I’m reading Jim Holt’s Why Does The World Exist? It’s a fun book in which J. Holt tackles one of humans’ oldest and most puzzling questions: “Why is there something instead of nothing?” In his search for an answer, the author talks to a number of today’s leading scientists, philosophers, and religious leaders.
Jim is very smart. His writing style is engaging and easy to understand for the most part (I still had to use my dictionary more than usual – but that’s not Jim’s fault). I like somebody who makes a complex issue a fascinating read without dumbing down the language or the thought process.
The part that made me smile and write this post is the following paragraph, in which he talks about how he felt in the presence of those great minds he interviewed for his book.
“One of the pleasures of talking to original thinkers about a matter as profound as the mystery of being is that you get to hear them think out loud. Sometimes they would say the most astonishing things. It was as thought I was privileged to peer into their thought processes. This was a cause for awe. But I also found it oddly empowering. When you listen to such thinkers feel their way around the question of why there is a world at all, you begin to realize that your own thoughts on the matter are not quite so nugatory as you had imagined. No one can confidently claim intellectual superiority in the face of the mystery of existence. For, as Williams James observed, ‘All of us are beggars here.’”
– Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?
I bolded the sentence that I found funny. It reminded me of the many times I heard or read something and said to myself, “Yes, that’s exactly what I think” or, as is often the case, “Oh, my thoughts are smarter than that.”
I shouldn’t think so highly of myself since I’ve been knocked off of my self-built pedestal a fair amount of times (and rightfully so). But I do. I sound so good in my own mind, I can’t help being impressed.
Let’s stop joking for a bit though. Here’s a serious thought: I came to realize that it’s much easier to critique something, to analyze somebody else’s work, to see flaws and inconsistencies, than it is to express your own thoughts in a way that shows how truly brilliant you are.
Don’t believe me? Record yourself answering a question you’ve heard recently during an interview and thought was answered poorly. Then listen to what you’ve just recorded. Chances are, you won’t be as impressed with your spoken words as you were with the way you answered that specific question in your mind.
It’s the same way with learning something new, like writing, or learning a new language. Did you notice that when you learn a new language you understand so much more than you can actually speak? In your mind you sound better than the locals. Once you open your mouth though, you sound like the broken record of an alien language. No one can understand what you’re saying. Painful to listen to, sorry.
I read something else just a couple days ago about how much smarter we are when we are on the receiving end of a thought, creative act, etc. This following paragraph comes from Robert McKee’s Story and it talks about what happens when we watch a movie.
“The audience is not only amazingly sensitive, but as it settles into a darkened theatre its collective IQ jumps twenty-five points. When you go to the movies, don’t you often feel you’re more intelligent than what you’re watching? That you know what characters are going to do before they do it? That you see the ending long before it arrives?”
– Robert McKee, Story
Like I said, it’s easy to be smart when you watch or hear someone else talk. The hard part is expressing those smart thoughts of yours. Maybe you think you could write the script for a great movie. Well, do it. Write that script and see how you feel after you’re done. It will take a lot of guts to show it to someone else, especially if it’s your first draft.
I have many ideas that seem great at first, but when I write them out they make other people gag. I’m working on it though. I’ll keep practicing until writing becomes as easy as criticizing. I have many years of hard work ahead. After all, I’m excellent at criticizing.
P.S. The paragraph I copied from Why Does The World Exist? might not be the best choice for this post. After all, J. Holt didn’t say he was as smart or smarter than the people he talked to for his book. His idea was that it’s hard to claim you have the best answer to an unknowable/unanswerable question. We are equally smart and equally ignorant when it comes to those matters. I disagree, of course. Even for unknowable questions, some answers are better than others, aren’t they, if only because they sound smart.
Still, that paragraph reminded me of how often I fail into the trap of comparing someone’s words to my thoughts. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. For myself, I always think smarter than I sound.
P.P.S. This is the Prologue to Why Does the World Exist? I love it so I’m copying it here.
“A quick proof that there must be something rather than nothing, for modern people who lead busy lives.
Suppose there were nothing. Then there would be no laws; for laws, after all, are something. If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden. So if there were nothing, nothing would be forbidden. Thus nothing is self-forbidding.
Therefore, there must be something. QED.”
– Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?