Remember long division? You have a big number and want to divide it by a small number. You draw a little house, put the big number in it, and the small number outside it. Then you start guessing. Roughly how many times will the small number go into the large number?
You’ll be wrong the first time but it doesn’t matter. You start refining. If your first guess is close, you can refine it in a few steps. If your first guess is way off, you’ll need to take more refining steps. Either way, the method works. In fact, it’s pretty much foolproof. Even fourth graders can do it.
I got this example from an elegant little book I’m reading called Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking by the philosopher, Daniel Dennett. The general idea is that thinkers, like blacksmiths, have to make their own tools. We’ve used some tools for millennia; others are of more recent vintage.
As long division illustrates, one tool is approximation. (Technically, it’s known as heuristics). In the real world, we don’t always have to be precise. We start with a guess and then refine it. The important thing is to make the guess. That’s the ante for getting into the game.
It’s surprising how often this works. In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, I realize that I make guesses all the time. Guessing is certainly a good management tool. In the hurly burly of commerce, it’s not always clear precisely what’s happening. It usually takes accountants four to six weeks to figure out precisely what happened in a given quarter. In the meantime, it’s useful for day-to-day managers to make educated guesses. Learning to make such guesses is a critical skill.
I realized that I also apply this to my writing. I sometimes get writer’s block. I know the argument I want to make but I don’t know how to frame it. I can’t get started. When that happens, I make an effort to just write something, even if it’s sloppy and poorly phrased. Once I have something written down, I can then shift gears. I’m no longer writing; I’m editing. Somehow, that seems much easier.
As you think about thinking, think about guessing. In many cases, you’re more likely to get to a clear thought through approximation than through a brilliant flash of insight.