In a world of endless signal and noise coming at us from all angles including TV, radio, the web, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, blog posts, email, text messages, Slack, and fill in another 50 different sources of stuff, we don’t have a measurement for the sentiment of the noise (and signal) and the toll it takes on our thinking.
If you pay attention to finance, you are familiar with the VIX, which is officially the implied volatility of S&P 500 index options. It’s unofficially known as the fear index and is a measure of the market’s expectation of stock market volatility over the next 30 days. For example, here’s the VIX for the past 12 months.
I don’t pay attention to the VIX on a daily basis as I don’t care about the stock market but I find it interesting in hindsight to see how it correlates to changes in the DJIA over a long period of time.
In February, I was pondering the tone of the noise – and the signal – that was coming my way. If I had a measure for it the fear in it, it tracked the VIX pretty well (a sharply increasing level with a peak some time in early March followed by a rapid decline back to normal). At the same time, the cognitive load from my daily life (work and personal) increased very significantly in Q1 due to a series of things good and bad.
I reached a point in March where I actually said out loud to someone “I can’t take on anything new – my cognitive load is maxed.” I literally couldn’t think about anything beyond what I was currently trying to process. While I’m still at a high load, I don’t feel anywhere near as maxed as I did at the end of March.
In the past 24 hours I’ve responded to a few emails that were particularly tone deaf to reality. The level of aggression in the noise seems unusually high these days. The random hostility from people I don’t know very well, but who feel like it’s an effective personal strategy to attack as a way to get attention, seems at an all time high. I presume some of this is from our current political cycle and the corresponding tone, but I could be coming from other dynamics as well.
Regardless of how zen one is, all of the noise, signal, interactions, and life activity creates a cognitive load. While I’m not sure a macro measure – like the VIX – is useful, I certainly feel like a personal one would be.
Last year Inc. Magazine invited me to write a quarterly article for them for both Inc. Magazine and Inc.com. I wrote three – this is my last one. I’ve enjoyed writing for Inc., but earlier this year decided to stop writing for other web sites, at least for a while, as it had become a burden with all the other writing that I’m doing. I thought it would be fun for my last article in Inc. to be self-referential, so I wrote this article about why I write. You can find it on Inc.com at The Best Way to Improve How You Think.
I set out to be an entrepreneur and then an investor. I became a writer almost by accident. Now, I can’t imagine not writing–it’s something I do daily. It’s how I problem solve. And it’s crucial to my continued learning and growth.
In the late 1980s, I started my first company, Feld Technologies, which wrote custom software for companies. This was back when personal computers were becoming popular in a business context. But they were complex. Computer salesmen hawked them speaking a language you didn’t understand, in a style that could have worked equally well on a used-car lot.
Our clients wanted to understand what they were buying. They didn’t care about RAM or CONFIG.SYS settings. So I started writing memos about how the computers and the software they were buying would solve their business problems.
I moved my writing online in the mid-1990s and eventually to my own blog, Feld Thoughts. I had become an angel investor using some of the money I’d made from the sale of Feld Technologies, and those experiences provided plenty of blog fodder. My partner Jason Mendelson and I even churned out a series on venture capital financing. This was during a time when venture funding was in the dumps, and the process was opaque. In about 30 posts, we demystified it. Finally, after almost 20 years of writing, the light bulb went on for me.
I write to think.
Forcing myself to sit down and work through these ideas in a logical sequence for an audience of readers required me to refine my thinking on how I invest in startups. How could I make the financing process more efficient? What’s the best way to structure a deal? I learned a lot, both from my writing and my readers’ responses.
As a result, my approach to VC deals changed after those posts. I simplified my deal terms. I stopped negotiating over nonsense. I had no patience for long arguments over things that didn’t matter.
My thoughts really began to crystallize when I started writing books. In 2010, I co-wrote Do More Faster: Techstars Lessons to Accelerate Your Startup, with Techstars CEO and co-founder David Cohen. During this process, David and I nailed down many of the startup strategies that had been rolling around in our heads. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Techstars’s growth accelerated, as did the growth of the companies we worked with, after publishing that book.
