Reason, thinking skills, logic. Can they be yours? Can you become the maestro of your domain? Absolutely! It may be hard work, but developing your thinking about any subject is always possible. In this guide, we present the essential resources to help you develop these skills.
Where to Begin
At birth, we have no knowledge in our heads. Today, we do. While you may not be satisfied with your current thinking skills or your current level of knowledge, the good news is that you already have a huge store of knowledge from which to improve. Although often neglected, the truth about thinking skills is that you need to have something clear to think about. If your current thoughts are muddled and unclear, then all thinking based on those thoughts will be muddled and imprecise. The ideas in your mind should be meaningful and based on facts so that all later thinking will be based on clear, objective concepts.
With that in mind, the first step to improving your thinking skills is to improve the process for adding new knowledge. We recommend you start with Dr. Ed Locke’s Study Methods and Motivation. In it, he articulates how you can use abstract integrative thinking while reading and listening to others so that the knowledge you gain will be meaningful and memorable. Developing conceptual meaning and thinking about how that concept integrates the rest of your knowledge is essential for inductive thinking. Don’t believe me? Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, in Why Don’t Students Like School, hammers on these two points as major reasons why students don’t like and don’t do well in school.
Another powerful technique to improve your thinking is to write. We are not talking about writing a book or even an essay. This writing is just for yourself. But the process of writing forces you articulate what you know into recognizable concepts. It forces you to integrate your knowledge with other ideas. That process is invaluable for improving your thinking skills. Jean Moroney offers an excellent resource on how to think on paper.
What about those nasty emotions? Well, they aren’t really nasty, but they can get in the way of focused thinking if not used appropriately as we discuss in 2500 Reasons for Reason. Two excellent resources for improving your awareness and use of emotions are Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine and Your Brain at Work by David Rock. We review Positive Intelligence here and Your Brain at Work here.
Once you establish a base line understanding of concepts, three things are necessary to take your thinking up a notch. And by up a notch, we mean you develop the capacity for critical thinking. First, you need a clear understanding of deductive logic, including its many fallacies. While there are many good logic textbooks out there, we recommend one of the classics – Elementary Lessons in Logic Deductive & Inductive by W. Stanley Jevons.
Second, you need to become aware of your own potential biases in order to avoid them. A good place to start is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which details how humans are notoriously bad at thinking about statistics until we actually perform the calculations. Although there are some flaws with how he defines rational, overall it’s useful read. We are also susceptible to confirmation biases, which leads even well-meaning people to pay far greater attention to evidence that supports their current beliefs and avoiding evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This is particular evident in political discussions, but can be found throughout our lives.
Third, you need to be familiar with the assumptions and facts used within arguments. When performing critical thinking, you need to be able to compare and contrast opposing arguments to obtain an objective understanding. But often times both arguments can sound entirely plausible unless you can ferret out key facts and assumptions used in their arguments. To perform that level of desiccation, requires much deeper level of knowledge. Where to start? A liberal education in history, philosophy, science, literature, economics, and business can give you that foundation. There are far too many recommendations to list here.
Becoming an Expert
At the highest level of thinking, you not only have a vast level of knowledge in your area and can critically review the work of others in that field, but you develop the capacity for creating new knowledge. In essence, you become a scientist.
You don’t need to earn a PhD however to be an expert thinker in your field. However, you do need to start learning about various research methods and applying them in your field so that new knowledge is factually based, non-biased, based on essentials, and objective. We don’t have a general research methods book to recommend, but a top rated Amazon book includes this one by John Creswell. For an excellent historical and philosophical look into how to create new knowledge, David Harriman’s The Logical Leap is a readable and illustrative source on how induction works in physics.
As you gain knowledge, you can continue to develop your thinking skills by learning how to articulate your thoughts to others. While writing for others is not necessary for creating new knowledge, it is an essential skill for success in any field, as Don Watkins explains in our interview with him. We recommend Ayn Rand’s The Art of Non Fiction for a practical foundation for writing essays.