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Eight Ways to Become a Better Thinker

Ideas you can use solo or with others.

Key points

  • The power of being a careful listener is underestimated.
  • When you talk, pretend you're talking with an unusually intelligent person.
  • Tutoring and quality courses in critical thinking may be available.
  • Keep a nugget file of suggestions you've received for improving your reasoning skills.
Robin Higgins, Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Robin Higgins, Pixabay, Public Domain

In yesterday’s post, I described The Wisdom Project, in which I reviewed thousands of quotations from respected luminaries to identify quotes of particular relevance to this blog's readers.

In doing that research, I was struck by how many of those renowned people, across a wide range of fields, stressed the importance of thinking skill and lamented humankind’s lack of it.

Here are just three of the many quotes from those luminaries. I offer them in hopes it will motivate you to use what then follows, this post's essence: eight ways to become a better thinker.

Cosmologist Carl Sagan: The dangers of not thinking clearly are much greater now than ever before.

NYU ethics and social psychology professor, Jonathan Haidt: Even when the servant (reasoning) comes back empty-handed, the master (intuition) doesn’t change his judgment.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins: Do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you.

Becoming a better thinker

Here are eight ways to become a better thinker.

Listen carefully: Is the speaker appealing more to reason or to emotion? Do you sense fair-mindedness or bias? Is the person presenting pros and cons or cherry-picking? For example, if a psychologist speaker is basing belief in a therapeutic modality on just an anecdote or two, beware. There is strength in numbers.

Don't reflexively accept ideas that are conventional wisdom. It's tempting, even reflexive, to agree with them. Rather, weigh each argument on its merits.

When making an argument, picture your listener being highly intelligent. As you’re making an argument, imagine that the other person is at least as intelligent as you are.

Include necessary nuance: Black/white thinking, sometimes evinced with such words as "always" or "never" are clues to insufficient awareness that much wisdom lives in the gray.

Be sure that one idea follows from the other. If the connection isn't self-evident, offer a connective such as, "Here's an example in a different context." Avoid tangents—Too often, they're more interesting to the speaker than to the listener, who may view the speaker's thinking as disjointed and discursive.

Consider addressing a likely objection. For example, if you’re a psychologist talking to a Freudian, you might start by making the best argument you can for Freudianism and only then explaining why, net, you believe some other modality is usually wiser.

Hang out with good thinkers and ask for honest feedback: Ask such people to tell you when your thinking isn’t solid, That may be the most potent way to improve your thinking because you're getting feedback that is individualized and in context.

It's often difficult for someone to explain how you're not being logical. If the explanation isn't clear, give a second chance, for example, "Would you mind reexplaining that. I'm not sure I quite got it."

Read articles in periodicals known for their intellectual rigor yet are interesting to the general public. Also, consider reading the transcripts of debates on IntelligenceSquaredUS.org.

Take a course in critical thinking. Consider a COVID-safe online course such as the highly-rated one offered by Duke University. To date, it has enrolled more than 300,000 students, average rating: 4.6 stars out of 5.

Some courses may not officially be on thinking yet can help, for example, those on rhetoric or interpersonal communication.

Get a coach. One-on-one coaching is among the most potent ways to grow, especially in an area as complex as thinking. So consider asking a high school or college debate coach if s/he would work with you one-on-one.

Join a debate society. They exist worldwide, including for adults. Or, if you’re in high school or college, consider joining the debate team. Preparing for a debate is non-stop critical thinking. Plus, debate groups provide ongoing feedback on the quality of your reasoning: from your debate coach, teammates, and judges.

Keep a nugget file. Keep a file of all the mistakes and lessons learned from the above. Review it periodically.

The takeaway

It’s difficult to improve thinking skills because they’re complex and context-dependent. So, patience is required. But if you use this post's suggestions, you'll have rational reason for optimism. And if you become even a modestly better thinker, that, perhaps more than anything else, should improve both your professional and personal life.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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