This is not to say that everyone should write books. But some form of regular writing is one of the best ways to give yourself time for reflection and analysis. It could be any kind of writing. Consider Jeff Bezos’s approach to meetings. Whoever runs the meeting writes a memo no longer than six pages about the issue at hand. Then, for the first 15 to 30 minutes of the meeting, the group reads it. The rest of the meeting is spent discussing it. No PowerPoint allowed. Brilliant. (I’ve long felt that PowerPoint is a terrible substitute for critical thinking.)
As helpful as I find writing daily to be, it doesn’t always come easily. I often go through long, dry stretches where my writing is uninspired. I stare at the screen, pecking out a few words hesitantly. This used to frustrate me, but now I realize it’s just part of the process. Part of the trick is figuring out your most productive writing conditions; for me, it’s early in the morning or late at night, preferably with Pink Floyd, electronic music, or classical piano blaring.
Many people might find a blank screen with its blinking cursor terrifying. Where do I even begin? you might ask. These days, I much prefer staring at that screen to standing up in front of a crowd. I think better, and I learn much more.
I am completely wiped out. It’s noon on Saturday in Colorado. I just had five days in a row of 18 hour days. I started the week in San Francisco and flew back home on Friday night from New York (with a red eye in between). It was awesome, but exhausting.
In addition to all the work, there was plenty of ambient emotion last week including some around mortality (Steve Jobs died and a close friend’s father died). In between everything, I spent a had a lot of meals with people I haven’t seen in a while, or whom I’m really close to. On top of that, there were hundreds of emails a day, plenty of telephone calls, and lots of random stuff to deal with. And plenty of running, coming off a weekend of back to back long runs (14 miles on Saturday, 16 miles on Sunday). And the Imperial March rang on my phone several times a day when Amy called, which always gave me a nice positive emotional charge.
I slept 12 hours last night. Amy made me a great breakfast and I’ve spent an hour catching up on unread emails from yesterday. But I’m just fried. And I’m going to crawl back into bed for a nap, go to a movie this afternoon, and then have a quiet dinner with Amy somewhere.
When I reflect on last week, I consciously spent very little time thinking deeply about anything. My runs were mostly mental garbage collection times, I slept on the airplanes, and I was in the moment the rest of the time dealing with the present. Sure, some of the discussions were longer term, strategic type things, but all the thought processes were surface level vs. deep discovery.
I’m working on a book called Entrepreneurial Communities. It’ll be done by the end of the year. I’ll likely self-publish this one as I don’t perceive any benefit to having a publisher now that I’ve done two books the traditional way. I also don’t want to introduce an additional six months into the writing to publishing cycle. I spent exactly zero time working on the book last week, although I had no expectation that I would.
But when I think about what I learned this week, and what I talked about, plenty of it pertained to the book. While I consciously spent very little time thinking about entrepreneurial communities, I unconsciously spent a lot of time thinking about it. And while my surface level discussions about longer term things didn’t impress me as deep thinking, by talking out loud about complicated issues I continued to modify the way I talk and think about them.
This is a style of mine. While I don’t “think out loud” like some do, I “refine my thought process” by talking about – and doing – things around the topics that I think deeply about. The development, creation, and sustaining of entrepreneurial communities is one of those topics that I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about lately, and anyone who knows what I spent my time on knows that many of the things I work on pertain directly to the activities around these, rather than just the thoughts around these.
By being insanely busy in areas that I think (and care) deeply about, I’m actually engaged in an “active deep thinking” rather than a passive deep thinking. It’s easy to end a week like the last one (which is a pretty typical week for me) with the reaction of “wow – that was intense and insane, but I didn’t really have any time to think about what I wanted to think about.” That’s wrong – I spent the entire week actively thinking, which makes my ability to deeply think about topics I care about even more powerful and effective.
I’m sure there is some philosophy, or psychology, about how a human links passive and active around the formation of thoughts, ideas, and theories. I’m not going to think deeply about that, especially since it’s meta in the context of this post, but I’m certain that the answer the my question that I posed in the title is a resounding yes when you combine active and passive thinking.