Critical thinking skills are essential to success — any kind of success. Successful individuals are thinkers and they surround themselves with thinkers.
Consider Warren Buffett. He is known as the most successful investor of all time, and by his own estimate, he has spent 80 percent of his career reading. And what makes him so successful is that he isn’t willing to be a passive recipient of what he reads. Instead, he schedules time to evaluate the information he gets so as to form his own insights. This may sound counterproductive.
We’ve been taught to work more, sleep less, and hyper-focus on the things that directly pertain to our goals. We call it being productive. Buffett and those like him find thinking, reading, and contemplating more productive than taking meetings and “working.” He actively pursues knowledge.
Critical thinking involves being able to process information independently and to think clearly, logically, and reflectively. It is the ability to engage in rational thought and to understand and establish a connection between ideas. In essence, critical thinking is the ability to reason. It is about being an active learner rather than a passive recipient of information.
The status quo is the current state of affairs. It’s the norm. It’s how things are done. You know you’ve found it when you hear the phrase,“We’ve always done it this way.” Critical thinkers ask questions such as, “Why do we do it that way?” “How can we make it better?” “What are our other options?”
They love to test boundaries. They dissect issues and then find a way to systematically solve them. By examining the individual pieces of a problem they are able to apply solutions that create a domino or cascading effect. They solve one issue which affects another issue and are able to solve them both simultaneously.
Critical thinkers ruthlessly question ideas and assumptions rather than accepting them at face value. They will always seek to determine whether the ideas, arguments, and conclusions represent the entire picture. They do not rely heavily on intuition and instinct. They test, prove, and disprove their hunches.
We are all fallible. Critical thinkers understand this and actively work to find the flaws in their own logic. One’s ability to think critically varies according to his/her current state of mind. Thinkers work to maintain objectivity, view the problem from all possible angles, and seek the input of others who are adept in logic and reasoning.
A system is designed to streamline and simplify processes. It improves efficiency and makes effort more efficient. Most critical thinkers use a top down approach to problem-solving. They are systematic in their efforts. They also set aside time for investigating challenging issues and brainstorming ways to push through them. They don’t tackle a problem without a plan.
Critical thinkers are usually highly methodical. They approach a problem the same way a scientist would and then move through the phases of the scientific method, conducting experiments to prove and disprove their hypotheses. Each experiment provides insight into the problem and proves or eliminates an idea or solution.
Critical thinking is a skill set, meaning it can be learned. Learning to think critically often involves tweaking some of our processes instead of merely trying to adjust our way of thinking. If you do things a certain way, your thinking will follow a certain pattern. You will begin to develop the habit of thinking practically and then critically. Developing this skill takes deliberate practice and persistence.
Here are three steps to get you started:
Biases are common. We all have them. However, our biases lead to fallacies in our thought processes and rob us of our objectivity. The most common and detrimental bias is the confirmation bias- our tendency to see what we want to see. We tend to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.
To cure confirmation bias, experts3 suggest that inundating yourself with information is not the answer. It’s all about how you filter the information you do have. When you don’t selectively filter information, you lose your objectivity which is the heart of logical thinking. This particular prejudice is most prevalent in emotionally- charged situations and when you have something to lose. It also shows up when wishful thinking is present.
For example, in the middle of basketball season, the home town team has a record that is below 500 and has been on a seven game losing streak. The star player has just gone out with a torn ACL and your friend says to you, “I know in my heart that our home team will win the NBA Championship.”
This statement disregards the facts–or at the very least, fails to consider them– and makes a prediction based on a feeling.
Here are a few ways to overcome confirmation bias:
The “Five Whys” methodology, developed by Sakichi Toyoda (founder of Toyota), uses a”go and see” philosophy. This turns the decision-making process into a search for a solution that is based on an in-depth understanding of what’s actually happening. This method simply involves asking, “Why?” five times, allowing you to dig deeper each time. The goal is to drill down and find the core of the issue.
Here’s a quick example:
The problem you are attempting to solve is that customers are complaining that when they receive merchandise they purchased online it does not match what they ordered (they are getting incorrect items, sizes, etc.).
Using this process, we were able to locate the breakdown in the process around the third “why.” Asking “Why?” the last two times generated our solution: train the shipping director to use the existing software to generate his reports for the CEO.
Using the scientific method to solve problems is an effective and efficient mental model for solving problems. Most people approach problems haphazardly and dive into the middle of the issues and become overwhelmed or miss key elements. Following a process allows you to establish a habit. Remember critical thinking is a skill that requires practice and persistence. Start at the beginning of the process every single time. Here are the steps:
Always reflect on and review your processes. It helps you to find gaps in your thinking and to adjust. Reflection helps develop objectivity.
With time, practice, and diligence using these three steps your critical thinking process will become a habit. You’ll be able to better predict results, anticipate pitfalls, and avoid biased thinking.
Featured image by Lee Health via Vimeo