Critical Thinking and Problem Solving in the Modern Age

Some people still believe that technology can solve all of our problems. While kind of true. We keep forgetting that most of our problems are caused by emotions. Not by mechanical inefficiencies. Meaning that even if we have access to the most advanced computer in the world, we can still end up bankrupt.

We see ourselves as rational actors making rational decisions. Analyzing facts and using artificial intelligence to decide which brand of toilet paper to buy.

In reality, we are emotionally driven spoiled children who crave attention and want others to verbally acknowledge our dominance.

Plainly, we are fundamentally irrational.

That’s where the skill of critical thinking enters the scene.

You can imagine it like your sober smart friend who storms inside the room. Closes your laptop a second before you click the buy button for yet another luxury item that you want to get just so you can share it online to showcase how rich and extravagant you are.

Without thinking. Good thinking. And asking critical thinking questions. We are like drunk teenagers, holding a credit card in front of a computer with a full access pass to the internet. Imagining that stuff can solve all of our problems.

We become compulsive buyers. Always running from one store to the next. Always seeking, but never really finding what we are looking for. And yet, this doesn’t stop us.

As possessed, we pile things in our shopping cart from the infinite shelves. Theorizing, that another pair of sunglasses will finally cover our self-doubt; another productivity app is what we are missing to begin writing the book we want to write; another habit tracker is what we need to fix our bad habits.

Surely the invention of the current machines available to us and the fancy apps we use that help us automate tasks is something to be proud of.

But the problem is that we don’t simply rely on technology. We go to such an extent that we outsource our thinking to the devices we use. (Also known as shifting the burden).

That’s why critical thinking and problem solving are integral skills for any individual. Any person looking to progress in the field he’s operating. Or more generally, advance in life.

What Is Critical Thinking and Problem Solving?

Let’s first define critical thinking and problem solving.

What is it?

A lot of people say that problem solving is another name for critical thinking. But that’s not entirely correct.

You can problem-solve without thinking critically, which will – in most cases – result in a poor outcome.

And opposingly, you can engage in the process of thinking critically without necessarily making an intelligent choice.

Good problem solving is the result of good critical thinking.

When these two work together. We increase our chances to wade through the daily obstacles of life undamaged while remaining on course.

I’ve covered a lot on the topic of becoming a skilled critical problem solver in these pieces: Why is Critical Thinking Important in Daily Life and How to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills.

But let me give you a short overview:

Critical thinking is an entirely different breed from the common thinking strategies. It’s a mental process of calmingly distancing yourself from the general opinions and your own biases. Carefully evaluating and analyzing the presented information. And finally, forming an answer or a conclusion based on logic and reason.

Plainly, critical thinking is one of those skills you can’t afford not to master.

In fact, experienced thinkers, relying on their critical thinking skills can enter domains they know nothing about and still succeed.

Yes, it’s kind of a superpower. And on top of it all, critical thinking and problem solving are considered must-have skills by industry experts around the globe that can help you succeed in the 21st century.1

But there is a common problem.

Modern tech convinced us – at some point – not sure when exactly happened. That we shouldn’t be so critical about the decision we make. That we should entirely trust our devices and blindly do what others are telling us.

Basically, we sacrificed logic and reason for pure pleasure.

Importance of Critical Thinking and Problem solving

While social media is trying to convince us that everything is superb. Tech companies are creating their own social bubble that is distant from the problems of real life – politics, homelessness, poor living conditions in developing countries, etc.

However, real life eventually reaches from the cursed forest, grabs you, and pulls you in.

Let me paint a better picture…

You work for a big tech company. Inside the office. You have everything you need so you can focus 100% on the work you do. A cozy atmosphere. Snacks and beverages. Chefs are preparing custom meals.

And I’m not making this up. More and more tech companies are removing obstacles – like what to eat – so employees can focus on doing their work.

For most of the time outside your job. Your life is pretty carefree, too. You get a good salary. You have enough money to go places. You stare at social media to avoid thinking about the noisy neighbor or about your broken relationship with your spouse.

But what if your car brakes? Your son does something terrible at school – hits another child? You get fired from your job? Your spouse leaves you? Or simply there is a major problem at your job where the common solutions won’t work? Moreover, searching on Google about the solutions brings zero results.

While tech makes the world less frictionless. There is one nasty side effect. The need to think is reduced. We don’t practice critical thinking enough because most of our problems are already solved for us.

When facing a challenge. Commonly, we’ll look for solutions online. We won’t even rely on our brains. We’re just too used to outsourcing thinking to our devices.

A simple example from my personal life is with making calculations.

When I want to calculate the percent off from a given number. While I know how to do it. I no longer trust myself. I have to double-check using an online tool to make sure that what I did manually is correct.

And this is just part of the problem.

When I want to go somewhere. I have to use the GPS. The mental map of where I live is becoming less and less vivid.

How Do We Typically Approach Problem Solving?

Problem solving without critical thinking is like a knife without a handle. When you try to cut something, you cut yourself too.

Say that we are not working in a big tech company where everything is grand. And your problem is that your job sucks.

Here’s how we’ll typically respond to such a situation – there are four main ways:

A problem bubble that expands to the four common ways we respond to problems.
  • Emotionally: “I quit!” Your boss makes a comment about how you dressed today and you just can’t take it anymore. Without considering the consequences. You just fill out your resignation form and you leave the office.
  • Submissively: “I’ll just fill this report like everyone else.” Your job sucks, you know it. But there is no other way. You consider yourself too old to change careers and that’s just life. Sometimes we just have to do what’s necessary.
  • Instinctively: “What I did do the last time my job sucked?” You try to search for solutions from your past and tailor them to the current case.
  • Evasively: “Who said something about a job being bad?” You simply avoid thinking about your problems because it’s a lot easier.

