Where is your arsenal of ideas?

I recently came across two quotations that got me thinking about the gap between the moment an insight is created and the moment when that insight is needed.

In a public lecture, the historian Andrew Roberts mentioned how on the day (May 10, 1940) Winston Churchill was appointed prime minister, Hitler invaded Luxembourg, Belgium, and Holland, and Churchill wrote: “I felt as if I was walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour, and for this trial.” That’s not an uncommon sentiment—the idea that past is prologue and that learning in life builds to some significant challenge.

The second comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once wrote, “the years teach much the days never know.” This describes a sense of chronological proportionality, that some days are more important than others and that it takes time to spot the patterns and events which really matter. To capitalize on these lessons, though, presumably, one must undertake sustained study and self-reflection.

So, for argument’s sake, let’s imagine that both are onto something. We know we’ll all meet some terrible tiger someday, and the best way to capture it is with a trap we can only buy with diamonds we’ve collected over time. Or, put another way, maybe a simpler analogy is that we know we’ll encounter locked doors in life and the only way to ensure we can open them is if we’ve collected enough keys over time so at least one key fits.

Yes, I recognize how terrible these drawings are (is that a tiger or an alligator?), but I’m a writer not an illustrator.

So if we know that our lives will very likely meet with some trial in the future, and that it takes disciplined effort over time to collect and gain from the lessons that life presents us with each day—how do we do it?

I think we all need an arsenal of ideas. An actual stockpile of new concepts or old wisdoms that may not be terribly useful at the time but may well be necessary down the road in a crisis. In my experience the right idea is typically asynchronous with the problem at hand.

That’s why I write so many notes. I’m principally a paper person, so I prefer handwritten notes. But I recognize the utility of digitizing them, which is why I’ve blogged before (and am blogging again, here). That’s my method for building out my own arsenal. I’d imagine others are more digital and use some of the tools and apps that’re out there…though I’ve always been and remain skeptical about our ability to make sense of so much easily collected raw data.

I’ve so often relied on previous ideas as building blocks for new problems that I see the collection of ideas as a core daily function. Even incomplete blocks, like a half-built brick wall, can be repurposed to form an entirely new, useful structure.

The upshot: the time to make or acquire a candle isn’t when you’re in the dark. You have to fashion light beforehand, so it’s ready when needed.

Where is your arsenal of ideas?

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