Category Archives: life philosophy

Success is to have made people wriggle to another tune

Shortly before the pandemic started to have an impact in the UK, I went to our local second-hand bookshop and bought a pile of old paperbacks to read.  One of them was ‘Daisy Miller and Other Stories’ by Henry James (published in 1983 as Penguin Modern Classic).  The title of this post is a quote from one of the ‘other stories’, ‘The Lesson of the Master’, which was first published in 1888.  ‘Success is to have made people wriggle to another tune’ is said by the successful fictional novelist, Henry St George as words of encouragement to the young novelist Paul Ovett.  It struck a chord with me because I think it sums up academic life. Success in teaching is to inspire a new level of insight and way of thinking amongst our students; while, success in research is to change the way in which society, or at least a section of it, thinks or operates, i.e. to have made people wriggle to another tune.

Thinking in straight lines is unproductive

I suspect that none of us think in straight lines.  We have random ideas that we progressively arrange into some sort of order, or forget them.  The Nobel Laureate, Herbert Simon thought that three characteristics defined creative thinking: first, the willingness to accept vaguely defined problems and gradually structure them; second, a preoccupation with problems over a considerable period of time; and, third, extensive background knowledge. The first two characteristics seem strongly connected because you need to think about an ill-defined problem over a significant period of time in order to gradually provide a structure that will allow you to create possible solutions.    We need to have random thoughts in order to generate new structures and possible solutions that might work better than those we have already tried out; so, thinking in straight lines is unlikely to be productive and instead we need intentional mind-wandering [see ‘Ideas from a balanced mind‘ on August 24th, 2016].   More complex problems will require the assembling of more components in the structure and, hence are likely to require a larger number of neurons to assemble and to take longer, i.e. to require longer and deeper thought with many random excursions [see ‘Slow deep thoughts from planet-sized brain‘ on March 25th, 2020] .

In a university curriculum it is relatively easy to deliver extensive background knowledge and perhaps we can demonstrate techniques to students, such as sketching simple diagrams [see ‘Meta-knowledge: knowledge about knowledge‘ on June 19th, 2019], so that they can gradually define vaguely posed problems; however, it is difficult to persuade students to become preoccupied with a problem since many of them are impatient for answers.  I have always found it challenging to teach creative problem-solving to undergraduate students; and, the prospect of continuing limitations on face-to-face teaching has converted this challenge into a problem requiring a creative solution in its own right.


Simon HA, Discovery, invention, and development: human creative thinking, Proc. National Academy of Sciences, USA (Physical Sciences), 80:4569-71, 1983.

New horizons

Along with many people, I have been working from home since mid-March and it seems likely that I will be doing so for the foreseeable future.  Even if a vaccine is discovered for COVID-19, it will take many months to vaccinate the population.  For the first few months of lockdown, I worked on an old workbench in the basement of our house; however, now I have an office set up in the attic and the picture above is the view from my desk.  It certainly has eye-stretching potential but it is also frustrating because I can see the roof of the building in which my university office is located.  However, the lockdown in the UK has been relaxed and so we are going on holiday to Cornwall where we will be walking sections of the South West Coastal Path and reading a pile of books.  If you want experience the walking with us then I recommend reading ‘The Salt Path‘ by Raynor Winn [see ‘The Salt Path‘ on August 14th, 2019]. Although I will be indulging in a digital detox [see ‘Digital detox with a deep vacation‘ on August 10th, 2016] combined with some horizon therapy [see ‘Horizon therapy‘ on May 4th, 2016], the flow of posts to this blog will be uninterrupted because lock-down has allowed me write sufficient pieces in advance to maintain the publishing schedule.

I noticed that both of the posts cited above about the importance of relaxing were published in 2016, along with Steadiness and Placidity on July 171th, 2016.  2016 must have been a stressful year!