Can you factor this? X2-4x+4

If you're like most people, you get a little queasy at the thought. And when you were in tenth grade, you surely wondered why they were bothering you.

(the answer is (x-2) times (x-2), in case you were curious.)

It turns out that the real reason you needed to do this work was to be able to play with numbers in your head. Abstract numerical thought is an important skill among educated people.

Which brings us to TED, a conference held every year in Long Beach. It's going on right now.

Dinosaur001-thumb Watch a few TED videos and try to get ahead of the speaker. They have an idea…it's probably a conceptual tricky idea, one with a lot of moving parts. And there is a lot of shorthand and arm waving … basically, it's similar to a quadratic equation. If you need the other person to slow down and explain every little bit, you've missed the point. The point is to do abstract conceptual thought. To get in practice taking the accepted status quo and questioning it, at least for a little while, at least this or that part of it.

I think this is a skill, a rare one. The ability to be facile in the manipulation of ideas, both theoretical and established, is a valuable one, and I think the TED videos and art of reading books (at least the first ten minutes of each) are two great ways to getting better at manipulation of ideas. It takes practice, and it's worth it.

I sat in a meeting last week with someone who was 100% tactical. She couldn't let go of the urgency of the moment long enough to envision a different future, even for five minutes. The abstract conceptual part was missing from her part of the conversation.

The trick is to be able to leap to, "if we did A and B, would that get us C? Would C be a good thing? Is it possible to do A and B if we really commit?" and then move on to the next one. And that takes practice. Why wouldn't it?

BONUS: Hugh MacLeod, artist, good friend and creator of the cartoon above, has created four cube grenades about being a linchpin. These are limited editions, first come first shipped. (You can sign up for his free cartoon of the day).