The Unknown

One time, film director Alfred Hitchcock was working on a problem he was having with a scene. There were a lot of things to consider—lighting, staging, pacing, and the like. He was up late with actor Hume Cronyn and his team struggling to find the right way to do it. Finally, when they seemed close to the solution, Hitchcock started telling jokes and got everyone off track again. Later, Cronyn asked him why he chose to do that when they were so close to solving the problem. Hitchcock paused before saying, “You were pushing. It never comes from pushing.”

When it comes to certain complex problems, we find ourselves continually caught in this loop of trying so hard that we stymie our own efforts. Many people will not tolerate a state of doubt, either because of the mental discomfort or because they regard it as evidence of inferiority. However, to be genuinely thoughtful, we must surrender to not knowing the solution and be willing to sustain and protract that state of doubt. The most important things show themselves slowly, and they do so in their own time.

A growing literature in the psychology of perception has come to support Hitchcock’s actions. When a difficulty stimulates the mind, simply relaxing and letting the answer “pop out” works much better than actively trying.

It is said Edward Gibbon conceived his magnus opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, while listening to a choir of monks at vespers. Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg was nagged by the problem of how nuclear reactions produce the heat of the sun—until it came to him one day unbidden  as he was driving. Allegedly, Archimedes discovered the law of specific gravity while taking a bath.

To quote author Wayne Muller, “Sometimes our greatest wisdom comes when we are not striving to discover anything at all.” Goethe said that we will always be making mistakes as long as we are striving after something.

When we let the problem alone, when we embrace the unknown and let the subconscious mind take over, then it has the space it needs to solve the problem itself. It’s only by having some distance from the problem that we can see it as a whole and understand what we should be doing with it.

Somehow, we have to combine relaxation with activity. Aldous Huxley puts it elegantly:

In all the activities of life, from the simplest physical activities to the highest intellectual and spiritual activities, our whole effort must be to get out of our own light… what has to be relaxed is the personal self, the self that tries too hard, that thinks it knows what is what, that uses language. This has to be relaxed in order that the multiple powers at work within the deeper and wider self may come through and function as they should. In all psychophysical skills we have this curious fact of the law of reversed effort: the harder we try, the worse we do the thing.

Whenever Albert Einstein was stuck on a problem, he would often take refuge in music, and that would usually resolve his difficulties. After playing, he would get up from his piano saying, “There, now I’ve got it!”

It is not well known but Einstein, one of history’s most celebrated  physicists, was a gifted musician. He attributed some of his greatest  scientific breakthroughs to his violin-playing breaks, rather than any  talent for absorbing absolute knowledge. 

“If I were not a physicist,” he once said, “I would be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music. I get most joy in life out of music.” Something in the music would guide his thoughts in new and creative directions.

“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought,” Einstein alleged. This allowed him to develop parts of his brain in new ways,  and discover connections that, even if obvious, seem to escape detection.

Einstein believed that there comes a point in everyone’s life where only  intuition can make the leap ahead, without ever knowing precisely how. “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” 

He admitted that the theory of relativity occurred to him by intuition, and that music was the driving force behind this intuition. “My new discovery is the result of musical perception,” he said. Einstein rarely left home without his beloved violin, Lina. 

My choice of play is poetry, which stimulates the right hemisphere of the brain, the same as music. I like to approach the world of global macro investing like a poet contemplating an epic in progress—conjuring up battles in our imagination, inventing and discarding subplots, balancing rhyme and reason.

When feeling totally lost about something, I disappear into the garden to read a few verses. Researchers have shown contemplating poetic imagery and the multiple layers of meanings in poems activate specific areas of the brain that help us peer into the unknown and interpret our everyday reality.

When I find a pattern or connect countless dots to form a particulate cloud of ideas, I come back and jot something down. Somehow, unrelated facts can all be then thematically organized into coherent theories. 

There are times when I feel certain I am right, without ever knowing the reason. As Einstein said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”