Like most people, I was cooped up at home during the outbreak of COVID-19 last year. I spent most of my time reading: books, news, articles, blogs, and social media posts. I had probably downloaded more than 50 books on my Kindle and read most of them. But I had a strange realization when I looked back on the last twelve months, I realized that I had read a lot that year—but I could hardly remember anything, at least not in any meaningful way.
I have spent so much time reading and learning, but why do I still feel like I haven’t learned anything meaningful? Why my thinking is still feeling shallow and narrow? Am I wasting my time?
The answer is: I was reading just to read. In other words, I was reading without thinking – the kind of thinking that is necessary for true learning and understanding – I was just consuming, not learning anything. I was eating without digesting, no nutrients were absorbed.
When all you do is consume, you’re not only letting someone else hijack and direct your attention, which is the most valuable resource you have but also outsourcing your thinking to someone else. When you do this shallow reading long enough, your mind will be filled with someone else’s thoughts, second-hand ideas, and conventional wisdom – which tends to be more conventional than wisdom.
The safest way of having no thoughts of one’s own is to take up a book every moment one has nothing else to do. It is this practice which explains why erudition makes most men more stupid and silly than they are by nature, and prevents their writings obtaining any measure of success.Arthur Schopenhauer
Thinking for oneself
Arthur Schopenhauer, a 19th-century German Philosopher, in his classic essay “On Thinking for Oneself” argues that reading without thinking “robs the mind of all elasticity”. Schopenhauer does this by claiming that reading “forces thoughts upon the mind” creating a point in which the mind cannot return to where it was before reading. More importantly, this leads to Schopenhauer’s belief that in order to achieve efficient learning, one must think for oneself before proceeding to read.
A man may have a great mass of knowledge, but if he has not worked it up by thinking it over for himself, it has much less value than a far smaller amount which he has thoroughly pondered… Reading and learning are things that anyone can do of his own free will; but not so thinking. Thinking must be kindled, like a fire by a drought; it must be sustained by some interest in the matter in hand.
So, what does it mean to think for oneself?
I believe it is the ability to think deeply, critically, and independently with one’s own thoughts over a subject, not just for a short time, but for a long period of time.
But, why it’s so important to think for oneself?
If a man’s thoughts are to have truth and life in them, they must, after all, be his own fundamental thoughts; for these are the only ones that he can fully and wholly understand… For it is only when we gain our knowledge in this way that it enters as an integral part, a living member, into the whole system of our thought; that it stands in complete and firm relation with what we know.
Schopenhauer claims thinking for oneself will allow you to achieve learning more intimately and purposefully. One who lacks independent thinking will lack a clear and full understanding of the subject. This is the difference, as Schopenhauer puts it, between true philosophers and book philosophers:
“A man who thinks for himself can easily be distinguished from the book-philosopher by the very way in which he talks, by his marked earnestness, and the originality, directness, and personal conviction that stamp all his thoughts and expressions… They are the genuine independent thinkers; they really think and are really independent; they are the true philosophers; they alone are in earnest. The pleasure and the happiness of their existence consist in thinking.”
“The book-philosopher, on the other hand, lets it be seen that everything he has is second-hand; that his ideas are like the number and trash of an old furniture shop, collected together from all quarters. Mentally, he is dull and pointless—a copy of a copy. His literary style is made up of conventional, nay, vulgar phrases, and terms that happen to be current; in this respect much like a small State where all the money that circulates is foreign because it has no coinage of its own.”
How can we learn to think for ourselves?
In his speech “Solitude and Leadership” (2009), delivered to the plebe class at West Point, American author and essayist William Deresiewicz argues that the best way for leaders to improve their ability to think for themselves is to spend time thinking alone with their own thoughts. The speech became a viral hit and was later published in the periodical American Scholar.
It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.William Deresiewicz
Deresiewicz claims that true leadership means being able to think for yourself and act on your convictions.
All good leaders understand a simple truth: you can’t make good decisions without good thinking and good thinking requires time. If you want to think better, schedule time to think alone without interruption and distraction.
“Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it.” Deresiewicz explains. “Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, think for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.”
Question everything, assume nothing
In addition to scheduling time to think deeply for yourself, another vital part of thinking critically and independently is to doubt and question everything as far as possible.
The first principle of independent and critical thinking is the presumption to doubt and to investigate rather than the presumption to believe.
In other words, question, question, and question before believing. A successful life requires you to be a detective, not a follower. This doesn’t mean that you should go to the extreme and believe nothing. It means being knowledgeable about what it really means. It means being able to have intelligent and rational discussions about issues that you may disagree.
Asking questions can often uncover answers on topics that you never really expected but they are relevant and important for moving forward– with more clarity and purpose. The point of always asking questions is not necessarily to find answers; often when you ask a question and after getting an answer, you find yourself with even more questions. You truly begin to understand something; even when there is no true answer to your questions.
People do not fall into tidy categories of leader or follower. Lead yourself. Ask questions. Get the facts before you decide to believe and act. Never look to a teacher or a person of influence as a replacement for your own judgment. Think for yourself!
