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Thinking is better than Knowing…

Thinking is better than Knowing…

For years those words from Goethe guided my teaching and challenged my students.

As a teaching guide it disciplined me to avoid defining the creative concepts I introduced to students. Instead I tried to surround these new ideas, providing multiple perspectives, and urged students to think about these concepts for themselves, to shape their own understanding of these creative ideas and entrepreneurial strategies, an understanding that was most useful to their purposes. It worked well for them.

And as a challenge for my students? Well, these were highly successful young men and women at a world class university who had worked their butts off for pretty much their entire lives in order to know so they could pass the next test, then the next, and they were exceedingly proud of the knowledge they mastered. They were advancing through life, they believed, based on the knowledge they have gained.

So to suggest what they know was of secondary importance led to spirited conversations about why thinking could possibly be better and we’d come up with some really good reasons:

Once we believe we know something, we tend to stop examining it and if we do, we’re pretty much trapped into seeing it as we knew it to be.

Everything is in flux; all is changing all the time and often unpredictably, which means what we believe we know is always changing. Thinking about something is active and keeps us current.

Thinking is a wonderful creative exercise—wonder leads to awe which leads to wisdom.

As mentioned above I credited Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for this quote. Goethe was a poet, playwright, philosopher and statesman who lived from 1754 until 1832. One can find multiple citations supporting the notion that he was the last man who mastered the collective wisdom of the world so I am inclined to respect him.

It was just last year I came across a more respected translation of what Goethe said. “Thinking is more interesting than knowing but not as interesting as looking.” When I saw this version of the quote I recalled the television ad that Google Nexus ran 4 or 5 years ago that always infuriated me—but in a useful creative way.  The ad begins with a young lady asking “Google, how much does the earth weigh?” and my response was to ask the next 25 people I met if they could come up with any reason they’d benefit in any way by knowing the earth’s weight, and no one offered one.

Then I asked them to imagine what a useful creative exercise it would be to spend some focused time thinking about how we would determine the weight of the earth, what assumptions one would make, what perspective one would take, what calculation strategy would make sense, and we all agreed that thinking about how we would weigh the earth was much more useful than knowing that answer.

Not always, of course. There are some immutable truths; the earth does orbit the sun. But once upon a time we knew that wasn’t so.


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