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Cultivating “High Conceptual Thinkers”

The Eide Neurolearning Blog run by Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide, has long been one of my favorite blogs, probably the top non-.mil related, SME blog among my regular reads. Here’s an example of why:

Gifted Big Picture / High Conceptual Thinkers

 High Conceptual Thinkers are often…- Omnivorous Learners: The world may be their oyster. Because of their quest for the “interesting”, they may love the Internet, read entire encyclopedias, or incessantly question adults about the real world, and so learn a little bit about everything. They may not hit ceiling scores on the conceptual knowledge IQ subtests because their omnivorous approach to figuring out the world around them.- New is the Thing: HCTs prefer novelty (this is how they develop new conceptual categories) and are tickled by unconventional viewpoints or discoveries. – Big Picture, Not Little Details: HCTs don’t always transition well to the “precision years” of late elementary, middle school, or beyond.

– Boredom is Death: Although using the ‘b’ word is notoriously a “no-no” word when talking to teachers, these kids rebel against what they see as boredom. Boredom may really seem like death to young HCTs. If young HCTs seem “driven by a motor”, it’s intellectual restlessness and it can be a blessing as well as a burden.

Not surprisingly, these kids often find classroom learning unsatisfying. After all, much of early education is focused on mastering basic skills or established facts, this is not what these kids are about. They’d rather be finding new worlds to conquer.

Although these kids are challenging to teach and parent, they are also a delight, and Dan Pink and others have suggested that the Conceptual Age is upon us and this pattern of thinking should be what we should be encouraging.

“High conceptual thinkers” – those with an insatiable intellectual curiosity, who see meta-level patterns and excel at constructing paradigms, extrapolation, synthesis and consilience are probably not a large percentage of the population and, most likely, they include eccentrics and cranks as well as highly accomplished individuals like E.O. Wilson, Buckminster Fuller, Freeman Dyson, Nikola Tesla, Richard Feynman and probably figures like Thomas JeffersonTheodore Roosevelt, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Winston Churchill, Robert Hooke, Da Vinci and numerous others.

There seems to be some congruency between HCTs and the category of people known as polymaths, which raises the question of whether HCT are born or can be encouraged to develop such a cognitive profile from education and life experience. The Eides offered a list of techniques for teaching children recognized as HCTs, but to my mind, these would also benefit a fairly broad section of students:

Teaching Big Picture / High Conceptual Thinkers

– Sky’s the Limit: If an idea or a lesson would be interesting to a wonky tech-y post-college 20-something, then it’s fine for the HCT. If a story or thing could be written about in Wired, Fast Company, or Mental Floss, then you’re probably on the right track. Sky should be the limit. Even some generally excellent gifted programs we’ve seen may grossly underestimate an HCT’s ability to think about advanced concepts. Also because HCTs develop their ideas through pattern recognition, they may want to see many examples and permutations, and complex presentations in order to help organize their ideas into simpler concepts.

– Play with Ideas: Conceptual thinkers like and need to play with ideas. Play expands ideas, creating a new opening for associations. Play means not micromanaging learning experiences – allowing some dabbling, and taking away some of the “high stakes every time” routine (e.g. not everything should be graded).

– Argue with Ideas We think many educational curricula wait way to long before they allow young HCTs to consider different viewpoints, learn how to frame arguments or actually debate, but this is often what HCTs love. If they don’t get it at school, make sure they get it home…maybe at the dinner table? Half of the 400 eminent men and women profiled in the Goertzels’ Cradles of Eminence came from “opinionated” families: “It is these homes that produce most of the scientists, humanitarians, and reformers.”

Compare these recommendations with the advice offered by nanotechnologist Dr. Eric Drexler of Metamodern:

Studying to learn about everything

To intellectually ambitious students I recommend investing a lot of time in a mode of study that may feel wrong. An implicit lesson of classroom education is that successful study leads to good test scores, but this pattern of study is radically different. It cultivates understanding of a kind that won’t help pass tests – the classroom kind, that is.

