The Most Important Thing School Never Taught You
Humans. The major advantage we have - over every other species - is our ability to think rationally. It has allowed us to build cities, cars, and computers. It has allowed us to bend nature to our will.
The quality with which we think determines the quality of our future. It’s undeniable, quality thinkers are critical thinkers.
In my last essay, you may have seen that - after the first 2 years of college - 45% of students showed no gains in critical thinking. 45%! That’s almost half. It’s frightening because the same system that made our cities so powerful, school, is now becoming a system of indoctrination for our young.
The quality of our future is defined by the quality of our thinkers. The quality of our thinkers is determined by their abilities to think critically. Before we can dive deeper into critical thinking, we need to discuss rational thinking.
What is rational thinking?
A perfectly rational being, which doesn’t exist, makes decisions purely based on logic, data, and empirical evidence. Let’s assume that it’s the highest form of conscious thought. Critical thinking can be seen as a necessary step towards perfectly rational thinking.
What is Critical Thinking?
I like to define critical thinking as a personality trait instead of a skill. It’s a commitment towards truth and self-directed thinking.
A critical thinker thinks offensively. They take active ownership of their learning and understanding. Just as a bodybuilder finds a natural habitat in the gym, the critical thinker finds enjoyment in mental strain. They know a tough mental workout will strengthen their ability to think rationally.
A passive thinker thinks defensively. How can I fit in? What will make people accept me? What will help me pass this test? They avoid mental strain and outsource the difficult thinking to others. They default on the opinion of experts, instead of forming their own.
A critical thinker thinks in terms of systems but a passive thinker thinks in terms of goals. The passive thinker asks, “what will get me an A on this essay?” The critical thinker asks, “what are the traits of an excellent essay?” The end result for both is the same: a perfect grade. On the surface, the two paths seem the same but they’re not. The critical thinker forms a system that can reproduce the same result in multiple situations for various people but the passive thinker achieves the result in a specific scenario.
The passive thinker is focused on outputs while the critical thinker is focused on inputs. This is a very subtle but important difference in character.
Why is Critical Thinking Important?
Let’s consider two key types of understanding:
Intuitional: this is an immediate understanding of an idea, or the recognition of a pattern, based on past experiences.
Rational: this is an understanding achieved through conscious reasoning.
In situations where we lack the intuition, critical thinking can help us make more rational and justified decisions. Critical thinkers have improved empathy which makes them better leaders and teammates than those who don’t think critically.
Critical thinkers are also more creative than passive thinkers.
The Benefits of Critical Thinking
Decision making. Critical thinkers are less likely to make sudden judgments without a clear understanding of the information at hand. As a result, they are less likely to make irrational and emotional decisions or be manipulated by others.
Empathy. Critical thinkers know that there are multiple ways to view the world. They understand that we all have our own unique view of the world. They avoid judging others until they have attempted to step into their shoes and try to understand how they see the world. This ability helps them diffuse tense situations and aids in persuasion. It’s an essential skill for any great leader or teammate.
Deep learning. When they don’t know something, critical thinkers admit they don’t know. They only speak on topics that they have actively studied for themselves. In a 2007 commencement speech, Charlie Munger made a beautiful distinction between the two kinds of knowledge in the world:
Planck is the quintessential critical thinker while the chauffeur is a passive learner. Planck learned deeply while the chauffeur skimmed the surface.
Creativity. Without critical thinking, creativity would not exist. If creativity is the creation of something original, then critical thinking is a crucial part of the recipe. Critical thinkers refuse to blindly accept the ideas and values of others which results in the generation of new ideas.
How Do You Become a Critical Thinker?
This is the trillion dollar question. I should reiterate that I am talking about critical thinking in the sense that it is a personality trait and not a skill. The tendency to think critically about the world emerges from having the proper character traits. I think the following traits serve as an appropriate starting point:
There is no quick hack to becoming a critical thinker BUT there are some habits that one can build to alter their character in the right direction.
Read a lot, and read widely. Exposing yourself to unique points of view is a good way to spark constant curiosity and to stay open-minded. Well-read people understand that there are always multiple ways to look at a problem and multiple lenses with which to view the world.
Don’t jump to conclusions. A good critical thinker has built up the habit of not jumping to conclusions, especially in the absence of data. They only make a judgment once they’ve studied a topic in some depth and can justify their position with sound reasoning.
Create systems, not goals. For example, creating a system, habit, or ritual that promotes writing everyday is more effective than setting the goal of writing an essay a week. A system can be measured, refined, and optimized. A goal cannot. I can work on the inputs of my system to create better quality and quantity of outputs. A goal only focuses on the output. To improve the quality of my writing, I created a checklist that I can run through after completing each essay. Every time I use my system, I create better essays. With every essay I finish, I go back and refine my system. It’s a feedback loop that can be measured and improved.
Argue with yourself. Great thinkers routinely and intelligently try to counter their own arguments. They go back and forth until only the most rational, and strongest argument exists based on the knowledge they have. This is also the mission of any good scientist. The scientist tries to prove themselves wrong, not right. When they continually fail to do so, it’s very likely that only the truth remains.
Change your opinion. Be unattached to information. Have the willingness to change an opinion in the face of better data.
Write. Writing is thinking. The better we get at writing, the better we get at thinking. Writing also helps us separate what we actually know from what we think we know. This quote beautifully summarizes the power of writing:
Writing is one of the ultimate meta-skills: a skill that allows you to develop other skills. Like Jordan said, writing leads to better thinking, communication, reading, and researching skills.
Seek adversity. This one is controversial but I believe it's the most powerful. The main reason schools fail to teach critical thinking is because they don't create the optimal environment to foster the correct character traits. Schools are overly standardized and structured. The rules are very rigid. Once students understand the rules, school becomes a game. Once they’ve established a game strategy that works, they can play the game very passively and get by. Most students quickly learn the bare minimum amount of effort required to get a job, and then they have no incentive to work harder and to think actively. However, if you take them out of that game - if you break the immersion - they are now forced to think critically. In adversity, they learn to create new rules and break old ones. They have to because it’s either do or die.
The shift from a passive thinker to an active thinker is very subtle on the surface because it happens internally. It requires internal conviction: a strong belief in oneself. Regardless of how many tips I give someone to become a critical thinker, it ultimately has to come from a deep desire within. Most great women and men have gone through adversity. Why? Because adversity generates a lot of internal conviction. This internal conviction drives them, and constantly shifts them into active modes of thinking. Instead of living defensively, they attack life with ferocity. They know they will die one day, time is running out. They don’t know when that day will come so they attack life. They race against death because they have a purpose to fulfill.
The Tendency to Think Critically
I like to think of critical thinking as a tendency and not a skill. Great thinkers constantly tend towards critical thinking in their daily lives. If school doesn’t teach students critical thinking, where are people learning it? Life. Adversity. Books. The internet. These people become critical thinkers despite school, not because of it. They learn it because they have to. I believe that, one day, schools will catch up and do a better job of fostering this environment but, thankfully, we always have the power to put ourselves in a position to learn it. I’d like to leave you with this quote: