I had just turned 40, and for the very first time I heard the expression, “Thinking is a skill.”
I thought, “If thinking is a skill, then how come no one ever mentioned it to me?”
My parents never mentioned it. My high school never mentioned it. My college never mentioned it. My professional development seminars never mentioned it. The books I read never mentioned it.
Perhaps it was obvious to others that thinking is a skill, but it wasn’t obvious to me. I thought thinking was different from activities that were obviously skill-based like sports. It was obvious to me that athletes like Lebron James had to learn basketball skills—and practice them—in order to get better at basketball. But I’d always looked at intelligent people like Paul Graham and thought that they were born thinkers. It never occurred to me that they might have learned and practiced how to think. But when I heard thinking was a skill, I realized the people I admired acquired thinking skills in much the same way I’d seen athletes acquiring athletic skills.
I felt like an idiot. For years I’d never made the connection between thinking and other skills.
For the next few weeks, I began thinking this through. If thinking is a skill, I thought, then it must be analogous to other skills. Skills in general have these features:
- You can acquire skills and get better at them over time.
- You can be better or worse at skills.
- You can find better and worse methods for executing a skill.
- You can practice skills to get better.
So if thinking is a skill, then the following must be true:
- You can acquire thinking skills and get better at thinking over time.
- You can be better or worse at thinking.
- You can find better and worse methods for thinking.
- You can practice thinking to get better.
To understand these points, let’s start by defining what we mean by ‘thinking.’
What Is Thinking?
People use the word ‘thinking’ to describe activities like calculating, remembering, planning, imagining, and deciding. Among these activities, I’m only interested in the ones that aim at achieving an accurate result. Not all types of thinking aim at accuracy. Imagining or fantasizing counts as thinking, but these activities don’t necessarily aim at representing the way the world actually is. I’m not interested in these types of thinking, but only the ones that aim at accuracy.
The goal of thinking in this sense is to come to know or understand how the world really is. When you’re doing a task like calculating numbers, deciding on a diet to lower your cholesterol, or picking a stock, you are looking to get accurate results. For example, in elementary school, all of us learned a method for adding numbers. In order to add numbers like 18 and 18, you learned to add up numbers in the 1s column and carry any extra digits to the next column like this:
By contrast with this method, if you were just to guess the sum, then you would be inconsistent or inaccurate in your results.
Likewise, suppose your friend recommends that you buy a stock because he notices a long waitlist for the company’s products to arrive and he thinks that the stock price will soar. You buy a few shares based on his recommendation. Later the stock price plummets because the company doesn’t have the funds to run its production line overseas. If you use shallow thinking like this to make investment decisions, then your investment results are going to be inconsistent.
These examples illustrate the type of thinking that I’m talking about here: it’s thinking that aims at achieving an accurate result. Now that we are clear on what thinking is, let’s look at skill.
What Is Skill?
Skills are abilities. In particular, a skill is an acquired ability to do something. There are two types of abilities: abilities we are born with and abilities we acquire. Skills are abilities of this second sort. For example, you are born with the ability to see, but you acquire the skill to read; you are born with the ability to hear, but you acquire the skill to understand a language; you are born with the ability to taste, but you acquire the skill to be a cook or food critic.
If you look at LeBron James, he certainly has exceptional natural abilities like height, ability to jump, and hand-eye coordination, but he won’t be an exceptional basketball player if he doesn’t acquire and master basketball skills like shooting, passing, and defense.
Similarly, if you look at Paul Graham, he certainly has exceptional natural cognitive abilities, but he won’t be an exceptional thinker if he doesn’t acquire and master thinking skills like understanding arguments.
In both cases, exceptional performers aren’t born that way; rather, they’ve become exceptional by practicing the right methods over and over.
How do you acquire a skill?
- First, you find a teacher–a book or person–somebody who knows how to do the thing you want to learn. The teacher gives you the method for acquiring the skill you want.
- Second, you imitate the method the teacher shows you, and then you practice over and over until you become proficient in the skill.
Here’s an example. Warren Buffett attributes his success to finding the right teacher and imitating his methods. When Buffett went to Columbia Business School, he discovered that Benjamin Graham was teaching value investing. Buffett quickly took notice and started studying Graham’s methods.
Over time, Buffett would meet with Graham for investing advice, read his acclaimed book, The Intelligent Investor, imitate Graham’s methods, and practice them over and over. That’s how Buffett acquired the skill of investing.
Why Is It Important To Work on Thinking Skills?
There are degrees of mastering a skill. Those degrees correspond to better and worse ways of executing the skill. You can be a decent chef or master chef who runs a world-class restaurant; you can be a decent investor or be a professional investor who handles billions of dollars; you can be a recreational basketball player or a professional basketball player who plays at the highest level.
