much better than what I’d said, and I could tell the thoughts were her own. They just fit the conversation better, and moved it forward in a way that I hadn’t. And that evening, I wrote a note in my very long list of potential posts, so I could explore the idea of repeating vs thinking. Which is what I’m doing now.

Now, there is some logic to repeating things you’ve read: In a conversation, there’s no way to think of something new, figure out how to express it, and not just stare off into the distance for five minutes. Conversations rely on cached thoughts — ideas you’ve already explored that you can recall for the conversation. The thinking needs to happen beforehand, in private.

But there’s a difference between referencing a thought you’ve explored yourself, and quoting something that sounded smart. It’s a matter of how integrated that idea is with the rest of what you think, of how easily you can connect that smart-sounding idea to other ideas, so you can carry the idea through the rest of the conversation and see new insights as you apply it to this new situation you’re discussing.

That, I think, is the key: You need to be familiar enough with the ideas surrounding this new idea that you can use it to create new insights. That’s the core difference between repeating an idea and absorbing an idea.

And so, I have my new homework: Whenever I find a smart-sounding idea that I know I’ll want to use later, I need to think about it until I see the connections to the rest of the world, and until I have some tiny new insight based on that. That’s when I’ll be ready to use the idea in conversation.

For anyone not blogging yet: Writing is a great way to explore ideas. And if you want a post worth reading, it almost has to include some new insight. So you’ll get lots of practice at this. (Nudge, nudge.)

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3 Responses to “When Smart Ideas Won’t Make You Sound Smart”

  1. WSA says:

    In my practice I find that if I explain some idea that I have learned academically, to a patient, I find that occasionally, maybe even often, completely new insights just follow naturally. (That’s when I think to myself, “Wow! Did I just say that? That’s so cool!” ;-) So in addition to making sure you have properly contemplated and digested an idea you read and liked before using it in conversation, I would recommend explaining it to someone else and see what insights occur to you in that process. As you mention, writing that explanation is a great way to engage in the process as well and it has the added advantage of not needing a specific audience… you can explain it to yourself! At least that’s my experience. Thanks for the thought provoking post as always.

    • That’s very cool. And the teaching is a good idea. Thanks for commenting, I’m so glad I could provoke some thoughts for you.

      • wsa says:

        Mike, just a thought: In my comment above I was going to use the word “teaching” rather than “explaining” but as I thought about it, I realized that “explaining” feels more informal to me and I think there’s something about the informality that allows new insights to bubble up from the (my?) unconscious. When I am formally teaching I do not have as many “ah-ha!” light-bulbs as I do when I am just informally explaining either to a patient or to a friend. Just for what it’s worth…

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