what "the top idea in your mind" means for choosing a career

Andrei Marks · July 23, 2010

Peach Triangle Dreaming on Paper

A few days ago I was directed to this essay, by Paul Graham. Here’s how he defines “the top idea in your mind”:

I realized recently that what one thinks about in the shower in the morning is more important than I'd thought. I knew it was a good time to have ideas. Now I'd go further: now I'd say it's hard to do a really good job on anything you don't think about in the shower. Everyone who's worked on difficult problems is probably familiar with the phenomenon of working hard to figure something out, failing, and then suddenly seeing the answer a bit later while doing something else. There's a kind of thinking you do without trying to. I'm increasingly convinced this type of thinking is not merely helpful in solving hard problems, but necessary. The tricky part is, you can only control it indirectly. I think most people have one top idea in their mind at any given time. That's the idea their thoughts will drift toward when they're allowed to drift freely. And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefit of that type of thinking, while others are starved of it. Which means it's a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind.

He goes on to describe how arguments and thinking about money (for him, fundraising for startups), were two such wrong ideas.

A Claim

This concept, and his description of it, resonated with me, and it helped me cement, just a little bit, that slippery notion of deciding what I want to do with my life. I’ve done that kind of shower-thinking. It’s the same sort of thinking that goes on as you’re lying there in bed, trying to get to sleep but there’s something turning over and over in your head. It’s the thinking that makes you turn off the radio or audiobook during your commute, so that it’s just you, the ideas, and the road. It’s the thinking that turns you inward as you walk from point A to point B, making you oblivious to the people passing by and to the scene that’s passing by you.  To me, it seems that this sort of thinking can have an obsessive and creative qualities.

So what does this have to do with choosing a career? Or knowing what to study? Or knowing what to do with your life?

Now, I’m going to make a claim: if the work that you do also happens to be the top idea in your mind when you’re in the shower, when you’re on the road, when when you’re lying in bed trying to get to sleep, then I think you’re many steps closer to fulfillment and self-actualization. Obviously, and as Graham notes in his essay, you have to be able to distinguish between good and bad ideas, but once you get past that, the results are powerful. This notion gave me the clearest picture yet of why I don’t want to practice law.

An Example

Here’s an example of one of the bad ideas I’ve obsessed over. Video games. Specifically, Eve Online. While it is a wonderfully, wonderfully complex game with a great community, it is the most incredible timesink (as many video games are) and I lost a lot of my life to it. There were stretches of my time (most of which, unfortunately, coincided with my 1L year) where I played so much and planned on what I’d do in-game that thoughts about it would dominate my shower-time, walk-time, bed-time thoughts. Humans are creatures that like to plan, and this game was often the liquid essence of that, with all the pesky real world benefits and effects stripped away.

So that’s a bad idea, and I’m glad I’m done with it. But you know what has never filled my free time mind? My law studies. I never wanted to be a lawyer, never had big dreams about being a protector of the innocent, making impassioned court speeches, suing people and raking in the cash. Later, I never had ambitions of working through complex business deals and defending my clients like a legal samurai. And now, in my free time I never spend any more time thinking about legal issues than I absolutely have to. That is not a good sign, not if I want to be an impassioned attorney, or even just one with proper work ethic.

But what did I spend two sleepless hours doing in bed last night? I was thinking about writing. Writing this blog, two research and writing projects that I am planning on putting together, putting on-line, gathering a community, and then publishing. Future projects beyond that. Creative things I can try out in photoshop. These are the sorts of things I obsess about in my free time, and I’ve always obsessed about in my free time. I’ve just been spending my life living in limbo between doing what I want, even if I don’t know where that will lead me, and stumbling half-heartedly along a more well-beaten path. No more!

In conclusion, I don’t think merely identifying the top idea in your mind will lead you down the ideal path. Maybe some people’s hobbies are what they obsess about, and there’s little chance they could make a fully satisfying career out of it. Maybe making your best top ideas the focus of your life is a pipe dream for a lot of people. Nevertheless,  I do think that if you absolutely never find yourself thinking about your current work with a your free time mind, you’re at a dead end.

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