The one skill that will start getting you better results in your life starting today is…critical thinking.
- What we decide to do with our life
- Where we work
- Who we are friends with
- How we treat people
- How we respond to the negative emotions of others (how we interpret their emotions like anger, sadness, fear, etc)
- Our financial success
- Who we vote for
- What our character is
- Our understanding of what’s true and real
Literally everything. Many view critical thinking merely as something we apply to problems outside of ourselves – how to get ahead in our career, solve problems at work, etc – and that’s true. But if we apply critical thinking internally as well – our character, thoughts, behaviors, patterns and psychology – we can improve our relationships, career success (because we become more emotionally intelligent), and more.
It’s fair to say the better quality our thinking is, the better our quality of life will be.
“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”― Albert Einstein
For some of you it may be hard to accept the fact that we have so much control over our lives. And yes, some of what happens in our life is outside of our control. But most of it is in our control, and is the result of our thinking.
What is Critical Thinking, Exactly?
There are different types of critical thinking, and also different ways of practicing it.
The different types and ingredients of critical thinking can include (R):
- Analytical thinking
- Emotional intelligence
- Open-mindedness – Necessary to evaluate different, sometimes opposing pieces of information in order to make a decision or judgment)
- Decision making
- Self-correcting (R) – What we think changes as we consider new evidence or angles (yet changing our mind is often stigmatized in society)
Part of the problem is that I’m not sure that critical thinking is being taught effectively in our schools. Here in America, I do see a lot of intelligence and rational thinking, but I also see a LOT of ignorance, bad thinking, and poor judgment.
Just take our current political divide, for example. It is difficult for those on the hard left or right to even remotely consider how the other side might have some valid points.
As the key ingredient of critical thinking is open-mindedness, the key ingredient of ignorance is bigotry.
If we’re not learning from different perspectives, we are not getting any closer to the truth, which means we’re not actually learning anything, which means we are not getting the results in life that we could be getting.
My, what a better world we’d live in if we humans regularly chose to consider information outside of what’s comfortable for us, or to consider that it’s our thoughts, patterns, behaviors, and actions that is creating our results in life.
Some successful people think that, since they are successful in their careers, they must be excellent thinkers in all other areas of life. But sometimes success makes people arrogant and even bigoted.
How quickly we think also has a massive impact on the quality of our thinking. In the books Thinking, Fast & Slow and Deep Work, we learn that without slow contemplation, we are much more likely to make logical errors.
If we don’t take the time to think through our lives, we’re not likely to make much progress toward our goals, and are more likely to fail or hurt others.
Lastly, since critical thinking involves the weighing of facts, knowledge and evidence, it stands to reason to consider evidence thresholds – Or, how much evidence we require before forming a belief.
Why does that matter? For example, how much evidence or thinking does it take us to:
- Form a conclusion about what others think of us?
- Form a conclusion about what you think of someone else?
- What someone really means when they react to what you’re saying?
- That expensive item at the store that you have the impulse to buy?
- That feeling or idea that you have at work that you’re sure is the right thing to do?
- Form the conclusion that our results in life must be someone else’s fault or the fault of our environment?
- That belief you have about that leader or politician that makes you trust them?
You see, the intuitions, feelings, beliefs and conclusions we come to need questioned. Our feelings and intuitions are prone to error if we don’t take the time to think through them and question them.
In our quest for truth and getting better results in life, there are cognitive biases that can make it difficult for any human to make errors. Some cognitive biases include:
- Confirmation Bias
- Pride in general
- The Dunning-Kruger effect
- Fundamental Attribution Error
- Recency Effect
- Cognitive Dissonance
- Slippery Slope Fallacy
And many more. Keep this in mind when you think you’ve found the truth about a subject or solution to your life problem.
How to Start Practicing Critical Thinking
My purpose in this article is only to give you a primer of how to practice the skill of critical thinking. It is up to you to identify what problems in your life need thought through and solved.
There are three key ways to start practicing critical thinking:
- Reading the works of other thinkers
- Writing, journaling & thinking
- Consume information from balanced sources
Read the works of other thinkers
In order to learn how to think accurately and clearly, you need to think through the writings of other thinkers. Learn how they dissect a problem, what evidence they present, the conclusions they come to and how they got there.
Don’t just take what they say as gospel, either. Practice questioning their conclusions: Is there another side to their argument? For instance, if a thinker says, “the key to life is following your passion!”, is that actually true? Why could it be true? Could the key to life be something else? Why or why not?
Even then, as you dissect other thinkers and start to form your own conclusions, realize that your conclusions could still be wrong. Researchers spend years of their life discovering new truths about a subject, and are still skeptical of the truth. The universe is huge and complex, always in flux. Be humble about what you think is truth.
Writing, Journaling & Thinking
The way we become better thinkers is…by thinking. Practice may not make perfect, but it will get us close. As we think through how to get better results in life – get a better job, start a business, become marriage material, invest, etc – we get better at solving problems.
We can practice thinking by simply thinking about any given problem, but I believe that journaling is a more effective method.
“Writing for yourself is a powerful search mechanism: there’s no better way to find out who you are and what you know and what you think.”William Zinsser, On Writing Well
I generally just start journaling the happenings of the day – what went well, what didn’t go well, the things I felt and thought about any given situation, etc. As I log what happened in the day, I get naturally curious about certain things:
- Why was I tired today?
- Why did I get impatient with my coworker?
- Why did I give in to that temptation to lust, spend money on something I didn’t need, etc?
Then, you can get more granular and specific, and start nesting your bullet points within each other. This is where we get into what I call critical journaling.
For instance, let’s say I wanted to go deeper on why I was tired today. Here’s how it could go:
- Why was I tired today?
- Didn’t sleep well
- Stayed up too late
- Drank too much alcohol (which hurts how deeply I sleep)
- My room wasn’t as dark as usual
- Forgot to take my melatonin
- Stress and anxiety, from:
- Work pressure
- Family conflict
- Financial pressure
- Didn’t eat enough healthy or anti-inflammatory foods
- Maybe I should drink some green tea or take some fish oil
- Didn’t sleep well
…and so on. This method of analyzing important problems in your life will help you get the results you want in life, and you will become a better thinker over time.
Practice thinking by staying curious
Pick out interesting problems that you’d like to learn more about and practice tackling them. This is what I do here on my blog, which is why I write about broader, social topics like whether Trump or Obama should’ve gotten credit for the good economy under Trump.
This is also why I’ve become so valuable at the marketing agency I work for. Over the span of my career, I’ve been interested in all kinds of problems that relate to my work – SEO, coding, websites, WordPress, advertising, copywriting, social media, design, and more. By staying curious about different topics, taking good notes, and analyzing what you learn with critical journaling, you can become quite competent at many different areas.
Keep your information inputs balanced
It’s important to get your information from multiple, opposing perspectives, but mostly from moderate perspectives. When it comes to the news, I’d suggest getting your information mostly from moderate sources like the BBC, Reuters and NPR. Both CNN and Fox News are equally guilty of severe bias. I’d also recommend The Factual to get a daily flow of highly credible, rigorous reporting from mostly center, but also left and right perspectives.
Keeping your information inputs balanced will make sure your thinking doesn’t get too biased, and will give you a more complete picture of the truth compared to your peers.
And just like the news, so goes with any area of life where you need to consume information – your career, finances, relationships, and more.