IT’S AN EXTRAORDINARY THING—BUT MOSTLY WE ARE TAUGHT WHAT TO THINK—NOT HOW TO THINK. THE DIFFERENCE IS PROFOUND.
AS A CONSEQUENCE, MOST OF US DON’T THINK VERY WELL—AND WE DON’T THINK HONESTLY.
Supposing we did
I think about thinking a great deal for a number of reasons.
- Virtually everything starts with a thought—conscious or otherwise—so thinking has to be important.
- You cannot write without thinking—so since writing is my passion, pleasure, and purpose—improving how I think is of the greatest importance to me. Do I think honestly? I try very hard to do so. I am pretty tough on myself. I doubt I succeed completely.
- I seem to be naturally intellectually curious—and question just about everything. I am particularly skeptical of the received wisdom that underpins our culture. History shows that the status quo can always be improved—so why so many of us accept it so readily puzzles me somewhat (or would if I didn’t know that most of us don’t know much history and make little effort to keep adequately informed).
- Since I was very young—around nine as I recall—I have been of the view that a great deal of what we are told isn’t true—which, logically, meant that I was going to have to work a great deal out for myself.
- I have read voraciously for most of my life—and reading promotes thinking.
- I found early on that experience leverages the knowledge gained from reading, so have made it a policy to have a particularly broad breadth of experiences. I’m not particularly physically courageous, but I have been willing to take career risks on numerous occasions. That combination of reading, risk-taking, and an unusually varied life has enabled me to improve my thinking considerably. That apart, I love adventures!
- I find the process of thinking just plain exciting—to the point of being exhilarating. It is incredibly hard work—but that is part of the pleasure. Much as one gets a ‘runner’s high,’ so one gets much the same feeling from thinking.
- I have discovered that I am extremely intelligent, but that my ability to use this intelligence is marred by a form of dyslexia (certain memory issues which I try and compensate for by devising numerous work-arounds) and by some character flaws and fears (which I seem to have spent most of my life trying to remedy—with some, but not total, success). I regard life, in essence, as a journey to improve one’s character. That strikes me as a noble goal—just in itself. If there is an after-life, that bet is covered also. By the way, I am not cynical where the possibility of an afterlife is concerned. I just don’t know—and I have yet to meet anyone who does. I respect those who believe—but I prefer evidence-based thinking.
- I have discovered that thinking normally brings a result—and that most problems can be resolved if you do enough research, and then build on your findings. I have developed a saying that is almost a mantra—which has made me much more optimistic than I used to be. It is: The answers are out there, if you are prepared to look. The qualification is significant. Culturally, we are disinclined to look. Society discourages it. It questions the status quo. It implies change—and change is uncomfortable. The movers and shakers do not like, in their turn, to be moved and shaken.
- I am a passionate admirer of creativity in all its forms, and believe the human mind is our greatest single untapped resource—one of truly awesome power. No day goes by that I am not shaken to the core by admiration of those who harness it, and by what they have accomplished, and what they envision for the future. Conversely, I am also somewhat saddened by the fairly obvious fact that most of us make so little use of the powerful resource we have at our disposal. Society is structured to preserve the power of vested interests and the status quo—not to encourage free thinking and creativity. Creative people push the envelope, regardless of the personal cost, because that is just what we do—but we have only limited impact. Yet, potentially, we are all creative.
Clarity of mind depends upon quite a number of things including one’s genetic makeup, upbringing, education, direct and indirect experiences of life, environment, health, mood, the influence of one’s peers—and much else besides. Those apart, good sound information is fundamental.
In that context, I am extremely concerned at the weight of propaganda we are all exposed to—and the way we so casually place such reliance on myth, prejudice, and rumor, and seem to be so indifferent to evidence and objective reality.
A further complication is the conjunction of that attitude with unprecedented advances in communication technology. We have now equipped ourselves with the potential to allow ourselves to be distracted, deluded, and entertained from the cradle to the grave—and all too many of us seem to be availing of the opportunity.
The U.S. is the supreme example of a technologically advanced, propaganda dominated society—and the outcome is frightening, particularly because there are virtually no limits to the excesses of influence peddling, whether they be through advertising or some other propaganda technique. Worse still—the only standard is profit. No moral code applies. No other value seems to be culturally relevant. Social concern is minimal. Even religion is operated as a business. This is corporatism gone mad—and the consequences are horrendous. You have a government that is largely ineffective, and an economy, based on financial capitalism—not to be confused with traditional industrial capitalism—which fails to deliver for most Americans.
Worse still, most Americans don’t even know how bad the situation is because they are not told—or choose to find out—what is going on in other countries. Instead people are largely led to believe that the U.S. is thriving, and that the American Business Model remains the most effective economic system. This flies in the face of the evidence—evidence that has virtually being made un-American to consider. Instead, the myth of American exceptionalism dominates.
Europe is very far from perfect, but corporations are kept under some kind of control—and there are fairly serious attempts made to limit advertising, factor in the public interest where issues are concerned, and rein in the excesses and abuses associated with some interpretations of free speech. In short, the balance is better—though the threat remains.
If we are to cope with all this—and the scale of these advances is both extraordinary and unprecedented—it seems to me that we going to have to learn to think in a more rational way. Can such an approach be taught? I rather think it can—but it will mean upending our educational system and making some other rather fundamental changes in society.
I often wonder at what kind of society we could build if we really harnessed the power of our minds and worked out how to cooperate. Now and then an extraordinary individual emerges who gives us an inkling. Within the current context, they are rare.
Elon Musk comes to mind. An excellent article by Jessica Stillman of Inc.com provides some pointers as to how he thinks, and why he is so effective.
