What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos


Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers


Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge


Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more
With rendition switcher


Question: Would you tell a “true war story” that’s not found in "The Things They Carried?"

Tim O’Brien: Yeah, I mean, I ran into a kid in Seattle, or kid, 26-year-old, at a book signing.  And I saw him out of the corner of my eye standing in the corner, and was kind of frightened by him.  Not physically, but I mean, “Oh God, I hope it’s not a manuscript he’s got to give me,” and that... which is hell of course.  And the guy—finally the reading ended and he hung around and I could feel him out of the corner of my eye approach me, and he had me sign his book and I did.  He began to leave and then he turned around and he said, “I think you knew my father.”  And as soon as he said those words I knew who the kid was.  I saw it in his face.  I could see his dad in that kid’s face; it was my platoon leader in Vietnam.  He told me over the course of the next, I don’t know, 20 minutes or half hour that he, the kid, had been searching for his father ever since.  His father had committed suicide soon after Vietnam and had looked for his dad in very brave and cool ways.  He had joined the Army just to see what his father had gone through.  He had become a Green Beret to see what his dad had been, a Ranger, and all this tough snake-eating stuff.  And he had picked up my first book and his father figure is in the book.  Not always in the most laudatory ways, in fact not in laudatory ways.  Well, that encounter made me want to cry.  If I weren’t on camera I’d have tears in my eyes now because it’s an example of why I began writing in the first place.  I wanted to touch people in a way that stories can touch 'em.  And I helped in a modest way this fellow to fill in a gap where this man had been who had committed suicide, before he even knew his father.  His father had killed himself when he was very; I think he was like six months old, eight months.  Very young. 

Encounters like that remind me of why I began.  It’s easy to forget why you become a writer.  Letters I'll get from the girlfriends of people in Iraq or Afghanistan or the children, which all say the same thing basically.  I don’t know my dad; he won’t talk about it; or my mom in some cases, but largely men.  And I read your book and now I know at least something of what he’s carrying around with him and what he won’t talk about.  And sometimes the book will be shared with the veteran and conversation will ensue.  And that is way beyond anything I had intended in the writing of the book.  I didn’t intend to bring people together or start them talking, but to show you the power of literature, it really touches individual people with real lives in the real world and contributes to their lives.  It does something to their lives that that’s what I dreamed of when I was writing.  I dreamed of touching some 15-year-old kid in Dubuque, or some grieving mother in Harlem. 

Literature makes you feel, if it’s any good, it can make you feel less alone in the world.  Someone else has gone through this and it gives you some late-night company with your memories and your sorrow.  Literature does touch people; it’s not just to be read in English classes.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

More from the Big Idea for Wednesday, July 31 2013

Demystifying Truth

"What exists my knowledge, exists without my consent," says The Judge, the terrifying antagonist from Cormac Mccarthy's Blood Meridian.  The Judge is an example about what is so scary and impos... Read More…


Tim O’Brien Tells a True Wa...

Newsletter: Share: