Brain Pickings

Einstein, Anne Lamott, and Steve Jobs on Intuition vs. Rationality

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What the libraries of yore have to do with today’s information economy and the heart’s will.

In putting together this recent reading list of nine essential books on reading and writing — a master-toolkit for a worthy New Year’s resolution to read more and write better — I found myself rereading Anne Lamott‘s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, one of my all-time favorite books.

A particular passage from it has stayed with me over the years, and reemerges by some uncanny, invisible mechanism at critical times of my life, as if to remind me where the truth lies:

You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. The rational mind doesn’t nourish you. You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.

A similar sentiment comes from one of history’s most celebrated heroes of science, the alleged pinnacle of rationality — Albert Einstein:

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

Steve Jobs reflects in Walter Isaacson’s much-discussed biography of him, one of the best biographies and memoirs of 2011:

The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and the intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world… Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.

Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic, it is learned and it is the great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else, which is in some ways just as valuable but in other ways is not. That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom.

In the olden days, librarians were expected to use intuition to categorize books. When did we lose this value system in how we think about the categorization — curation, systematization, organization — of today’s information sphere and, perhaps more importantly, of the heart’s sphere?

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