How to think and what to think

There’s this gap that I’ve been struggling with for a long time, and I often feel like I am no closer to finding a way to bridge it. It’s a gap between nuance and action. I’ve talked about many variants of problems that this gap causes, but at their core, they all share the same dynamic.

Very loosely, the dynamic is that understanding nuance requires so much work in addition to the important, urgent work that already needs to be done, that folks who need to understand this nuance rarely have energy/time to do so.

Suppose you have invested a bunch of time into studying a problem space – like growing developer ecosystems, for example. You have acquired admirable depth of nuance in this problem space. You understand how APIs evolve. You understand the layering fundamentals of opinion. All that good stuff. Now, you would like to convey this depth to others. These others are typically your team, but could be just random people on the Internet.

You choose the option of carefully writing words and drawing diagrams to describe the nuance in the problem space as concisely and clearly as you can. Then you share the resulting artifact with your team. And… nothing happens. At best, people diligently flip through your artifact and go: “This is really nice. But why so abstract? How does this translate to action?”

This question has become somewhat triggering for me and my fellow ecosystem adventurers. Nuance often feels too abstract, even to a most receptive audience. 

I wonder if it’s because nuance points at how to think, rather than what to think. This might be an important distinction.

We act on what we think, so “what to think” is close to the ground, and an artifact that outlines what to think will tend to feel more concrete. Do this. Don’t do that. Go here. Stay there.

All the while, the “what we think” is situated inside of how we think. Put differently, how we think defines all possibilities for action. When we change “what we think”, we just pick another of those possibilities. When we change “how we think”, we start seeing another set of new possibilities. Until then, our field of view is limited to the initial set.

Because nuance affects how we think, it will nearly always feel detached from action. Modifying “how we think” means introducing different mental models, a whole new space from which new actions could be drawn. And there’s a lot of effort that needs to go into accommodating these new mental models, integrating them into one’s understanding.

Only after that happens, new actions will emerge – but there will be an inevitable delay between conveying the nuance and the actions appearing. I bet there was a puzzled look on the face of the proverbial man who was expecting the fish, and instead got a fishing rod thrust into his hands and an invitation to walk to the lake.

When everyone is busy to the point of delirium, stopping to learn how to fish feels both impossible and foolish. So what do we do?

I don’t know. But I will keep trying to find different ways of sharing nuance with others – and of course, keep sharing what I learned with you.

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