  1. Read and skim journals and textbooks that (at the moment) you only half understand. Include Science and Nature.
  2. Don’t halt, dig a hole, and study a particular subject as if you had to pass a test on it.
  3. Don’t avoid a subject because it seems beyond you – instead, read other half-understandable journals and textbooks to absorb more vocabulary, perspective, and context, then circle back.
  4. Notice that concepts make more sense when you revisit a topic.
  5. Notice which topics link in all directions, and provide keys to many others. Consider taking a class.
  6. Continue until almost everything you encounter in Science and Nature makes sense as a contribution to a field you know something about.

Intellectual curiosity would seem to be the axis that would make these approaches work effectively, and possibly, that’s what these techniques stimulate.

21 Responses to “Cultivating “High Conceptual Thinkers””

  1. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Reminds me of two things.

    First, Auden’s essay on "The Poet" in his collection of essays, The Dyer’s Hand,  in which he describes the budding poet as being someone who not only will frustrate (and be frustrated in) the typical educational system, but whose primary method of learning is collecting from multiple sources according to his own "inner critic."  This inner critic collects on the basis of what pleases him personally, for whatever reasons — it is a kind of intuitional recognization of importance even if the young poet does not always know why/how he is recognizing it.  All this data sits in a kind of personal and idiosyncratic library, within his mind, not organized according to normal modes but according to personalized systems.  Items from different eras, from different genres, etc., may sit side-by-side and form a kind of Mad Hatter tea party for the poet to pick and choose from when he writes.
    Second is something Emerson said, about some geniuses who spend an entire life focused upon something particularly unique — a kind of obsession.  This may seem counter to what you have described, but I suspect it may actually be complementary; the wide ranging reading/viewing/learning may be a response to some internal focus which can’t quite be kept in more structured learning environments.  Such a focus would help the student  develop some framework for absorbing what he sees in multiple places:  scanning the varied sources becomes an effort to give greater shape to the overriding obsesssion.

  2. Lexington Green Says:

    How do you work it so the HCTs are able to eventually get a job? 

    Also, there is an element of self-congratulation here.  People who read this blog, including me, like the idea that we are very special people, we are … HCTs! 

    But isn’t an HCT, from the perspective of a potential employer "someone who cannot focus" or "someone who is always distracted" — maybe even "a ditz"? 

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Curtis,
    The public ed. system, like all mass systems, are designed for the mean and not for outliers. A good Montessori school can do what you describe – permit the wide-ranging exp0loration while still keeping the students anchored to a core of disciplinary skills.
    Hi Lex,
    Who doesn’t like a little self-congratulation? 😉
    What happens with these ppl, based on almost two decades of watching students, is two-fold. In the first instance, they acquire the self-discipline to drill down as they mature and they become some kind of SME – maybe a scientist, a linguist, a professional academic, attorney, a concert pianist – some field that requires grasping a complex set of skills and a knowledge base and their other interests become serious hobbies or second careers at some point. The second group never internalizes or rejects that kind of focus and instead opts for bohemian underacheivement and intellectual meandering as a lifestyle, puttering at unchallenging  jobs that are sufficient to cover the bills (or not) while amusing themselves with their pastimes and personal projects. Cabbie philosophers, garage DIY inventors, walking encyclopedias who are 40-something, small-town, hardware store assistant managers and so on. Jobs they can do on "autopilot". I suspect many of them have problems with depression or drugs/alcohol/anti-social personality issues that are partially responsible for their lack of tangible career success

  4. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Zen, it seems you are defining your two groups on the basis of whether they opt in or opt out of the prevailing (and somewhat state-centric)  modern conceptualization of "success."  If you look back a little farther, you will find many more examples of productive-if-not-wired-in individuals who were HCT’s.  True, many of those may have ended life destitute; but this does not mean they were drifting underachievers.

  5. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Although on second thought — and since you are not conceptually designing an educational system for the benefit of those long dead — we could make a comparison between then and now:  then, the institutional structures available to present-day HCTs simply did not exist, so they had to create their own paths.  Would you say that present-day HCTs who recognize the advantages of modern institutions and social technologies may gain greatly from those (in their wide-ranging pursuit) and be called "successes" whereas HCTs who opt out of the public/civil infrastructure are the poor, depressed, addicted failures?