This Is the Mindset That Makes Elon Musk So Incredibly Successful
A writer who recently spent a lot of time talking to Musk explains how his mind works (in great detail).
Elon Musk, in the words of WaitButWhy.com blogger Tim Urban, is "the world's raddest man." Plotting to colonize Mars? Revolutionizing the energy industry? Serving as the inspiration for Hollywood's Iron Man? Check, check, check. That's all Musk. The guy has the title in the bag.
But you knew that already. What you don't know is how a mere mortal with the same 24 hours per day at his disposal as the rest of us manages to accomplish so much. But I bet you want to find out.
WaitButWhy.com thinks it has the answer. As Urban explains, he recently got a call that 99.9 percent of bloggers can only dream of -- someone from Musk's office was on the line asking if Urban was interested in interviewing her boss. The result of that stroke of luck is a series of (extremely lengthy) blog posts laying out how Musk became a self-made billionaire, how Tesla will change the world, why Space X is aiming to colonize Mars, and finally a more personal look inside the brain of Musk.
For fans of the Tesla and Space X founder (who have some time to burn -- I'm not joking about the lengthy thing), the whole series is a definite must read, but for those most interested in how Musk manages to be both so phenomenally productive, and so unbelievably innovative, the last post is where you should focus your energies.
In it, Urban aims "to understand why Musk is able to do what he's doing." What's the mindset behind his success? Urban thinks he has the answer and claims Musk's secret sauce "is actually accessible to everyone."
The short answer.
It takes a bunch of funny doodles and a whole lot of words (quite a few of them profane) for Urban to explain his ideas about Musk, but he also offers a short reply to the question "What's Elon's secret?" Answer: "He's a scientist through and through."
To illustrate the point, Urban provides some odd but illuminating quotes from Musk, such as this one about his childhood fears: "When I was a little kid, I was really scared of the dark. But then I came to understand, dark just means the absence of photons in the visible wavelength--400 to 700 nanometers. Then I thought, well, it's really silly to be afraid of a lack of photons. Then I wasn't afraid of the dark anymore after that." Obviously, this is a person with a greater than average commitment to evidence and objective reality.
How does that commitment to scientific rigor play out in practice? Urban argues that to Musk, we're all computers. The slimy grey material in our skulls acts as hardware, while our thoughts and beliefs perform the role of software.
You might think it's Musk's hardware -- the talented brain he was born with -- that makes him an exceptional entrepreneur, but Urban is convinced it's the software that makes the man. And he's also convinced we can reprogram our own software to be more like Musk's.
The long answer.
How to do that resists quick summarizing, so if you're convinced Urban is on to something, I'd strongly suggest you give the complete post a read. It is possible to boil down a few key points, however:
- Unlike most of us, Musk reasons from first principles. He doesn't do something because others say it's a good idea or that's how it was done before. Instead he reasons from first principles. "You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn't work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past," he tells Urban.
- Musk continually tests his conclusions. Being rigorously logical in your thinking isn't enough if you do it only once and then let it drift. "So after Musk builds his conclusions from first principles, what does he do? He tests the s**t out of them, continually, and adjusts them regularly based on what he learns," writes Urban.
How has this approach worked when it comes to the big decisions of Musk's career? How are most of us sidetracked from thinking this way? (Spoiler: Dogma and tribalism are two of the top culprits.) How can we get our own mental software to function more like Musk's? The post goes into great depth on these sorts of questions, but let me leave you with one final quote from Urban summing up what makes Musk great (and what makes most of the rest of us comparatively mediocre).
"The difference between the way Elon thinks and the way most people think is kind of like the difference between a cook and a chef," writes Urban. "The chef reasons from first principles, and for the chef, the first principles are raw edible ingredients. Those are her puzzle pieces, her building blocks, and she works her way upwards from there, using her experience, her instincts, and her taste buds. The cook works off of some version of what's already out there--a recipe of some kind, a meal she tried and liked, a dish she watched someone else make."
Do you approach life more like a cook or a chef?
Elon Musk: 'Profits Are Not Our Primary Goal'
Could we change the way think—or does inherently flawed human nature doom us to eternal mediocrity?
I’m an optimist on this point. I think sheer circumstances—such as climate change and how we treat the environment generally (examples to illustrate the point) are going to force us to change how we think—whether we like it or not. I tend to think we may learn to like it. Once you really begin to learn the power of the mind, it is a refreshingly liberating and exciting feeling (and it beats the hell out of watching TV or otherwise escaping). I’ll go further. Thinking is downright entertaining.
Beyond that, technology (such as Big Data) is giving us the tools to get to grips with all kinds of issues which previously have appeared beyond our capabilities, or were otherwise intractable.
The toughest problems have to do with how we can live together to best advantage. My feeling is that technology is going to enable us to devise better social structures and methodologies for doing just that.
We need to because:
- The current American Business Model (Crony Capitalism) just isn’t delivering.
- Northern European Social Capitalism is much better—but there remains vast room for improvement.
- Democracy—in its present form—isn’t working too well. In the U.S., the Constitution has essentially been hijacked by the ultra-rich who operate a plutocracy behind the trappings of democracy. In Europe, which works very well in many ways, many people have the feeling that the EU is both too remote and too intrusive—and certainly isn’t democratic (even when it is).
- Dogma (which I tend to think of as ‘ideologies’) and tribalism are rife. Political ideologies and religion have a lot to answer for. When they become intertwined and, essentially, one and the same, the consequences are disastrous. Evidence and objective reality are anathema in this context. Think Christian Right and Islamic Fundamentalism.
At my age of 71 I doubt I’ll live long enough to see the changes I envisage come to pass—but I look forward to doing everything I can to encourage them.
I’m absolutely convinced that we can—and will—do better (providing we change the way we think).