A working thesis is a stepping stone

A path of Working Theses leads us to our final thesis statement, just as ScholarShape Junior was led by these stepping stones to the top of this cascade shortly after this photo was taken.

A path of Working Theses leads us to our final thesis statement, just as ScholarShape Junior was led by these stepping stones to the top of this cascade shortly after this photo was taken.


“A grayish image of chaos in a sort of sliding fluidity.”

These are the words used by Herman Melville’s narrator in Omoo to describe the mental image he summons up to help him get to sleep on a mosquito-infested night. Only such a slippery, indistinct vision of amorphousness could overwhelm his senses enough to detach his consciousness from the tormenting insects buzzing around him.

But these words also feel to me like an apt description of what the knowledge-building process looks like: when you’re in the middle of it, all you can see is a grayish image of chaos in a sort of sliding fluidity.

Trying to learn something that has never been known before, whether it’s to write a book, build a business, or execute some other project, means immersing yourself in an infinitude of facts, data, sensations, and impressions that you might draw on in your project, though you don’t know which ones, or how.

In the swirl of possibilities, it’s difficult to imagine what your finished project will look like, much less which step will bring you closer to realizing that vision. Which pieces will you pluck out of the infinitude and weave into your project? And how will those pieces blend together to form a new whole?

There are no instructions to follow when you’re on a quest to build new knowledge. No one else has ever been along your particular path before.

I’ve lived in the process of knowledge-building for as long as I can remember, having never been content with what can be readily known, and I do have some thoughts on how we can navigate the process without feeling totally lost all the time.

Specifically, I’ve found there is one simple question we can ask ourselves anytime, anywhere, in the middle of the knowledge-building process to figure out where we are. The answer to this question gives us something to hold onto and points us on our way.

The question is: "What am I trying to say?"

Each of us has our own answer to this question, and our answers vary from day to day and hour to hour. Whatever your answer is at any given moment functions as your Working Thesis: your current best guess as to what your project is all about, what will be the final thesis statement that holds your knowledge product together.

Your final thesis statement will be the project’s reason for existing, its revelation, its contribution. Your Working Theses along the way are the stepping stones that will get you there.

Building new knowledge means saying something that has never been said before. Any knowledge product, even if it fills a 1,000-page book or a 10,000-square-foot corporate headquarters, can be distilled into a one-sentence thesis statement. And the only way to find such a thesis, to distill such complexity, is through iteration.

A knowledge-builder iterates toward that thesis by asking over and over, “What am I trying to say?” The answers evolve, one into the next, until the knowledge-builder finally arrives at the thesis that will be declared in public and manifested in the knowledge product.

The exercise of defining and evolving a Working Thesis is the essence of the knowledge-building process. To identify and develop your Working Thesis is to focus your efforts and propel your project forward. 

If you ask “What am I trying to say?” often enough, and faithfully follow the Working Theses where they lead, you will eventually find a thesis that can hold your entire project together. With each new iteration, your Working Thesis becomes more precise, accurate, significant — better able to express what matters about your data and why.

I’m so convinced of the power of the Working Thesis that I recently created a 5-day email sequence about it. The course is called You Are Here: Locating Yourself in Your Work-in-Progress, and you can sign up (for free!) right here.

I hope you’ll try it out and let me know what you think! It just may evolve into something bigger and better one day. :)

Posted on May 19, 2019 and filed under reflection questions.