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Master the 3 Basics of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a whole lot harder than it looks.

Key points

  • The best way to build strong mental muscles is the same as building physical muscles: Exercise regularly.
  • Often, you don’t need to make important decisions based on your current judgment.
  • Good decision-making is about being able to predict likely outcomes.
magele-picture/Adobe Stock
magele-picture/Adobe Stock

Critical thinking skills are incredibly valuable–among the most in-demand skills in nearly every labor market sector. They are so valuable and in demand because they are considered to be in relatively short supply. That’s because critical thinking is a whole lot harder than it looks.

Critical thinkers do not leap to conclusions. Instead, they take the time to consider various possibilities and do not become too attached to one point of view. They do not latch on to one solution. Rather, they know that most solutions are temporary and improve over time with new data. Critical thinkers are in the habit of distinguishing between reliable and unreliable sources. They carefully weigh the strengths of conflicting views and apply logical reasoning. Critical thinkers are, at once, open to the views of others and supremely independent in their judgments.

If you want to set yourself apart at your job or in the hiring process, these are the three elements of critical thinking to master.

1. Proactive Learning

Here’s why you should care about proactive learning: Of course, the more you learn, the more you will know. But there is more to it than that: All the leading research shows that the very act of learning also strengthens your mind. If you are not actively learning, your mind is weakening—just like any muscle. No matter how smart you are, if you are not actively learning, you steadily lose those smarts over time.

The best way to build strong mental muscles is the same as physical ones: exercise them regularly. That means studying information, practicing technique, and contemplating multiple competing perspectives:

  • Stored knowledge is the result of studying good information.
  • Stored skills are the result of practicing good technique.
  • Stored wisdom is the result of contemplating multiple competing good perspectives.

“Good technique,” in the case of non-physical skills, means keeping an open mind. That means suspending judgment, questioning assumptions, and continually seeking the best new information, technique, and perspective.

2. Problem-Solving

In today’s information environment, so many answers to so many questions are available at the tip of their fingers. Many people today are simply not in the habit of truly thinking on their feet. Without a lot of experience puzzling through problems, it should be no surprise that many people are often puzzled when encountering unanticipated problems.

Here’s the thing: Usually, you don’t need to make important decisions based on your current judgment. You are much better off if you can rely on the accumulated experience of the organization in which you are working.

Ready-made solutions are just best practices captured, turned into standard operating procedures, and deployed throughout the organization to employees for use as job aids. The most common is a simple checklist:

  • If A happens, do B
  • If C happens, do D
  • If E happens, do F

What kind of job aids do you have at your disposal to deal with recurring problems? If you already have such job aids at your disposal, how can you better use them as learning tools?

And here’s the good news: By mastering these best practices, you will get better not only at solving the specific problems anticipated but also much better at solving unanticipated problems. By implementing specific step-by-step solutions to recurring problems, you will learn a lot about good problem-solving.

3. Decision-Making

Decision-making is not the same as sheer brain power, mental capacity, or natural intelligence. It’s not a matter of accumulated knowledge or memorized information. It is more than the mastery of techniques and tools.

Good decision-making is about predicting likely outcomes–the ability to see the connections between cause and effect–to project out the consequences of one set of events and actions instead of another. The irony is that learning from the past is the only way to develop that “go forward” ability to predict the future.

But experience alone does not teach good decision-making. The key to learning from experience is paying close attention and aggressively drawing lessons from one’s experiences. If you can begin to see the patterns in causes and their effects, you can start thinking ahead with insight. Ultimately, that’s the key to better decision-making.

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