If you had a child (or were one) in the 1990s, you probably watched Blue’s Clues. For a children’s show, it wasn’t too obnoxious. It even influenced my family’s lexicon. I still call my A6 notebook a “handy-dandy notebook.” Steve (pictured above) used his handy-dandy notebook to record the clues his dog, Blue, left for him. After he collected the three clues (there were always three), he would go to his thinking chair and reflect upon the clues in his notebook until he solved the riddle.
It was cute. It was formulaic. It was genius. Yes, you read right: genius.
Steve modeled for us how to approach complex problems (even if Blue didn’t give Steve very complex problems.) Steve collected relevant data and then took time to reflect upon it. From this time of reflection, he consistently gained insight into the problem.
Does it sound too simple? Read Deep Work and then let me know if you pick up much more than this. The problem is that we tend to do one or the other—data collection or reflection—but not both. We need both if we are to gain insight and solutions to complex problems.
We must have both a body of knowledge and reflection upon it in order to draw conclusions. This is the goal of “critical thinking”—the shibboleth of academia in recent decades. Too much critical thinking instruction misses the mark, however. It ignores the need for something to think critically about. We cannot be critical in a vacuum.
Just because I have been trained to “think critically” doesn’t mean I can figure anything out. I could still approach my car which won’t start and never diagnose or correct the problem, because I don’t know enough about how cars operate, about what can go wrong, and about how to fix them. It’s not a logic problem, it’s a knowledge problem.
On the other hand, I could study a subject for years but never gain any insight or make any application if I never reflect. If I never look for patterns, cause and effect relationships, changes over time, etc., I won’t arrive at insight into why things are the way they are or how to change them.
This idea of collection and reflection is the driving force behind my 4-week sermon prep model. I collect information and take time to reflect on it. There have been many times when insight for a particular sermon came in week three or four and if I had been following a typical week-long model, those insights would have been missed.
In my experience, it doesn’t work to just “think hard” on a subject. A cycle of dig-in followed by step-back tends to yield the best results. Scour for clues with a handy-dandy notebook close by and then—later—sit down in a thinking chair to review the notes. Plant the seeds, let them germinate, then look for fruit.
The dedicated thinking chair is not incidental to this approach. Having a distraction-free place to conduct reflection is crucial, especially if you are an introvert. Taking your notes out of the office to a place without interruption can really help. I have an undisclosed spot I retreat to over lunch at least once a week.
Collect, then reflect. Blues Clues. It can make you really smart.