Thinking harder doesn’t work (or how I learned to love the right half of my brain)

I’ve always been an extremely left-brainy guy.

Few things give me as much joy as making sense of the world using language.

Frameworks, models, labels, these kind of things.

But it’s becoming increasingly obvious to me how limiting this approach is.

For example, the elegant frameworks you read about in self-help and business books never work as promised. Never.

But there is no malicious intent. People aren’t intentionally lying. They don’t sit down thinking “let me come up with some nonsense to fool people”.

At the same time, some people very clearly do better in life and I don’t think it’s entirely random or due to some hidden unfair advantages.

Some people do have certain things figured out.

The real problem is when they try to explain it in a left-brainy way.

You could listen to 10-hours of Lionel Messi explaining how to shoot a football and still have zero clue what to do on a football pitch.

You cannot download Elon Musk’s entrepreneurial skills or Stephen King’s writing skills into your brain by reading some book or listening to some lecture.

Tacit knowledge is what left-brainers like to call this.

The root issue is that reality has a surprising amount of detail. All models are wrong. The map is not the territory.

But my left brain likes to hide these facts from me since they diminish its influence and status.

My left brain is the power hungry emissary that likes to overstate its own importance.

It does everything it can to keep me in the belief that I’m just one framework, one mental model away. That I can download real-world skills the same way Neo does in the Matrix movies by reading books, blog posts and tweets, or listening to podcasts.

And just as in Nietzsche’s story, once the emissary actually starts ruling, things quickly start to fall apart.

The emissary’s narrow, analytical view of the world and desire to have everything fully under control, cut it into pieces and arrange it in ways it can fully grasp, is inadequate for dealing with the complexities of reality.

The grand masterplan you come up with is doomed to fail for the same reason as the five-year plans of the Soviet Union.

But that doesn’t mean that the left brain is useless — far from it.

After all, maps and other wrong models are useful. Plans are useless but planning is everything.

Our left brain allows us to create a conceptual map of the world, substituting words as symbols for real things. This symbolic representation enables us to form overarching strategies and plans.

A map is extremely useful for figuring out what direction to head in and to make sure you’re not too far off course.

But if you never look up from the map and act only using what you see on it, well, you’re in trouble.

You might get eaten by a bear. Or you might fall down a cliff since a certain bridge was recently removed and the map was not updated.

This is what the right brain can help prevent. It is the “wise master” and is associated with a more expansive mode of attention and intuition.

We need both and neither of them is more important than the other.

The key is to maintain a healthy power balance between the two.

Here’s an example of how I’m trying to do this myself now.

When I’m trying to solve a specific problem my standard approach used to be to think harder, read more about the topic, invoke more left brain power.

This rarely worked.

There is a reason why mathematicians talk about the 3Bs: bus, bad, bed. This is where we have our best ideas.

Eureka moments don’t happen when you try to force it.

The biggest breakthroughs are not the result of a conscious train of thought.

Instead, it feels like they flash into your consciousness out of nowhere.

So what I’m doing now is allowing myself to just sit with the problem.

I no longer try to force myself to come up with a solution right away.

This way I prevent my left brain from dominating the “conversation” when typically the right brain has a lot to contribute too.

Another strategy is to lean into the obvious.

I learned this by from studying improv comedy.

Beginners are always trying to be clever while pros lean into the obvious.

As Keith Johnstone observes in his book Impro:

“If someone says ‘What’s for supper?’ a bad improviser will desperately try to think up something original. Whatever he says he’ll be too slow. He’ll finally drag up some idea like ‘fried mermaid’. If he’d just said ‘fish’ the audience would have been delighted.”

This issue becomes especially pronounced in improv games where a group tells a story together, each person adding one sentence add a time.

With a group of beginners, everyone will try to add something funny or clever.

The result is a story that makes no sense and is not funny at all.

The problem is that beginners will stop listening to what other people say as they try to come up with something clever to add.

So when it’s their turn to say something, the clever thing they came up with no longer fits to the rest of the story.

In other words, they allow their left brain to take over. Their awareness becomes extremely narrow.

This is no different from a guy getting eaten by a bear because he’s too focused on looking at the map.

It’s the left brain that comes up with all the different things you could say and critically evaluates them using labels like “not funny” or “embarrassing”.

Improv pros on the other hand trust their intuition and always say the first thing that comes to mind.

They are not busy trying to come up with something clever in advance and can pay full attention to what’s going on.

The story naturally flows and tends to be 100x funnier.

And this is what a healthy balance between the left brain and right brain looks like.

There is a general left-brainy direction and plan.

“This is a story about a dragon in Rome. There is a beginning where the setting is established, then some kind of crisis occurs, and eventually the crisis is resolved.”

Then the left brains and right brains work hand-in-hand to fill in the gaps with neither part dominating.

This is what “leaning into the obvious” does.

There is still output in the form of words, a general sense of direction and control.

But the left brains are not dominating. They are receptive to the inputs provided by the right brains in the group which thanks to their more expansive awareness have a much better grip on what’s going on.

In hindsight, this is also how my company came to be.

My friend Ryan was working on a clever software called Magic Sales Bot.

It combined many data sources and then fed them into GPT to identify sales triggers and write personalized pitches.

The obvious thing I suggested to him, is to just generate leads directly for companies. We could still use sales triggers, personalized pitches, etc. but focus on the most obvious thing people are clearly willing to pay money.

This turned out to be a lot easier than trying to convince people to buy a clever piece of software.

I only realised this recently but I’m using the same approach when I write.

When you start outlining, editing, rewriting, your left brain starts taking over. You end up censoring yourself, and the result is boring and often not entirely truthful.

Instead I always simply write what’s on my mind. I don’t think hard about any particular sentence or carefully evaluate different options in my mind.

Just as in the improv storytelling group game, the words naturally flow when I’m doing it correctly.

Leaning into the obvious is also the whole point of every midwit meme.


There is a reason why this format is resonating so deeply.

The right brain is always part of us. The urge we feel to share midwit memes and laugh about it, is our right brains crying for help.

Far too often it’s overpowered and suppressed by our left brains.

It’s extremely easy to be fooled by the little voice in your head.

We feel angry and our left brain helpfully comes up with an explanation.

“Man, that guy chewing so loudly is pissing me off”.”

Usually that explanation is complete nonsense.

It’s like in these experiments where they gave participants electric shocks that caused their hands to go up. When asked why they raised their hand, participants confidently explained that they decided to do so, coming up with all kinds of plausible explanations.

Our left brains are constantly trying to make sense of the world by creating narratives and explanations. But these explanations are often just post-hoc rationalizations, not the real reasons behind our actions or feelings.

How you feel has very little to do with what’s going on in your mind.

But it has everything to do with the chemicals sloshing around in your system.

You’re angry because you did not sleep enough, because you ate too much junk, because you are vitamin deficient.

This is once again a fact our left brain likes to ignore as the chemicals in our body are not something fully under its control and this potentially diminishes its importance.

The last thing it likes to hear is that the little voice in your head is highly overrated.

At one end of the spectrum, you have the excessive note-taker, fully controlled by his left brain, desperately trying to make sense of everything and anything, to cut reality into neat pieces, put it into boxes, and label them.

At the other hand, you have people like Michael Singer, 100% controlled by their right brains, surrendering.

I’m currently trying to embrace the muddy middle way.

Written on April 10, 2024

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