Critical thinking is the process of approaching thinking from a place of aliveness and play. You don’t just automatically believe everything that’s presented to you. You grab the piece of info and you start “playing” with it. The end goal being arriving at the best possible solution.
Every time you exercise your ability to think. You fortify your critical thinking skills and crush more critical thinking barriers.
But there is a problem.
Our ordinary and convenient lives rarely give us the opportunity to flex our brains. Commonly, the situations we face require a below-average level of thinking.
You drive to work. You solve the same boring and mundane tasks. You go home. You prepare your microwave food. Watch the same shows everybody else is watching. You go to bed.
All of this. Day in. Day out.
Then one rainy day. Seemingly out of nowhere. You face a challenge. Your boss handed you a mission-impossible task and he wants it for today! Your brain paralyzes. It’s not used to thinking. Or at least not used to thinking differently. Therefore, you fail.
It’s like you were playing chess with the graybeard men across the street for years. Suddenly, a black van stops and hands grab you pull you in. The thugs who got you put a black cover on your head and drive with haste. In the next moment. You are seated on a chair. The mask is removed. There is a chessboard and behind the tiny figures, there’s the national Chess master as an opponent.
Most of the time we feel confident about our skills because most of the time, we do things that are below or equal to our skill level. We are used to solving common problems. But we never voluntarily try to handle complicated tasks.
All of this causes our thinking to rust.
Preparedness, it seems, is commonly disregarded.
Unless there is:
- Continuous deliberate practice.
- Feedback about our work.
- Push to expand intellectually.
- Or, at the very least, recurrent engagement in activities that maintain the current level of high-value skill we obtained at some point.
The only thing one can do “on the job” is forget and experience skill degradation.
If you missing all of the above. You probably feel like you’re inside an inescapable maze of sameness. The averageness of the daily tasks that require your attention are unchallenging to say the least. Not only does this makes life start to feel like a burden. But it also deteriorates your cognitive muscles.
So, for those who are interested in bettering their thinking – and I’m all for that. This piece will surely resonate.
Here we go…
Why You Need To Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills?
First things first.
Before unlocking the how to improve critical thinking skills tips, let’s briefly explore why it’s needed.
Like in the introduction, because our thinking is systematically not challenged.
Even if you do somewhat intellectually challenging work. It’s not enough to advance in life because:
- Our brain is extremely adaptable and with time, makes the complicated seem easy.
- Even if we get better at one specific field. It’s not enough. Life requires capabilities in many different fields.
Plus, a more personal observation…
When I was younger, I always thought that adults knew everything about everything. I imagined that they are versed investors. Prolific mathematicians. Rational decision-makers and also master chefs.
With more living, sadly, I realized that age doesn’t equal skills.
Yes, you get to do a lot of things right because you lived long enough to see what shouldn’t be done. But the process of improvement is usually in only one area and also means that: you failed, you failed again, and on the third or the forth time you (hopefully) corrected yourself.
Yet again, if you don’t take steps to expand your portfolio of skills. You probably suck at many other important areas.
Here’s an example:
I vividly remember a case when I was around 20. I just read Rich Dad Poor Dad by the master-guru: Robert Kiyosaki. Inspired by the text. I researched the possible ways to invest my modest savings. Once I found an opportunity, I carefully counted every buck I had, wrote the total sum on a piece of paper and put everything in a lunch bag. Then, I went to the bank super excited to deposit my funds to what was essentially an ETF. I started asking questions about indexes, return of investments, and other terms I just learned about. The bank clerk, a young woman, probably around the age of 35, was steering at me clueless. Then I asked enthusiastically: “Where do you invest your money?” Hoping to get some sound advice. Her eyes froze. I don’t remember if she was offended or agitated. She mumbled something like, “I don’t invest” and she proceeded with handling my transaction.
My assumption was that the bank clerk – since she was working in a bank – is experienced with investing money. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
After this case, I opened my eyes to what can be labeled as socially wide averageness.
Or more precisely:
- You might work in a bank, but this doesn’t automatically make you knowledgeable about investing.
- You might be a school writing teacher, but this doesn’t mean that you are any good with composing readable texts.
- And my personal favorite. The newest thing that is slowly consuming the world… You might have a YouTube channel where you talk about emotional stability, passive income, wellbeing, or something else that’s trending. However, this doesn’t mean – not at all – that you’re good at any of the above.
Plainly, most people, are just stuck in doing what is told to them and not really interested in moving forward.
But not you. You curious bookworm. You want more. You want better.
And the only way this can be achieved is by thinking. Good thinking. Critical thinking.
Critical thinking is the art of challenging the status quo in a world that incentivizes conformity, herd behavior, and materialism.
