People are always telling me, “You think too much.” But no employer has ever said that to me.
I get paid to think—and as much as I think is necessary.
I’ve always been paid to think and to think very, very hard (as a feature writer, critical thinking lecturer, calculus and abstract algebra instructor, advertising “idea” man and copywriter, columnist, philosophy lecturer, satiric cartoonist, social science analyst, researcher, etc.).
Yet, when I share the fruits of some of that thinking or similar thinking with some people (fortunately not all!) in non-professional contexts, e.g., on a stroll with some friends, these fruits are sometimes and suddenly judged sour and utterly unpalatable.
I’m not told, “You think too much…. for me.” Not even or only “You think too much for us (and our relationship).” No, the implication is always that, no matter who else it is too much for, I am thinking too much for my own good—private, as well as social (again, however, never professionally too much). Think of this as the flip side of “Wow! You know a lot!”—now heard mostly only professionally and almost never socially.
The TMT Bomb
For some people, even something as simple as this—“You know, there is a huge difference between a boastful talk-show guest’s ‘sharing as self-serving public bragging’ and famine-driven ‘sharing (of scarce food) as private self-sacrifice’”—will detonate the TMT (Too Much Thinking!) Bomb, in a kind of mental-TNT explosion, especially among those who like to flatter themselves by thinking that posting their most flattering Facebook photos is somehow “sharing”.
Nonetheless, my own vanity, conceit and careful observation collude for me to conclude that in many, if not most cases, what I’m hearing (again, never on the job) when told that I “think too much” is really “you think too much for me”.
This suggests at least a serious lack of interest in what I’ve been thinking about (if not a lack of training, tools and/or aptitude for it) or an uneasiness with its implications for the listener, e.g., “The triumph of the nuclear family has led to cocooning and has endangered community feelings and important cross-generational communications and comfort”, said to someone who is cocooning in a nuclear family that never visits Grandma at the nursing home.
If it were purely a matter of lack of the tools for that kind or degree of thinking, it would also be very easy to dismiss the charge as a case of not merely fruit gone sour, but classic “sour grapes”.
Setting aside those who would, for personal reasons (such as unpreparedness, inadequacy or impatience), say, “You think too much”, to both Einstein and a 4-year-old who asks, “Why is the sky blue?” or “Where do babies come from?”, there may be circumstances in which such an allegation is spot on—including on the job. These shall be examined below.
Thinking about Thinking Too Much
Of course, if I or anyone else (on or off the job) is really “thinking too much”, upon being informed of that, we will naturally start thinking about whether we are thinking too much, from concern that perhaps we haven’t really thought through this thinking thing and the question of how much is more than enough, i.e., too much. Perhaps we simply haven’t thought enough about what constitutes too much thinking.
The backup plan to this is to turn the tables on the critics and to suggest to them that they are the ones who are thinking too much—about my or other thinkers’ thinking.
On the other hand, we can play it the opposite way: They are not thinking enough about my thinking or thinking in general, for if they had, they would never reach such a peculiar conclusion, namely, that I or someone else thinks too much or in fact ever could think too much.
After all, the history of thinking suggests that “too much” thinking is theoretically unattainable, given that thought, at its best, is endlessly dialectical—a back-and-forth waltz, either internally or with another mind, but in any case, eternally. Anyway, that’s what the history of philosophy suggests.
However, on the job (outside of philosophy departments), at some point thinking has to stop. That’s an essential requirement of any (other) job, since jobs mean doing, and doing means action.
Imagine, for example, a U.S. Congress that never took action, but instead endlessly debated, filibustered or otherwise obstructed opposing views and those who support them (Oops, maybe currently a bad example). As an alternative example, consider a brain surgeon or sales manager whose jobs require decisive action at some point. Or, consider me.
When It Really is TMT
Although I do a lot of thinking—way too much for my off-the-job critics, even when I don’t inflict my professional thinking (at least not to the full) on them, I get my jobs done. This point suggests a distinction among at least four forms of excessive on-the-job thinking that I scrupulously avoid:
Thinking that, in virtue of never ending, prevents completion of the job task
Thinking that, in virtue of being more than is actually required, prolongs completion of the task
Thinking that, in virtue of displacing more effective actions (as an opportunity cost), affects the efficiency or quality of the goal-directed efforts
Thinking that questions the job task and impedes its execution without suggesting an answer or practical alternative task that doesn’t itself involve more of the same kind or others kinds of TMT. (In the workplace, this is called “shifting the goal posts”.)
If I were to think about this some more, this list would almost certainly grow. But then, I don’t want to risk “thinking too much” here. Or is the risk really that of thinking too little?
If you suspect you are guilty of or if you have been suspected of TMT—on the job or off, review the previous forms of TMT and, in addition, ask yourself whether you are guilty of any of the following:
- Thinking so much that it impairs your thinking: Compare thinking to breathing. Yes, it is possible to breathe too much. It’s called “hyperventilating”. To restore normal and healthy breathing, slow down, without stopping entirely (for very long). Ditto for thinking. The challenge is in knowing when you are mentally hyperventilating. Perhaps your TMT-Bomb-lobbing friends can tell you. I’m sure they’d be all too glad to.
- Thinking in order to evade acting: Just think (for only a second) about endlessly dithering and reviewing the reasons for not jumping, while perched on a 10-meter high-dive board contemplating your first jump ever. The same problem arises in the office, if you think you need to ponder a resume much, much longer—too long, because the costs of making the wrong choice seem very steep.
- Thinking obsessively: “Why hasn’t she called me back? Why hasn’t she called me back? Why hasn’t she called me back?”—said of a soon-to-be-ex girlfriend or a recruiter. What makes it too much is that the content of the thought never changes. It’s like needlessly repeating a joke to the same audience.They got it the first time. Your brain gets your idea the first time too, and doesn’t need reminders that displace more constructive thoughts or actions.
- Thinking that alienates your audience, when you are sure you really don’t want to do that: This is probably the most common situation and one of the most difficult to navigate and negotiate, e.g., when someone you mutually otherwise find attractive or otherwise important is interested in everything about you but your mind (an instance of what should be a “no-brainer” decision to find someone else).
Alternatively, even if the thought is very brief and concise, it can alienate your audience and seem to be TMT, by injecting “paradigms” that they are resistant to because these are unfamiliar or otherwise are “unpleasant”.
For example, Sigmund Freud whose novel idea of an “unconscious mind” and disturbing idea of an “Oedipus complex” over-stretched and antagonized Victorian minds that must have unanimously agreed Freud was himself mentally ill—afflicted with TMT.
Don’t even try to suggest to TMT bomb-tossing idealist recruiter friends over drinks at pub happy-hour that there are “zero-sum game elements inseparable from and essential to recruiter and job candidate interactions”.
5. Thinking that carries an unacceptably high opportunity cost: When your prolonged thinking carries a disproportionate opportunity cost, i.e., one larger than the expected benefits of all that thinking, think again about stopping or switching to something else.
Example: Woody Allen over-thinking his sofa “moves” on Diane Keaton in “Play It Again, Sam”, instead of heeding the wise exhortation of phantom coach Humphrey Bogart: “Go ahead, kiss her!”
Like Woody, having thought so much about my thoughts and thinking, I think I have to think about one more thing.
Whether all this thinking was too much for you, for us, for my own good…
…or not enough.
Image: TO THINK, OR TO ACT – THAT IS THE QUESTION TO THINK ABOUT