Talk vs. Thought

by pgbh

When I was younger, I was puzzled why people generally preferred to talk about issues in pairs or groups, when I preferred to make decisions alone. Sure decisions which affect lots of people might require input from many stakeholders, but it seems like in many cases people are eager to discuss even with disinterested parties. And sure on complicated questions people might seek info from knowledgeable others, but many questions which people discuss don’t require much specialized info. Given that, why not introspect until you can either determine what you value, or figure how best to solve a problem?

In retrospect, the answer seems obvious to me (and hopefully to others): while thought has deep advantages over talk, it also has some weaknesses. In fact, the two styles could be analogized to depth-first vs. breadth-first search.

In my experience, talk is like breadth-first search: wide-ranging but shallow. Talkers speak quickly, responding to whatever was said last. Lacking insight into others’ thoughts, they often miss implications or go on tangents. But at the same time, this ability to think differently from others means that they’re exposed to thoughts they wouldn’t normally have.

When thinking deeply, on the other hand, people slowly follow thoughts to their logical conclusions. Where talkers veer wildly, they walk sedately. But as most have experienced, thinkers can also become bogged down in existing patterns, difficult to break without novel flashes of insight.

So what’s the lesson? To me it seems that talk is best for generating new ideas, and thought is better for following existing ideas to accurate conclusions. Best to use each in its proper context – don’t try to solve complex math problems in committee meetings, and don’t try to brainstorm startup ideas solo. The fact that most institutions seem already to use this approach gives me confidence that this model is basically correct.