Conversation and Ideas

Conversations about ideas should help you understand what you think. They need more tension than a regular conversation but not so much that you're afraid to share nascent thoughts. The best conversations make your ideas better and feel magical. The worst conversations make all thoughts blurry and leave you pessimistic. 

The people you regularly have these conversations with will have a long lasting effect on you. You'll keep simulating conversations with them in your head as you mull over ideas alone. These simulated conversations then become part of your internal monologue and shape how you think. Making bad conversations your default could permanently wreck your ability to have good ideas. That makes it important to know who the right people to talk about ideas with are.

I think the way to do this is by looking past the ideas someone has and figuring out their motivation to talk about them. For a good conversation about ideas both sides should share a single motive — finding the truth. I'd like to believe this is the only motive anyone has when discussing ideas but it's not the case. I have been guilty myself of believing my motive was finding the truth when I was really pulling myself in another direction.  There are a few such motives I've repeatedly come across. 

The first is one we have all felt — protecting our relationship with people we care about. This makes it hard to have a real conversation about ideas with family or close friends. Disagreeing with them might create conflict which risks the relationship. Just thinking about the trade off is enough to stop you fully engaging with the ideas. 

Another motive looks similar but is different — making the other person feel good. Some people care more about the experience of having a conversation with them than its content. An earnest example is a meek person who agrees with everyone so they’ll be liked. A more sinister example would be a sycophant. Continue along this line and you end at a politician. A skilled politician knows they have to disagree with something you say. Their skill is waiting for the right moment to counter with a truism and using their charisma to make it sound profound.

The opposite experience of being charmed by a politician is fighting with the chronic debater. Their motive is winning the argument at all costs. The reason might be the same as the politician, they care what you think about them, but their identity is wrapped up in seeming smart rather than being liked. Mostly though I think it's because they get a buzz from debating and are hooked on it. They win either by always speaking first and fast to keep you on the defensive or responding to your ideas by knocking them down instead of building on them. 

The motive I fear most is someone checking which tribe I belong to. Some people care only about figuring out if you believe the same things they do. The earnest reason for this is comfort. It's easier to be around people who think like you do. The more insidious reason is punishing you for not being in the right tribe. This is where you encounter the nastiest personalities, like the agents of Mao tricking teachers into revealing their beliefs so they could be fed to students.

It is hard to suss out someone's motives for discussing ideas without talking with them for a while. I think the best you can do to speed up the process is start paying more attention to the types of conversations you're having. Recognize when you're having a conversation about ideas and reflect on the motives of who you're having them with. To improve the quality of your idea conversations be picky about who you discuss ideas with. If you only want to talk about ideas and follow this rule strictly, your life will start fitting the shape of a reclusive genius. Ramanujan pretty much only talked about mathematics and had two conversation partners — Hardy and God. If you prefer a more regular shape of life but still care about having good ideas, adjust accordingly.

I appreciate Tatiane Souza Taggar, Garry Tan, Paul Buchheit, Kulveer Taggar, Aaron Iba and Paul Graham for helping me better understand my thoughts on this.