Have you ever had an original idea or theory that you know is good–but you keep it to yourself? Maybe you sense that the people around you don’t want to hear about it or think they wouldn’t understand. Maybe you’re worried someone might take credit for it or even steal it and use it for their own profit, so you keep it to yourself. Maybe a little part of you is afraid that people will try to talk you out of it or point out a major flaw.
I get it. Carrying around a good idea can be comforting and hopeful. It can feel exhilarating to know that you have this great solution in your back pocket that you can pull out when the right opportunity comes along.
But consider what could happen if you wait for that perfect moment: It comes. You have a potential spotlight. You are at a meeting or conference or networking event with influential people who can fund or support your idea. The perfect opening comes up and all eyes are on you.
You begin talking. If you’re like me, it is unlikely that you will take full advantage of the opportunity. Maybe the language you use will fail to capture the magic of your idea. Maybe you will get into too much detail about aspects that are not important. You finish knowing that your audience probably doesn’t understand the key point you wanted to convey, maybe even has the wrong idea of what you are presenting. If they ask questions, you may not be prepared to answer clearly. Your time is up. You know that if you start trying to correct their errors they will lose interest.
With your think pond, you can present your idea early and see how different people react. You can role play and practice so that when your time to shine arrives, you will confidently state your idea in language that hits the right notes. You have already answered many of the potential questions that will arise and maybe even defended your idea powerfully.
Moreover, you know there are people–somewhere out there–who believe.
George Orwell warned us in a 1946 essay that imprecise political language leads to corrupt thought. He was concerned about how governments and politicians covered up the evil they were doing. Euphemisms made atrocities sound like mundane occurrences. Jargon and pretentious words lent an air of unwarranted scientific validity to ideas. Meaningless words camouflaged lies.
Orwell’s essay cites many examples of political speech in what he called a “catalogue of swindles and perversions.” Most of those examples are equally applicable 75 years later. Most striking are words he describes as “meaningless,” such as patriotism, socialism, democracy, and freedom. Those words are meaningless, said Orwell, because people don’t agree upon definitions—and likely don’t want to agree. In his time, the term “Fascism” had simply come to mean “something not desirable,” while democracy was ascribed to a wide range of regimes, presumably, those that were strategic alliances.
Today’s political discourse continues this dishonest use of meaningless words—maybe even takes it to a new level. Words and phrases are used as weapons. Instead of reasoned arguments, political speech has become the art of calling up hazy prejudices by linking an issue, policy, or person with a meaningless word, a hodge-podge of negative images, an unpopular public figure. This works well with people who don’t read much, people who are too busy to study issues or listen to speeches, people who tend to stick with one party or care only about one issue.
Read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language here.
Exactly a century ago, the modernist poet Amy Lowell wrote a poem about walking down the street on a beautiful fall afternoon that was “the colour of water falling through sunlight.” Lowell says that all she can do with this beautiful day in September 1918 is put it in her lunchbox and save it for another day when there is no war.
“I have time for nothing,” says her last line, “but the endeavour to balance myself upon a broken world.”
I’ve always loved the imagery of that poem, as well as the little glimpse of the world into which my grandparents were born. Now, as I look at our politics, all the breakdowns in our society, all the violence and racism, the constant state of war, I feel the poignancy of that last line so much more deeply.
“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”
I am intrigued by the fact that Albert Einstein attributed his groundbreaking scientific theories to both mathematics and imagination, that he played his violin every day, and that he once said “I often think in music.”
I wonder: Did Einstein’s love of music and his interest in so many divergent streams of 20th century life play a role in his amazing ability to perform thought experiments about the mysteries of time, space, light, and energy?
We’ll never know. But few would discount the value of imagination and intuition in Einstein’s work. And shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility that his genius was somehow interwoven with his music?