Essentialization Skills

Three Supervised Self-Study Courses from the Thinking Lab

To essentialize means to examine an idea or a mass of ideas, and extract the essence. In order communicate clearly, precisely, and succinctly, you need essentialization skills. You need to be able transform a mass of information into key takeaways. You need to be able to sum up a discussion with a few action steps. You need to be able to get to the point when you speak.

From 1998-2004, I developed a series of lessons based on Objectivist materials designed to help develop essentialization skills. 15 lessons are available: 6 on condensation, 4 on concretization, and 6 on defining terms. These are fundamental skills that are rarely taught. In a better age, they would be standard offerings in high school logic and rhetoric classes. I learned them at the Objectivist Graduate Center of the Ayn Rand Institute.

This material is too intellectual to teach to corporate audiences, but deeply valuable for anyone trying to improve his thinking and communication. The lessons involve a significant time commitment. Originally I offered them in a one-on-one tutorial program. The material is now available for self-study in the Thinking Lab. (Deluxe and VIP members can use their phone consults to hold one-one-one tutorials on the material.)

Contents

Mechanics
Caveats
Lessons
Condensation (6 lessons)
Concretization (4 lessons)
Definitions (6 lessons)


Mechanics

I recommend doing the lessons in the order they appear below.

Each lesson involves a significant amount of homework. You need to budget two passes of one hour each for each lesson. I recommend doing one exercise every week or two. People who do exercises only once a month or less tend to lose momentum and aren’t able to integrate one lesson to the next.

You can see the materials for the first lesson in each series (condensation, concretization, definition) if you click on the links below.

There are two PDFs for each lesson. One is a lesson packet with the assignment and my answers. (Don’t look at my answers until after you have finished the assignment.) The other is a reading packet with assigned articles from the Condensation or Definition Handbook.

When you finish an assignment, email it to me. I will give you an attaboy or attagirl, and perhaps some comments, plus the link to the materials for the next assignment. You can always send questions and comments. I promise at least a short response.

(Deluxe and VIP members can discuss the material in our consult. Please send your answers at least 24 hours before our appointment, so I can look it over.)

A few caveats about the course:

1. The course uses Objectivist materials and refers to Objectivist principles. However, it is reasonably accessible to people with little knowledge of the philosophy. Several non-Objectivists have gone through the material.

2. The texts–the Condensation Handbook and Definition Handbook–have not been edited in over 10 years. I know they need to be rewritten for clarity and precision. I also know I won’t get to that for years. That said, the hundred or so people who took the old program got value from them as is. Plus, there is nowhere else you can find this type of detailed logical instruction. So, I decided to make the material available in the Thinking Lab, as is, for those who are eager to develop these skills now. But I only make the material available to people who are actually doing the exercises–that’s why you need to send your answers to get the next assignment. This gives me a chance to correct misunderstandings.

3. Given the above, please do not treat the handbooks as an authoritative source. In addition, you do not have permission to copy, share, or quote from them. They are a private aid to your learning.


About Condensation

If you want to improve the clarity and precision with which you use words, I recommend you learn how to condense articles. To condense an article is to analyze it to determine its 3-5 main points and theme. Each point is expressed as a complete sentence.

The resulting list of points is the “condensation,” a valuable cross between an outline and summary. Like an outline, it is short, sweet, and shows the structure. Like a summary, it shows the flow of ideas and the connections from one point to the next. When you read a condensation, you see the logic of the article in the briefest form.

Writers and readers use condensation as an analysis tool. Writers need to analyze the structure of their articles, to test that they are logical. Readers use it to understand and retain what they read. When you condense an article, you understand what the author showed and how he showed it.

In addition, I recommend condensation as mental calisthenics. In particular, I recommend condensing high quality writing–writing that is logical, precise, and well-concretized–in order to improve the precision of your own thinking.

A well-written piece provides a laboratory for developing precision. Because it is clear, you understand it clearly. When you attempt to condense it, you can introspect whether your formulation adds up to the same meaning as what you read. In effect, the “good writing” that you are condensing gives you a standard you can use to judge your own formulations.

