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AREA Method: A Novel of Ideas

I read in a newspaper article this week that this year is the 150th anniversary of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece Crime and Punishment.  I first read this gripping novel in high school, but now, decades later, I still recall it vividly. And I’m obviously not alone. This classic was so popular when it first came out after the destitute Dostoyevsky feverishly wrote it to save himself from surviving on tea that a magazine critic for Notes of the Fatherland wrote in 1867 that it was not only “the greatest literary event of our time” but that “only Crime and Punishment was read in 1866.”

The novel at its heart is about a dropout philosophy student who brutally murders and robs an elderly pawn broker in an insane attempt to strike a blow against economic equality. The student’s belief that great men may commit murder for the good of society unwinds as, Dostoyevsky tells us, “heavenly truth and earthly law take their toll.”

It made me think that it would certainly be better to unearth “heavenly truth and earthly law” before making some big mistake. But how can we expose the truth? And do it before committing a blunder? Could the anti-hero of Crime & Punishment have exposed his flawed thinking before perpetrating a crazy violent act?

We certainly can’t fix the flaws in our thinking if we don’t have any awareness that we tend to make them in the first place. That’s in part what a sound research process should do. It can guide you to reveal elements of “heavenly truth and earthly law.” By directing you where to look for good information and how to assess it, a good research process can help uncover things that, at first blush, seem concealed, or obscured. It can help you reveal the essence of the matter.

When good information is coupled with AREA’s cheetah-like pauses, where you decelerate so that you can build maneuverability into your investigation and chunk your learning by crafting a thesis statement, you can end up with a report of your work that, at best, reads like a novel of ideas.

By the end of your research roadmap you should have a string of thesis statements that remind you of your process and your thinking: They’ll keep you honest and prevent “thesis creep.” When done well, the thesis statements can show you that you don’t learn by collecting information alone.  Rather, you learn by pausing to analyze your information, the source of that information, and its significance. Even more, the thesis statements should provide a target for what to investigate next.

Your research reports aren’t likely to have the pacing that a thriller like Crime & Punishment does, but you will have a clear, concise and cogent narrative of your comprehensive research process; that, in turn, should help you make thoughtful decisions.

Read the WSJ’s review of the anniversary of Crime & Punishment.

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