  6. zen Says:

    Hi Curtis,
    "Zen, it seems you are defining your two groups on the basis of whether they opt in or opt out of the prevailing (and somewhat state-centric)  modern conceptualization of "success."  "
    Indeed. Though I meant the second type less judgmentally than perhaps it came across; my goal in the comment was a good, colorful, description of a social archetype that would be easily recognizable to most ppl and that choice comes embedded with our society’s cultural overtones.
    To give the opt-outing Type II HCTs a more positive connotation, I think the description fits Socrates, who rejected a political career or even payment for his teachings had he elected to have been the ancient Athenian equivalent of a celebrity academic. Socrates could have easily have been a wealthy and politically powerful man but he opted to go his own way instead and live his philosophy, not merely teach it.

    “Would you say that present-day HCTs who recognize the advantages of modern institutions and social technologies may gain greatly from those (in their wide-ranging pursuit) and be called “successes” whereas HCTs who opt out of the public/civil infrastructure are the poor, depressed, addicted failures”.
    I would say that *some* of the HCTs are prevented from becoming a mainstream success not by choice but because they are also wrestling with depression, drug addiction, alcohol abuse and other problems. Some deliberately choose intellectual bohemianism without having such problems. The smartest man I have ever personally met, in raw IQ power, a genuine high-level polymath, is one of these ppl. He has rejected numerous opportunities and offers for what most would consider to be stellar success, preferring to live modestly and pursue his interests in obscurity

  7. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    The first that had come to my mind was Walt Whitman, who had jobs to make ends meet and died destitute, but could not be considered a failure (imo).

    Given the modern infrastructure and society, even those who would opt out would likely be "discovered" or have whatever solitary productions they produce co-opted, and probably would be unable to resist the temptation.  (Probably wouldn’t want to resist it anyway.)

    I’m referring to the productive solitary HCTs.  No doubt there are many like those you have already described.  I wonder though how many ascetics, fanatics, and Unibombers are HCTs.

  8. phil Says:

    This discussion reminds me of something I read recently in a review essay of a book on Arthur Koestler: "The professionalization of literary and intellectual life was underway even in Koestler’s lifetime, and he chafed against it. He disliked the lecture circuit and never had any real interest in teaching. He had very little time for universities in general. He also refused to be categorized as a simple "novelist" or "journalist," and in the latter part of his career wrote books about science, philosophy, history, and psychology. He understood the term "intellectual" in a much broader sense than we do today, and felt comfortable ranging over a huge number of fields in which he had no professional expertise whatsoever. This approach to the life of the mind, perfectly acceptable in the Vienna of Koestler’s youth, simply looks amateurish from the perspective of the present." http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23591 I suspect that intellectual culture prior to professionalization, specialization and the rise of the "expert," was more open to high conceptual thinkers, perhaps even privileged their mode of thinking. That transition took place during the course of Koestler’s life and it looks like maybe he found himself out of place in the changed environment. It would be interesting to look at the "Vienna of Koestler’s youth" for insight into fostering a culture that valued high conceptual thinking. Which I think would be a useful project as a way to counterbalance the cult of the expert.

  9. zen Says:

    Hi phil.
    Astute observation. Nice.
    Lexington Green has written about the period in Vienna of "Koestler’s youth" that you describe, vaguely congruent with Russia’s "Silver Age" and France’s "Fin-de-Siecle" period. Vienna was the center of a vibrant cultural and intellectual ferment of dying empire, Pan-Germanism, socialism, liberalism, Euro-globalization; a climate that produced Freudian psychology and Austrian economics – but also violent rejectionists among Marxists as well as Hitler himself, who failed utterly in that peaceful, cosmopolitan, dynamic but genteel, bourgeois society.
    Agree with you. It is highly unfortunate that most of society today sees being an "expert" as an end-state rather than a dynamic process or an intellectual starting point.

  10. Larry Dunbar Says:

    I think I caught a case of HCT after going through a 2-year course in mechanical engineering. Although I may have had a prevailing condition that laid undetected, it was after taking several 5-credit courses in Statics, Physics, Fluid Mechanics and other vector inducing courses that I feel I acquired the disease. I started at the bottom of the classes, but when we reached inertia in our Statics class, I was pretty much at the top, even ahead of the linear geniuses who were the Russians. The concept of Inch to the fourth power seemed to leave me in a group by myself.

