Many people have talked about this but I’d like to share my framing of it.
As we grow, our ideas change. The way we see the world shifts. We update our political inclinations, philosophical stances, personal values, and understanding of things.
Sometimes this is a sudden shift, precipitated by a profound experience or insight. But it usually happens more slowly than that. It can occur so slowly that it’s imperceptible – you only notice it after your worldview has already changed dramatically.
The point of documenting your ideas is to establish a reliable method of communication between the different versions of yourself as your views change. It’s to inspect the shifts in your ideas a little more closely, to see if you’re actually making progress and learning from the mistakes in your thinking, or if you’re just going in circles.
My thinking about many things has changed over time:
- I used to think anger is strictly bad, and now I think anger is neutral: it’s a signal generated by your brain that would be wise to listen to, but should be employed carefully and wisely.
- I used to think you should set long-term goals to get to where you want, but now I think it’s more important to focus on habits and short-term plans and doing what you enjoy today.
- I used to think self-coercion is a virtuous and effective way to live, and now I think it’s generally ineffective and irrational.
- I used to think that ‘knowledge’ was meaningless and we can never know anything, and now I’m convinced we can know things (and we can know more over time), though we can’t be certain of things.
- I used to think the most important force driving our civilization is our economic resources, but I’m increasingly convinced the most important force is our ideas and knowledge.
- I used to think morality was entirely subjective and arbitrary, but now I believe there is at least some objective element to it.
It’s great to change your ideas over time, but it’s even better to understand how they’ve changed and why your current view is better, more nuanced, more comprehensive, or more mature than your previous view. This is really only possible if you write.
Writing an essay on your thinking helps you capture a snapshot of your worldview at a particular moment. You capture the things you believe and the arguments that are most compelling to you. You open up your worldview to scrutiny by others and by your future self.
When you don’t do this, it becomes surprisingly hard to maintain access to your old self’s view of things, which makes it very easy to miss what exactly has changed and what you might have wrong now. In short: it makes it harder to learn.
Writing it all makes the evolution of your ideas a little less murky, a little more iterative. I’ve started doing this in the past year, but I wish I started doing it much earlier.
Some questions arise:
Do you have to write essays specifically, or is it sufficient to take notes as you read books and articles?
- I take lots of notes as I read and for a while I thought this was sufficient. What I’m realizing is that ongoing notes only capture the changes in your views in a piecemeal way. Over the course of taking notes you rarely try to structure and package all of your thinking into one digestible snapshot. This is the benefit of an essay.
Do you have to share your ideas, or can you just document them for yourself?
- The point of sharing your ideas is to explain them from the basics, for a mind that is not your own. Of course, it’s infeasible to try to capture everything you know from scratch; you just need to write for an audience whose general background knowledge is similar to yours. You want the essay to be comprehensive enough to be understandable by yourself five or ten years in the past and future. It’s possible to do this without sharing it with others but it’s quite hard. The subconscious expectation that other people will see your writing forces you to be more critical and precise.