Thursday, September 18, 2008

Getting more out of a sentence

There's a very simple, effective, and systematic way to amp up the amount of insight you get from the things that you read.

It's probably best to explain with an example. The following is from Ed Catmull's article for the Harvard Business Review, "How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity."

We must constantly challenge all of our assumptions and search for the flaws that could destroy our culture.


How much thought can this spark in your mind?

If we just read this sentence several times, each time with an emphasis on only one word, we get a new angle on the general idea being conveyed. Something different is emphasized.

We must constantly challenge all of our assumptions and search for the flaws that could destroy our culture.


The emphasis is on the we. This tells me that whatever this sentence is talking about involves a team effort. Everyone on the team must be involved. It's a "we" rather than a "me." But does that necessarily have to be the case? It starts with somebody, right? Why not with individuals?

It's okay — a good sign, even — to ask questions about the truth or applicability of a passage. If you're a reader with a healthy sense of skepticism, those kinds of questions immediately arise. A lot of the same questions will come up: is it necessarily so? Is it true all the time? The more you ask these kinds of questions, the more you hash things out and figure them out for yourself.

Let's look at another word.

We must constantly challenge all of our assumptions and search for the flaws that could destroy our culture.


This time, the emphasis is on the word "search." This tells me that the flaws are often hidden; otherwise, they wouldn't require searching. Now, I'm an imaginative guy, so then I imagine myself searching frantically and then getting tired or discouraged. When I'm tired or discouraged, I ask questions. Why am I searching, anyway? What exactly am I searching for, again? How do I really know when I've found it?

That's only two words, and I could go on for a while, but I think the general method has been made clear. The biggest plus going for this method is that it is systematic; I can just emphasize each word until I'm plumb out of new thoughts. When I'm done with all the words in the sentence, I know I'm done.

Personally, I've found that this process also helps me internalize ideas. Even if I don't remember the exact wording of a sentence, the dance of thoughts anchored around a single idea tends to leave a lasting impression. I imagine this is because the thoughts that come to mind immediately tend to be those of the most concern to me. When it comes to things that truly concern me, I have an easy time remembering.

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