25 years ago, my thoughts were terribly imprecise–and my writing was even worse. I attribute my present ability to be precise to my having condensed over a thousand pages of clear writing between 1994 and 2000.

To get started learning condensation, listen to the introductory class explaining the process. In this class, you will learn the basic process of condensation. We work a short exercise, condensing the introduction to Chapter 2 of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. (It’s only about 2 pages, but you need to read it before listening to the recording, and have the text with you as you listen. This class is not suitable for listening while driving.)

Again, the recording is available here with the answers to the assignment we do together in class.

When you are finished with the introductory class, jm@thinkingdirections.com. I promise at least a brief response, along with the link to the next lesson.

Note: Articles to condense are selected from Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand and The Ayn Rand Column. You will need those books as texts for the class. Additional references are listed in the Condensation Handbook readings included in the first lesson.

  • Condensation #1: Introduction to Condensation, OPAR Chapter 6 introduction.
  • Condensation #2: Determining the Main Point, OPAR Chapter 7 introduction.
  • Condensation #3: Introduction to Section Condensations, OPAR Chapter 2: “The Perceptual Level as the Given.”
  • Condensation #4: Using the Wider Context, OPAR Chapter 6: “Living Organisms as Goal-Directed and Conditional.”
  • Condensation #5: Seeing the Logical Structure, ARC “Freedom of Speech.”
  • Condensation #6: The Value of Condensation, ARC “War and Peace.”

About Concretization

Floating abstractions sabotage many people’s thinking. To keep concepts firmly connected to the world, concretization is critical. That means giving not just one example, but many, selected to capture the essentials of a given abstraction.

To get started learning concretization, listen to the overview course: “Concretizing Abstractions: How to Compose Examples” which is in this folder. Send me your “Homework” from it–your attempt at the assignment–and I’ll give you some feedback plus the first lesson.

Topics of the 4 Concretization Lessons

Each lesson includes a readings packet and an assignment packet. The readings are sections of the Definition Handbook. If you do the first three assignments, you get the entire section on concretization. (Lesson 4 has no additional readings.) The first page of each assignment packet lists the readings and explains the assignment, including what to turn in. The rest of the assignment packet is my answers. Don’t peek at my answers until after you’ve tried the assignment.

When you’re finished with an assignment, I encourage you to send me your answers, and request the next assignment. Just email me at jm@thinkingdirections.com. I promise at least a brief response, along with the link to the next lesson.

  • Concretization #1: “Dishonesty”
  • Concretization #2: “Dependence”
  • Concretization #3: “Justice”
  • Concretization #4: “Altruism”

Note: there are only 4 concretization lessons, because it was originally taught as part of the definitions course. Giving examples is the first step to defining a term. You can get additional practice concretizing by doing the definitions lessons, below.


About Defining Terms

Ayn Rand said, “The truth or falsehood of all man’s conclusions, inferences, thought and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions.” True definitions are crucial to clear thinking. In these tutorials, students learn the process of defining terms. Defining terms gives excellent practice in using examples to test your conclusions and in organizing your knowledge by means of fundamentals.

To get started learning how to define terms, listen to the introductory session that I have recorded with a member of the Thinking Lab. When you’ve finished listening, read over my answers, then email me with any questions and your request for the first regular lesson.

Topics of 6 Definitions Lessons

Each lesson includes a readings packet and an assignment packet. The readings are sections of the Definition Handbook. If you do all 6 definitions assignments, plus the first 3 concretization assignments, you get the entire Definitions Handbook. The first page of each assignment packet lists the readings and explains the assignment, including what to turn in. The rest of the assignment packet is my answers. Don’t peek at my answers until after you’ve tried the assignment.

When you’re finished with an assignment, I encourage you to send me your answers, and request the next assignment. Just email me at jm@thinkingdirections.com I promise at least a brief response, along with the link to the next lesson.

  • Definitions #1: “Mitten”
  • Definitions #2: “Gift”
  • Definitions #3: The Genus
  • Definitions #4: “Vacation”
  • Definitions #5: “To Teach”
  • Definitions #6: “Argument”

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