Draining Away our Best Ideas
Draining Away our Best Ideas
The quick dopamine hit of positive reinforcement from social media actually stops you from doing the harder work of writing, and sidesteps serious engagement on topics that matter.
Our best ideas take time to bloom. A problem, pain, challenge or budding idea will roll around in the subsconscious, poke its head up every now and then, then eventually, show itself fully. For me, ideas come out either (1) when I’m alone in an individual, quiet space - like hiking, cooking or practicing yoga. It’s then that my percolations turn to ruminations—and eventually transform into the rush of insight; Or, (2) when I'm out exploring and being confronted with new people, facts, ways of being or creating or seeing. At that moment, some lateral brain connection goes into overdrive – the “new thing” in some other domain often has some corollary that gives me an innovative perspective at a problem I'm wrestling with in another area.
Before social media, I used to carry a slim brown notebook and a .5 mm drawing pen, and take notes. At the end of a day or week I’d review my notebook, type up the things that had value, and toss the rest. But now that I’m carrying a my other limb (aka, my smart phone), I just lean back, and compose a long, sometimes poetic Facebook post—which instantly disappears into the ether.
Social media gives an almost immediate triple payback.
Social media gives an almost immediate triple payback. First is the actual joy of writing – of placing the right words in the right order on the page. That in and of itself is a huge delight. Next comes hitting “post” or “send,” and waiting for engagement to begin. Third is the dopamine rush as reactions, likes, questions and comments roll in.
Afterward, though, most of these ideas are lost in the social stream, never to be seen again. There is no context, no artifact or body of work to contain them. Moreover—and most importantly—they never get fully developed.
There will always be a dynamic tension between immediate expression and contemplation. I’m super busy, and sometimes I feel like hoarded ideas block energy flow – what am I waiting for? If an idea can help someone, can inspire someone, make someone laugh or make someone think, I should share it right away. Before I post, I do some internal checks: Is this idea helpful to share? Is it unique? Will it create some delight in the reader? Is it authentic - do I mean it? If the answer is yes, I usually go ahead.
What I'm coming to realize is that social media is good for things that are fundamentally social: giving public praise, sharing something of beauty, passing on other people’s work, getting support in a time of need, offering support in a time of need, posting opportunities, affirming other people, news commentary, promoting concepts or events. But the depth and shelf life of a tweet or FB post is much shorter than a fully realized print or even blog or article. Strong thoughts become trivialized. The writer loses, the reader loses, and society loses the coherent, deep thinking required to move big issues forward.
Strong thoughts become trivialized. The writer loses, and society loses the coherent, deep thinking required to move big issues forward.
There may be reasons one avoids doing the real work of writing, other than the addiction to the dopamine hit of the “triple reward.” For example, there are a lot of risks and pain points in deeply fleshing out a new idea. The longer pieces, ones that take time to research and write should be evergreen, and of good quality. While we can be quick and glib in a short-form, fast moving world—where the stakes aren’t high— the print-ready world demands the writing be much more disciplined, much more thought-through. As the stakes go up, the quality bar goes up- almost to the point of being out of reach. In the software development world, we say “Perfect is the enemy of done.” And in my writing and ideation it’s not just that; “Perfect” is an ever-escalating bar, a steadily receding target.
While we can be quick and glib in a short-form, fast moving world—where the stakes aren’t high— the print-ready world demands the writing be much more disciplined, much more thought-through.
This is coupled, of course, with fear of judgment; fear of seeming like an intellectual impostor or poser, and incurring the wrath of the online “hater” culture.
Finally, there is the legitimately hard work of critical thinking. I’m not talking about the elementary diligence of footnoting and citing and references- I’m talking about the real development and evaluation of ideas. This includes considering things from many angles— especially the opposite points of view.
What would it actually take to develop just one of the ten ideas we post to social media every week? What kind of a focused practice of thinking something through (as opposed to blabbing it out) would it take to make this shift? To hold and sit with things until they had not only poetry and inspiration, but import? What if we followed through on some of these ideas and didn’t just “birth them, and leaving them at the church door”. What if I reawakened a practice of critical and rigorous thinking?
By weaning ourselves from social media triple hits, we are also rethinking the way we honor ideas.