In his article “Question Everything, Assume Nothing” (2016) Leon Alexander writes: “Have you ever made a decision without questioning why? Steve Jobs, Vidal Sassoon and many other inventors and pioneers questioned the status quo’s thinking within their respective industries. As result, great leaders have built iconic organizations by questioning and not assuming anything…We become better hairdressers, salon owners, designers and individuals by questioning everything.“
You have the right to question anything you feel the need to, passionately. Turning previously undisclosed and important questions into public knowledge is how we make a change.Leon Alexander
Questioning why you do everything forces you to pick apart the usefulness of habitual behaviors. People get incredibly complacent and trusting in established facts and theories, therefore considering it beyond their place to question logic verified by those seen by society as being more intelligent. No matter how right you think you are, it’s important to question the opinions and theories of those that influence your own opinions.
Asking tough questions is critical to learning, understanding, and making changes… So how do you know what the right questions are? Here is some advice:
- Question everything, especially yourself: The first principle of thinking for yourself is you must not fool yourself. You’re the easiest person to fool. You must doubt both the others and the self, to investigate flaws in the thoughts and arguments of others and your own. It’s easy to see the world as you want to see it. But it takes skepticism and courage to understand the world as it really is.
- Pay attention to uncomfortable questions: Be open to asking– and answering– these three questions, no matter how uncomfortable they seem: Is it true? How do you know it’s true (can you prove it)? What if you’re wrong?
- Listen, observe: We hear little and see even less. The difference between hearing and listening can make, even in a seemingly inconsequential act, a huge difference in the final result. To listen to means to pay attention to what is being heard. To observe is to pay attention to your senses and assess all the information through– seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching…
- Scientific hypotheses questioning: Treat your beliefs, views, opinions, and everything you have read and heard as scientific hypotheses. Opinions are defended, and hypotheses are tested. You deliberately challenge your beliefs and opinions by trying to prove them wrong instead of proving them right. This method is known as “disconfirming evidence” – evidence that proves your existing ideas wrong – can be worth a thousand pieces of confirming evidence. Disconfirming evidence helps you avoid long-held biases, such as confirmation bias, desirability bias, and availability bias. In the end, if you don’t prove yourself wrong, others will do it for you. If you don’t recognize the flaws in your own thinking, those flaws will come to haunt you down the road.
Other than questioning everything as far as possible, here are something you should avoid as much as you can to protect your ability to think for yourself:
- Don’t spend your time on stuff that will be irrelevant in a few days: Learn to read the right way. Learn to spend your limited time and attention on the highest quality content available. Read what stands the test of time. Read what provokes you to think for yourself. Read from publications that respect and value your time, the ones that add more value than they consume. Read fewer news and predictions, more history and science, stuff that are still true and valuable 40, 50 years from now. Read fewer articles and more books, books that have stood the test of time, those that are still in print after 20 years or so.
- Avoid tribal thinking: Tribal thinking is the biggest killer of thinking independently. Whether in politics, religion, businesses, or race, people who are part of a group or a community instinctively reject whatever ideas from the other side. Instead of listening, they simply shut down and smolder. Today we live in a social media-fueled tribalism, we follow people we like and read stuff that shares our views, and we dislike or unfollow people and things we don’t like on social media. We seek the comfort of our conviction rather than the discomfort of truth, we listen to opinions that make us feel good instead of making us think hard.
- Avoid multitasking: In 2009, a team of researchers at Stanford University wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. The answer, they discovered—people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they are. They were worse at what you might call “mental filing”: keeping the information in the right conceptual boxes and being able to retrieve it quickly. In other words, their minds were more disorganized. And they were even worse at the very thing that defines multitasking itself: switching between tasks. Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think.
- Don’t solve the problem, question the problem: We are so eager to solve problem that we rarely take the time to find out what is the real problem? As a result, we’re chasing the wrong answer, solving the wrong problem. In solving problems, we instinctively want to identify answers. Instead of generating cautious hypotheses, we offer bold conclusion. Instead of acknowledging that problems have multiple causes, we stick with the first cause that pops into minds. Instead of taking time to search for a better question, we are eager to be the first to deliver the correct answer. There’s an old saying, often attributed to Albert Einstein, that if you had an hour to solve a problem and your life depended on the outcome, you ought to spend 55 mins thinking about the problem and five mins implementing the solution. But most people do the opposite.
In this ‘FOMO’ and “YOLO” culture many people have forgotten– how to think for themselves – the power of questioning and thinking critically and independently. In the age of the internet and social media – we are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection. With the ever-increasing glut of information and contrary information, news and fake news, and with the ease with which the internet allows you to surround yourselves with only those who agree with you; the ability to think for yourself is ever more vital in 21st-century.
Adam Grant once said, “Most people aren’t stupid or irrational. We are, instead, what I like to call “blazy”: busy and lazy.” In a world where information is almost infinite, but our time and attention are limited, none of us want to think any harder than we have to.
However, to truly understand what’s really going on with a person, situation, organization, or life itself. We have to do the kind of deep and independent thinking that 99% of the population is not doing, and we have to stop doing the shallow and destructive thinking that people spend 99% of their time doing.
As William Deresiewicz sums up brilliantly, “[Today] What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.“