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Chapter 2. Evaluate Your Own Thinking

The mind is its own place and in itself can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell.

- John Milton, Paradise Lost

How Skilled is Your Thinking Currently?

There is nothing more practical than sound thinking. No matter what your circumstance or goals, no matter where you are, or what problems you face, you are better off if your thinking is skilled. As a professional - shopper, employee, citizen, lover, friend, parent - in every realm and situation of your life, good thinking pays off. Poor thinking, in turn, inevitably causes problems, wastes time and energy, engenders frustration and pain.

Critical thinking is the disciplined art of ensuring that you use the best thinking you are capable of in any set of circumstances. The general goal of thinking is to "figure out the lay of the land." We all have multiple choices to make. We need the best information to make the best choices.

What is really going on in this or that situation? Are they trying to take advantage of me? Does so-and-so really care about me? Am I deceiving myself when I believe that...? What are the likely consequences of failing to...? If I want to do..., what is the best way to prepare for it? How can I be more successful in doing...? Is this my biggest problem, or do I need to focus my attention on something else? Responding to such questions successfully is the daily work of thinking. That's why we are THINKERS.

Nothing you can do, of course, guarantees that you will discover the complete truth about anything, but there is a way to get better at it. Excellence of thought and skill in thinking are real possibilities. However, to maximize the quality of your thinking, you must learn how to become an effective "critic" of your thinking. And to become an effective critic of your thinking, you have to make learning about thinking a priority.

Ask yourself these - rather unusual - questions: What have you learned about how you think? Did you ever study your thinking? What information do you have, for example, about how the intellectual processes that occur as your mind thinks? More to the point, perhaps, what do you really know about how to analyze, evaluate, or reconstruct your thinking? Where does your thinking come from? How much of it is of "good" quality? How much of it is of "poor" quality? How much of your thinking is vague, muddled, inconsistent, inaccurate, illogical, or superficial? Are you, in any real sense, in control of your thinking? Do you know how to test it? Do you have any conscious standards for determining when you are thinking well and when you are thinking poorly? Have you ever discovered a significant problem in your thinking and then changed it by a conscious act of will? If anyone asked you to teach them what you have learned, thus far in your life, about thinking, would you really have any idea what that was or how you learned it?

If you are like most, the only honest answers to these questions run along the lines of: "Well, I suppose I really don't know much about my thinking or about thinking in general. I suppose in my life I have more or less taken my thinking for granted. I don't really know how it works. I have never really studied it. I don't know how I test it, or even if I do test it. It just happens in my mind automatically." In other words, serious study of thinking, serious thinking about thinking, is rare. It is not a subject in most schools. It is not a subject taught at home. But if you focus your attention for a moment on the role that thinking is playing in your life, you may come to recognize that, in fact, everything you do, want, or feel is influenced by your thinking. And if you become persuaded of that, you will be surprised that humans show so little interest in thinking. We are like monkeys uninterested in what goes on when we "monkey around." What is more, if you start, then, to pay attention to thinking in a manner analogous to the way a botanist observes plants, you will be on your way to becoming a truly exceptional person. You will begin to notice what few others notice. You will be the rare monkey who knows what monkeying around is all about. You will be the rare monkey who knows how and why he is monkeying around, the rare monkey skilled in assessing and improving his monkeying. Here are some things you will eventually discover: that all of us have, somewhere along the way, picked up bad habits of thinking. All of us, for example, make generalizations when we don't have the evidence to back them up, allow stereotypes to influence our thinking, form some false beliefs, tend to look at the world from one fixed point of view, ignore or attack points of view that conflict with our own, fabricate illusions and myths that we subconsciously confuse with what is true and real, and think deceptively about many aspects of our experience. As you discover these problems, we hope you will begin to ask yourself some key questions: "Is it possible for me to learn to avoid bad habits of thought? Is it possible for me to develop good habits of thought? Is it possible for me to think at a high, or at least, higher, level?" These are problems and questions that few discover or ask. Nevertheless, every major insight you gain into good or bad thinking can significantly enhance your life. You can begin to make higher quality decisions. You can gain power, very important power, you presently lack. You can open up new doors for yourself, see new options, minimize significant mistakes, and maximize potential understandings.

Test the Idea
Beginning to Think about your Thinking

To begin to think about your thinking, make a list of any problems you believe currently exist with your thinking. Try to be as explicit as possible. The more problems you can identify the better. For each problem you identify, complete the following statements:

  1. One problem with my thinking is...

  2. This is a problem because...

Good Thinking Is as Easy as Bad Thinking (But It Requires Hard Work to Develop It)

It is important to realize that thinking itself is not difficult. Humans naturally think without having to exert much energy or engage in any real intellectual work. We can easily see thinking manifest, for example, in very young children who have few or no skills of mind. It is clear that children are thinking when they are trying to figure out their "world" and how it operates, when they are determining what they can get away with and what they can't, when they are distinguishing between people who like them and people who don't, when they are asserting what they want and what they don't want. In a similar way adults are continually thinking about their world, figuring things out, making decisions, making choices. Thus, thinking per se is natural to humans; it comes easy to us. What does not come easy is consistent high quality thinking across the dimensions of one's life. That is, it is not easy to discover our bad habits and do something about them.

