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What are the qualities of great thinkers

This is in response to a challenge. I am not saying here I am a great thinker. On the contrary, because I wanted to learn how to improve in my decision making in all areas of life, I started a podcast. I've spoken to around 1300 great thinkers and I've been so impressed with them and also have found many things in common.

What are the qualities of great thinkers

    1. An enormous amount of knowledge

    Before having a "vision" of the future, whether it's a basic decision or an opinion about where things are going, many of these people (all of them) have an enormous ENORMOUS amount of knowledge about many many subjects.

    Most of it is through reading. Some of it is through experience. A lot of it is very directed reading, so they learn everything about a topic.

    But they also make sure they read about completely unrelated topics so the synthesis of the topics (idea sex) happens in their heads.

    When they get the knowledge through experience, it's still often backed up by reading, by mentors, by going through some hard time and persevering through them (although this is not a requirement).

    And in order to remember a lot of knowledge, you have to love what you are reading and have great curiosity about it.

    Part of having love for what you are reading means you aren't reading textbooks but are often reading very good writers. It also means reading and experiencing enough to figure out what things you love to learn about and you don't.

    2. A note on curiosity

    A lot of people say that great thinkers are often very curious. This is true but only to an extent. It's hard to be curious about everything. You can really only be most curious about the things you love.

    So, yes, a thirst to learn more (curiosity) but this is always hand--in-hand with being aware of the things you want to be curious about. And you get (sometimes) this by sampling from lots of different areas of life.

    Some people know right away, "I love math!" or "I love sports!" but, for me, it's always from reading a lot and trying lots of things that I learn what areas of life I love (at that particular moment) and then I will be curious to learn more.

    3. Not assuming what you learn is true.

    Great thinkers know that truth, other than in rare cases, is constantly changing. The whole point of science, for instance, is to constantly push the frontier of what we know is true.

    Forever, everyone though Newtonian physics was THE END of our understanding of the universe. Then came Einstein. Then came Quantum Mechanics, and so on.

    Everyone told Elon Musk you pretty much need the resources of a government to launch a rocket into space. Well, he didn't assume it was true and ended up doing it.

    The Wright Brothers were told they had to be able to keep a plane level at all times. This is what Samuel Langley was attempting up in DC with his $2mm grant from the government. But the Wright Brothers learned from how a child learns to ride a bicycle. They wobble and then steady themselves.

    Well, that's what their first plane did.

    4. Always looking at alternatives, even if they were told they were absurd.

    Perhaps it was absurd at first to image that the world orbited the Sun. Or it was absurd when Igor Semmelweiss concluded that the reason so many women were dying during childbirth at his hospital was because doctors did not wash their hands after leaving the morgue on their way to deliver children. This is the discovery of germ theory.

    He was ridiculed and now we all know he was right.

    Michael Burry was told he was absurd when he started shorting housing derivatives in 2007. Ultimately he made a lot of money.

    Richard Branson was absurd when he felt that he, a 27 year old magazine publisher, could start an airline.

    Nothing is off the table when playing around in your thoughts with what the future will look like.

    5. Being prolific

    Even one hit wonders create a lot of content. Perhaps when we think of Picasso we think of a few famous paintings that secured his fame. But the reality is he created over 50,000 works of art in his time.

    When I think of Isaac Asimov, I think of "The Foundation" series and the "I, Robot" series. About ten books in all. But he wrote over 560 books.

    When I think of Einstein, I think of e=mc squared. He wrote that in one paper. Altogether he wrote 272 published scientific papers and probably contributed to many more.

    I think I've had about a dozen or so viral or semi-viral articles out of about 5000+ that I've written.

    6. Having a community of great thinkers around you

    It's great to be able to talk about your ideas while you are building them.

    For one thing, your peers can tell you if you make any sense or not. If you can't explain something then you might not truly understand it.

    Also, your peers can contribute knowledge you don't have.

    It's amazing how many movements of art, thought, politics, science, etc all came from people who literally lived within blocks of each other.

    Jasper Johns, the great abstract expressionist, lived with Robert Rauschenberg, they lived near John Cage, the composer, and Merce Cunningham, the choreographer, and many others who changed the face of art.

    Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, all went to Columbia at the same time and hung out together before creating the beat literary movement.


    And, of course, all the developers of the semiconductor lived in Silicon Valley in the 50s and early 60s.

    7. Some charisma

    Tesla and Edison were clearly both great thinkers. But I think the reason Edison was so much more successful was he also understood business and the role of charisma and getting his ideas expressed.

    8. Not caring if people think they are wrong

    By definition, the moment that someone thinks of something completely knew, (i.e. "a great thought"), almost everyone else will disagree with them. Else that thought would've already been "thunk".

    9. "Good artists copy, Great artists steal"

    A quote supposedly by Picasso. This doesn't mean plagiarize. it means stand on the shoulders of giants. Blatantly take the work of others and improve on it or change it in some way that is meaningful.

    An odd example that is not usually put in this category is the iPhone. 99% of an iPhone is simply...a phone. But then taking the ideas of computing and putting Into a phone was innovative. Or...was it? Clearly he stole ideas from MP3 players, from the Blackberry, and from other devices that came long before the iPhone, including the Palm Pilot.

    And it doesn't stop there. Steve Jobs notoriously stole the idea of a windows-based machine from Xerox (and then Bill Gates stole from Steve Jobs). And Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, had to leave the board of Apple because Google was about to ripoff the iOS operating system with the Android operating system.

    Many of the great songs that you and I like are often simply covers of other songs.

    For 20 years one of my favorite rap songs was "Gangsta's Paradise" by Coolio. Little did I realize (and I don't care at all) that it was a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise".

    Did JK Rowling come up with "Harry Potter"?

    You tell me. Here's the cover of a comic book called "The Books of Magic" by Neil Gaiman that came out a few years earlier. It was about a boy who discovers he's a potentially great Wizard and has to go to Wizard school:


    10. Change

    Great thinkers usually aren't just great in one area of life (although sometimes they are) but can switch back and forth to many areas.

    Richard Branson has started over 300 companies in industries ranging from books, to music, to fashion, to space.

    Picasso has developed many new styles of art but was also a poet.

    When something isn't working or one is burnt out, it's often the best time to think of radical new ways to explore the things you love and this can result in what seems like great discoveries or thoughts in completely new areas.

    A great example is Walt Disney.

    Disney was in the movie business.

    Or was he?

    When Sleeping Beauty and other movies were getting critical acclaim but not making a profit, Disney was in danger of going bankrupt. And it was the middle of the Great Depression.

    So he changed.

    He took a basic watch, put an image of Mickey Mouse on it, and then in 1937 became the biggest watch seller in the world, selling over 1 million Mickey Mouse watches and putting Disney into profitability for the first time.


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