The secret process of expert thinkers

I’m going to level with you.

It’s about how I work.

And I’ll admit up front, it makes me look kinda lazy and unprofessional.

But through this essay I hope to show that not only is there logic in the laziness – but that it’s actually the only way to do effective intellectual and creative work.

First, here’s the fallacy:

People assume when I, or someone like me, is working on a project, our process goes something like this:

  • Gather the data
  • Interrogate the data
  • Come to the rational conclusion the data demands

…and thus you have your strategy.  Or your idea.  Or your thesis.  Or whatever it is you’re trying to come up with.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’d like to work like this.  There’s an air of certainty in this approach, which would certainly take the pressure off.  It would make every job like a maths problem, which you just need to plod through to arrive at the answer.  And sometimes, it does happen that way.

But to be honest I just give the appearance of this being the process.

And my suspicion is, we all do.


The good ones anyway.

The real process, the one that actually works despite its apparent laziness and sloppiness, looks more like this:

  • Take a cursory glance at the situation
  • Come up with a random hypothesis or solution, half jokingly
  • Try it on for size, and if it fits, start to look into it more deeply

…and in this way you either discard the half-idea and generate another, or, if the evidence clicks together (as it does surprisingly often), you roll with it.

There’s a long reason this is the proper way of doing things, and there’s a short reason.

The long one concerns sophisticated understanding of complexity, emergence, and stuff like that.  For instance intuitive reactions are “holistic”, and thus are more balanced than ones you rationalise from data – because the data you’re working on will always be incomplete, and will thus provoke you to come to a conclusion that biases in favour of the data you know, and against the data you don’t (which may be far more important).

The short reason however can be summed up by this brilliant Rory Sutherland quote:

“There are far more good ideas that you can post-rationalise than you can pre-rationalise”.

It really is as simple as that for me.

There’s no deeper proof of this than the fact that this is how science itself is actually done (despite the propaganda they feed you in school about the scientific method).  I don’t have the info to hand, but there are compelling studies of the history of medicine that show that almost no drugs that were “pre-rationalised” (i.e. designed for their eventual purpose).  Pretty much every single one was stumbled upon and post-rationalised.

Of course there is a risk here.  Such is the human brilliance for bullshit post-rationalisation of bad ideas that yes, we can probably talk ourselves into anything.  Including stuff that should never be.

That’s why we have to temper this process with radical honesty, humility, and open-mindedness.

This is the real purpose of research in my view: not so much to “learn things” (because you can intuit most of it anyway), but rather as a humility exercise.  Exposing your instincts to the light.

In my experience every bad post-rationalisation has at least one horrific glaring lie embedded within it.  Generally in plain sight.  Obvious to everyone involved but carefully unacknowledged.  Often such lies are protected by “taboos” – things that are just as likely to exist within a company as they are within wider society at large.

However if you are capable of honesty – true honesty – and if you build it into your process as a deliberate and conscious element, then bad post-rationalisation is surprisingly easy to avoid.

But anyway, that’s the truth.
We just take punts.
Make jokes.
Go where feels right.
And put the pieces together later.

As Paul Dirac, big cheese physicist and one of the founders of quantum mechanics said:

“A theory of beauty is more likely to be correct than an ugly one that fits some experimental data”.

We’re all engaged in what is ultimately an aesthetic practice.  And it serves us well to accept it.

Get weekly articles that will enable you to see things others don’t. 

Connect with Alex on Linkedin for daily ideas and discussion


Thank You

Check your inbox for your first mail.