    I call it a disease, because it left me with a feeling that I couldn’t turn my brain off, at nights or other time when it is convenient to do so. This left me with visions of electrons dancing through my head, when I assume others would not be thinking of how to conceptualize particle waves.

    When Lex once called me, "not right in the head," I wasn’t entirely in disagreement with him.

  11. Marilou Says:

    Hi all, I would like to respond to the messages of Curtis, Zen and Phil. I myself am an "academic-philosopher-in-training". I actually feel torn in academia, because academic writing and research requires a certain limitation of free-range or creative thinking (perhaps focus is a better word; limitation and focus are not the same though). Because I have the tendency to think conceptually, I really suffer from the lack of "play" or creative thinking in academia. As a result, I have become quite insecure about my own research and my choice of interests, because I am not doing things the way the "should" be done. I want to break free, create new ideas based on interdisciplinary readings etc. I myself have great difficulty with focus, I have a love for philosophy, sociology, poetry, history and cultural criticism, and therefore I am an expert in "nothing" :-). I have actually struggled deeply  with what Zen and Curtis discussed: (sorry about the shift in lettertype) Having the choice to opt out and do your own thing in society, or adapting to the system.  I live in Europe, but it is really sad to see that bohemian intellectualism is kind of dead here. I guess that the best way to deal with HCT is to adapt to the system, but to remain independent enough to develop work independently of any institution. Personally, I am terrified of intellectual underachievement, and hence I seek guidance and stability in academia.  Yet, I only think that the HCT will get recognition when he/she has already developed a certain level of mainstream success. Anyway…thanks so much Zen for these postings. 

  12. Fernette Eide Says:

    Wow, great discussion Zen, thanks for letting us know. Hadn’t seen Drexler’s advice before, but certainly seems reasonable. From our time in the lab, it seem quite easier to learn more and more about less and less.What’s a good use for an HCT? – pundit or blogger is not a bad idea. Brock told me the complaint at U Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought was always – what can you do with a degree like that? But the answer is almost anything…they didn’t seem to hurting for positions after they got their degrees. Brock recalled about half went into academia, while the other half went to Wall street as analysts of various sorts.Good HCTs are often among the best career-switchers…because they aren’t as tied down to specifics – it’s the ideas that are the driving force.Before we get carried away with self-praise, the Unabomber is a good reminder. An idealogue is an ideas guy or gal too…But what originally prompted this post was seeing a few kids in a row who were really conceptual thinkers. And we’re not sure anyone had spotted this – even the parents. Wish our field was as equally devoted to talent identification as problem labeling.

  13. zen Says:

    Hi Marilou,
    " Because I have the tendency to think conceptually, I really suffer from the lack of "play" or creative thinking in academia. As a result, I have become quite insecure about my own research and my choice of interests, because I am not doing things the way the "should" be done"
    I was too theoretical for History and too historical for Political Science 🙂 If you want an academic career with a tenure track position, you will have to bow to the conventions of your field’s received culture – at least until you are tenured. The you can write what you want and tell the higher-ups to jump in the lake. If not, then don’t hold back, create your niche using multiple platforms and become a go-to person on whatever passion drives you.
    Hi Dr. Fernette,
    Welcome to you as well.
    "But what originally prompted this post was seeing a few kids in a row who were really conceptual thinkers. And we’re not sure anyone had spotted this – even the parents. Wish our field was as equally devoted to talent identification as problem labeling."
    Agreed. The mindset of education is heavily tilted toward the analytic/negative/deficits/limitations/remediation/constraints/hierarchy/obedience/conformity. I’m sure you have read the Myers-Briggs survey results of ppl in the field – we need more intellectual-tempermental diversity in educational decision making. The concrete-bound, linear/literal excessively dominate the process.
    As for Ted Kaczynski, he points to a dangerous flip side to HCTs. Someone with those abilities who becomes socially isolated and alienated have the potential to become an angry superempowered individual with enough perception to leverage the system to create widespread damage.