To make significant gains in the quality of your thinking, you will have to engage in a kind of work that most humans find unpleasant, if not painful - intellectual work. Yet once this thinking is done and we move our thinking to a higher level of quality, it is not hard to keep our thinking at that level. Still there is a price you have to pay to step up to the next level. One doesn't become a skillful critic of thinking over night, any more than one becomes a skillful basketball player or dancer over night. To become better at thinking, you must be willing to put the work into thinking that skilled improvement always requires. We say "No pain, no gain!" when thinking of what physical conditioning requires. In this case, it would be more precise to say: "No intellectual pain, no intellectual gain!" This means you must be willing to practice special "acts" of thinking that are initially at least uncomfortable, and sometimes challenging and difficult. You have to learn to do with your mind "moves" analogous to what accomplished athletes learn to do (through practice and feedback) with their bodies. Improvement in thinking, in other words, is similar to improvement in other domains of performance, where progress is a product of sound theory, commitment, hard work, and practice. This resource will point the way to what you need to practice to become a skilled thinker, yet it cannot, of course, provide you with the internal motivation to do the required work. This must come from you (Figure 2.1).

Figure 2.1. Critical thinkers use theories to explain how the mind works. Then they apply those theories to the way they live every day.

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Let's now develop the analogy between physical and intellectual development. This analogy, we believe, goes a very long way, and provides us with just the right prototype to keep before our minds. If you play tennis, and you want to play better, there is nothing more advantageous than to look at some films of excellent players in action and then painstakingly compare how they address the ball in comparison to you. You study their performance. You note what you need to do more of, what you need to do less of, and you practice, practice, practice. You go through many cycles of practice/feedback/practice. Your practice heightens your awareness of the IN's and OUT's of the art. You develop a vocabulary for talking about your "performance." Perhaps you get a coach. And slowly, progressively, you improve. Similar points could be made for ballet, distance running, piano playing, chess, reading, writing, shopping, parenting, teaching, performing complex tasks on the job, etc.

One major problem, however, is that all the activities of skill development with which we are typically familiar are visible. We could watch a film of the skill-in-action. But imagine a film of a person sitting in a chair THINKING. It would look like the person was doing nothing. Yet, increasingly, workers are being paid precisely for the thinking they are able to do, not for their physical strength or physical activity. Therefore, though most of our thinking is invisible, it represents one of the most important things about us. Its quality will in all likelihood determine whether we will become rich or poor, powerful or weak. Yet we typically think without explicitly noticing how we are doing it. We take our thinking for granted. You might compare the way we learn how to think with the way we learned how to speak our native language. We learned, for example, the grammar of our language without explicitly knowing how to talk about that grammar, without knowing its principles, rules, and exceptions. But if I said, "Where the up cow is down?" you would recognize immediately that, grammatically speaking, that arrangement of words does not make sense. You know it violates grammatical rules without, perhaps, being able to state what rules were violated.

Of course, in addition to learning the grammar of our native language, we also learned a wide variety of "concepts," ways of organizing and interpreting our experience. Our grammatical mistakes were easily noted by anyone proficient in the grammar of the language, but our misuse of the concepts of the language often go unnoticed - especially when the misuse is common among our associates. We could say that the logic of grammar is much better known than the logic of concepts.

Grammatical mistakes are easier to recognize than "conceptual" ones. For example, one who says, "I love you," when they ought to have said, "I feel physically attracted to you," is very unlikely to say later: "I misused the concept of love, leading you to come to the conclusion that I was committed to your welfare when in fact I am not. Actually, I was just interested in having sex with you." Often people will remain married to others whose behavior toward them clearly implies that they do not love them. The inconsistency in behavior is hidden perhaps by periodic verbalizations ("I love you dearest") on birthdays or special events. Important concepts, like the concept of love, friendship, integrity, freedom, democracy, and ethics are often twisted and distorted in common life and thought. Our subconscious interest is often in getting what we want, not in describing ourselves (or the world) in a true and honest fashion.

That being said, most of our concepts are "invisible" to us, though implicit in our talk and behavior. So is much of our thinking! We would be amazed, and sometimes shocked, if we saw all of our thinking displayed for us on a large screen.

But to develop as a thinker you must begin to think of your thinking as involving an implicit set of structures, "concepts," for example, being one important set, whose use can be improved only when you begin to take the tools of thinking seriously. You develop as a thinker when you explicitly notice the thinking you are doing and when you become committed to recognizing both strengths and weaknesses in that thinking. You develop as a thinker as you build your own "large screen" on which to view your thinking.

