On Independent Thinking

01 January, 2018 - 14 min read

[Last Revised: 11/06/2021]

To be a successful investor, scientist, writer or a founder, it is not enough to follow the same prediction. Therefore critical & independent thinking becomes important. Critical thinking implies being critical of information presented to you. Independent thinking implies being able to think for yourself. If everyone is hiking the same trail, should you be following the same trail? That is the essence of critical and independent thinking.

When I was in my teens and 20s, everything revolved around what I wanted to do with my life, who I should be friends with and what I would become good at. Now, I am in my 30s, I spend the majority of my time thinking about how I should use my time well.

Logical perspective is called upon us everyday while making critical decisions. However, the noise around us makes it very difficult to separate fact from opinion. Politics, religion and stock market direction yield useless discussion because they do not go anywhere. Beliefs become part of people’s identity and they are hard to mold once they harden. [1]

There is a lot of noise around us. We are constantly bombarded with new information, day in and day out, via our smartphones, our browsers, advertisements, digital news, and more. Take a look around you and you’ll find yourself surrounded by a data overload, but a drought of original thought. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. We take opinions as facts and as a single source of truth. It even seems at times like we have forgotten how to question and reason.

Liberal arts and humanity is not given the same importance as math and science in higher education today. It should be a reminder for us all that we are molded by our way of thinking. In that case, you can bet the decay of society will start accelerating if there is a broader decay of independent thinking.

This is not to say there are no clever people in the modern world though, there certainly are. But, remember that high IQ scores do not necessarily make for independent thinkers. Expressing clear thoughts with a logical perspective should be everyone's goal.

Great thinkers

Ralph Waldo Emerson on solitude:

He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions. Emerson is suggesting to lead and avoid heading towards the cliff led by a common herd. To avoid falling over the cliff, you need to make solitude as your dear friend. Solitude and leadership is contradictory but that is the essence of leadership. Being able to think for yourself and make hard decisions for common good is required out of great leaders. [2]

Charlie Munger’s tip on improving the ability to hold opposing views:

Well I do have a tip at times in my life I've put myself to a standard that I think has helped me. I think I'm not really equipped to comment on this subject until I can state the arguments against my conclusion better than the people on the other side. If you do that all the time, if you're looking for disconfirming evidence and putting yourself on a grill to make that, that's a good way to help her move ignorance. What happens is that every human being tends to believe way more than he should in what he's worked hard to find out or what he's announced publicly that he already believes. In other words while we shout our knowledge out we're really pounding it in without we're not enlarging it and I was always aware of that and so I've accepted these damned annual meetings I'm pretty quiet.

I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.

George Orwell on lies from his 1984 book:

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'

Emerson, Munger and Orwell are pushing for independent thinking and challenging conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, in our society thinking from the fundamentals or the source material is rare. We instead form conclusions after taking in layers and layers of overlapping information and opinions, without basing our reasoning on those essential fundamentals. Also rare is a deep, multi-faceted education, which contains a breadth of learning.

Latticework of mental models

Are you an independent thinker?

If not, don’t blame yourself, after all, shortcuts are easy and fun while acquiring wisdom can be a hard and daunting task! Learning to think independently can be scary at first, but remember, anything is simple when it’s broken down into smaller pieces.

Use mental models to ask the right questions. You’ll learn to disassemble and reassemble ideas in such a way that they form something new from something old. Address and assess differing views as a means to form your own conclusions. You can use mental models as a guide book to your learning, rather than as a rule book.

Read widely and deeply, drawing lines between many disciplines and concepts so that the principles that apply to one can benefit you in another. For example, engineering principles can be applied to economics and vice versa. Independent thinkers approach a high-level of abstract thinking that allows them to draw upon their breadth of learning and reach their own novel solutions and ideas.

It is easy to pay homage to Charlie Munger’s widely-lauded latticework of mental models, but when you live it, you’ll see why he is right. Knowing the key drivers and major ideas from a variety of fields is a huge source of leverage. It is difficult to study broadly and deeply, but the two are not mutually exclusive.

Rigorous vs lazy thinking

Striving for rigorous thinking over lazy thinking should be everyone’s goal. Rigorous thinking enforces people to defend their thesis and advocate their ideas. The ideas are backed by data rooted in reality. Lazy thinking is a black box of logic where people don’t know why something works.

Adult life is more than just a multiple-choice test. Go beyond “what?” and ask “how?” and “why?” Finding answers to “What are the main causes of lack of critical thinking?” can be answered with a quick web search. But this type of knowledge is superficial. To build rigorous knowledge, we need to go beyond simple facts and web search. We can all improve critical thinking by asking a few extra questions each day. [3]

Socratic Method

To ask continual questions, Socrates, a Greek philosopher who sought to get to the bottom of his students’ views used continual questions until a contradiction was exposed. This challenges the initial assumption of his students. Asking continual questions is known as the Socratic Method. [4]

The Socratic Method pushes for critical thinking and finding holes in assumptions. Questions to promote critical thinking:

  1. Why does X cause Y to happen?
  2. How will making a decision impact others?
  3. What is the hardest part of this problem you are working on?
  4. How can you overcome constraints you are dealt with?
  5. Can you back your thesis with a set of data points?
  6. How did you know this?
  7. Why did you fail and what did you learn from it?
  8. What important truth do very few people agree with you on?
  9. Where does conviction and ambition come from? How can you get more of it?
  10. Why ask great questions?

Writing essays for critical thinking

We are taught in schools to write essays with introductions and conclusions. But a real essay should be for pure observations. Since high schools imitate universities, the entire experience of education is swon in writing essays around English literature and defending the thesis. Defending a thesis comes from law, but that is pointless when writing essays for thinking.

