A Thinking Life


Why do things get old and die?

Because their cells stop being reborn after a certain amount of copies.

But why?

Because there are chemicals in them that only allow a set number of copies.

But why?

Because we've traded the ability to reproduce asexually for sexual reproduction.

But why?

Because sexual reproduction leads to natural selection and mutations, which allows a species to change and evolve.

But why?

So that things are better able to adapt to their changing environments.

But why?

So that their species can survive for as long as possible.

But why?

Because survival is one of the most basic instincts of living things.


I don't really know, son. That's something I'll have to find out about.


Because I like thinking and finding things out. And so do you, don't you? I think we all do somewhere deep down…


Because we're human. And thinking is what makes us all truly special. And you too… Sleep tight, tiger.

I always tired of the 'why game' much sooner than she did. Or so it seemed to me. She could play it for hours. Many times she started it and we switched roles halfway. I suspect she did manipulate the game slightly, and didn't always answer the question. When she didn't know, she'd say so. I always wanted to say I'd won the game when that happened, but I threw in another 'why' just to see what she would do… and that's when things got seriously philosophical. Not that I remember any of this exactly as it happened. How could I? It was most likely a lot simpler than this dialogue suggests (and probably more factually accurate). But the impression the game left lingers still. Besides, what we discussed didn't really matter. The fact that my mother encouraged me to ask was what really mattered – even if it was only in the form of a silly game. Later, of course, my questions became more sophisticated, born out of a more sincere curiosity. I'm sure my mother could have carried on answering even these questions, but she chose not to. She chose to introduce me to the library.

Holmes and Watson. There were many others I loved, but the intrepid, impossibly canny Sherlock Holmes and the moderate Doctor Watson changed what I thought my brain was for. Before, I thought it was like a bucket to be stuffed full of interesting things I wanted to hold on to. After, I realized it was more like a fine toolkit to be oiled and sharpened and polished and kept close at hand in case it would be needed.

I would imagine myself solving all manner of unsolvable crimes and outwitting a string of Moriarties with the sheer power of logical deduction. Then I became the guy who found things lost in real life: lost keys, wallets, rings and the like. (And yes, I did imagine holding a magnifying glass with an Inverness cape draped over my shoulders.) My first method was to reenact everything the hapless victim did to the finest detail before they lost whatever it was they lost. Invariably, about two thirds into the reenactment, they suddenly remembered where the thing was. The second method, and I swear it worked more than a few times, was to eliminate possibilities one at a time and then whatever we were left with, no matter how improbable…

Books become friends very quickly in a child's life. (What a shame that TV and tablet screens so often take on that role these days.) Visiting the library began to feel like visiting a place where all manner of strange and interesting pals lived. It was a kind of Disneyland of the imagination. Then the kind and dusty librarian gave me an adult card way before she should have. And suddenly, my strange little world got a lot bigger.

I haven't ever really stopped being that boy who loves having my mind inside a book. Lately I've finally gone from paper to e-ink and my biblioworld has become virtually infinite. I'm still not sure I like this. My old yellowing friends have become digital ghosts. Somehow it seems that I've lost something in spite of gaining access to so much.

Changing contexts makes you compare the old thing with the new thing. And this forces you to think about both. The children's section became the entire library: but why were kids confined to the sunny northern corner in the first place? Was it because kids were dumber? Or maybe because they were contagious with something? (Hope, imagination and fearlessness perhaps?) And why was there a whole section of books you couldn't take home? Also, why was there a little shelf of books that used fonts bigger than in most of the kids' books? And why did the librarian nail those fidgety young men and women with stern looks when they browsed the paperback section? All so very curious.

I've always moved. In my adult life, it's been between jobs. When I was a boy, it was homes and schools. And I got into the habit of always comparing the old context with the new – and asking all sorts of questions about the differences. New situations make you more aware of how different people and things are. And how similar. Being the new guy forces you to think about how you come across to others and what they must think about you. The mover between worlds almost always turns introspective. But it stops being frightening after a while. And then you discover that because you're in a new place, you also get to reinvent yourself almost from the nuts and bolts up every time.

I figured out that God was invented from the nuts and bolts up on the plentieth day I was belittled for asking too many questions. Or maybe it was too many of the wrong questions. I had my 'God phase' – I bought a bible of my very own and started reading it from the front and highlighting passages as I went. I listened to the stories and the messages. I even looked into a few supernatural rivals. I really did try to give it a go. It felt good to have a grease-free soul. But things change very quickly when you think too hard about religion. There were too many things that made no sense – and no-one back then would ever try to explain these things to me without ending up in some kind of full stop. It was a bit like the 'why game' except that the answer ended up being either 'because faith' or 'because the Bible' or 'because God' – even if that was part of the question. Every question had a predictable answer. And I hated that.

But God didn't let me go that easily. I had hands placed upon me, voices beseeched the almighty to cast out my demons and I was even physically struck by a pastor when I said I had no more use for his fairy tales. In a perfect story, this would have taught me the benefits of diplomacy and careful negotiation. As a fourteen year old boy, I learnt the power of righteous anger.

I was an angry young man for way too long. I think I might still be one even as I make my way through my early forties. There is so much to be angry about.

