Let’s first define critical thinking so you have a solid understanding of how to use this invaluable skill in your life.
Critical thinking centers around taking in multiple data points and using those to think about a problem without emotion. The removal of emotion is also called objective thinking.
What makes critical thinking so hard is our inability to remove personal opinions and bias completely. We are humans, after all, and so we think through our own unique perspectives.
Some of us will have natural proclivities that might make us better or worse at critical thinking since some traits can be beneficial in certain situations. For example, maybe you have a positive bias because you are a naturally optimistic person. Great, so when you look at problems, you tend to find the bright spots, the positives come naturally to you.
On the flip side, maybe you have a negative view of things, and so you quickly see the flaws in a proposal. This allows you to easily tease out the weaknesses of anything you analyze.
As you probably guessed, the key to critical thinking is utilizing your natural strengthens while doing your best to avoid the traps of conflation that come through emotion and bias.
This brings us to the first strategy for better critical thinking:
- Recognize your mental strengths and weaknesses, so you can work to avoid the traps of your mind
If you know you tend to see the positive in a situation, then you can train yourself to take a negative view as a thought exercise. Then go on to try to find every possible hole in the problem you are tackling, even if it doesn't come naturally to you.
Then reverse this process and do the other end.
After you compile this data, come to the middle and observe objectively. This will get you close to probable truth, since the best answer to most problems is somewhere in the middle, as Aristotle called it "The Golden Mean."
Critical thinking questions to ask yourself for better thinking
- What part of this do I think I know?
- What if what I know now was false? What would that force me to do?
- What are the assumptions around this issue? (Society, personal, etc.)
- Is someone benefiting from the way things are?
- What do I want to believe about this situation? (Then ignore that)
- How does it work in basic terms? (You'd be surprised by how few people ask this simple question.)
- What things do I know for sure do not work? Start making a list of things that don't work first before trying to build a list of what might work.
Why is critical thinking important?
This one's easy to answer: because a lack of critical thinking is how you get tyrants and millions dead and oppression.
The unsuspecting and susceptible public will listen to whatever the elite says. Then, before they've had a chance to realize what happened, you end up with Nazi Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union.
And these are just a few famous historical examples. There are countless throughout history. What about the massive number of errors humans make on a regular basis. So much of our natural error is prevented if we think more before we act. This is obviously more difficult and takes more time, but is imperative for making better decisions.
Critical thinking is essential for making better decisions in your life.
If you can't analyze multiple data points and bring them together to make informed decisions, you'll make many faulty life decisions. This will cost you time, money, and suffering.
So the short answer is because critical thinking can save you a mountain of time, money, and suffering.
What are examples of critical thinking?
Here are some critical thinking examples you can use in your everyday life.
Critical Thinking scenario #1: Settling disputes
This is one of the essential uses for critical thinking in life: resolving disputes between two parties when you are acting as a meditator.
Say you are a manager or a friend or a family member, and you are tasked with helping two people resolve conflict.
These situations are always touchy since emotions are high. This makes it, so each person involved in the dispute is not thinking critically; they think emotionally. And that's why you are brought in to act as an arbiter to help bring each together to common ground.
It is on you as the mediator to be as objective as possible.
You will gather data from both sides by asking questions. You will then do your best to sift through each point and ask clarifying questions to help each side reach consensus by understanding each side's point of view.
When emotions are high in any situation, critical thinking skills are paramount for coming to a resolution.
Critical Thinking scenario #2: Moving
Some studies show that moving is one of the most stressful things people do.
There are many variables to consider, such as location, cost of living, distance to family and friends, traffic, climate, etc.
Maybe you are just moving across town because you want to reduce your commute. If that becomes your primary deciding factor, you might not realize the cons of moving to a new area until you've already done so. This can be a costly mistake financially and mentally as you could very well end up living for a year in a place that makes you miserable.
Using critical thinking would be making a list of the multiple variables, something like a pros and cons list. It would also require researching the area and making notes about parks, traffic, crime rates, and so on.
If you are moving to another country or state, critical thinking becomes the most important skill you will use for understanding the many variables, many of which are complex and might be completely new to you if you are moving to a jurisdiction with different laws, regulations and cultural norms.
Critical Thinking scenario #3: Financial decisions
What better use case for critical thinking skills than money decisions.
There are countless books, articles, podcasts, youtube videos, and TV shows dedicated to financial advice and news.
And much of this becomes a distraction for most investors. This overload of information, sometimes conflicting information, can reduce clear critical thinking.
The better you can bring in data and assimilate it using critical thinking, the better decisions you will make. This is why critical thinking is imperative to making sound financial decisions.
