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Overthinking or thinking it over? Is there a good side to rumination?

A light brown highland cow among small trees
To understand his writing, Nietzsche claims it is "necessary to become almost like a cow" and calls for "rumination"

Rumination, besides its original meaning related to animal digestion, is traditionally related to depression, and refers to the act of continuously processing negative thoughts, in a way which can deteriorate your mental health, like being on a downward spiral, and lacking the control to come off it. As someone living with depression, I am all too familiar with this feeling. Before I found the right way to manage my condition through ongoing medication and therapy, noticing that I was ruminating would be my signal to go and seek help again. It would manifest itself through weeks of gradually being taken over by the same dark and harmful thoughts, a feeling of having reached an impasse, which would uncontrollably grow. I was lucky in these times to manage to find clear moments to go and seek help, and to find the right help which would get me out of this path of self-destruction.

Knowing this, why would I ask whether there is a good side to rumination? The thought came to me as my studies have led me to read Nietzsche's "On the genealogy of morals", in which Nietzsche sets the tone in his preface in which he confidently states: "If anyone finds what is written here obscure or unintelligible, I do not think that the blame should lie upon me". He continues by explaining that his writing is not intended to be deciphered upon its first reading, and that it should instead be interpreted and reflected upon. That it is "necessary to become almost like a cow (...) - rumination". After briefly admiring the audacity and strong self-belief required to displace any responsibility for lack of understanding onto the reader, it made me think about the way Nietzsche referred to rumination in this case.

Growing up in a dairy farm, I am no stranger to cows and their chewing habits. And it is thinking back to cows' rumination which helped me make more sense of this image. Cows initially swallow their food with minimal chewing, into a specific part of their stomach. They subsequently regurgitate to do, in slower time, all the chewing needed to break down their food for better digestion. This is exactly what Nietzsche is asking his readers to do, with ideas and brain instead of food and stomach. Read and absorb the content, and then bring it back to the front of your mind to think it through, interpret, process it, in slower time.

Over the past few years, this is a way of developing my ideas which I have embraced, and found incredibly helpful. And it requires to go against what we are sometimes required to do in our professional lives. Very often, we are presented with a question or challenge, focus on it for a while to come up with a solution or recommendation, and then move on to the next thing. For the first part of my career, my aim was always to respond to people's questions or needs as quickly as I possibly could, with the best quality response I could produce, to be able to close it off and move on. And while it was my preferred way of operating, it also came from the pressures of the work environment, and being able to tackle issues quickly was typically a mark of success and high performance.

More recently, I have come to embrace a different way of thinking, particularly for the "big questions". Without calling it rumination at the time, I started doing exactly that, approaching a question, an issue or a new concept, putting it away in a part of my brain, and then bringing it back later on to keep thinking, challenge my initial thoughts, add new perspectives I might have come across in the meantime, and then repeat the process. This involved two principles I started to follow:

  1. To stop seeing time as something I as working against, to try and beat it, but rather see time as a friend, an ally. I have changed my relationship to deadlines, from trying to go as fast as I can, to using my time to enrich my ideas

  2. Trust your brain to work for you, even when your ideas are stored away. I have found that just leaving my thoughts and reflections for a while to do something else helped getting back to them later with greater clarity. It also enabled me to draw better connections with new information I might come across.

My most significant example of ongoing constructive rumination has been about my research interest around organisational behaviour, simply put, why we decide to work where we do. Three years ago, as I started contemplating getting back into the world of academia, I came across literature looking into the idea of purpose, for individuals, and for companies, all the while seeing it becoming a trend within organisations, therefore thinking it would be an interesting area for research. Seeing exactly what I could add to the topic and study in more depth got me to challenge myself and refine this topic into matters of moral reasoning, or how we deal with potential conflicts between our own values and our organisation's values. For a while, I talked about it in terms of "morality" at work, only to find myself challenged once again in my reading when coming across different definitions of morality, connected to culture or religion, when my objective was to focus on individual thought processes. I have now found theoretical models and philosophical concepts which align more closely to what I wish to explore, and provided the difference in meaning between morals and ethics which I was missing. I very much expect that my understanding will continue to evolve, as it has done over the past three years, as I keep these question in the back of my mind, and progress with my research.

Finally, thinking certain things through over a period of time in such a way also means being comfortable with admitting that a previous view or position is no longer what we believe in, that such beliefs change, sometimes substantially, that our views can often be circumstantial. Even to challenge the nature of knowledge and truth - but I will save this for another time!

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