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Sep
30 2011

Thinking Takes Practice; Talking Isn’t Enough.

Syndicated from: Getting in the Groove - Random Riffs and Random Notes

A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Winston Churchill These days not changing ones mind and not changing the subject is called “staying on message.” And “staying on message,” as I learned when I randomly sampled the 57,200,000 hits Google turned up for me, is considered to be a very good thing. So good a thing, in fact, that an industry has sprung up that aims to teach us how not to change either our minds or the subject. One such staying-on-message consultancy, for example, promises to reveal “the simple yet powerful tools that will allow you to communicate effectively and authentically in a world with unlimited media possibilities.” Give me a break! The only place that can legitimately claim to sell simple powerful tools is a hardware store. You have only to listen to what passes for political discourse to see just how seriously “staying on message” is being taken. Here are people who, I assume, would like us to believe that they have minds, talking like brochures in answer, not to the questions they’ve been asked, but to questions they would prefer to have been asked. I’m told by a friend that this strategy is called “bridging.” I assume that there are simple powerful tools that will teach you how to do this as well. But here’s the problem. In the same way that it’s possible to mistake breeding for intelligence, so it’s also possible to mistake talking for thinking. The question that arises, to put it in the simplest terms possible, is this: Are those who relentlessly stay on message capable of thought? The answer, unfortunately, generally comes too late. And then, of course, there’s the really scary possibility that the message these folks are trying so desperately to stay on wasn’t even written by them but by yet another supplier of simple powerful tools. All of this puts me in mind of an exchange between Harold Macmillan and a young journalist who asked him what was most likely to throw governments off course. Macmillan replied, “Events, dear boy, events.” And events change the subject; it’s what events do. It’s one thing to engage in bridging strategies when the person trying to change the subject is a debate moderator, but it’s another matter entirely when it’s the big world out there that changes the subject − that’s when being incapable of managing thought becomes a serious liability. So what, apart from dumping all over those clowns who try to persuade us that they’re fit to be trusted with our well-being, is this all about? I’ll tell you. Thinking takes practice; talking isn’t enough. I turn to jazz to make the point. Jazz musicians spend thousands of hours working, in solitary practice, to achieve mastery of their instruments. It is here that we develop our musical vocabulary. This, combined with listening to the recordings of musicians we admire, is where we learn to talk; to speak the language of jazz. But if we learn to speak in relative privacy, we learn to think in public. It’s in the improvised musical conversations we have with others that we test our own ideas and are exposed to those of others. And as our talk changes, so do our minds. Learning is, ultimately, a social achievement. Jazz musicians would never dream of staying on message because if they did, that would be the day they’d stop being jazz musicians. It would also be the day their phones would stop ringing.

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