Traditional essays do not allow to explore questions, but rather explore answers to a specific question. A quick web search can point me to all possible answers. I can beautify my essay with a flavor of rhetoric and perfect grammar. Paul Graham has written an excellent piece [5] on this topic.

It's no wonder if this seems to the student a pointless exercise, because we're now three steps removed from real work: the students are imitating English professors, who are imitating classical scholars, who are merely the inheritors of a tradition growing out of what was, 700 years ago, fascinating and urgently needed work.

The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn't take a position and then defend it. That principle, like the idea that we ought to be writing about literature, turns out to be another intellectual hangover of long forgotten origins.

Defending a position may be a necessary evil in a legal dispute, but it's not the best way to get at the truth, as I think lawyers would be the first to admit. It's not just that you miss subtleties this way. The real problem is that you can't change the question.

An essay is supposed to be a search for truth. It would be suspicious if it didn't meander.

If there's one piece of advice I would give about writing essays, it would be: don't do as you're told. Don't believe what you're supposed to. Don't write the essay readers expect; one learns nothing from what one expects. And don't write the way they taught you to in school.

Be critical of timeful vs timeless advice

If one is equipped to think critically, can a person challenge conventional wisdom? One can start with understanding the basic elements of conventional wisdom. Buying a home to build wealth, for example, was relevant for a specific era, but might not be for many today.

Outsourcing decisions to recent history might sound novel and convenient, but can be dangerous because you have failed to explore why it’s conventional in the first place. Compounding doesn’t have the same magnitude of wealth accumulation when buying a home. Why is that? The elements of yesterday do not comply with elements today. Interest rate environment was different in the 70s than today. That is just one possible explanation. But one should compile all these elements and then try to answer the same question.

Challenging these types of conventional wisdom allows you to differentiate between timeliness and timelessness of advice. [6] John Luttig has written a fantastic piece on how to challenge the timeful advice.

On a final note, we need to teach that doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know” and question everything, because that is when the independent thinkers inherent in all of us can rise.

Independent thinking matters because it differentiates you from the crowd. It trains you to think outside of the constraints that modern education systems, and the onslaught of data here in the age of information impose upon you.

Paul Graham on independent mindedness

There's room for a little novelty in most kinds of work, but in practice there's a fairly sharp distinction between the kinds of work where it's essential to be independent-minded, and the kinds where it's not. I wish someone had told me about this distinction when I was a kid, because it's one of the most important things to think about when you're deciding what kind of work you want to do. Do you want to do the kind of work where you can only win by thinking differently from everyone else? I suspect most people's unconscious mind will answer that question before their conscious mind has a chance to.

Independent-mindedness seems to be more a matter of nature than nurture. If you're naturally independent-minded, you're going to find it frustrating to be a middle manager. And if you're naturally conventional-minded, you're going to be sailing into a headwind if you try to do original research.

People are often mistaken about where they fall on the spectrum from conventional- to independent-minded. Conventional-minded people don't like to think of themselves as conventional-minded. By the time they reach adulthood, most people know roughly how smart they are (in the narrow sense of ability to solve pre-set problems), because they're constantly being tested and ranked according to it. But schools generally ignore independent-mindedness, except to the extent they try to suppress it. So we don't get anything like the same kind of feedback about how independent-minded we are.

The conventional-minded are often fooled by the strength of their opinions into believing that they're independent-minded. But strong convictions are not a sign of independent-mindedness. Rather the opposite.

Paul Graham's suggestion on how to practice independent mindedness:

  1. Ignore conventional beliefs. It is hard to be a conformist if you don't know what you are supposed to confirm to. A common technique practiced by nerds.
  2. Surround yourself with others who are independent minded. Surrounding yourself with conventional thinkers will yield conventional thinking while surrounding yourself with independent minded will yield surprises.
  3. Cultivating conversations from people with different views will lead to multi-disciplinary thinking which allows you to import ideas from one to another.
  4. Reading history can influence time and space. Focusing not only on what happened, but try to get into the heads of people who lived in the past (hard to do however).
  5. Cultivate an attitude of skepticism. When you hear someone say something, stop and ask yourself “Is that true?”
  6. Stand back and watch how other people get their ideas. When you stand back at a sufficient distance, you can see ideas spreading through groups of people like waves. The best place to find undiscovered ideas is where no one else is looking.

There are 3 components of independent mindedness: fastidiousness about truth, resistance to being told what to think, and curiosity.

  1. Being fastidiousness about truth by using degree of beliefs.

    For most people, degree of belief rushes unexamined toward the extremes: the unlikely becomes impossible, and the probable becomes certain. To the independent-minded, this seems unpardonably sloppy. They're willing to have anything in their heads, from highly speculative hypotheses to (apparent) tautologies, but on subjects they care about, everything has to be labelled with a carefully considered degree of belief.

  2. Resistance to being told what to think.

    The big mistake people make about it is to think of it as a merely negative quality. The language we use reinforces that idea. You're unconventional. You don't care what other people think. But it's not just a kind of immunity. In the most independent-minded people, the desire not to be told what to think is a positive force. It's not mere skepticism, but an active delight in ideas that subvert the conventional wisdom, the more counterintuitive the better. Think how often your reaction to a novel idea is to laugh. I don't think it's because novel ideas are funny per se, but because novelty and humor share a certain kind of surprisingness. But while not identical, the two are close enough that there is a definite correlation between having a sense of humor and being independent-minded — just as there is between being humorless and being conventional-minded

  3. Curiosity.

    To the extent that we can give a brief answer to the question of where novel ideas come from, it's curiosity. That's what people are usually feeling before having them. Everyone I know who's independent-minded is deeply curious, and everyone I know who's conventional-minded isn't. If you're sufficiently curious, you don't need to clear space in your brain, because the new ideas you discover will push out the conventional ones you acquired by default.