When it comes to outcomes, consistency is the mark of mastery. A novice can get a good outcome once by dumb luck, but can’t replicate the result over the long term. For example, a novice can get lucky and cook a delicious meal once by luck, but it is the mark of a master chef to make an excellent meal most of the time. A novice can get lucky and shoot the basketball great once, but it takes mastery to shoot the basketball great most of the time. A novice can get lucky and pick the right stock to bet on once, but it takes mastery to pick the right stock most of the time.
When it comes to thinking, consistently getting accurate results is important. For example, you can take a guess and find a flaw in someone’s argument. But if you understand the form of the argument and understand the common errors in reasoning, you are bound to consistently arrive at accurate results in your thinking.
I’ve described some of the things that thinking has in common with other skills. Let me highlight a difference: thinking is more general than other skills; it applies to more things.
Different skills have different ranges of application. Some skills are domain-specific; others are general in scope. A soccer goalie has some domain-specific skills to stop the other team from scoring, but running fast is a more general skill that can apply in many sports. For example, a fast runner is also valuable in track, football, and basketball.
Writing is even more general than running. Writing applies much more than domain-specific skills like brainstorming ideas, solving sudoku puzzles, or coding in C++.
Thinking is even more general than writing. Thinking is a meta-skill.
You can apply thinking to many more things than even writing: understanding an argument, looking for scientific truth, communicating an idea, solving a problem, and coming up with creative ideas.
Not All Thinking Is Created Equal
If the objective of thinking is accuracy and consistency, then there are better and worse methods for thinking. Let’s look at some examples that show how some methods for thinking can be better or worse:
Better Method: You can calculate 2+2+2 by adding each number one by one, or multiplying 2 by 3, or using a calculator. These methods will bring you correct results consistently.
Worse Method: You can guess at an answer. Guessing will bring you inconsistent results. Sometimes your guess will be accurate and sometimes your guess will be inaccurate. In fact, most of the time your guess will be inaccurate.
Better Method: You can bake a cake by emulating a time-tested method. This method will bring you consistent results.
Worse Method: You can bake based on your hunch without prior knowledge about baking principles like temperature, texture, and time. This method will bring you inconsistent results: the taste, shape, and texture of the cake will be different every time you bake. Sometimes your hunch will make a delicious cake, but most of the time you will find burnt, dry, and disgusting cake.
Better Method: You can pick stocks by looking at the company’s financials, forecasting future demand, and reviewing past trends. This method will bring you consistent results.
Worse Method: You can look at tarot cards to decide what stock to pick. This method will bring you gains and losses inconsistently. Sometimes you will just happen to pick the right stock, but most of the time you will have similar results by throwing a dart at some stock tickers and picking one.
The method you use to calculate numbers, bake cakes, and pick stocks can yield results that are consistent or inconsistent. The same is true for thinking methods.
Evaluating a claim
There are better and worse methods for thinking, just as there are better and worse methods for doing other things.
When you’re evaluating claims, for instance, you can use your intuition to determine whether or not a claim is true. Intuition initially seems right to us, but it is vulnerable to cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are judgment shortcuts that help us make quick decisions. Often cognitive biases lead us to inconsistent and inaccurate results. Using your intuition to evaluate claims makes you vulnerable to accepting false claims.
By contrast, you can evaluate a claim by evaluating the reasons to believe that it’s true. Those reasons might come from ordinary people, or they might come from experts.
An expert could be a good starting point to understand the reasons that support a claim, but thinking skills go further than consulting expert opinion. You need to understand how to evaluate the expert’s opinion. You need to acquire thinking skills that enable you to evaluate a claim from an expert or novice.
Those skills include understanding what an argument is, knowing about cognitive biases, knowing about logical fallacies, knowing how and when to use experts, and understanding the need for withholding judgment to improve your decision-making. These methods will bring you consistent results.
Developing Thinking Skills
When it comes to the development of critical thinking skills, it’s not “anything goes”; there’s a method to doing it in a better way. The people who acquire critical thinking abilities and practice them get better results: they are consistently more accurate than people who don’t. Thinking skills help you improve your critical thinking process by coming up with better possible solutions, improving your creative thinking, evaluating and synthesizing different points of view, and optimizing your problem-solving skills.
Some of those methods to improve your cognitive skills are logic, mathematics, probability, and the rules for using language—natural or artificial.
On the journey to develop strong critical thinking skills, you need to know and understand what’s true. They don’t teach these skills in high school. Many times they don’t teach them in college either. This is a shortcoming of higher education which I discuss here. Instead, adult learners have to pick up these skills on their own and practice applying them on their own in everyday life. That’s actually why I started Think, But How?—I wanted to provide adult learners with resources to improve their thought process and become strong critical thinkers.
One way to achieve this is by embarking on the free thinker journey. I write about my quest to see the world for what it is rather than what I want it to be. I hope by reading, learning, and imitating these methods you can optimize your own thinking skills.