In some way or another, every person, business, and message we receive, regardless of the medium. Is trying to change our current state. Move us from our present position to a new position. But the new position is often more beneficial for the other party. Not for us.
Brands boldly acclaim that they sell the perfect whatever not because they care about you. But because they care how much of your cash you can transact to them.
They are driven by the following ideology: “What people want today, and how can we
manipulate guide them towards our brand?”
And that’s just a tiny fraction of how others are trying to manipulate you.
Other common things we face daily are…
- Your boss trying to get you to do more work while paying you less money.
- Social media trying to lock you in scrolling mode for as long as possible so you can consume more ads.
- Netflix auto-playing films, hoping you’ll stay a subscriber.
That’s where critical thinking comes in. Your ability to cheerfully doubt every piece of information coming towards you in order to make the right decision, for you. Not for others.
Because let’s face it. Without a sip of skepticism, we’ll never have a firm ground.
Our mind will be like a medieval nomad, jumping from one piece of land to another. Constantly changing sides. Eagerly absorbing everything around you but eventually, feeling depressed by all of this.
Critical thinking is this invisible algorithm in our heads that allows us to better understand ourselves, our motivations, and our goals. Thus, start asking better questions and thinking better. Both of these, leading to making better daily decisions.
But this algorithm needs activating. Nurturing. Upgrading.
You surely think critically in some moments of your life. But chances are that you don’t think critically enough.
In this post, I talk about what is critical thinking. Why critical thinking is important. And, how to think critically.
- What is Critical Thinking?
- Why is Critical Thinking Important in Daily Life?
- Benefits of Critical Thinking
- How to Think Critically?
- What Else Can Help You Think Critically?
- Some Closing Thoughts
What is Critical Thinking?
To answer what is critical thinking, it’s best to start by pointing out what is uncritical thinking.
Plainly, uncritical thinking is agreeing with a piece of incoming information without questioning the claim. You quickly confirm what is being presented without considering the consequences. You simply deal with them once they surely arrive.
Critical thinking, in contrast, is distancing yourself from the presented piece of information and questioning it.
In the book Critical Thinking, Tom Chatfield, the author, shares two concepts that are of great value for exercising this type of thinking:
- Skepticism: Skepticism in the form of critical thinking is about not automatically believing what you hear, read, and see. You initially doubt the presented information to find the truth.
- Objectivity: Objectivity is about spotting the real facts without being influenced by your emotions or the emotions of the other person.
Both of these tools are important for critical thinking.
The first is allowing you to pause and think: “Is this true? Should I trust this claim?”
While the second is questioning the extra questions arising from the above.
I know, it’s kind of confusing. Let me share this graphic so you can better visualize what happens in your head when you think critically:
You see, by default, we are interpreting information in a way that supports our beliefs and values.
For instance, if a politician says that he’s going to renovate the schools in your area. Your thinking might go through the following flow:
- “Should I trust this claim?”
- “Well, why not? This will be great for parents!”
- “I recently became a father. So, it will be great for me, too.”
- “My kid is going to study in a better school!”
Not that we should immediately accuse the politician of lying. But you see how the thinking shifted towards how it benefits me?
If we dig deeper. We might find that this person is an owner of a renovation company. Which can mean that he can hire his company for the renovation. Which, as you can sense where we are going, will mean more money in his pocket.
Why is Critical Thinking Important in Daily Life?
Critical thinking is important in our everyday life because it allows us to first consider the consequences and then make a decision.
After all, how we spent our days is how we spent our lives. And the quality of your life is hugely dependent on the quality of the decisions you make.
Rarely a day goes by without the need to make decisions that will influence your life in the future.
On a daily basis, you are fighting with breaking bad habits. Staying committed to your good habits. Self-regulating yourself and ensuring that you’re doing things in accordance with your long-term goal. On top of it all, constantly asking yourself things like, “Should I believe what I just heard or not?”
Without critical thinking, you’ll be easily swayed by the news circulating. By the gossip on social media. By the new shopping trends online.
All of this, making you ever more… worried by what’s happening around the world, depressed by all the awesomeness flowing in social media, and probably poorer – if you constantly buy things you don’t really need.
With critical thinking, you can distill facts from the news and keep your cool. You can use social media to gather insights, not gather meaningless likes. Spot shopping trends to run a business, not shop endlessly to go out of business.
And these are just some of the benefits of critical thinking.
Benefits of Critical Thinking
1. Ability to Check Your Views
We are hugely influenced by the information we consume. And personally, I think that we are what we consume.