And if there is one thing that I realized after 30+ years of living on this planet – not that I have experience with living on other planets. Is this: If you want a change. A positive change. You need to change the way you think.
If you are new to the topic. I suggest going first through:
But if you already know the basics. And if you are ready to further develop critical thinking, please be my guest and proceed with:
How to Improve Critical Thinking Skills:
1. Exposing Yourself to Difficult Tasks
A common misconception when people show you how to do a certain job or a specific task is to focus solely on how to do the main things.
I know, it seems obvious for people to focus on that. But bear with me…
Say you just got a job as a Customer Care Representative. The person training you is showing you how to use the software. How to talk to clients. How to write your report at the end of the mentally draining shift. (Except that he’s not telling you that the shifts will deplete every ounce of life you have in you. You will found out about this later yourself). You know, all the usual things that will now become part of your life.
However, what the person fails to introduce you to is how to handle tough cases and emergencies.
While most of the interactions with clients will be quite normal. There is a chance that an extremely angry person can call and leave you speechless. Unable to respond.
Or another case is if the system you use to handle client interactions breaks. What should you do then?
Cases. Difficult cases are rarely mentioned when we get a new job. And not only, during life as well.
Everybody talks about getting a car. Getting a house. Getting a motorcycle. But not everybody knows how to change a tire. What to do when there is a fire in your house. How to fall safely from a motorcycle in case of an accident – yes, apparently there are tips on that.
You know how to get things – buy them. But you don’t know what to do with them when they break. Or need maintenance.
One of the best ways to improve critical thinking skills is by forcefully exposing yourself to tough cases.
Asking yourself: What’s the worst that can happen?
For example, what’s the worst that can happen with my house? A fire that can burn down everything. Then you can ask: What I can do to protect myself from this case?
Or if the above seems too ordinary. You can ask yourself: What’s the worst that can happen in my accounting job? Submit a report with incorrect numbers. The false numbers will lead to tax penalties. The boss won’t be quite happy.
In life, you get better by interacting with tough cases. But the problem is that tough cases are rare occurrences.
While this is definitely good. I mean, fortunately, the roads where we drive our cars are not that bad and we don’t have to change tires daily.
To fast-forward from junior to an expert thinker, you need to forcefully expose yourself to difficult situations. By doing so, you’ll reduce the time needed to improve. Plus, you’ll stretch your brain.
Self-monitoring is about hiring a skeptical ghost from the undead realm to follow you around and to help you question everything.
And by everything. I mostly mean you.
Everybody thinks they are right.
When you are presented with some sort of evidence that confronts your worldview. You have two options: A) change your worldview; B) totally dismiss this evidence and the person presenting it.
Do you know what we commonly choose?
Of course option B.
You lived your whole life with your worldviews. You can’t simply give away part of your identity because you read a blog post on why religion is a waste of time. No, you feel angry that someone is proposing a view different from your own. So, you excommunicate this person from your life.
There are three major points in relation to self-monitoring:
- Biases: We all enjoy that sweet dopamine hit of feeling like we’re right. We are predisposed to accept something as evidence if it confirms what we already think we know. This is the so-called confirmation bias. You focus on things that confirm what you know and you dismiss everything else. But this closed-mindedness is a huge blocker to develop good thinking.
- Emotions: Intelligence and emotional intelligence are two different things. Regardless of how smart you are. If you can’t tame your emotions, you’ll likely end up in prison. OK, probably not in prison. But in a poor financial situation, for example. In the book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman talks about the importance of having both EQ and IQ.
- Performance: Critical thinkers continuously check how they are doing. Good thinkers notice when their performance is not what it should be. Thus, they make the needed corrections.
Overall, it’s about observing yourself from an outside angle and course-correcting.
The above, self-monitoring, we can categorize as something you do now. At the current moment.
But to further develop critical thinking, we need to also look at the past.
That’s where self-reflection enters.
Also known as personal reflection. Journaling. Having a decision journal and regularly adding entries.
These are all ways to reflect on your own thoughts and life.
While I do think that writing down your thoughts is the best way to process them. A useful approach is also simply slowing down and taking the time to think about your beliefs.
We live in a constantly accelerating world.
Information is coming at us from all sides. Our apartments are full of gadgets that discourage thinking, don’t provoke it.
If we don’t take a conscious decision to slow down and think. We’ll just continue living our lives on autopilot.
An example from my personal life is the following: When we sit down to have dinner. If the TV is on, we’ll rarely speak to each other. My brain will be occupied with what’s happening on the screen. In contrast, if the TV is off, I’ll think about question to ask my wife and son. For example, “How was your day? Were you able to solve the task from yesterday? Let’s decide what to do this weekend…”
Since the online world offers endless possibilities. It’s getting harder and harder to focus on what’s happening right now.
