Is Original Thinking Orthogonal to Cognitive Speed?

While locked in a hotel room in Delhi I had an interesting email exchange with Chris Yeh and another partner-in-crime who prefers to stay anonymous.

Chris posed the provocative question, “Is processing power / having things come easily detrimental to original thinking?” In other words, is original thinking orthogonal to cognitive speed?

Say there are four kinds of thinking as far as creativity is concerned:

  • Original and swift
  • Original and slow
  • Derivative and swift
  • Derivative and slow

The best is original and swift (but rare!) and worst is derivative and slow. Of the remaining two boxes, which is a higher form of intelligence? Chris tells me he thinks I’m original and slow while he is derivative and fast, and that original/slow is the higher form. I don’t know if I agree!

Our partner noted that in some technical disciplines thinking “fast” helps you think creatively. For example, if you can’t do calculus and algebra in your head really quickly, it will be hard to generate original thinking about physics, and therefore original/slow may not be a workable style. In school, too, derivative/fast gets you much farther than original/slow.

What kind of thinking is more valuable in everyday business? Would you rather be a really fast thinker who refines the inputs of others, or a slower thinker but one who thinks new thoughts? What kinds of professions value original/slow versus derivative/fast?

11 comments on “Is Original Thinking Orthogonal to Cognitive Speed?
  • This is good. I am always getting really impatient with people for being slow to make connections that I think are fairly obvious (not that I always show my impatience, of course). I also tend to get really offended when someone tells me something that I think is fairly obvious – usually they are just thinking it out loud for themselves, and I think they’re trying to explain something to me which I consider a no-brainer. My boyfriend has said to me several times that I just connect the dots faster than some other people (him included, in certain areas). And my thinking is pretty derivative, but I love absorbing other peoples’ good stuff.

  • Frankly I don’t think you can generalise…it varies between contexts.

    For Business – Derivative & Swift is significantly better because someone else have already made some mistakes which you get to avoid.

    For Creatives – Original & Slow ( because O & S would mean a shoddy job ) so that you get to refine the first rough cut and bring out a polished gem.

  • The four kinds of thinking makes sense to me. I think any business should embrace individuals with different creative flares.

    I’d want in my business, for example, an original but slow thinker handing off to a derivative but fast thinker to create a whole gamut of good ideas.

  • Ben,

    Much like personality type I would contend there isn’t a “right” type; it largely depends on one’s life purpose or professional pursuit.

    For example, a homicide detective is well served to be original and swift, whereas I would argue a cardiothorasic surgeon is better off derivative but swift.



  • I think fast thinking that seems original is often derivitive, just creatively so. It appears original because it follows the implications of the assumptions it’s derived from further than we see ourselves. We take it as original because it takes great creativity to see the connection.

    But the most difficult problems, those which produce the most original outcomes, arise in those situations where the assumptions are the problem. Contra Ben, physics may be the best example of the power, and ultimate supremacy, slowness as orthogonal to originality. Take the example of Einstein. Einstein was the proto-typical slow, but highly original thinker. Why do you think he spent those years in the Swiss patent office? He couldn’t proceed until he understood every assumption, inside and out, and its relationship to every other assumption, from beginning to end. It’s because he proceeded so slowly, and so thoroughly, that he ultimately recognized Newton’s faulty assumption (that time is a constant, instead of a function) first as an assumption, and then as faulty.

    If fast thinkers stopped to consider every outlandish idea (say the wacky notion that space and time can be warped by velocity, or that energy is a function of “unrelated” concepts like mass and the speed of light ), they wouldn’t be fast. They’d be slow. And if they were really brilliant, highly original, and maybe a bit lucky, they’d be Einstein. [Incidentally, this argument is entirely derivative; I just don’t remember the source.]

    It’s those outlandish ideas, dismissed by fast thinkers, that turn out to be right (or at least more right), that are the most rare and important breakthroughs.

    David Warsh’s new book, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations, tells a similar story. When Paul Romer became interested in the problem of increasing returns, he couldn’t proceed quickly. He had to go slowly, untangle the history of economics, and rebuild by clarifying, and then changing, assumptions Adam Smith made when he explained the invisible hand and specialization. It’s a classic case of slow thinking being a necessary condition for the highly original breakthrough.

    This is not to say that New Growth Theory is as original or revolutionary as relativity. Few ideas in history are. Nor is it to say that all original thought is slow. Fast thought can be highly original, in so far as fast thought originally pushes extant assumptions to their limits. Some disciplines are especially given to this mode of creativity. Given the solidity of mathematical proofs (which furnish our priors), most great math can be fast and original (hence the incredible success of young mathematicians).

    But mathematics also proves the general rule. The height of originality comes from overthrowing errant assumptions, and that’s inherently slow work. That’s because well-established assumptions are almost always mostly right. It takes a slow thinker to untangle the assumption and identify the lurking error. And then it takes great care to eliminate the error, and keep the “mostly right” part. The fast thinker will leap past the error to the mostly right conclusion. Take the discovery of non-Euclidian geometry. The breakthrough took most of the eighteenth century. And while several other mathematicians reached similar results at about the same time, the most progress was made by (Janos Bolyai, whose work on Euclid’s parallel postulate followed his father’s lifetime preoccupation with the problem. The discovery was literally the slow work of two generations.)

    So while speed isn’t orthogonal to most originality, it is almost always orthogonal to the rarest, and most valuable, form of originality. In the race between the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise doesn’t always finish**, or finish first, but when he does, he changes the world . . . and stands exalted in the history of thought.

    ** The rareness of the truly great breakthrough, the one predicated on slowness, probably suggests that there’s a higher return to speed, whether somewhat original or entirely derivative, than to slowness. At least the fast and the derivative have something to show for their time. The problems for the truly slow and original thinker are too rare, and too difficult, for many to succeed. Consequently, the slow and original thinkers might substantially improve their odds by working away . . . and playing the lottery.

  • It’s like trying to find one little error in computer code that’s crashing the entire program.

    That thought immediatly popped into my empty head after reading your comment, so it was a fast though, but was it dervative or original?

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