If you read interesting and insightful books. You will have interesting and insightful thoughts. Focus on deep work, long-term games, and have good things to think about.
If you mostly consume gossip and status updates, you’ll prioritize what’s easy, quick, and shallow.
But it’s not enough to simply consume information. We need to do something with it.
Critical thinking allows you to check your views against facts and situations from the real world. After comparing what you know and think to what actually happens. You can update your views and your position.
2. Courage To Change Your Views
This point is a continuation of the above…
Spotting what needs to be changed and actually changing it are two different things.
Normally, people don’t want to change their beliefs. It means going against themselves. It means acknowledging being wrong. Plus, it requires work.
But critical thinkers are perfectly aware that they can’t be right all the time. It’s OK to make mistakes, as long as you learn from your mistakes.
Critical thinkers, expect spotting what needs to change, have the courage to make a change.
3. Ability to Think in Terms of Multiple Causes
When you think singular, you don’t see how your life is slowly navigating you towards an agonizing pit. You only realize this when it’s already too late – once you are already inside the inescapable pit.
For instance, If you choose not to read books today. You don’t become a reader. You don’t gather new insights. You don’t form new ideas. Your curiosity diminishes. You stay on the same job for the rest of your life. Earning the same salary and doing the same things you don’t really enjoy.
You choose to check the evil social media today. You get attached to the cynical short-term games the algorithms provide you with. You prioritize scrolling over talking to your kids and your spouse. You disconnect. Your kid starts to imitate you and becomes the same social media addict. Not inspired to create, only living to consume.
4. Ability to Create Difference Scenarios in Your Head
Making long-term decisions is not only thinking about future gains. It’s calculating what are the best future gains that you can consistently get.
For instance, if you want to make a career change. You’ll probably initially pursue a question like: “What kind of work I can do?” But then the question should steer towards: “What kind of work I can do that has a long-term potential?” And then probably turn to: “”What kind of work I can do that has a long-term potential and I’ll be interested in?”
Yes, probably studying to become a programmer will help you earn a nice salary. Plus, there is surely potential in this kind of work. But what’s the point if you are not really interested in this kind of work?
Probably design is something closer to your persona. Or marketing.
When you think critically, you can play the different scenarios in your head. Create a hypothesis and make a well-informed decision.
5. Ability To Apply Knowledge From Different Fields
High school will teach you to master a particular field and don’t look elsewhere. Life, will teach you that you have to be a healthy generalist to gain the most out of any situation.1
Expertise is absolutely important. But to thrive, you also need to know a lot of different things about a lot of different subjects.
Diverse knowledge is of key importance to handle the diverse challenges that arise daily.
6. Ability To Spot Your Biases
Our mind is preoccupied with existing beliefs that are often more harmful than helpful.
To so-called cognitive biases.
For instance, one famous bias is the availability bias. This concept means that we tend to rely on the most recent information to form a conclusion and act.
For example, if you just heard about a plane crash, you’ll likely avoid air travel. However, if you distance yourself for a moment from this specific news and do your own research. You can see that plane crashes are not that frequent. In fact, statistically, planes are safer than cars.2
Another example is related to my website. Before, the content I produced was based on my current interest. If I came across something interesting, I covered it on my website. As you can sense, this goalless approach didn’t contribute much to the growth of my site. Only when I started following a plan I was able to improve my traffic.
Thankfully, I “caught” myself doing this and made corrections.
The opposite, failure to understand your errors in thinking will result in poor decision-making.3
How to Think Critically?
Critical thinking is about the ability to analyze complex ideas, simplify them to the core components, and then “play” different scenarios with these components to see what will happen.
Different situations require a different approach. But if I’m to create a guide for critical thinking – which I am, in fact, doing – I’ll go with the following steps:
Questing Incoming Information
Everything comings towards you is a piece of incoming information.
As I noted in the beginning, if you’re not thinking critically. You are usually accepting everything – or at least, being influenced by it in some way.
The way you interact with the notification in your phone is a form of critical thinking.
If you check every notification without thinking. Without asking critical thinking questions. You’ll constantly find yourself busy and not getting anything done.
In contrast, when you begin to think critically and you receive a message. Before you respond, you’ll slap your hand that’s about to unlock your phone and ask yourself: “Do I really need to check this or it can wait till I’m ready with reading this awesome guide about critical thinking?”
