In his short philosophical essay, “On Thinking for Oneself,” Schopenhauer reinforced the message of individual thought. He compared vast knowledge to a vast library:
“Just as the greatest library, badly organised, is not so useful as a very generous library which is well organised, so the greatest amount of knowledge, if not elaborated by our own ideas, is a very small amount. There is value in thought abundantly and over and over again.Because by universally combining what we know, comparing each truth to one another, we can fully assimilate our knowledge and We can only think of what we know, and therefore we must learn something; but we know what we have thought.”
Leaders spend most of their day making decisions and problem-solving. Developing independent thinking is essential for excellent leadership.
learn and then adopt
Let’s look at some examples of how thinking for yourself can make you a better leader.
How many of you have adopted “best practices”?
A best practice is a procedure or method that is generally accepted as the best of the known alternatives. Are the assumptions that went into creating best practice in your situation? Should you adopt best practices without checking if it will work for your organization? Some of the best practices created decades ago may not hold anymore in our current environment.
Thinking for yourself helps you with best practice and decide how it can be adapted to your need.
Expert help and intuition
When you admit that you have limited knowledge in a specific domain, it is customary to seek expert help. Choosing a specialist requires thinking for oneself. Which of the many candidates can help you achieve your goal?
Dr. Gary Klein, the research psychologist who pioneered natural decision making, has several criteria for selecting a specialist. They included the enormity of the specialist’s work, the respect of his peers, the willingness to talk about one’s mistakes, etc. He advocates connecting with the expert and questioning them to understand the depth of their psychic abilities.
Even after many inquiries, it may come down to your intuition as to which one you would choose. Subject matter experts (SMEs) know their domain. You have to be an expert in choosing which SME to use, which requires thinking for yourself.
the courage to go against conventional wisdom
I consume a lot of self help material. The power of the Internet expanded my reading to what I was curious about on the Internet, and now includes videos and podcasts. If you are reading this then you are like me. According to a 2019 study, more than $11 billion was spent on self-improvement products and services.
A piece of specific advice, from self-help sources and conventional wisdom, tells you to start your day early. However, it doesn’t work for many of us. We have some excellent examples in the history of brilliant inventors, such as Thomas Edison, who were a late riser. Other stalwarts like Winston Churchill, Bob Dylan and Samuel Johnson were also in that category.
When our daily habits support our aspirations, we can set aside the advice above. Leaders who are successful in their work are aware of conventional wisdom but are not afraid to go against it.
how to think for yourself
Self-awareness is the first step in thinking about yourself. When you understand your values, objectives and aspirations, thinking happens automatically. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses, you can selectively apply the knowledge gained by reading or from the knowledge of others.
Thinking for yourself doesn’t mean you ignore all the knowledge you’ve gained on the subject. Instead, you question what your current knowledge tells you.
Develop your thinking using mental models, which describe how things work. James Clear, author of the best-seller, Atomic Habits, describes several mental models in his blog “Mental Models: Learn How to Think Better and Gain a Mental Age.” One of these mental models is the inverse.
An example of application of inversion is to assume that your most important project fails six months from now and ask yourself how it could have failed. This type of exercise gives you everything you need to look for and make a plan to mitigate them for project success.
Thinking and doing go hand in hand. Put your idea into practice. Learn and refine your knowledge.
allocate time to think
The practice of independent thinking requires patience and time.
There have been many studies on the effect 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. Dartmouth College anthropologist Jeremy DeSilva, in the article “On the Link Between Great Thinking and Obsessive Walking,” talks about great thinkers like Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and others and their passion for walking. Darwin did not do his own thinking in his study. His ideas were ignited by walking down the path he called the “Sandwalk”, now known as “Darwin’s Path of Thinking”. He could walk five times or half a mile on this path, and this walking routine was necessary to exercise his body and his thinking.
Walking alone in nature nourishes your body and mind and gives you enough time to think.
Develop the independent thinking of your team
Voltaire said, “Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing the same.”
In today’s complex world, leaders need to harness the independent thinking abilities of their team members. The best way to do this is to promote thinking for yourself among your team members.
Fostering psychological security for your team helps you achieve this. You foster 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, team members can be creative by thinking for themselves.
When a team member comes to you for guidance, adopt a coaching style, and with your support help them think of their action plan.
Be an excellent leader by thinking for yourself, and do the same for your team. The support of independent thinkers can solve the most complex problems you may face in your leadership journey.
Shanta Mohan Ph.D. written by
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