How I think

This was originally an essay I wrote for school, meant to be a self-portrait.

I cannot enjoy anything without creating something with it. I can’t read stories without writing stories; I can’t sing songs without making up songs; I can’t knit things without writing knitting patterns; I can’t study languages without constructing languages; I can’t learn history without creating imaginary histories for fantasy worlds. But for me, creativity is not limited to the realm of play. It is a central part of how I learn and how I think. Creating – languages, worlds, whatever it happens to be – helps me learn; the creating and the learning both feed into each other and improve each other.

For instance, perhaps I want to study some large, tricky historical question in depth. Maybe I want to explore the question of whether democracy is a good form of government. I would begin my study by looking for facts pertinent to this question – statistics and first-hand accounts that showed where and when democracy was successful or unsuccessful. But if I were being a true scholar, I would not just glance at the facts and come up with a simplistic analysis, such as “Democracy works well in America.” I would try to find all the small ways it has succeeded or failed, and more than that, the cases where one could see it either way. In other words, I would have to look for complexity, not shy away from it, in order to properly address the question. Creating things has helped me realize and appreciate the complexity of the real world, and has made me eager to search it out. For instance, when I construct languages, I do extensive research on how natural languages work so I can create realistic – but unique – structures in my own languages. I want to find all that complexity because I want to mirror it myself; I want to understand it so I can then play with it. And it is the same when I seek to answer a difficult question: I try to understand the facts so I can “play with them” – think them over, move them around, try different arrangements to find an explanation that fits them. Creating languages has given me both practice with this process and a delight in those details.

The next step in a study of something controversial would be to look for the varying opinions on the issue and how they consider it differently. But again, I could not fall back to simplistic analyses and decide that one faction’s opinion is all wrong and another’s is all right. Most likely, both have their strong and weak points. And I must suspend judgment for a time in order to fairly listen to their arguments, putting myself in their shoes and trying to perceive how they see the facts fit together. When I work on my imaginary world, I do much the same thing. I create a fanciful political issue, then imagine how different parties might respond to it. I try to think like the different segments of my imaginary populations, exploring how they could see the same issue in different lights. In this way, I can practice my ability to see what another person sees with imaginary issues that are generally not emotionally charged. Then, when I need to consider contentious questions, I am better prepared to calmly and fairly explore even offensive opinions. Again, creating has given me practice and an interest in how people can see things differently.

After this, I would judge the opinions I have seen, considering them critically now that I feel I understand how somebody could believe them. And once I have done that, I can draw a conclusion, picking and choosing among the opinions I have found to build an idea that most comfortably fits with the facts. I have found my imaginary world to be helpful for exploring the ramifications of various ideas and so coming closer to forming my opinion. For instance, I have created countries with all sorts of governments, including many different shades of democracy. Whenever I focus on one imaginary country to develop it more, I try to thoroughly investigate its government and determine what its strong and weak points would be. Then I imagine what the social consequences of these strengths and weaknesses would be. Naturally, I can never be completely right – only studying real countries will yield true results of what happens with different governmental systems. But the exercise of trying to find the positive and negative aspects of imaginary political systems has helped me to be able to better analyze real political systems, as well as ones in the real world that have so far only been proposed. So in this way my imaginary world has once more proven itself to be useful as a testing ground to explore ideas, this time critically.

Finally, once I have taken a position about a difficult question, I want to express it. Normally I will write an essay or a research paper explaining my thought process and the judgment I came to. But my imaginary world lets me additionally express my opinion in an artistic way, much like I could through a story. Even though I can’t easily show other people my imaginary worlds and let them see the ideas contained within them, it is still fulfilling to create something beautiful to myself with truth I believe I have discovered. These two forms of expression, then, academic and creative, complement each other well.

It is definitely the case that I could learn and analyze without creating in tandem. And I could also create imaginary worlds without learning and analyzing. But I find both much more rewarding and interesting when they interact. Learning often just involves ingesting facts, but when I create with what I have learned, I involve myself with it and so remember and enjoy it more. Similarly, creating worlds can be a process of pure fantasy, but when I integrate things I have learned from the real world, the final product is more believable and speaks more clearly as a work of art.

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