From the above four. Only the instinctive response is a form of good thinking. You try to analyze the situation based on past experiences. And while it’s miles away from the emotional response where you don’t consider whether you’ll have enough money for dinner tomorrow. It’s still not the best approach.

How We Should Approach Problem Solving and Critical Thinking?

Critical problem solvers have a dramatically different approach than the above.

Where there is trouble. A person will summon an elaborate process that will help him figure out an optimal solution based on the specific situation.

Now, I’m not saying that I personally have superpowers in the topic of thinking. But after reading a bunch of books on critical thinking and systems thinking.2 I’ve learned enough to understand that my typical flow of thoughts it’s not optimal. Therefore, my intense curiosity naturally activated exploration phase.

I’ve searched, looked, read… Finally, after digesting acres of information on the topic. I formed the following loop that combines problem solving and critical thinking. Giving you the ability to find gold in the vast ocean of ideas – i.e., find the best solution to a problem.

The process looks like this:

A circle in a loop describing the five steps of problem solving and critical thinking

Process To Think Critically When There Are Problems:

Analyze

Unlike the emotional response, where you just act on impulse. When you apply critical thinking. You stop and analyze.

  • What are the facts?
  • What is true?
  • What is partly true?
  • What are the stories I tell myself?

For instance, if we return to the bad-job example from above. You probably convinced yourself that the job is bad.

If you recently watched videos of millionaire kids dancing around YouTube for a living. It’s no wonder that you are depressed.

Evaluate

At this stage, you dust off your old notebook and you start writing about the situation in a more elaborate matter.

  • What are the pros and the cons of doing this instead of that?
  • What do I want to do in the future?
  • What kind of work doesn’t feel like work?

You make no attempt to mask or hide a piece of info. Even if it feels uncomfortable.

Say that you are watching people on YouTube and this makes you feel uncomfortable about what you do for a living.

Probably you are thinking about this because your job doesn’t give you any deep meaning and purpose. You feel like a cog in a big machine, whereas it seems that the people doing videos on YouTube are living the dream life.

By taking inventory of yourself. You create a vivid image of where you are currently which allows you to map out where you want to be.

Define

What’s the real problem here?

Eventually, you realize that the job is not the problem. It’s your perception of the job you have. Plus, mixed with your exposure to what others are doing for a living. And on the top of the problem cake. You have the existential question about your deep inner meaning in the world.

Here, you need to rethink and define your criteria for what makes the right job for you.

  • Do you want to manage people?
  • Do you want to be managed?
  • Do you want to work for yourself?
  • Do you want a more flexible schedule?

Don’t worry if you can’t immediately answer these questions. This, of course, also includes when you are facing other kinds of issues.

The goal is to define the core problem.

Probably it’s not this specific job. Because if your desire is to be your own boss, any job will have the flaws you currently try to avoid.

Your current gloomy state is probably caused by repressed feelings. Things you’ve wanted to do for years but never had the courage to pursue them.

Form a Strategy

As the saying goes…

“A fool with a plan is better of than a genius without a plan.” T. Boone Pickens

How are you going to solve the problem?

You can browse through the common critical thinking strategies for inspiration.

But typically, the process will look like this:

  • Think in years.
  • Plan in months.
  • Evaluate weekly.
  • Progress daily.

All of this should be supplemented with running a lot of hypothetical scenarios both in your head and on paper.

So, above, we concluded that we don’t want this job but we also don’t want another typical job. We want to create our own job based on our unique characteristics.

This brings us to yet another set of questions…

  • What else can you do?
  • How can you do it?
  • How can it fail?
  • What can you make it to not fail?

Besides asking yourself these questions, if possible, ask other people too. Gather insights and different points of view. Then, combine all opinions and based on that, make a decision.

Decide and Iterate

Don’t get stuck in the planning phase forever.

You can’t problem-solve on paper. You need to do something about the problem.

Once you tested the different ideas. Do something about the situation.

When you do this, you’re completely aware that the first version of the solution might not be the best. But that’s the beauty of problem solving and critical thinking. It’s an ongoing process.

You do something, and then you adjust based on the feedback.

Getting feedback about a decision and making improvements is the best long-term strategy for any decision. The key is to stay open-minded and curious.

Some Closing Thoughts

Life without critical thinking is like living on autopilot. You just follow the herd. You like what others like. You watch what others watch. You do what others do.

And since everything is connected these days. You are always following. Never leading.

There are so many people shouting about what to do. If you don’t mute them for a moment to crystallize what you want to do. You’ll be forever in the never-ending cycle of following.

Critical thinking and problem solving are necessary to become a fully functional adult.

You need problem-solving because, regardless of how we feel about it, life is a series of problems.

And…

You need critical thinking to raise above the herd and see that where the herd is heading is not where you want to be heading.

What’s next?

Probably a good way forward is to start teaching critical thinking or pondering on some critical thinking quotes.

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Footnotes:

  1. American Management Association. AMA Critical Skills Survey: Workers Need Higher Level Skills to Succeed in the 21st Century.
  2. These are just some of the titles I’ve read on thinking during the last few years: Critical Thinking book by Tom Chatfield; Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows; Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke.
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