“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” — David McCullough
There are many of kinds of people in this world, and I specifically am the kind who’s nature drives me to lay awake in bed at 2am thinking about how I tripped on the stairs that day, whether or not I eat enough bread to warrant buying a toaster, and if I am really happy with my current professional trajectory. I didn’t ask to be this person. Sometimes being this way causes me a lot of stress and anxiety.
When I get to this point where I’m asking a few too many questions in my head, I find that I start running in mental circles. I don’t actually cover any new ground, I just rehash a lot of the same concerns over and over. Where the productivity ends is where the anxiety festers. Once I am feeling stressed, I don’t think straight, and I can’t even solve my own problems.
Through most of my life, my last resort to an overactive brain has been to talk to my friends,1 bouncing ideas off of them. Somehow verbalizing your problems in a structured enough way that you can have a conversation about them is enough to disassociate from the thought and decide how to address it. I’ve literally had moments where I come to a friend with an issue that’s been on my mind for weeks and they ask a simple “why are you feeling that way,” and suddenly through articulating myself it all becomes clear. Problem solved!
Having a friend there to help you through every issue is a luxury most people don’t have. It would also probably be unhealthy to even try; being self-sufficient is an important skill. So until I master the ability to talk aloud to myself while alone in a room, I’ve started switching over to writing.
Writing coaxes something out of you. Being able to talk or write through an idea pulls it out of the ether and into the real world. Here, outside of your brain, thoughts are tangible enough to examine, dissect, explore, structure, prioritize, and solve.
At its most basic level, I write to perform what I think of as an “idea dump.” Sometimes my brain’s cognitive load from switching from problem to problem is just too much to handle. It’s like I am holding an abstract todo list of a hundred items in my brain, and I just need somewhere to deposit all these noisy thoughts.
There are times where an idea dump is enough.
I’m going to the grocery store soon — what was it I needed again? Milk? Eggs? Butter? Wait, no, I think we have butter. Do we have enough butter? What did I want to cook this week? I was reading about this one recipe recently, maybe I could make that on Tuesday night… Oh man, what did I need to buy again?
Grocery lists are a great example of idea dumps. I don’t need to do any additional thinking. I just need to make sure I don’t forget anything. While this is a trivial example, I’ve come to try to empty my brain of all noise as frequently as possible, and just simply write stuff down somewhere.2
Lists and other short memos to myself are a god send. I don’t know why I spent decades thinking I would remember every idea later when I needed it. I think the Greeks had an apt metaphor with the Muses; they come visit you with inspiration for a moment, and when they leave, the thought might be gone forever. Cognitive psychologists also have explored the effects of trying to overuse your working memory; not only will you forget the thought once your proverbial “muse” leaves, but the extra strain of trying to hold everything in your brain weakens your ability to learn and focus.
But of course, most topics in life are more convoluted than just a list. Idea dumps only go so far before it becomes clear that your thoughts needs structure. To manage all this complexity in my brain, I just use writing to think.
A good friend of mine loves to say,
I didn’t have time to write you a short email, so I wrote you a long one. 3
Writing a long email is so easy because it is just an idea dump. That spew of words might not really make any sense. Creating something succinct and structured is harder, but it’s where the value is. It’s very rare that I come to well structured conclusions in the complete isolation of my own head. Writing forces the discipline needed to actually solve problems (as opposed to falling into my nature and just laying in bed overthinking about everything in circles.)
Good writing promotes the kind of thinking that starts at square one, beginning with the first principles. To write something that makes sense for a reader, it needs to follow a logical narrative. Structuring a mess of thoughts into something someone could pick up and read gives me a greater depth of understanding, helps me consider options from all angles, and distills what is truly important about an idea.
Almost as if writing was like going to the gym for my brain, I usually come out of these exercises with a much sharper ability to think in general. I can come back to the topic and actively engage with it in novel ways, and it becomes progressively easier to make good decisions when presented with similar situations. It’s refreshing to know exactly where I stand on a topic. Here it is, I’ve written it. And if I want to pick it up again later, question myself and my beliefs, I can do that, because I wrote it in a way where I can just pick up the thought where I left off.
The clarity that I gained through writing really shows its value when I am working with others. While sometimes I am fine making decisions in my own life based on arbitrary preferences or intuition, that rarely works in groups.
Few jobs will tell you that writing is a critical part of what you should be spending your time doing, yet getting alignment and working through complex problems is a core part of so many roles. Sometimes you have to bring others along with you to your conclusions, but that is impossible if there are gaps in knowledge or experience, different assumptions about what might be true, or other biases at play. I’ve seen teammates argue to no end simply because of semantics and not being on the same page.
I believe that the first step to having a team solve a problem is agreeing on what the problem is and how to talk about it. Once you’ve mapped out your thought process, down to all the key nouns and verbs as if you were defining your thoughts from scratch, you should be able to walk up to a colleague, hand them your ideas on paper, and expect them to end up with a shared vocabulary that you can all use to frame the problem.
From where the writing ends, if it was done well, readers find themself in a position where they can begin a meaningful discussion about what comes next.
Sometimes I don’t know where I am going to end up when I am writing. It’s about exploring my own thoughts, and trying to find clarity in something I’m not yet sure on. As I said before, I get this feeling that writing coaxes your thoughts out of you. Half baked ideas can come together through the journey of writing. This is therapy and I’m just trying to find out what’s on the other side.
I’ve written break up letters. I’ve written product roadmaps. I’ve written apologies, go-to-market plans, recipes, instruction manuals. I’ve rewritten things… many times. Clarity isn’t always found in the first draft. Whenever I write, I feel like it helps me learn or it helps me grow.
I think I am learning a lot about myself just by writing this essay. I’m also reinforcing for myself that writing is a healthy and productive outlet. I want to make a commitment to write significantly more than I have previously, and I hope that this corner of internet I’ve carved out can become a fun way to do that.
Some people that have blogs on the internet have a “posting schedule.” They try to release new content every week, sometimes even every day. I don’t think that aligns with my goals for this project though. I don’t want to monetize. Having a lot of people caring enough to read my thoughts would make me happy, but it isn’t why I write.
I want to continue to write in the future to crystalize some thoughts of mine, to explore interesting ideas I’ve only loosely entertained, and to bring intentionality and focus to how to live and think about my life. I want to write to learn more about me.
Thanks for reading this far — here’s to many more essays written, and to the journey that is yet to come.
Or to a therapist, who might also claim to be your friend depending on how much you pay them↩︎
As of late, “somewhere” includes sticky notes, legal pads, whiteboads, Google Calendar event descriptions, Google Docs, Todoist, Workflowy, and Notion. As long as I can find what I wrote, it’s a million times easier than juggling thoughts in my brain.↩︎
This is my friend’s semi-humorous, modernized parody of a famous Mark Twain quote↩︎