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Nisheet Sinvhal

How to get an instinctive second-level thinking

Personality7 min read

Let's be real - we almost always spurt out the first thing that comes to our mind. We rarely can think deeper, quickly, about what is being said — giving a subpar response to the conversation at hand. Worse yet, if we are conversing in a professional environment, we come across as anything but smart; coming with an apt reply only later at night when we are trying to sleep.

I call this first-level thinking - where we spurt out what first comes to our mind. And it is very common. I have come across this problem many times, but instead of saying what I want to say out loud, I generally go silent and come across as dumbfounded. This blog post is about how I was able to alleviate this (for the most part), by actively kicking my brain into thinking deeper about the conversation and adding value to it rather than taking it swirling down.

Why do we get stuck in first-level thinking?

The basic answer to this is - our education system doesn't prepare us for this. Most of our exams are about memorisation. Some, like Mathematics, are about the application. But in both these cases, we aren't engaged in a conversation where our answer depends on what the other person has said, we generally know what could be asked and written. To prepare for second-level thinking, the best we can do is to take part in extra-curricular activities where we are engaged in team activities or competitions - you know, socialising.

But let me stop right here, you're probably not in school anymore (I think). You need a way to train second-level thinking now - in college, or as a working professional.

Understanding the biological reason

I'll explain most of this section by referencing the book "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahnman.

We have two kinds of "Systems" in our minds - "System 1" which is about fast and instinctive thoughts, and "System 2" which is about slower and more deliberate thoughts.

We generally employ "System 1" in our everyday lives because it is easier to do so - it consumes less energy. And as lazy as we all are, we want to do things that consume less energy. "System 2" on the other hand is much more uncomfortable to use, and even more uncomfortable during a conversation where new information is being fetched at a very high rate.

Most of the people that come across as smart and witty are just people who can deploy this "System 2" instantaneously - in any conversation.

Training second-level thinking

Okay, that last line was a bit misleading. If you think about it, most of the people who seem smart and witty, are always around your age or older. Rarely are they younger than you. And why's that? That's because they have faced the same questions many times before. They have pondered the questions already, and have an answer ready. So here is how you can gain the knowledge to answer such questions:

  1. Read, Read, Read! The more you read, the more variety of things you read, and the more information you have in your mind.
    • Reading books helps you actively imagine words helping you visually understand questions and answers better.
    • Reading articles help you with the different perspective of their respective authors. This is useful when your answer should change on basis of the audience.
  2. Watch, Watch, Watch! The internet is full of information, it comes in form of YouTube videos, or Udemy videos. Instead of watching channels that waste your time with BuzzFeed-like titles about humour or random crap (not to say that you shouldn't, just control the amount of it), follow some intellectual channels like Veritasium, Practical Engineering, EO, etc. which give you some real-world knowledge and advice.
  3. Write! I hadn't considered this for some time until I realised that writing makes you focus on what you want to say. Writing develops into a filter for your thoughts - allowing you to think about what is being said and say what you want to say.
    • This is probably the toughest of the three - since it requires a higher time investment, and comes across as most uncomfortable as a beginner.

Of course, a lot of this information goes atrophy, but some of it may lurk in your mind, answering questions you haven't heard of when the time is nigh. It is your job to convert this information into useful knowledge. And this can be done by -

  1. Re-live past events, from an unbiased third-person perspective, understanding what was being said and what you could've responded with. Don't ponder too much and go down a rabbit hole though!
  2. Before replying to anything, take a breath to tell yourself to think a bit more about what is being said. With time, as you do this more and more, it will become your skill to think deeper quickly.
  3. Sleep well - a healthy mental state of mind and high mental energy will make it easier to deploy your "System 2" at a moment's notice.
  4. Talk and Chat with more people - You have to practice this with people, to become better with time. Even the person you look up to for having witty answers started with having difficulty coming up with appropriate responses.

Some examples where I have used this second-level thinking

  1. Sports - I play football quite a lot, and when you're out of breath, you generally seem to have trouble using mental energy. Having played and watched the sport a couple of million times, it has become easy for me to deduce what is going wrong in the game and how to improve it.
  2. Video Games - Out of the very few (gamer) friends that I have, they all hate Elden Ring - since the frequent "Dying" is uncomfortable when they want to relax. On the other hand, I love this game. My argument to them was - the fact that you die in the game before even the tutorial tells that the game has "death" built into the game, embrace it. Unlike GTA where you are barely penalised for dying or getting caught by police.
  3. Work - Since there are many moving parts to a startup, it is difficult to know the state of anything at a given point in time, and the questions people ask can often have no head or tail. In a remote environment, I can delay my response and Google what I am trying to say. Since most of it will be technical, one can never be sure enough. And when I am in a meeting, I take a deep breath before responding, it always seems to clear my mind about what I am about to say.
  4. Personal - Most important. There are often situations wherein people are angry with me, and I am just like — What did I do? Having read the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and The Almanack of Naval Ravikant by Eric Jorgenson, I have learned that Anger is an emotion rarely directed at a person, it is usually directed towards a situation. And by understanding the situation, you can come out on top and alleviate the hostility.

The two major themes in the examples above are - being empathetic to be able to see things from other's perspectives and understanding emotions.

To conclude...

When I look back and compare myself to what I was right out of college, I feel a sense of pride - seeing how far I have come to becoming better at soft skills (and hard skills nonetheless). I have come a long way, and there is still a long way to go!

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