Distinction Between What’s True and What You Want To Be True
When information is presented to us. Or a thought suddenly forms in your head that creates a desire. There are two main components that you need to distinguish:
- What part is true? Do I really need to purchase a new car? Say that a thought formed in your head about owning a new car. Is this true? Do you really need one? What are the facts? Here you can say that recently your current car is spending a lot of time in the shop for repairs. But you also need to move beyond the current events. How often has your car needed repair before?
- What do you want to be true? Your thoughts will automatically steer you towards the things you desire most. There is a high chance that you want the positive sensations related to purchasing a new vehicle. That’s why in the first section you are only adding reasons to get a new car. But is this really the case, or are you simply convincing yourself this to be the case?
Both of these cases need to be explored in depth to reach an adequate decision.
Create Hypothetical Cases and Explore The Outcomes
You don’t want to spend a full day in the “what is true” phase. Once you have the main insights, move to this stage.
Create different hypothetical cases to see what potentially can happen.
Say if you’re wondering about quitting your job and starting an online business.
Probably you’re inspired by the recent craze around the Great Resignation movement – a.k.a. the Big Quit. Or you recently read Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber and you can unsee the stupidity of your day-to-day activities.
To move forward toward some sort of decision, you need to explore the different scenarios.
The main paths in relation to quitting a job are the following:
- Stay in your current job.
- Look for another similar job.
- Learn new skills and find a different, more meaningful job.
- Quit and start your own business.
- Don’t quit, but start a business on the side.
- Find a different job and still start a business.
Once we have the main scenarios, we need to further explore them based on our current lifestyle, goals, and ambitions.
Probably you don’t have enough time to acquire new skills in order to find another job. Or, you do have time, but you find it pointless to acquire skills related to a new job whereas you can be building a skill set that will help you build your own company.
Again, it comes down to more questions. And each one of the likely outcomes needs to be explored.
A couple of useful questions to ask yourself for each scenario are:
- What might happen if go in that direction?
- How my day-to-day life will change? Can I manage?
- What is the worst-case scenario? Am I willing to live with that?
- What is the best-case scenario? How likely is it to happen?
- If I ignore my biases and my emotions and only consider the facts, what is the most practical choice?
Again, during all of this questioning, you must preserve a neutral position. Yes, do think about your goals and desires. But don’t let these cloud your thinking.
Surely some of the options sound more glamorous – starting a business and boasting about this online. But if you start something mainly hoping to get external validation, you won’t get far. You need inner drive to handle obstacles and move beyond the Plateau of Latent Potential.
What Else Can Help You Think Critically?
Critical thinking is a powerful way of thinking, but you don’t just start doing it. Unless, of course, you are some kind of child prodigy connected to the internet.
For the ordinary folks reading, like me, here are three extra things to do so you can boost your critical thinking skills:
- Time to think: Making a smart decision is not only about being smart. It’s about creating a gap between the thing that requires a decision and the decision itself. You need time to explore the different situations and consider how the outcomes can play out.
- Knowing yourself: There is a reason the words “know thyself” were inscribed in the stone above the ancient Greek Temple of Apollo at Delphi. When we know how we usually think, when we know the limits of our knowledge, we will better know how to act – or don’t act.
- Reading books: Reading books is not only the best way to gather insights and create an elaborate library of mental models in your head. It’s also a therapeutic activity. Sure, you can jump into the void of social media and get lost in all the cleverly constructed short-form messages. But this will usually lead to more confusion and exhaustion, not to more insights. Reading books is an inseparable part of the process of critical thinking. Each book adds more viewpoints that help you uncover the uncertainty surrounding the decision.
Some Closing Thoughts
Critical thinking boils down to: Let me think about it. Then, actually thinking about it.
The more you practice critical thinking, the less you’ll say things like: “Oh, I didn’t think about that.”
All of this doesn’t mean that you’ll constantly make the best decision – or become the god of decision making. But chances are you’ll make better decisions than you’d normally would.
You’ll remove your own blinders, start asking more questions, anticipate what might happen, and based on this make fewer mistakes.
A nasty side-effect of becoming a critical thinker is becoming a person who is always against what others think. Not because you want to argue with them, but because others usually don’t fully apply their ability to think and fall into groupthink.
And groupthink, is one of the barriers to critical thinking.
Do check the just-shared link to find ways to free your mind from the most common thinking hurdles.4
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- For this topic check Range by David Epstein.
- For more information on the topic, read this article: “Is Flying Safer Than Driving?“
- I’ll highly recommend checking my article on mental models for decision-making to equip your brain with even more concepts about making the best decision.
- As an extra note here, you can also see what are the 7 critical thinking skills that will help you further develop your critical thinking.