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Analysis vs. Synthesis: The Overthinker's Conundrum

"Analysis Paralysis" Isn't a Manly Feature

If you're reading this blog post on my website, then chances are you're familiar with the term "analysis paralysis." It's the phenomenon we experience when we get overwhelmed with options and just can't seem to pick a course of action. Instead, we get stuck. We start buffering. We experience kernel panic. We burnout, and find a million ways to avoid doing the thing we're supposed to be doing.

In my experience, notably bright guys struggle more with this than the average Joe; with the result being that they end up seeming indecisive, which isn't the best look. If you're going to be a man of action, you need to act.... and you can't act if you're afraid to commit to a plan. And changing plans in midstream is even worse. It undermines confidence in your leadership abilities. It makes you seem wishy-washy, which is a label you definitely don't want if your goal is to embody traits associated with positive masculinity.

In many ways it's considered more manly to take a high-level view of your given situation, list out the most obvious pros and cons, consult your gut for guidance, decide on a course of action, maybe (but not necessarily) run your plan by someone you trust for a sanity check, and then let 'er rip. Commit. Pull the trigger. YOLO, mofo. Now obviously there's a downside to basing all of your critical life choices solely on thin-slicing, hunches, and hubris. I mean, it works until it doesn't. And in hindsight, a poor outcome -- one that could've been avoided with more time spent weighing the options -- can make you seem impatient, impulsive, reactive, or just downright unintelligent. We all know those bullish authoritarian types who lack the patience, flexibility, diplomacy, or humility to consider alternatives once they've made their minds up about something.

Nevertheless, a man who makes a choice, sticks with it, and unwaveringly defends his

position in the face of criticism is still typically regarded as more reliable, more

respectable, and in fact more "manly" than someone who errs on the side of over-deliberation and consequent inaction. There is something inherently abhorrent about a

man whose weakness of character prevents him in a critical moment from doing

something -- which is to say from doing anything -- over doing nothing at all. It's better

to try and fail than not to try.

I'm reminded of the iconic scene in the book One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, where

the character Randall P. McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson in the film adaptation)

tries with every ounce of his soul to lift an impossibly heavy marble hydrotherapy cart

and break out of a psych ward to watch the World Series. When he fails, dashing the

hopes of certain in-patients who regard him as a hero (and feeding the schadenfreude

of certain others, who decidedly do not ) he famously says, "But I tried, though.

Goddammit, I sure as hell did that much now, didn't I?”.

Bro, Would You Just Freaking GO Already?!

I had this friend in my teens and 20's. David. We graduated from the same HS on Long Island, and we lived together in Manhattan. I really admired this dude, because he was a smart creative guy -- like myself -- but his intelligence manifested in different ways that I found fascinating. For instance, he was incredibly musically gifted. He played a bunch of instruments, wrote songs, composed classical music, had perfect pitch, could sight-read sheet music, etc. Mind you, he was fully aware of his intelligence -- so much so that he'd pretty shamelessly point it out, which kind took away some coolness points if I'm honest -- but he wrote checks that he could cash, so I had to respect him.

I respected him, that is, until it came time to make a choice about something. And again, by something I mean anything. Living both on Long Island and in Manhattan as young guys in the late 80's-early 90's, we spent a lot of time in diners. I grew to despise the way this dude would make the waiter stand there and listen to him deliberate about whether he wanted, for instance, a Monte Cristo or a Turkey Club.... but then no, maybe an open-faced turkey sandwich with gravy.... but then there were the sides to consider.... and if he were getting a Monte Cristo, which has egg, maybe he should just be thinking about breakfast. When they say eggs "any style", do they really literally mean ANY style? And there's the waitress just standing there, who knows we're gonna keep asking for water all night, and soda refills, and coffee refills, and be obnoxious because we're young and think it's all about us, and then tip like shit.... and yet she's doing her best to be professional, because she somehow doesn't suck as a person despite the environment she works in. And there's David, smiling to himself, slightly embarrassed but also amused and lowkey loving the attention; and instead of just letting her LEAVE and go do other shit, he's got her standing there stuck in his orbit while he asks more questions about the difference between potato wedges and crinkle cut french fries than I asked about the house I recently purchased. So now I'm complicit, and saying stuff like, "Look I'm really sorry.... he's kinda just like this", exactly like my father apologizing for his high maintenance wife (well one of them, anyway) who could never order food without sending it back and making a bit of a scene in the process. And the waitress is looking at me like, "Why do you think this person is so cool? He's obviously a selfish asshole, has zero emotional intelligence, and now you look stupid for being his sidekick."

