How to think for yourself
“Most people are other people,” Oscar Wilde once said. “Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
A lot of people believe things without questioning them. That’s how brands and job titles become valuable. A shared belief system makes them desirable.
Did you pick your job because you truly thought for yourself? Or did you choose it because of society’s perception of that job?
We’ll never know. Yet, I’m sure Kant would kill himself if he woke up to all the fluff that says how to live your life. Around 1780 he preached we should trust no authority except our own reason. Here’s how to do it in 2021.
Consume Less Conventional Media
For many people, the default option is to scroll through their newsfeeds and fill their minds with other people’s chatter.
80 percent of smartphone users check their device every morning within the first 15 minutes after waking up. Before they can even think about their day, their brains are flooded with external stimulants.
When you start your day with your phone, you don’t have the slightest chance to think for yourself. You condition your mind for distraction. Notifications and messages will make your thoughts bounce around like a ping-pong ball.
There’s a simple solution most people will never try.
Don’t turn on your phone before lunch. It’s simple, but most people won’t even try it because it’s incredibly hard to deviate from the norm. But if you do, you’ll be rewarded with clarity and your own thoughts.
When you’re less aware of what everybody else is thinking, you can’t follow their thoughts. Step by step, your thoughts will become more independent.
Make Thinking Time Non-Negotiable
Whenever I have a spare moment, I try to fill it. I listen to podcasts, read books, have a conversation with my partner, answer messages, or hop to the next task in my bullet journal.
And while these activities can be enjoyable and add energy to my life, they have a marginal return on thinking utility. After a certain point, every additional minute of doing decreases your ability to think for yourself.
When you’re so busy doing, you don’t spend a single second thinking. Days, weeks, even years go by without ever having a single deep thought. At the end of your life, you realize you’ve lived the life of others.
When was the last time you used your spare time to just think for yourself?
Thinking, ideas, and insight need input. You don’t need to hide away for 9 years as Montaigne did. A few hours each week can suffice.
If you want to think for yourself, schedule time to think. While it might seem like it’s slowing you down, the opposite is true. Block time in your calendar. Turn off your phone, your computer, and your wifi. Take a pen and a piece of paper to your hand. Then, think and write.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” — Abraham Lincoln
Learn How to Think Critically
Education systems teach obedience. The most successful students are those who understand what teachers want and follow the rules. It’s hard to become a critical thinker when grades reward conformists.
Luckily, critical thinking is a behavior you can learn. An HBR article writes critical thinking requires three steps:
- Question assumptions. Challenge everything you hear with questions such as: How do you know that? You don’t need to say this loud. But whenever you hear something, ask yourself whether it’s true.
- Reason through logic. Seek whether arguments are supported by evidence: Do arguments build on each other to produce a sound conclusion?
- Seek out the diversity of thought. Engage with people outside of your bubble (see the next point).
Find Other Independent Thinkers
As most people don’t think for themselves, the chances are low that you have a ton of independent thinkers in your network.
A great antidote is meeting different types of people. Don’t stay in your bubble. Go to university libraries from different faculties and start conversations. Go to another part of the city and speak to people you normally don’t talk to. As Matthew Dicks writes:
“I prefer to write at McDonald’s because I like racial and socioeconomic diversity as opposed to cashmere and American Express.”
Most people learn too late in life that seniority or university degrees are no indicator of self-directed thinking. Don’t let social prestige blend you. Instead, connect with independent minds.
If you’re part of different bubbles, you start to think for yourself by combining ideas from one bubble to another.
Borrow the Brains from Dead People
Go beyond demographics, occupations, and locations. Expand your circle of influencers across time. To do so, read from great thinkers who have lived before you. Follow Schopenhauer’s suggestion:
“Only read for a limited and definite time exclusively the works of great minds, those who surpass other men of all times and countries, and whom the voice of fame points to as such. These alone really educate and instruct.”
And once you read books from other centuries, don’t just look at what happened. Try to really get into their heads and ask questions like:
- Why do they think that way?
- How did the world appear to them?
- What made them change their opinion and why?
To live a life filled with meaning and happiness, it’s not enough to do what everybody else is doing. Dare to think for yourself.
- Spend less time in front of your newsfeeds.
- Block thinking time in your calendar.
- Challenge everything.
- Connect with independent thinkers.
- Read the books from past centuries.
Oh, and by all means, please don’t copy everything I said. Question everything. Don’t trust blindly. Make Kant proud. Sapere Aude! — Have the courage to use your own reason.