Delusions of Grandeur May 2017

Background Thinking.

Last weekend I flew out to Vegas to meet my brother. During the trip I started reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book in The Expanse series by authors1 James S.A. Corey. I’ve made no secret of my love for the show, and I’m reading the books hoping for more detail about the broader universe.

One character, Josephus Miller, stands out as my favorite both in the show, and the books. For those who haven’t read the books or seen the show: Miller is a washed-up detective, divorced, and well past his prime. Certain parts of his character are cliche—e.g., he’s an alcoholic—but what fascinates me is how he thinks.

He’s a detective, so his brain is constantly mulling over a mystery. Corey describes his mind like a computer spawning background threads. He observes crime scenes, then puts that train of thought on the back burner while attempting to solve a crime.

The back burner.

I’ve noticed many people use this metaphor to mean “forgotten”. But the pot on a back burner continues to cook, you just aren’t paying attention to it. I’ve always used this phrase to mean “something I haven’t finished thinking about.” The thought is there, without bothering concentration on primary tasks, but some part of me keeps churning.

Hardly forgotten.

At times, I feel incredibly slow to pick up on things. I watch others catch on to ideas much faster. Other times I wonder if anyone else in the room will ever catch up. Past managers have labeled me an “intuitive thinker”, but that never felt right.

Anyone who knows me well, would confirm that I’m incredibly un-intuitive. Nor am I quick witted—a trait common to intuitive thinkers. Given enough time, however, I can out think anyone. I believe this due to my ability to effectively put thoughts on the back burner, and continue to think about them, until something clicks. I’m always thinking.

I rely on my sub-conscious brain to churn through what I observe, and process everything into a cohesive picture. The shower, the dinner table, and the car are most often the places where an idea will surface that pulls everything together for me. At times I’ll gaze into the distance. Other times, I need a monotonous task which requires only a little attention.

An early manager—who really understands engineers—used to tell me I was a “burst worker”. That is, I would sit on a problem, and think it completely through. Then I’d open a text editor and dash out a solution in an afternoon. The process was neither slower, or faster, than my fellow engineers. But unless you observed an entire cycle, I would either appear a procrastinator, or a 10x engineer.

I’ve always loved that manager2, because she taught me to stop feeling lazy when I was in the middle of a deep think. She helped me realize I couldn’t defy the laws of physics either, and solve a problem in hours.

Years later, I’ve refined my understanding. My system works best when I keep things in front of me, with enough time to cogitate. I’m not reactive. I’m methodical, and aggravatingly3 slow to reach a conclusion.

Back to Miller. His super-power isn’t the ability to put thoughts on the back burner. His real power is the ability to see patterns, and piece them into a cohesive picture from disconnected trains of thought. Like a great chess player, he sees the entire board. Understands that even the tiniest interaction is often a mask for something larger.

Unfortunately for Miller, he needs a big mystery. He’s lost without one. I often wonder if Miller’s untold fall-from-grace involve him manufacturing such a mystery.

The background thinker needs a huge problem. Without one large enough, they cannot spawn the desired volume of individual thought processes to digest. Like Miller, I over think the mundane in search of the grandiose. Greater satisfaction follows the increased cognitive load. The more back burners, the better.

Miller is an addict. I don’t believe you become an addict—you are, or you aren’t. Exposure to the right vice surfaces this condition. I believe Miller was addicted to mysteries before he became addicted to drugs.

Am I addicted to thinking? Probably not a discussion appropriate for a blog post. But I found it easy to associate with how Miller thinks…

  1. Not a typo. It’s a pen name for two different authors: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Abraham originally wrote the chapters in the head of the Miller’s character.

  2. She knows who she is… if she’s reading.

  3. I married the exact opposite. Oh, she is methodical, but—goddamn—she’s a much faster thinker.