David did this all the time. I watched him spend two weeks buying a pair of Doc Marten's. He shamefully (but also proudly) told the story of the torture he put the salespeople through in the various stores he visited/haunted in both the East and West Village(s) before FINALLY just buying a pair of shoes. And then there was that one time we tried to play chess. I taught him the rules. I made a move. One move... d4. And this motherfucker sat there with that same self-contented smirk on his face that he always had in the diner. That schmuck face that says "I love the way my own farts smell, and in fact I just farted in the key of B flat", for the better part of an hour, with me legit just sitting there patiently like what the actual hell dude?, before him finally saying, "I honestly can't justify one move over another. I think I'm discovering that chess is futile. Sorry Jake, I'm gonna have to resign." And then, for an encore, pointed out that if it were so terribly important for me to beat him at a game, then his not playing was clearly the winning move, at least in a more abstract sense. Kinda like the joke where the masochist says "beat me", and the sadist says "no". So yeah, my friend David.

Brain-Freeze, Revisited

Okay, so let's invoke David just one more time, only now in a more somber setting. The year is 2001. It's 8am, and 31-year-old Dennis is building a picture frame in a backroom of the Camera Shop of Hanover, essentially across the street from Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. I have the radio on, NPR I think, and immediately I understand from the news announcements they're making that something is really wrong. Trauma survivor instincts kick in. I go around to the other people in the store and tell them to turn on the radio. Something something we can't because something about something, whatever.... I go outside. I call David. He still lives in the city, he's married now, it's 8:15.... 8:30am.... why are you calling?, please let me go back to sleep. "David, go up to your roof. Look down by Wall Street. Look at the World Trade Center. Specifically the tops of the towers. Tell me what you see."

We used to prank each other pretty hard back in the day, but I'm assuring him it's not a joke. He goes up to the roof. He lives close enough to see what I expected. It's on fire. There's smoke. There are people on the roof. They're jumping off. They are jumping en masse off of the tallest buildings in Manhattan. And there it was again. Just like in the diner. Just like buying the shoes. Just like playing (or not playing) chess. David's brain froze. He couldn't process. He was silent, and I was saying "David. Tell me what else is happening man. Come on, I'm not there and I really want an eye-witness account, because there's something off about the way they're reporting it." And all I got was dead silence for a significant period of time, and then him saying, "Hey Jake. I'm sorry man.... I really gotta call you back." And he hung up, just like when he tipped his king. And of course calling him back was impossible, and vice versa.

The Importance of Synthesis

Ok, so I want to make it clear that "analysis" isn't a bad word. Both synthesis and analysis are cognitive processes essential to understanding and interacting with the world. But they operate differently, and affect our experiences and our relationships in specific ways. Let's look at them both. And just fair warning, I'm going to get a bit heady for a second:

  • Analysis involves breaking down complex information or problems into smaller, manageable parts to understand or solve them. This approach is often linear and sequential, focusing on dissecting and examining each component individually to assess its function and importance.

  • Synthesis, on the other hand, involves combining separate elements or ideas to form a coherent whole. This process is more holistic and integrative, emphasizing connections and relationships between the parts, leading to new insights or structures.

So the key takeaway is that analysis sees through a lens of difference and separation, while synthesis sees in terms of likeness and commonality. It's particle vs wavelength. Trees vs forest. Individuals vs Humanity. Analysis divides. Synthesis unites. But so back to where this all started. The guy who can't make choices because he struggles with overwhelm and decision fatigue. Let's look at the psychological implications of being strong at one or the other, analysis or synthesis:

  1. Excessively Analytical Individuals: Guys who are predominantly analytical are likely to excel in environments that require detailed examination and critical assessment. I mean, consider how many of my clients are rockstars in the fields of both tech and finance. They're good at identifying discrepancies, inconsistencies, and potential problems. However, if a guy is overly reliant on analysis, he's bound to have challenges in contexts where quick, holistic decision-making is crucial. He'll inevitably struggle with analysis paralysis when faced with complex situations that don't easily decompose into simpler components. Also -- and I'm telling you this not as a hunch, but rather as a matter of fact based on years of aggregated data -- he's going to find it challenging to relate to others on an emotional level, especially if his primary focus is on dissecting interactions rather than engaging with them holistically.