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  15. Rachel Says:

    "Jack of all trades, master of none."I would dare hypothesize that most HCTs are actually ambidextrous creatures who utilize both hemispheres of the mind.  This would account for their free wheeling ability to swing between society’s concrete left brain or right brain thinking paradigm.  The pervasive cultural emphasis to separate the mind develops into the choice:  Conform or Hide.  It’s no wonder HCTs are harmed economically and academically.so what say you – where are the career examples, which require these cross thinkers?  

  16. zen Says:

    Hi Rachel,
    "where are the career examples, which require these cross thinkers? "
    Cross-disciplinary scientific research
    Intelligence analyst
    Design oriented positions in technical or engineering subfields

  17. RichieP Says:

    Great article and comments.  Totally see myself in this personality-type, or maybe more accurately, this specific brain-type.

    From Physics Degree to Economics Masters to Languages to Neuropsychology to Systems-Thinking to Online Business to Programming… it’s been quite a journey in my 20’s and I’m STILL struggling to pay the bills and get anything of a practical career or stable income off the ground.

    At least as much of this is to do with antisocial tendencies and issues dealing with people (aww) as it is to do with being unable to fit my strengths/pleasures (conceptual thinking) to the practical and detail-oriented demands of most careers.

    Take Programming for example.  I dont want to program a chat app for someones Facebook clone – I want to invent the programming language.  With internet business, I want to write the book on the business dynamics and key factors for success, not actually run a website that sell furniture.  I want to build models and analyse systems all day, even analyse the field of systems-thinking itself, not actually consult for companies and fix their broken management setup.

    As others have mentioned, academia might be the answer.  But even then it’s a long road to tenure where you actually have the freedom to play with ideas and really create.  Seems like a big commitment of tedious research and pandering to others just to get my intellectual “fix” sometime down the line.

    I think I just want someone to pay me to learn and think 🙂 And that IS unrealistic and childish – because it’s not really an immediate contribution.  Somehow I’ve got to reconcile what my mind craves and loves, with meeting a need in the adult world that I actually get paid for.

     I’ve found that tricky so far. In a sense, I  was much happier when the world rewarded me just for learning and being clever i.e. the first 21 years of my life.  I feel like I got the message “just be very clever, and you’ll do well and be rewarded” – which I bought into, and now realise isnt actually true.

  18. CraigT Says:

    To All:

    First of all, it is quite refreshing to have found this site. Thanks Zen, and all others who posted.  Its a bit comforting to know that their are actual people that share the same strengths, gifts, weaknesses, and fears as I do!  
    As someone with the same insatiable proclivity to “learn it all”, and pursue general fields of knowledge (HCT), I can identify with both sides of the perverbial “coin”.  Sometimes it can seem like a curse, as much as it is a gift!  Yes, there are struggles with integrating our unique insights and perspectives into most  societal expectations or career positions, but nevertheless, we all know we can hardly help being as we are… 
         I know first hand, that despite a lengthy attempt at “ignoring who I am” in order to pursue monetary gain and financial success as a young entrepreneur, we cannot escape our inquisitive, and concept-seeking nature forever.
         As advise to anyone struggling to put order in their lives or figure out where they are going, or heading; or who view this as a curse or waisted intellect, I can tell you that being a HCT is a GIFT!  Regardless of era, economy, country, or creed, there is REAL VALUE to contribute!  REAL VALUE that will not only attract compensation, but that will satisfy your inner void with TRUE FULFILLMENT!
         For 7 years, I escaped my HCT for the sciences, philosophy, universe, sociology, etc… in exchange for a SUPER-FOCUSED entrpreneurial career.  As a young man in my early to upper 20’s, I did extremely well, accomplished goals, built a formidably large business, employed 30 people, wrote a technical how-to book, launched a nationally televised TV commercial, had money, success, etc… All of which would sound GREAT to most people, including myself (back then and still… lol) YET, something happened when I finally accomplished all of this….  I WASNT SATISFIED, WASNT HAPPY, and DEF WASN’T FULFILLED!  The truth is, I was chasing OTHER PEOPLES DREAMS!  I may have THOUGHT they were my dreams, but wisdom taught me otherwise… 
        What I REALLY valued, was my capacity to absorb knowledge and ever-present curiosity for all things. I have come to realize that although I do not regret my experiences in the business route I had taken, I did feel as if I had betrayed my intellect for those years.  A cognitive dissonance had developed, and it wasnt until things slowed down, and I shifted my attention towards introspection and self awareness, was I able to figure out what had happened…  
         The point Im trying to make is this..  Have faith that how your mind thinks, is exactly how its supposed to!  There are all different types of people, and we ALL have various value.  The key is finding out how your specific way of thinking, of analyzing, of conceptualizing can be valuable to any group, individuals, corporation, entity, etc…  THERE IS A WAY!!  Dont give up or become discouraged.  Believe me, I would rather be broke, but TRUE to myself, than comfortable and DULL!! 
         Also, not to pontificate my spiritual beliefs onto anyone, but I can say without doubt, that having been a former atheist, it wasn’t until I began to explore spiritual teachings and possibilities, that my knowledge became actual useful WISDOM.  To the suprise of many, Eastern spirituality offers a harmonious integration with science and many beliefs have been emperically supported through our western methodology… There are spiritual undertones throughout the history of great thinkers, philosophers, musicians, artists, inventors, scientists (Einstein,Bohr, etc..)  If you are indecisive or struggling, I would suggest listening, or reading some books on spirituality, buddhism, hinduism, etc.. Its been an incredible journey for me, and has 100% challenged and empowered me intellectually, emotionally, creatively.  And dont worry, its not a dogmatic assault of hocus-pocus, un-reasonable ideas or beliefs.   You may find a comforting balance to your minds racing behavior, and adapt some new perspectives that will actually harness your intellectual capacity, and help you find your path!
    Try Deepak Chopra,  Ekhart Tolle, Wayne Dyer, the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu, the Buddha

