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On Rigorous Thinking

01 January, 2022 - 6 min read


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.

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.

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

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

Timeful vs timeless advice

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. 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.

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 rooted 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 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.

Latticework of mental models

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.

Mental models will broaden your thinking so that you can make wise and informed decisions. Modern education systems hinder students when it comes to approaching problems from a broad, multidisciplinary perspective. Mental Models will help you gain that perspective and a basis for broad rational thinking.