Anger comes from frustration. When people hurt you or insult you or take what is yours, any anger you might feel doesn't come from their actions, it comes from the frustration resulting from of a lack of an equitable response to that action (by the universe / God / the authorities / society at large). Picture this: someone hits me or steals from me and then runs themselves unconscious into a wall. Or get nabbed by a cop. I am not mad at all – there is a response. If he gets away, though, I'm as mad as hell.

Being violently angry shuts down your ability to think. But it once it simmers down to a growl, it also gives you the impetus to think and reason things out. Only, the things I am angry about end up making me even more angry when I realize what's behind them. Anger – reflection – anger: a never-ending see-saw… Example: There are so many people living in desperate circumstances: anger. This is because greed and self-interest trump the social conscience almost every time: anger. In fact, it is the selfishness of individuals and corporations and countries which cause deprivation and degradation in the first place: anger. And there is practically nothing I can do to stop it that doesn't resemble throwing a very small pebble at a crashing wave: anger… Or is there? And so on. A lot of times, these sorts of anger inspired ruminations go around in circles – but there's more substance and nuance and connected bits on them every time they come around again. I suppose that's thinking in a nutshell: adding substance and nuance and connections to our thoughts: like some phantasmagorical Lego construction.

Besides books, one of the best things that every happened to me as a kid was Lego. And I still consider it a very useful metaphor for how we think. Here's the thing: learning to build model spaceships and helicopters and trucks from the plans provided is an engrossing thing that forces you to pay attention to every little detail. But sooner or later you want to begin modifying the models and taking them slightly off plan. And then you end up building a spacehelitruck of your own design, creating as you go, thinking up new uses for pieces, adding non-Lego items, trying and testing and evaluating and solving problems all the way through. And then making up fantastic space operas starring the crew of your spacehelitruck. I could live for days in the school holidays just building cool things and then imagining stories – with hardly a word to another human being.

Looking over this, it strikes me that I come across as a lonely, bookish sort of boy. I wasn't. I was always a member of a gang of friends. Because we were boys and because my mother worked days, we had great and dangerous adventures – and almost total freedom. I think this freedom was an important part of my cognitive growth. I experimented with everything from gravity (on my BMX bicycle) to firecrackers. We conducted long expeditions in the sewers and up the mine-dumps (I always hoped to undercover a fiendish Moriarty liar somewhere along the journey) and we teased the older boys just to see if we could outrun them. I indulged in a fair bit of experimentation – and yes, much of it was stupid and some illicit, but I'll spare you those details. I played a lot of sport and spent a great deal of time outside. But I did enjoy being alone when I could be. Introverts have good friends, we just don't like large gatherings of people, or being centre stage.

I don't know if introverts are born that way, or if we are bent inwards by life. Between Lego and books, it became clear to me very early on that my favorite company was my own and my favorite place was inside my head. Introverts have the advantage when it comes to developing a thinking habit. They learn not to be afraid of their thoughts. They think about those things others hang on the back shelf as unimportant or uncomfortable or even perhaps dangerous.

We're all introverts to some degree. The difference, I think, is that some embrace living inside themselves and others run from it. The compromise is that introverts don't function well amid large groups of people or when they're forced into the limelight. I've often imagined to myself all of the potential thoughts and ideas I was missing out on by not being around other people or by not wanting to take the lead. And then, a little way into university, the Internet became a thing. For many years, I thought the web was just a place to find information. And then, like discovering Holmes and Watson, I realized that being connected to the entire planet was an immeasurably rich opportunity to explore the world of ideas. I could be safely introverted while exploring other people's thoughts. I could oil and sharpen and polish the very tools Sherlock Holmes gifted me as a young boy. Moreover, I could send my own roughly hewn thought-crafts out into the world.

Writing my blog has been one of the most frightening and humbling things I've ever done. But also one of the best. I'm often disappointed (and even embarrassed) at what I write, but I force myself to publish it all anyway. Sometimes I'll go back and lightly sandpaper and varnish over what I've done, but I don't ever delete my posts and I am sure not to change the sense of what I wrote originally. I learn new things all the time simply by writing about them. And it helps me to scrape away at my thoughts in order to see what's underneath them. The most wonderful thing of all though, is when people take the time to comment on something I've written. It makes me realize that other people use the Internet for the same reasons I do: they're on their own thinking journey.

Disappointment can paralyze thinking, but it can also fuel it. It is a valuable part of the human experience to have your plans crack and your dreams come unfastened. Disappointment teaches you that almost anything can be fixed – if you take the time to think about why things went wrong… and if you give yourself enough time to fix it. There is so much to be said about the power of giving things time. Given long enough, what starts as a disappointment so often leads to something wonderful. I've lost in love, lost my self-respect, lost money, lost my mind, lost my dear mother, and lost sight of my dreams. And although no son ever gets over the passing of his mother, I've gotten over the other things – and then some. I live a very happy life with a wonderful job and a nice home and spectacularly kind and lovely and smart and beautiful woman. I see things differently now.