  19. RichieP Says:

    Great story Craig.  May I ask, what career path are you following now?

  20. Ashley Says:

    So nice to see other people like me struggling with the things I have been struggling with!  I am about 5 years out of college and school was never work for me – always extraordinarily easy though oftentimes boring.  It wasn’t until I entered the working world as a CPA that I began to struggle and it wasn’t until about 2 weeks ago that I learned what HCT meant or that it even existed!

    I chose tax in college because there were jobs available, one, but also because it’s conceptual legal nature appealed to my way of thinking.  Unfortunately, so much of what I do is extremely detail-oriented and minutia-driven and I truly STRUGGLE to make my way through it.  There are often times no examples to follow, no pattern, no thought processes to follow, and I have felt defeated – like a failure – while I watch people around me who seemingly have no trouble at all!  It has created this inner conflict between knowing I am intelligent but also knowing that I’m not capable of success and wondering what is wrong with me.  Now I know!:)

    There must be something better for people like us, right?  I mean, I can explain the concept of time travel in scientific terms – or any other idea for that matter if you give me a couple of days to read about it – why am I stuck in a position where I am struggling to fill out tax forms and limping along?  I often think to myself that I know I would be good at tax planning – the extremely complex piecing together of laws and legislation – the high level planning and creative design – but it takes years to work your way into such a position and requires success at the lower level detail-driven segment.  And I’m sure this idea crosses so many of our careers and functions – I NEED SOMETHING BIGGER!  But the workplace wants you to “prove yourself” first, and I get that…

    Anyway, just another frustrated HCT in a world that doesn’t appreciate what she has to offer, but glad to know that I’m not alone! 

  21. zen Says:

    Hi Ashley,

    Unfortunately, so much of what I do is extremely detail-oriented and minutia-driven and I truly STRUGGLE to make my way through it.”
    Maybe the place for you Ashley, if you are also a numbers girl, is in trading, VC/equities firms, social capital investment – any area where you are doing more active thinking, more horizontal thinking. The only accounting that might interest you is forensic auditing where you are unraveling schemes.
    Five years out of college is young – you have enough experience to be taken seriously but you are young enough for a decision-maker type (typically in their late 40’s to early 60’s) to mentor and groom you. You are not stuck.
    And then there is the grad school option to a cognate or different field 
    Unless you have young kids and a difficult spouse you are free to explore and take career risks. Don’t limit yourself and start by looking outside the familiar.
    Good luck

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