Don’t Think!

Electric guitar lying on a soundboard

Sometimes, not thinking is the best approach.

Don’t think? Really? It almost seems counterintuitive to what we’ve been taught when facing a challenging obstacle or situation that requires a creative solution. You’re supposed to think through the problem from every angle and attack it logically, aren’t you? But sometimes, that is exactly what you don’t want to do. Let’s take a look at how not thinking could very well be your best path to victory.

Before you stop thinking, you have to try to get into a particular frame of mind. Many of us, especially in the business and creative fields, try to get ourselves into that special place which I like to call the “zone.” It’s where your mind just does what it does and everything seems to flow effortlessly. This magic place, where some of our best work often comes from, is not always easy to get to. I’ve found that, more often than not, getting there requires you to stop thinking, either consciously or unconsciously.

In Tim S. Grover’s book Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable, he examines how some of the sports greats get into the zone. Grover, who trained such legends as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, knows a thing or two about achieving at a high level.

He notes that the zone is where there is “no fear, no intrusion and total concentration. You’re not thinking, because thinking turns your thoughts on to everything. The zone is about the opposite – turning your thoughts off to everything except the task at hand.”

Grover also notes that the late Kobe Bryant said, “you know you’re in the zone but you can’t think about it, because thinking is a distraction. Every movement has a purpose, and you know exactly what that purpose is.” Part of what you want to achieve by not thinking is letting yourself flow with that type of purpose and focus.

Recently, I was working in the studio with guitar legend Ace Frehley. He was trying to capture a part to one of his songs and it wasn’t coming out as he wanted. Sitting right next to him I said, “Ace stop thinking!” and started the music without telling him it was coming. His instincts kicked in and he got the part right away – without thinking. It was the perfect example of somebody shutting off the mind, letting go and relying on years of songwriting, performing and recording experience to push through it. He simply did what he does best: play guitar. And he nailed it.

Not thinking has also helped me countless times in my work composing television tracks. My approach is to do any thinking ahead of time before I start – getting it out of the way. I’ve already thought through what client or show I’m composing for, how I’m going to get there sonically and what I’m going to use to do it. I’ve also taken all the additional “thinking” variables out of the way up front, by knowing every aspect of my gear so well that it literally disappears. There is a direct path between my brain and the end result. At that point, I don’t have to think about it, it just happens.

While watching an MIT OpenCourseWare lecture from F-22 Raptor test pilot and combat veteran Randy Gordon, I was struck by something he said to the class: “Believe it or not, when you’re flying the Raptor (which is one of the world’s most advanced fighter jets), you’re not thinking about the Raptor. You’re thinking about employing the Raptor – as you’re trying to find where your wingmates are or where the bad guys are. Flying is secondary.” I like how he “employs” the Raptor to do what he wants with no thought. We can use that gold nugget to tell our brain to “employ” itself to accomplish what we need.

To get to that point where not thinking can yield positive results, it’s critical to know your craft inside and out. Be it music, sports, flying, creative design or anything else, the work put in ahead of time will pay off. Think about that 10,000-hour rule author Malcolm Gladwell has famously written about, the one that says if you practice one skill for 10,000 hours, you’ll have a better chance of becoming an expert at it. At that point, you know your skillset so well you can just let go when necessary. Even if you don’t have that many hours into it, you can still benefit by not always thinking too much.

So, the next time you’re stuck in a creative or business situation, take a second to tell your mind to stop thinking. Literally shut it off, take a deep breath, and let your instinctive components and talents take over. Trust yourself, get out of your own way and let it all go. The best results will flow from there.

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