It’s much easier to watch a video about self-reflection. About journaling. About how to use a habit tracking journal, for example. Than it is to actually grab a pen and start writing.
Without a form of personal reflection, we’ll be just stuck in the ordinary. Never taking the time to evaluate where we are heading. What should change. And how to actually start that change.
So, don’t just move. Stop for a moment to consider where you are moving towards.
4. Knowledge Audit
The prerequisite for having a sharp brain is exposing yourself to quality content.
You can imagine your brain like an empty aquarium. Fill it with shortsighted and unimportant clips – the ones social media is full of. And you’ll rarely produce something original.
Conversely, if you read challenging books that are created by folks way smarter than you. Good ideas and groundbreaking thoughts will appear almost involuntarily.
But for this to happen, you need both self-awareness and knowledge audit.
There’s an interesting concept that you need to be aware of here.
The so-called unknown unknowns.
Basically, there are stuff we know, stuff we know we don’t know. And there are things we don’t know we don’t know.
For example, if you want to start an online business, but you don’t know anything about programming. You will either hire someone to hook you up with a website, or you will look around for the easiest option to do it yourself. And although there are many ways to start your own store in the online world. Because you are not familiar with “what is possible”. You’ll create a store that basically looks similar to what’s already out there.
Doing a knowledge audit through self-analysis is a powerful tool.
When you’re facing a challenge. You can stop and ask yourself this: “What I don’t know about this problem that will help me solve it better?” And since your lack of knowledge will probably fail to address the question properly. You’ll also have to tackle this one: “Who is regularly exposed to such challenges that will guide me to the best resource?”
5. Intellectual Empathy
We are addicted to our own ideas.
Every person you meet will enthusiastically explain how their ideas and proposals are better than what’s already available. And there is a good reason for that. Imagine that you are constantly doubting every decision or every idea you have.
What do you think will happen then?
You’ll not only constantly feel insecure. Like you are a total fraud. But you’ll go crazy.
The downside of thinking that you’re always right is that you can’t be, in fact, always right. Plus, the other side effect is that no one likes people who can’t accept the other side of the argument.
For this purpose, we have intellectual empathy.
On paper, the concept is incredibly simple. You put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try hard to understand where the other person is coming from.
The job is not to mimic and completely agree with the perspective of the other person. Rather, use it and combine it with your own concept. Eventually, to come up with a third, and better decision.
It seems easy, but it’s not.
The other thing we do – at least I catch myself doing it often. Is that I hear what the other person is saying. I politely nod my head. I verbally accept what he’s suggesting. And then, when we move our separate ways. I throw away his idea and do what I initially considered.
Being intellectually empathetic is hard because it requires overcoming your ego. Letting go of the idea of always being right.
6. Consider The Consequences
Probably the best way for improving critical thinking skills is by asking yourself: What are the consequences?
Every decision causes a ripple effect.
The problem is that the waves of your current decision can cause damages that are not immediately available.
It can take years for something you do currently to turn around and slap you.
For instance, say you have a weekly ritual with your kid. You take him to the local mall, and you let him pick a new toy, book, or something else within the price range of around $20. It might seem innocent at first – and I do know people who are doing it. But what does this habit reinforce? Well, I think a couple of nasty side effects can occur in the long-term: Not appreciating what you currently have; Unnecessary spending; Bad spending habits.
A good technique to embed here is the 10/10/10 rule.
The concept is quite simple.
When you’re about to make a decision, or you are simply thinking about a problem. You approach it by asking yourself: What do the consequences look like in 10 minutes? 10 months? 10 Years?
Write them down. Think about them carefully. Consider the best possible option and stick with it.
It seems easy.
But it rarely is.
For instance, even if you do consider the consequences. You still need to fight your embedded biases.
Yes, you know that you don’t have to eat another dessert. But you want it so badly because it makes you feel good now. At this current moment.
Some Closing Thoughts
The goal isn’t to just think critically this one time.
The real purpose is to craft a system that will reinforce meaningful thoughts every time you need them.
Practicing the habit of thinking is probably the most powerful act you can adopt. As it’s easier to stay in shape than to get in shape. It’s also easier to stay sharp than to get mentally sharp.
As in the chess example in the beginning. Don’t only play against easy opponents. Occasionally, face difficult opposition on purpose. This will prepare you so you can solve complex problems when they surely occur in real life.
Lastly, for departure. I want to leave you with a quote to ponder and an invitation to check this post on critical thinking quotes if you are interested in the deconstruction of smart words said by other people.
“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” Christopher Hitchens
Do yourself a favor:
Join Going Further: A 13-day email series on how to keep progressing in a world tirelessly pushing toward regression. Great for people who feel stuck in the endless loop of not doing.