The act of clear thinking is a never-ending lesson where “you’re aiming at a process, the result of which will always be an act of communication, complete with all the imperfections and contingencies this implies,” writes Tom Chatfield, author of “How To Think.” Chatfield discusses why clarity requires knowing what you’re claiming, determining whether a reasonable person would believe your claim and assessing whether your thoughts and actions are in alignment.
Sometimes, when I’m grappling with a tricky topic, I pretend that I need to explain it to a child. For example, here is my attempt at explaining the purpose of this Guide to a notional nine-year-old:
I want to help people work out what they really think and mean, and then to share the results with other people. This is surprisingly hard. It’s easy to talk about what you want and like. But it can be really difficult to work out why you want or like particular things – and why other people should pay attention. I’m going to set out a three-part process that can help with this.
As the parent of two young children, I often get to skip the pretending part of this exercise. But I’d recommend giving it a try, no matter what your domestic situation. It can be both challenging and powerful to talk someone else through an idea, step by step, in terms that take as little as possible for granted. Often, it’s only when I try to explain something in this way that I discover that I don’t fully understand it myself.
As it happens, there’s a subreddit devoted to precisely this principle. It’s called ‘Explain Like I’m Five’, and features tens of thousands of attempts at explaining complex ideas as simply as possible. Question: how can archaeologists translate ancient scriptures or languages? Answer: ‘It’s basically a giant jigsaw puzzle.’ Q: how do conferencing programmes such as Zoom handle so many different screens? A:
‘Everyone has one connection to Zoom’s central servers.’ Q: if carbs are sugar, why can’t we just eat sugar? A: ‘It would be a bit like replacing the firewood in your fire pit with a tub of gasoline …’ And so on.