In his short philosophical essay, “On Thinking for Oneself,” Schopenhauer reinforced the message of individual thought. He compared the vast knowledge one may have to an enormous library:
“Just as the largest library, badly arranged, is not so useful as a very moderate one that is well arranged, so the greatest amount of knowledge, if not elaborated by our own thoughts, is worth much less than a far smaller volume that has been abundantly and repeatedly thought over. For only by universally combining what we know, by comparing every truth with every other, do we fully assimilate our own knowledge and get it into our power. We can think over only what we know, and so we should learn something; but we know only what we have thought out.”
Leaders spend the bulk of their days in decision-making and problem-solving. Cultivating independent thinking is essential to outstanding leadership.
Learn and then Own
Let’s look at a few examples of how thinking for yourself makes you a far superior leader.
How many of you have adopted “best practices?”
A best practice is a process or method generally accepted as the best among the alternatives known. Do the assumptions that went into creating the best practice hold in your situation? Should you adopt a best practice without probing to see if it will work for your organization? Some best practices created decades ago may not hold up any more in our current environment.
Thinking for yourself helps you poke at a best practice and decide how it could be customized to suit your need.
Expert Help and Intuition
It is customary to seek an expert’s help when you accept that you have limited knowledge in a specific domain. Choosing an expert requires thinking for oneself. Among the many candidates, who can help you achieve your goal?
Dr. Gary Klein, the research psychologist who pioneered naturalistic decision-making, has several criteria for choosing an expert. They included the vastness of the expert’s body of work, their peers’ respect, willingness to talk about one’s mistakes, etc. He advocates engaging with the expert and questioning them to understand the depth of their mental capabilities.
Even after all the questioning, it may come down to your intuition as to who you might choose. The subject matter experts (SME) know their domains. You have to be an expert in choosing which SME to use, which requires thinking for yourself.
Courage to Go Against Conventional Wisdom
I consume a lot of self-help material. The power of the internet broadened my reading to anything I was curious about on the internet, and it now includes videos and podcasts. If you are reading this, you are like me. Over 11 billion dollars were spent on self-improvement products and services, according to a 2019 study.
A piece of specific advice from self-help sources, and conventional wisdom, tells you to start your day early. However, this doesn’t work for many of us. We have some excellent examples in the history of brilliant inventors, such as Thomas Edison, who was a late riser. Other luminaries such as Winston Churchill, Bob Dylan, and Samuel Johnson were also in that category.
When our daily habits support our aspirations, we can set aside advice like the above. Leaders who are successful in what they do are aware of conventional wisdom but are not afraid to go against it.
How to Think for Yourself
The first step in thinking for oneself is self-awareness. When you understand your values, motives, and aspirations, thinking becomes automatic. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses, you can selectively apply the knowledge you gained by reading or the wisdom of others.
Thinking for oneself doesn’t mean you ignore all the knowledge you have gained on the subject. Instead, you question what your current knowledge tells you.
Cultivate your thinking using mental models, which explain how things work. James Clear, the author of the best-seller, Atomic Habits, describes many mental models in his blog “Mental Models: Learn How to Think Better and Gain a Mental Edge.” One of these mental models is inversion.
An example of the application of inversion is to assume your most crucial project has failed six months from now and ask yourself how it could have failed. Such an exercise gives you all the things you need to look out for and plan to mitigate them for the project’s success.
Thinking and doing go hand in hand. Put your thinking into action. Take the learning and refine your knowledge.
Allocate Time for Thinking
The practice of independent thinking requires patience and time.
There have been many studies on the impact of walking on our cognitive functions. For example, in 2018, a large-scale study reported in The Lancet Psychiatry showed that walking improves cognitive function. In the article, “On the Link Between Great Thinking and Obsessive Walking,” Jeremy DeSilva, an anthropologist at Dartmouth College, talks about great thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and others and their obsession with walking. Darwin did not do his thinking in his study. His thoughts were kindled on his walks on a path he called “Sandwalk,” now known as “Darwin’s thinking path.” He could walk around this path five times or half a mile, and this walking routine was essential to exercise his body and his thinking.
Walking alone in nature nourishes your body and mind and gives you ample time to think.
Cultivate Your Team’s Independent Thinking
Voltaire said, “Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.”
In today’s complex world, leaders need to harness the independent thinking capabilities of their team members. The best way to do this is to promote thinking for oneself among your team members.
Fostering psychological safety for your team helps you achieve this. You promote independent thinking by providing a safe space that encourages individual thinking, speaking up, trying, failing, and sharing. When you empower your team to be autonomous, the team members can be creative by thinking for themselves.
When a team member comes to you for direction, adopt a coaching style, and help them think through their action plan in collaboration with you.
Be an outstanding leader by thinking for yourself, and afford the same for your team. The collaboration of independent thinkers can solve the most complex problems you may face in your leadership journey.
Written by Shantha Mohan Ph.D.
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