Skepticism and critical thinking
Skepticism is the challenging of ideas. It is a skill all people should have, especially scientists and policymakers. (If only it were a more popular trait, we'd have a far better world and government.)
Being a skeptic goes hand in hand with critical thinking. They help each other.
Instead of blindly accepting whatever you read, hear, or see, you ask clarifying questions from a perspective of "innocent until proven guilty."
Meaning, you assume something is wrong and then work to prove it right rather than doing what most non-skeptics do: accept things at face value.
Accepting things at face value is dangerous, and you can see countless examples of this human error throughout history.
Every new idea, belief, or data point must prove itself. This is the skeptic's world-view. And the way to come closer to a conclusion is to use critical thinking skills.
Critical thinking quotes
Here are some of the best critical thinking quotes from history.
"The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks."
Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian
"Do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you."
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.”
“Too often we... enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
John F. Kennedy
“The most fundamental attack on freedom is the attack on critical thinking skills.”
“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking.”
George S. Patton
Critical Thinking exercises for better thinking
1. Read biographies
When you can learn from someone else's life, you have a tremendous advantage over those that take the hard way of figuring it out themselves.
You can see the trails people have faced and what they did to overcome them as well as the mistakes and successes they had as a result. Biographies are a treasure trove of knowledge.
2. Read history
"Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it."
This is the case because humans remain the same while the times change. And people forget. So they go on to make the same mistakes their ancestors made.
Generation after generation has to learn lessons the hard way. But you don't have to because you can sharpen your critical thinking by arming yourself with knowledge of history.
3. Argue The Other Side
This is not an easy one since it will require you to set your ego aside.
Take a topic you are passionate about and then pretend you are debating the opposing side.
Then go on to debate that argument. Try to win the argument against yourself, against what you currently believe.
The best critical thinkers can debate from any side. Few master this technique because of the cognitive dissonance that comes with challenging your beliefs. All the more reason you should use this strategy: this is critical thinking on steroids!
Barriers to critical thinking
Sometimes it’s the absence of something that can lead you to finding the answer. This is called the “inversion” technique. By looking at the opposite of something you want to figure out, you can find a different perspective that’ll allow you to consider things you may not have considered initially.
Most focus on thinking about the thing they want to achieve or about the goal they want to achieve. So they think to add things. They think that some kind of adding or new thing is the answer.
Often the answer is a removal of something.
The most obvious barrier to critical thinking is letting emotion seep into your thought process.
If you think emotionally, you aren’t thinking critically. If you are thinking critically, you aren’t thinking emotionally.
See how they relate?
Thus the first thing you must do is remove the greatest barrier to critical thinking: you must remove emotion from your thought process completely.
Strategies for this are many. Here are a couple ways to remove barriers to critical thinking:
- Take a break - come back another day or later in the day when you’ve had a chance to unwind your emotions and return to baseline.
- Ask a third party - find someone that has nothing to do with your topic or situation and bounce some ideas off of them.
- Write and/or journal - make a pro/cons list or write out whatever comes to mind. Get out anything in your mind onto paper.
First Principles: A Foundation For Critical Thinking
We've covered a lot of critical thinking. Now for the conclusion that sums it up and simplifies it for you. Developing critical thinking skills in your life will help you in your career, your relationships, your finances, in everything!
So why don't more people use this invaluable skill?
Because it requires energy and time, two things most people don't like to give up.
I want to leave you with the foundational principle for thinking critically: first principles.
First principles are the foundational facts you know for sure. For example, 1 + 1 = 2. You know this, and so you build complex equations on top of it.
If 1 + 1 did not equal 2, you'd have problems since everything on top would fail.
Many problems are complex, and the variables vague and hard to understand. This is where the first principles approach come in. You boil things down to the lowest form you can go. This removes the complexity and gives you a template to build up from.
A famous example of using first principles thinking is found in the story of Elon Musk creating SpaceX.
He was trying to make launching a rocket less expensive than the going $75-150 million dollar cost that was standard in the industry.
So he asked himself, "What is the cost of the raw materials that go into building a rocket—silicon, steel, fuel, etc."
The cost of the raw materials was a fraction of the going rate to launch a rocket into space.
So he figured out that he could save millions per launch if he manufactured parts in house over buying it from hundreds of thousands of other companies (all of which must bake profits into their cost).
And he revolutions the space industry as a result.
You've probably heard the phrase, "keep it simple stupid."
Humans complicate things. We seek complexity because the flashiness of it convinces us it must be better or the way to go. The reality is, most things come from a dedication to the basics. That's what the first principles approach signifies.
Using critical thinking and a first principles framework will make you a better decision-maker than you could have ever dreamed.
I only wish these ideas were more popular as it would help solve many of the world's problems today.