I’ve always struggled to write.
As a kid I wrote journals. It was fairly easy. I wrote about what was happening in my life and how I was dealing with them. Teenage stuff. In college, I wrote theses and research papers. They were fairly easy too. There was a predefined format I had to follow. All I had to do was list down my research, my process, and the outcome. Piece of cake.
Then I started writing opinions. My own. Original ones. It was when I started facing the real challenges. I struggled to structure my thoughts. I struggled to maintain the pace. I struggled to get rid of loopholes. I struggled to build a narrative. I often wandered off to other topics. It was impossible! I sporadically wrote and struggled for 2-3 years.
Often I didn’t have much to write. Because I didn’t have many thoughtful opinions in the first place. Everything I was thinking about was conventional. I just subscribed to one school of thought or the other. Nothing was original. I never challenged these ideas to see how strong they were.
I wasn’t writing because I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t thinking because I wasn’t reading, I wasn’t observing, I wasn’t questioning, I wasn’t learning.
To add to my tragedy, I had always struggled to read as well. Even though reading 30+ books a year comes fairly easy to me now, it was next to impossible only a couple of years back. I started doing serious reading from 2015.
By 2017 I had read close to 60 books. The books that blew me away were Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Suddenly I had all these unstructured information in my head I needed to organise so I could access them whenever required.
In mid-2017 I put my foot down and decided to write a piece week, no matter what! It was what I called, “selfish writing”. I decided to write only for myself, and as long as this exercise helped me structure my thoughts, I was good. If others like what I write, it would be bonus. My goal was (still is) to write down the ideas I was reading/thinking about—in my own words—so that it cemented them in my head. It was the Feynman technique in action.
Even after 2–3 years of practice, it’s a pain to write. I struggle with it every week. But I do enjoy the process. It’s very creative. It also helps me strengthen my thinking. That is very important for me.
I sincerely believe no matter which field you belong, few exercises help clarify your thoughts better than writing. Writing is the ultimate test of whether your thoughts make sense, or are merely unstructured and hazy feelings. Writing is the best way to question your notions and opinions in order to make them stronger. Writing is thinking on paper.
Putting your thoughts on paper forces you to look at them from a different perspective. Suddenly all the loopholes surface, and you come to realise how nonsensical, how baseless, or how irrational some ideas are. How you cannot come up with strong reasons to justify your opinion.
The smartest people I know are voracious readers. They don’t necessarily read to find new information. They are looking for new perspectives. Or a new way of thinking about something they are already familiar with. But even if you develop new perspectives by reading, all of them lie in limbo inside your head.
Writing them down brings them together, and suddenly you start to see how some of them fit together, while some don’t. You are suddenly faced with the challenge of bringing them together so that you don’t start contradicting yourself. You often meet dead ends when you start writing. There are moments of panic when you cannot piece something together. Then you have to start all over again. Writing is rewriting.
There are also moments when you realise you don’t completely understand the topic well. It is when you have to think some more, read some more, brainstorm some more. Sometimes, you get a new perspective. Often, what you set to write doesn’t seem to be true any more. What a bummer! It requires hard thinking to overcome these barriers. If you aren’t writing, you aren’t thinking.
Writing down your anxieties can help you tackle them better. Whatever is fuzzy and big in your head suddenly becomes compressed and clear on the paper. Writing freezes your thinking, and gives you a framework to sharpen it wherever it’s blunt.
On top of that, writing makes you persuasive. If you know how to structure your thoughts and opinions, build a narrative, work out the loopholes, rebut the counters, iron out the creases, you have an edge over others.
Grinding through this process brings together new ideas that are often new discoveries to the reader. More than often, they are likely to be new discoveries to the writer as well. Like life, writing is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. By the time the writing is complete—be it a book or an essay—it’s the writer who has learnt the most. If you aren’t writing, you aren’t learning.
Every day I struggle to put down ideas. Despite all the trouble, it’s worth it. Writing’s the best exercise for fulfilment, excitement, and clear thinking. If you aren’t writing, you don’t know what you are missing.
Howard Marks’ book The Most Important Thing is among the all-time best-selling investment books. It’s based on memos Marks began sending to his clients in 1990. Funny enough, the memos spent most of their existence in obscurity, ignored by readers. “Not only did nobody say they thought it was good; nobody said, ‘I got it,’” Marks recounted.
So why write in obscurity for a decade? “The answer I think is that I was writing for myself. Number one, it’s creative, I enjoy the writing process. Number two I thought that the topics were interesting and that I wanted to put them on paper. Number three, writing makes you tighten up your thinking,” Marks explained.
Many of the good thinkers you know aren’t much smarter than you. They’ve just forced themselves through the process of transferring vague feelings into words, and the clarity that generates.
To get off your feet, start off with some introspective questions: What’s your life philosophy? What’s your personal growth strategy? Why did you make that decision? How did you feel when that tactic didn’t work? What have you changed your opinion about? Why? You’ll be amazed how much you can learn by writing things down, even if no one but you reads them.