Customizing conventional wisdom

From Solitude and Leadership by William Deresiewicz:

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

Conventional wisdom summarizes the experience of many people. As a result, it’s often a good starting point. But like a blurred photo, it has gone through a sort of averaging process, loosing resolution along the way. It takes hard work to decide how, or even whether, conventional wisdom applies to your particular circumstances.

Bureaucracies are infuriating because they cannot deliberate on particulars the way Deresiewicz recommends. In order to scale up, they develop procedures that work well under common scenarios.

The context of Deresiewicz’s advice is a speech he gave at West Point. His audience will spend their careers in one of the largest and most bureaucratic organizations in the world. Deresiewicz is aware of this irony and gives advice for how to be a deep thinker while working within a bureaucracy.

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