What Overthinking? – Imagination vs. Speculation

When someone remarks that they are prone to overthinking things, what they are talking about is more likely a problematic tendency to be cynical.

If all of the people who claim that they overthink things were being more semantically accurate they would say that they worry too much. And while worrying is definitely a cognitive activity, it flies in the face of what we usually consider the purpose of thinking to be, which is problem solving. Worrying invents problems rather than solving them.

So perhaps the important distinction to make here is the difference between imagination and speculation. When we speculate we work from things which are known to us to try to predict what might become. The act of imagining, in it’s purest form, is to invent things unknown to us or anybody else. To imagine is to make something out of nothing; to speculate is to make informed guesses.

This is not to say that there is anything intrinsically wrong with speculation, or that we should never hold concerns about the future. Those things are good and helpful in many situations. The issue is that we may have come to equate them a bit too much with thinking, which seems to me has become stifling and is endowing us with a hopeless worldview.

What we need now is less cynicism and more imagination. When our internal narratives make strong equivocations between worrisome speculation and cognition in general, we begin to program ourselves that only expressions of futility are meaningful and worthy. By doing so we paint ourselves into a corner and lose the playful, imaginative kind of thinking which is needed to adapt, evolve and progress.

It is easy to look out into the world and see its many issues, but it is generally much more challenging to be skeptical of our own narratives and the limitations which they place on us. Sometimes it really is the simplest of things standing in our way.

Don’t hold yourself back by clinging to the hopeless idea that worrying and creating are the same thing. In the end it is better that we walk right into some traps and learn about ourselves in the process, rather than to anticipate every pitfall and be frozen by fear and indecision into compulsive inaction. The only real failure in life is not lack of success, but lack of attempt.

There is no such thing as over-imagining to anyone but the hopelessly unimaginative. Let us decline to turn their habitual failure into a celebrated virtue.

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