Critical thinking, then, provides the tools of mind you need to think well through any and everything that requires thought - at work and in all parts of life Figure 2.2 & 2.3. As your box of intellectual skills develops, you gain instruments that you can deliberately and mindfully use in order to reason better through the "thinking" tasks implicit in your short and long-range goals. There are better and worse ways to pursue whatever you are after. Good thinking enables you to maximize the one and minimize the other.

Figure 2.2. We should approach everything we do through critical thinking.

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Figure 2.3. Critical thinking applies to every part of life.

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Test the Idea
Understanding the Importance of Concepts

See if you can think of a time in which you "misused" an important concept. Hint: Think of an idea that you commonly use in your thinking such as friendship, trust, truthfulness, or respect. Has there ever been a time when you implied you were someone's friend but acted against that person (like gossiping behind that person's back or lying to them). Write out your answer.

It is only through applying the fundamentals of critical thinking to a wide range of human problems that one begins to appreciate their power and usefulness. Think of it this way. If we were coaching you in tennis, we would remind you again and again to keep your eye on the ball. Could you imagine telling your coach, "Why do I have to keep my eye on the ball? I already did that once." The same logic applies to the principles of skilled thinking. If you want to be proficient, you have to re-direct your eyes to the fundamentals, again and again and again.

The Hard Cruel World

What help can you expect from the world about you in becoming a critical thinker? In the ordinary case, very little. Family, schools, acquaintances, employers - each have agendas that are not focused on the value of critical thinking in our lives. Most people - family members, teachers, acquaintances, business associates - have multiple problems in their own thinking: prejudices, biases, misconceptions, ideological rigidity. Few can help us directly and effectively to improve ours. Whether in a personal or public world, whether in a private or a business world, action agendas, only partially understood by those maintaining them, are the order of the day. If we are "in the way," if we act out of keeping with what is expected of us, we are likely to be introduced to the "school of hard knocks." Like it or not, we need to learn how to analyze the logic of the circumstances and persons with which we must deal and act realistically. For example, if you find yourself working in an organization, you must be prepared to take into account the actual structure of power within it, along with group definitions of reality, bureaucratic thinking, and other variables that may diminish the quality of day-to-day thinking. Nevertheless, it would be folly to speak candidly without thinking of the likely consequences of that speech. Critical thinking helps us to see with new eyes. It does not require us to endanger ourselves or act against our best interest. We must integrate three dimensions of thought. We must be idealistic (and thus capable of imagining a better world). We must be realistic (and thus see things as they are). And we must be pragmatic (and thus adopt effective measures for moving toward our ideals).

Become a Critic of Your Own Thinking

One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to begin the process of becoming a "critic" of your thinking. You do this not to negate or "dump on" yourself, but to improve yourself, to begin to practice the art of skilled thinking and lifelong learning. To do this you must "discover" your thinking, see its structure, observe its implications, and recognize its basis and vantage point. You must come to recognize that, through commitment and daily practice, you can make foundational changes in You need to learn about your "bad" habits of thought and about what you are striving for (habits of thought that routinely improve your thinking). At whatever level you think, you need to recognize that you can learn to think better (Figure 2.4).

Figure 2.4. Critical thinking adds a second level of thinking to ordinary thinking. The second level analyzes and assesses our ordinary thinking.

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Test the Idea
Critique Your Thinking

Consider your thinking in these domains of your life: at work, in personal relationships, in sports, in dealing with others of your gender, in dealing with the opposite sex, as a reader, as a writer, in planning your life, in dealing with your emotions, in figuring out complex situations. Complete these statements:

  1. Right now, I believe my thinking across all domains of my life is of ______________ quality. I based this judgment on _________________.

  2. In the following areas, I think very well:

    a)

    b)

    c)

  3. In the following areas, my thinking is OK, not great, but not terrible either:

    a)

    b)

    c)

  4. In the following areas, my thinking is probably pretty poor:

    a)

    b)

    c)

Conclusion

Critical thinking works. It is practical. It enables you to be more successful, to save time and energy, and experience more positive and fulfilling emotions. It is in your interest to become a better critic of your thinking: as an employee, professional, manager, scholar, parent, consumer, citizen, etc.... If you are not progressively improving the quality of your life, you have not yet discovered the true power of critical thinking.

Table 2.1
Why critical thinking?

The Problem

A Definition

Everyone thinks. It is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.

Critical thinking is that mode of thinking - about any subject, content, or problem - in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.

The Result

A well-cultivated critical thinker:

  • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;

  • gathers and assesses relevant information, and effectively interprets it;

  • comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;

  • thinks openmindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and

  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities.


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