Talking about disappointment: isn't it a horrible thing to see how a magic trick works? You love to suspend your disbelief but when you catch a glimpse of the trick behind the trick, the whole illusion collapses and leaves you feeling cheated. It's like that with so many of the illusions (and delusions) we cling to. Something in our chemical make-up makes us enjoy stories – even hitting us with happy endorphins when we hear one. But when the narratives crack, the endorphins stop leaking into our systems and we feel less good. Magicians know this. Which is why they don't reveal their tricks. It's also why they so often go to great pains to weld their tricks to a story. More importantly, though, they rely on our addiction to narratives to exploit and misdirect our brains and make us either see things things that aren't there, or to not see things that are. (Priests and pastors do the same thing – but less entertainingly.) The hand may be faster than the eye, but the story is also faster than the brain. Primarily because I know they work so hard behind the scenes to fool us, I know that magicians must all have a deep interest in how we think and how we fool ourselves. Some people react badly to magicians – most because magic works by dashing our expectations about what's going to happen. But mostly, people smile and laugh and applaud at a good illusion. Many of them will think about how he did for days – sometimes even years. David Blaine and Dynamo do that to me. I know that the majority of their illusions work because of intensive behind the scenes preparation, misdirection and large measure of secrecy, but holy hammers those two are good!

Lazy magicians create bad tricks and never last too long. Real magicians work hard. But laziness can also be a good thing. Lazy people are often thinkers. Or practical economists at the very least. They will intuitively weigh the cost-benefit of doing something before deciding that the potential benefit isn't worth the cost of getting off their asses. And they do tend to find the easiest, most efficient ways of doing things. Working hard is vastly over-rated, and brings with it a whole scrapbox of problems. But we have to learn when to work hard and when to be lazy. I am proudly lazy – but only when I know that working hard isn't going to get me anywhere. Plus, not grinding away at high speed being busy gives me time to think.

Sooner or later though, laziness bites back and you realize that you have to get out there and do things. It's easy to be passive and let life happen. But sooner or later, you have to be the one who makes things happen. Which is where chess comes in. Going through the motions and just playing as you always have gets you nowhere. But if you want to get really good, you've got to work at your tactical and strategic knowledge. I still suck at chess, but I have gotten much better just by plugging away at opening theories, end-game studies, tactical tools and strategic motifs.

Chess is so badly misunderstood by those who place themselves outside of the game. It isn't a game just for bespeckled nerds. It is a game of statesmen, scientists, artists, business leaders and entrepreneurs. If you want to hone your own thinking toolkit, there is nothing better than chess to help you do it. Chess improves your deductive skills, your spatial awareness, your ability to solve problems, your ability to create novel solutions and your ability to see more widely. Millions of people around the world and don't play chess solely because they enjoy the game – we play because the chessboard is a microcosm of the real world, and we can use so much of what we learn bent over the pieces in the world. In chess you always learn as much about yourself and how the world works as you do about what's possible on the board.

People are always surprised that I chose teaching teenagers as the thing I wanted to do with my life. I'm not sure what line of work they think would be more suitable, but it's always been right for me. Like reading and writing and chess, teaching throws up a myriad of opportunities for introspection and reflection – on a daily basis. Of course, you can get stuck teaching mechanically like playing an unthinking game of chess. But I do try to think about what I'm doing and why I'm doing it – and how I could do it better. I learn new things and I actively try to find opportunities to sharpen my old thinking tools as often as I can. Like my chess game, my teaching game still needs work, but I do try to get better every day. And I often wonder if my students know that I learn as much from them and from the process of teaching them as they do from me.

Finally, being a teacher is enormously uplifting: I get to watch so many young people start their own thinking lives. And perhaps also have a small hand in helping some of them to make it as rewarding a journey as mine has been so far.

So that's my Holmsian, Lego-stacked, book-wormy, unsettled, godless, introverted, unfettered, connected, disappointed, magical, lazy, hard-working, chess-playing, introspective, self-edifying journey into becoming a better thinker. All of which takes us to today and my final thought about my thinking life: There's so much more I wish I could do: reading, writing, traveling, learning, watching movies, plays and shows, improving my chess repertoire and lazing about. But then I think it might not be about doing more of these things – perhaps it's just about squeezing out more from the things I already do. And putting more of what I cobble together as a result out into the world.

I think I'll start with…



All of this happened. More or less. This entire post is one long response to a strange question someone asked of me the other day: “How did you get into thinking?” This is my complete answer. And it surprised me more than a few times while I wrote it. Some factual liberties were taken in the interests of form, and much was left out, but I do think that this piece explains how I came to a life of contemplation.

Thanks you for reading this. As usual, your comments are welcomed.







  1. I don’t quite know how I stumbled onto this post, but that’s part of the beauty of the internet. I loved reading that, thank you and well done for writing it. It’s so encouraging and inspiring to read the eloquent writings of a thinker, particularly when that person thinks in a very similar way to you. I’m a keen chess player and thinker, and believe there are many lessons that hold true for both life and chess. Anyway, great read man. Thanks.


  2. Even though I am a couple of decades (almost) older than you, you have had a profound influence on me learning to think more and better. Unlike you, I was always too afraid to question and grew up following the herd but knowing I was somehow different. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

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