  2. Highly Synthetical Individuals: Those who excel at synthesis are often adept at seeing the big picture and how various elements interconnect. This ability can make them effective in roles that require vision and innovation, such as strategic planning, leadership, and creative fields. Synthetical thinkers are likely to be good at understanding systems, relationships, and patterns. The downside here, however -- to be fair -- is that they might overlook critical details or underappreciate the depth of specific components, which can lead to oversimplifications or inaccuracies.

Bottom line: The guy who suffers from the inability to stop analyzing and start synthesizing (for God's sake) ends up like my friend David. He comes across as selfish, complicated, emotionally clueless, uncaring, unmotivated, lazy, fearful, and frankly just drops the ball where manning-up and handling business is concerned. But so, how do you fix that?

How to Become More Synthetical

Developing a more holistic, synthetical mindset can really be daunting if you're naturally wired for analysis. The game is learning to step back and see the bigger picture. Here's a brief list of things you can do to train yourself to be more of a whole-brain thinker, or polymathic thinker, if you will.

  • Explore - Take a cooking class. Learn how to ride a motorcycle. Take a dance class. Go on a hunting expedition. Try anything that is outside of your lane of familiarity or your area of expertise. Chances are the scarier it is, the better it will be for opening your mind up to holistic and integrative thinking.

  • Mindfulness - We meditate here at MULC. If you practice being present (like, "I am HERE right NOW") you will widen that mental lens and begin to perceive broader patterns. The more you do this, the deeper you'll begin to see the connections.

  • Create - Take it from an artist and a teacher.... right-brained artistic activities stimulate holistic thinking. Don't complicate it. Make stuff. Do stuff. Doesn't matter what it is. Even just making dots on a page is enough to get the creative mind doing its thing.

  • Collaborate - This one is interesting. As a guy who coaches 1:1 sessions, I find that I get a lot of benefit from my company's weekly admin team business meetings. Diverse teamwork forces you to synthesize viewpoints. Any team, council, or community group is an opportunity to learn to collab with others.

  • Reflect - It may seem silly for the people who already get it, but some guys literally need to be instructed to reflect. Journaling can be useful here. Set up a space where you can jot some things down every day. Maybe ponder "out loud" how different areas of your life are interconnected. No joke, it can be a useful exercise.

  • Socialize - This piggybacks a little off of the "Collaborate" bullet point, but diverges in the sense that you might want to just start by being around others before jumping into a group dynamic. Even just the difference between working from home and working from a park or a coffee shop can help you to practice integrative thinking.

Conclusion (or synthesis, if you will)

Look man. At the end of the day, being overly analytical just isn't the most attractive quality in a guy. Yes, those of us who tend to wax cerebral can and will still find ourselves bogged down with some serious option-overwhelm at times. But true masculinity requires decisive action -- making a call and sticking to it -- not endlessly dithering like a ninny.

Sometimes you just have to synthesize the key points, make your move, and stop overanalyzing. "But I can't help it, I'm just naturally analytical". Well no, you're naturally both, analytical AND synthetical. You just have more experience doing one over the other. This asymmetry can be addressed through practice.

As suggested, the key is developing more holistic, synthetical thinking. Explore new experiences. Practice mindfulness. Tap into your creative side. Collaborate with others. Take time to ponder the interconnectedness of seemingly separate elements in your life. Get out and socialize more. Start making those neural links between concepts instead of just analyzing everything to death.

It takes practice, but you've got time. Be quiet. Be still. STFU. Look around. Take it all in. Don't chop it all up and categorize it. See the spiderwebs that connect it all. Synthesize, man. Synthesize.


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