Sep 8, 2020Liked by David R. MacIver

I love this. It all resonates with my experience so much. As a fellow inveterate overthinker let me toss in a couple more observation.

Here's one: the motivation for "good" overthinking depends on an intuitive sense that the conventional explanation of a situation is shallow or imperfect, and that a deeper, more insightful explanation is possible.

When people resist this kind of thinking, I find it's for a couple reasons. First, as you say, they don't know how to think like this, in that they are uncomfortable with the searching phase, which feels aimless compared to plain old means-end analysis and problem solving. But also, they simply lack that intuitive sense that the conventional explanation is flawed or shallow, and that there is something deeper to search for.

I think this sense is strongly domain dependent.

For instance, if you know some area of mathematics well, you build up your sense of what is the essence of the issue involved in solving a problem. That's why you can tackle it quickly and clearly, instead of grinding through unnecessary calculations to reach the same solution. But it's only through exposure that you build this sense, this intuition, that a deeper insight is possible.

But the same is true in culture, interpersonal affairs, and personal psychology. It's only through time and exposure that one builds up the ability to sense that a deeper insight is possible, and available through productive overthinking.

Because the sense of possibility is so domain dependent, you of course often find people who are onboard for "productive overthinking" in one area, but are impatient with thinking very deeply in another area of life. In the area that interests them less, they just don't see that there's more to see. You can be insightful about linear algebra and shallow about unconscious motivations.

Perhaps we are all "overthinkers" in some areas and not in others, and the interesting distinction between people is how many areas and which areas.

A last observation: one frustration of being an overthinker is the curse of knowledge. Once you've found a compact, simple explanation of an interesting area, the whole area seems simple, less interesting, and not worth thinking about or writing about further. Indeed, looking at everything I've written above, part of me feels, "Well isn't this just a longwinded way of saying *thoughtfulness* is good, some people are more thoughtful than others, and are thoughtful about different things"? Sort of.

Expand full comment

Okay but the bit about overthinking and the competence model reminds me of:

I sometimes help a self-employed builder out. On one house, i put lagging (insulation) on the hot water pipes beneath. It's the first time I've ever done this. (It's like small pool noodles with a slit right along it, which is efficient if awkward at joins and corners)

And when the house was inspected, the inspector said that it was by far the best and tidiest lagging he's ever seen.

And it's not so much because I'm better at it than experienced plumbers so much as, i just took a bit longer and did a really good job *because* I'm not experienced enough to know what shortcuts i /can/ take to get it done faster and still do an adequate job.

(Also, since I'm finally commenting anyway: i really appreciate your writings. I've been told i tend to be insightful, but those insights tend to lean more on the "how people tend to work" and "systemic issues" a little bit moreso than practical insights. I'm also pretty decent when it comes to self insight & understanding too, i suppose, but it seems your writing manages to hit a lot of the gaps in my understandings. It's pretty excellent, and amazingly helpful for me! So, thank you for putting your understandings on the internet.)


Expand full comment

this is such a good post, and very relatable. I've been looking through old scrapbooks from when I was a kid, and I list "thinking" as one of my hobbies in multiple places. maybe it's no surprise I have anxiety now, but I do feel like I have overthinking mastered as a skill as you describe it, which is probably why I don't tend to get anxiety about problems which feel solvable.

Expand full comment