first_img In praise of useless thoughts March 1, 2003 Regular News Dr. Bernard G. SuranDo you ever feel that your job might be causing mental stagnation? Complications do arise for people who think for a living — even more so if they’re good at it. It’s not the thinking that’s the problem: It’s what one is paid to think about. Usually, the better someone thinks about it, the more he or she is paid for it. This makes sense. The gifted thinker is worthy of the wage. What makes less sense is the effect of the process on fine minds.If we want to get paid more — and who among us doesn’t — we have to spend more and more time getting better and better at thinking about less and less — narrowing a nook of expertise, gaining a reputation, then reaping the benefits of seriously reimbursable cogitation.Start the clock, do the homework, kick the problem-solving machinery into gear — whiz, boom, bang. Where’s the check? Of course, if it doesn’t fold into a billable hour, don’t even bother thinking about it.Thinking is worth far more than its earning value. We all started out being somewhere between pretty smart and very smart. We had tools. We loved learning. Remember? Remember when we burned midnight oil because a book on something we knew nothing about was so engaging we couldn’t put it down? What happened? What happened to the ardor for the new idea or fresh perspective that was irrelevant to anything except greasing the wheels of thought? Chances are it’s been replaced by the prospect of the billable hour.When we recycle similar ideas about the same issues again and again, we stultify brain processes. Our thinking caps shrink like cheap blue jeans that have gone through too many wash cycles. A fine mind that struggles to fit into an overused mold is no different than a perfectly good rump shimmying itself into a no-longer-adequate container. Even well-paid thinkers can’t count on their work to keep themselves intellectually fit and creatively tuned.We’re not likely to maintain productive thinking if we don’t recharge our creative impetus and restock the storehouse of experience from which the creative process draws its inspiration. For that, we may have to step outside the box into the totally useless pastime of thinking for nothing — the kind of pointless, purposeless, unbillable thinking that has fast become a disappearing art in the legal profession.Funny thing about creativity: Nothing comes out if something hasn’t been put in. We tend to imagine creation as spontaneous illumination, brilliant insight or inspiration from the muses. Actually, it’s just working the bank. When we learn new stuff — about anything — we log it and set the stage for reorganizing the knowledge and information reserve.That’s how creativity works its magic: It makes connections that haven’t been made before and sees things from a fresh perspective.If we load the unconscious with different sources of information — especially, useless thoughts — creative possibility is greatly enhanced. If we let it.In this age of specialized focus, time management, and calculated billing, how often do we allocate space for sheer intellectual playfulness? Sure. We might slip a slim tome into the briefcase and gobble a chapter on the morning commute. We might pretend to keep ourselves intellectually alive by sneaking in a few passages during dead time. Or, have you figured out a method to do something billable during dead time? Sorry. Stupid question. SuggestionsMany lawyers may encounter difficulty getting into the swing of thinking mindless and doing useless, even if they recognize the necessity of an antidote. So, how do we do it? Diversity training and cross-fertilization.• We read — not only beyond our areas of specialization, but also beyond our comfort zones. Cross-reading, like physical cross-training, stimulates little-used areas of consciousness, linking and expanding knowledge bases as foundations for an occasional “Eureka” or at least an “Aha.”• We consciously allow ourselves to be influenced by other perspectives. For example, if we cultivate relationships with individuals from other walks of life, we may find ourselves less obsessed with thoughts of Versus v. Versus.• We complement the left-brain functions so vital to earning our keep. Analysis-prone, verbal wizards should uselessly indulge right-brain (artistic, spatial, synthetic) pursuits.For example, writing or reciting poetry paints pictures with words and finds rhythms and cadence in our thought patterns. Painting, music, photography, macrame, woodworking, etc. prevent lopsiding. Try rehabing an old piece of furniture and monitor the flow of totally useless exchanges floating between the hemispheres. Strangely enough, solutions to many mental problems occur while working on something totally unrelated.• We kill the guilts about spending time being curious about something not work-related. Servicing curiosity keys creativity.• We find something done the same way every day, and we do it differently — for the sake of unrutting the ruts.• We give ourselves permission to exercise intellectual freedom. Shouldn’t everybody with a still measurable IQ spend some significant part of the day and week thinking about and doing things that bear no relationship to the conduct of business? And, having no one to bill for it. What sort of a bill will we have to pay in our lives if we don’t do it?Of course, you run some risk with useless thinking. People might think you don’t know what you’re talking about. They might think you’re an intellectual. Dr. Bernard G. Suran, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and diplomat and fellow of the Academy of Clinical Psychology and the American Board of Professional Psychology. This column is published under the sponsorship of the Quality of Life and Career Committee. The committee’s website is at The Quality of Life and Career Committee, in cooperation with the Florida State University College of Law, also has an interactive listserv titled “The Healthy Lawyer.” Details and subscription information regarding the listserv can be accessed through the committee’s Web site or by going directly to Stresslineslast_img

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