THINK. Thinking is Hard Work

The history of IBM, the International Business Machine Corporation is as storied as any the world has seen. In recent times, Apple Computer had its iconic guru, Steve Jobs, to pave its pathway to fame and fortune. In earlier times, IBM’s Thomas J. Watson served much the same role in building his company into the tech giant it was to become. Watson coined the famous admonition, THINK – his way of spurring on the company’s workforce to bigger and brighter contributions. I recall as a youngster seeing his famous single-word motto displayed in such diverse places as banks, schools, and other institutions.

Photo: IBM Archives

IBM headquarters at Endicott, New York, 1935. Note the “THINK” motto emblazoned on the building. Pictured are 25 female college graduates, newly trained for three months as IBM system service women. Their role: after assignment to IBM branch offices, they assisted salesmen in assessing customer requirements and training customers on the use of IBM equipment. Their three male instructors are also pictured.

I find Watson’s admonition at once simple, yet profound. What does constitute the notion of “thinking,” and why is that a very non-trivial exercise? Critical thinking is important across all life-disciplines. I would venture, however, that science and engineering are more viable as gateways to understanding the process of critical thinking than most activities in which we humans are involved. Recall the oft-used phrase: “Its not exactly rocket science!”

My acquaintance with the subject derives from my educational and career background as an electrical engineer, here, in Silicon Valley, California. Anyone who has studied chemistry, physics, and mathematics at the college level can truly appreciate the notion of critical thinking. During my undergrad and graduate level years, I can recall, more than I care to admit, the long hours (even nights) spent on a concept or a homework problem that just would not submit to standard perusal.

Such incidents would call for sweeping aside the current method of attack in favor of a fresh new visualization of the problem. Often, this nasty situation occurred late at night while working under pressure to complete a homework assignment due the next day. The scenario just described demands what Thomas Watson so unabashedly promoted as his corporate motto: THINK. When persistence coupled with a fresh approach saved the day for me as a student, and later as working engineer, the joy of sudden insight and mastery of the issue at hand was sweet, indeed. That very joy and satisfaction serve to fuel the desire of science and engineering students to keep on studying and learning, despite the prospect of new and greater challenges ahead. One soon realizes that learning is primarily about harnessing the ability to think!

Thinking is hard, and most of us do not spend enough time doing it. At my advanced age and despite an active curiosity in earlier years, I still find myself formulating questions about all matter of things which I had never questioned before. Often my questions have to do with things financial. For instance: “Why is a rising stock price beneficial to the corporation involved since the corporation generally does not sell its stock directly to traders and investors? Ordinary folks outside the corporation who own shares as investors would seem to be the primary beneficiaries of such gains, and, yet, the mechanisms of corporate finance somehow bestow significant rewards to the corporation as well. How, exactly, does that work?” For a business major, that probably seems a naïve question, but, then again, how many business professionals have thought deeply about Einstein’s theory of special relativity? For us non-business types, it is quite easy to participate successfully as an investor in the complex equities market without really understanding what goes on “behind the curtain.” Ease of use leads to complacency, and complacency is ever the enemy of informative curiosity, it seems.

I worry about the younger generation, so many of whom seem to be satisfied with accumulating “factoids,” little isolated bits of information from the internet and social media. Thomas Watson understood that “to think” meant forming often non-obvious connections between seemingly isolated concepts and bits of information…and that is the hard part of thinking. The resulting “whole” of the picture which emerges by connecting the dots often proves the key to great scientific progress or profitable business opportunities.

Thinking was hard work even for history’s greatest minds. Isaac Newton stated the belief that his greatest personal asset was the ability to hold a particularly intractable problem clearly in his mind’s eye for days and weeks on-end while his conscious and sub-conscious mind churned toward a solution. Newton was clearly aware that such discipline and capability was not an attribute possessed by the rest of us. While attempting to apply his newly created laws of celestial mechanics to the complex motions of our own moon, Newton confessed to experiencing excruciating “headaches” over his difficulties with the moon’s motion. Thinking was hard, even for the greatest mind in recorded history! Certainly, the problems tackled by Newton were of a complexity far beyond our own everyday challenges. Albert Einstein attributed the essence of his genius to “merely” a combination of raging curiosity and the mule-like persistence which he brought to bear when uncovering nature’s most guarded secrets. Thinking and discovery were hard work for Einstein, as well.

The self-stated attributes of these two towering intellects have, as their common foundation, the willingness and the ability to THINK – to think long and hard about difficult problems and critical relationships in the physical world. I concur with Thomas J. Watson: although operating on a much lower plane than Newton and Einstein, we all need to THINK more deeply than ever about the world around us and about who we are. Consider the legacies left to us by Newton and Einstein – all the result of unbridled curiosity and the willingness to think deeply in search of answers to their own questions.