Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about Paul Graham’s essay, The Top Idea in Your Mind. He argues for “ambient thought” as a valuable problem-solving tool. The thing you let your mind drift to when you’re in the shower, or standing in line, or on the subway? That’s the thing you’re going to have insights about. What seem like snips and scraps of time add up to a lot of attention on a problem, especially since they’re likely reflecting even more activity going on under the surface.
When it comes to creativity, this is what’s called incubation – time you’re not actively spending on a problem, but that nonetheless helps you solve it. There’s some debate about how incubation works: does it help you come up with new ideas about a problem, or does it just help you let go of ideas that aren’t working? Either way, though, that time is valuable. As Graham points out, you can get unproductive things stuck in the top of your mind, such as raising money or arguments you’ve had. If you do, you lose out on productive incubation for whatever idea you might have engaged with otherwise.
But are money and arguments really always unproductive? Can we generalize beyond Paul Graham’s experience? I think the answer is yes. What’s common to Graham’s problematic “top ideas” he mentions is inability to control the outcomes. Raising money is dependent on other people’s willingness to give it to you. Resolving a dispute is dependent on the participation of whoever you’re in conflict with. No matter how much time you spend “solving” these problems, they’re not within your power to solve. Spending top-of-the-mind time on them is like salting your umbrella: it may make you feel like you’re cooking, but at the end of the day, it won’t taste very good no matter what you do.
Graham’s approach to forgiveness is a really good example of how to let go of problems you can’t control, and focus on ones you can. When you find yourself able to spend your top-of-the-mind time on things you can make progress on, you’ll find that progress actually gets made!